Monthly Archives: October 2011
This series of articles evolved from a sermon series (actually, they fed each other) that started with a mid-sermon comment that the church is losing entirely too many young people. That led to a full sermon on the necessity for the church to develop and maintain real, genuine faith in her young people. That led to a challenge to the commonly accepted view that one can be a faithful disciple of Christ outside of the church. It is my unwavering position that is a lie. There is no discipleship outside of the body of Christ, and that body is the church. In my last article, which was a subset of my last sermon, I pointed out how Jesus himself allowed people to walk away from him, and even challenged his disciples as if to say, “Others are deserting me by the score – are you willing to stick by me or do you want to leave too?” Today I turn “from the phraseological to the real” (to repeat a beautiful quote from the most excellent Dietrich Bonhoeffer) and look at the cold, hard reality that the church is dysfunctional. So, how do we deal with it?
To begin with, let me define my terms. By saying “Church” I am referring to Christendom in general – not getting into any discussion of “true church” or “false church” (although that is a legitimate discussion, it is not appropriate here). Next, when I say “dysfunctional” I mean bent and broken, a far cry from the pure bride of Christ that is taught and intended within the pages of the New Testament. As with any generalization, you may feel free to quibble with either or both of my definitions; as the old commercial said, “Your mileage may vary.”
If I was a non-believer looking in at the church today I really do not think I could ever be convinced to join up. To begin with there are simply too many different types to count, let alone attempt to visit. Next, there is a bewildering number of doctrinal differences between “churches,” and they are major, significant differences! Then, there are horrible moral and ethical collapses by all sorts of church leaders – some of which are protected or at least “minimized” by the official position of the church involved. And then, so many “churches” have so fully embraced the filth of modern culture that they are virtually indistinguishable from the “world” that they are supposed to be separate from. Yech! Who would want to become a part of that? If I can be a sexual predator, drunk, liar, cheat, fraud, sexual pervert, adulterer, malingerer, racist, bigot and be a part of your church, why would I want to? I will just cut out the middle man and feed my own narcissism at home.
So, the first step in dealing with a dysfunctional church is to admit the dysfunction. The church is viewed as divided, sinful, hypocritical and in some cases perverse. Okay, let’s admit it – in all too many cases that is true. We need to learn from that great teacher Ezra and pray in the first person plural – “We have sinned” and get rid of the finger-pointing. A big part of that is admitting personal sin – “I have sinned.” Until the church confesses sin there can be no hope of redemption.
Second, the church needs to address the specific sin. In Ezra’s case it was a blatant disregard for the command to avoid intermarriage. Today it could be adultery, racism (I am sickened by the anti-Semitism that I hear every Sunday expressed by “Christians”), perverse sexuality (including, but not limited to pornography, homosexuality, gender manipulation among others), a disregard of authority (beginning with our elected officials, but extending to our school teachers and our aged population in general), and the list could continue. These are not minor offenses! To say that these practices are rampant in the world is one thing – to allow them to exist in the church is simply unforgivable!
Third, the church needs to learn how to practice discipline again. That’s right, good old church discipline. As in, if a brother or sister is caught up in a sin, you go to them and discuss it. If no change occurs, you take a couple of others and discuss it some more. Then, if no change is forthcoming, discuss it among the family, still with the intent to regain your brother or sister. Finally, after every avenue of reclamation is exhausted, we need to remove the offender from the church. In modern terminology we need to get back to “boundary maintenance.” The world needs to know that there is a place where purity to one’s stated beliefs is not only expected, it is demanded.
Let’s see, I’ve suggested humble self-evaluation, open and honest confession, and sincere repentance. Sounds kind of like what the apostle Paul endured in that three-day period after his vision of the risen Christ. In other words, it sounds like conversion.
What I am suggesting is no less than the church needs to be converted to Christ again. We need to become what we say we are. We are not left alone in this quest. We have the Bible (Old and New Testaments!) as our guide. We have the Holy Son of God as our model incarnate. We have the Holy Spirit as our intercessor and teacher. All we lack, apparently, is the will to do what Jesus has called us to do, and to be what he has already empowered us to be.
Will anyone join me in the quest?
Before I move into a positive response to legitimate concerns facing the church, I want to address two more thoughts I have about the way contemporary church leaders pander to a growing number of narcissistic “believers.” For appropriate background to this post, please refer to my earlier posts on the lie of “Jesus Yes, Church No” and “Narcissism Run Amok.”
Two texts that are simply never treated by modern day church growth gurus are Matthew 19:16-30 (and the parallels in Mark 10:17-31 and Luke 18:18-30) and John 6:66-71. In the first story a rich young man, identified as a “ruler,” approaches Jesus and asks what is required to be a disciple of Jesus. Jesus responds with a selection of the 10 commandments (an interesting study begins here, but is a huge digression!). The young man is initially impressed, as he meets these requirements, but pushes the argument – is there something more. Indeed, replies Jesus, total commitment. In this case that means the sale of all valuables and the life of a wandering rabbi. Now forlorn, the young man leaves, AND JESUS LETS HIM GO! No begging, no cajoling, no attempt to negotiate a lower bar of admission – Jesus simply lets the man walk away.
In the second story Jesus has just delivered a particularly difficult teaching and as a result “many of his disciples drew back.” Jesus looks to the twelve and asks a penetrating question, one that we do not often give it’s complete value – “Do you want to leave me too?” Peter responds with a beautiful answer – “There is no other place – you have it all” (my paraphrase).
What do these two stories have in common? Why are they so dismissed today? (I was going to say “ignored,” but I actually think there is an active component of rejection in the way these episodes are dismissed today). The reason, I think, is because they show Jesus to be utterly ruthless when it comes to “boundary defense” – a modern term that describes who is in a circle and who is not. Jesus clearly teaches that he is not going to beg or wheedle or manipulate people into the realm of discipleship. A person either chooses to be all in or they are all out. Jesus allows us to make that decision, but we pay the consequences (or enjoy the benefits) of either choice.
Now, would modern day church growth gurus advise the same behavior? Would they suggest that the way to treat a young rich, powerful young adult is to demand total and complete discipleship – even to the point of surrendering the power and selling and disposal of the wealth? Hardly!! No, today we are taught to make the individual happy – “Come As You Are” “We Are Open And Affirming” “Exciting, Uplifting and Contemporary Worship” “Relevant Message For Today’s World.” In fact, if you worship with us and you don’t like something, be sure and tell us, and we will be sure to change it next week. Feed the narcissism. Encourage the individualism. Bend over backwards for the sake of numbers. Attendance is where it’s at. Size is in. Discipleship is out.
Jesus said, “I’m the Lord, you’re the disciple; I am the way, you either choose to follow it or get out – it’s your choice. I am the truth, you either accept it or reject it. I am the life, live in me or die outside of me. I offer the invitation and I will die so you can share in me – but I can’t make you follow me and I won’t beg you to.” We don’t like that language. It is too exclusive. It is too harsh. Surely Jesus did not mean what he said.
Or did he? Today’s rich young rulers may indeed walk away from Jesus. Or, they may repent of their selfishness and make a radical turn to follow Jesus (is it not significant that Luke follows the story of the rich young man with the story of Zacchaeus in 19:1-10? I think it is profound!) But unless we give them the challenge they will never know that the full life of Zacchaeus is available to them.
Jesus taught, invited, shared, and surrendered his own life. But he never begged for believers. He understood the concept of free will. We must follow Jesus in the same teaching, invitation, sharing and submission, but we must also respect the same free will. Not everyone wants to be a disciple enough to go “all in.” We must honor their choice, but we cannot change the church to fit their impoverished concept of discipleship.
In my last post I argued that anyone who claims to love Jesus while being ambivalent or even disliking the church is, wittingly or unwittingly, lying. The church and Jesus are inseparable, as both Jesus and the apostles clearly demonstrate. In this installment I want to point out that the claim “Jesus Yes, Church No” is a lie because at it’s most fundamental level it is one of the most narcissistic statements ever made, and it is diametrically opposite to the entire message of the life of Jesus.
We live in a narcissistic age. That is beyond debate. Many “Gen X” and “Gen Y” young people look to the “Baby Boomer” generation as the most self-absorbed generation that ever lived. I would agree with that, right up until the point that baby boomers had children, and then grand-children. As I pointed out in a recent sermon, if you need an example just look at the way music is heard these days. In my day the way music was listened to was either by stereo or radio – ususally via “Boom Boxes” or “Ghetto Blasters” – depending on your point of view. We listened to what everyone else listened to, depending on the genre we loved to listen to – country, rock, pop, Mo-Town, etc. There were Top-40 hits for all different styles. The point is, music was communal, it was shared. A group of teens would gather around a radio or at someones house and we would listen to what everyone was listening to.
Today a person is the master of their own music. Ipods and MP3 players have replaced radios, and you download exactly what you want to hear and nothing else. No more suffering through the Oak Ridge boys in the hopes that you might get to hear the Statler Brothers (or the reverse)! The only sharing that occurs is if one ear bud is in your ear and the other is in your friend’s ear. And their play list is different from yours. It’s all privatized and individualistic. That is just one example, but there are many others. When I was a teen the height of independence was having two phones in the house, one for the parents and one for the children. Now, elementary school kids have their own cell phones. Even desk top computers (one per household) have morphed into lap-tops and Ipads and other highly individualistic electronic devices. Don’t try to tell me that this generation is more altruistic and community minded than their parents. In one or two aspects that might be true, but I am seeing the selfishness of the Boomer generation on steriods today.
Which leads me to the phrase “Jesus Yes, Church No.” At it’s most fundamental level that is a profoundly selfish, narcissistic admission. It is saying, “I looked at Jesus and amazingly enough, he looked just like me! I really like this Jesus, but I don’t want to be around a lot of other people who don’t look like me!” Yes, we may say we love Jesus, but what we see when we look at the gospel is simply a reflection of our own face – Narcissius redivivus. If there is a component of Jesus’ life that we dislike we simply do not see it. Therefore Adolf Hitler was able to convince the German populace that Jesus was a National Socialist, and Jerry Falwell was able to convince many that Jesus was a Republican (quite a stunning incongruity, if you ask me).
The church has many functions but one of the most important is the way in which the church breaks down (through discipleship to Jesus, obviously) a person’s self-infatuation. “If anyone would come after me,” Jesus said, “let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23 ESV, italics mine). Paul would later say, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Eph. 5:21 NIV) Becoming a part of Christ (1 Cor. 12) means that we lose our individuality into a community, a koinonia, a fellowship that involves a surrendering of the very self-oriented mentality that is communicated when a person says, “Jesus Yes, Church No.”
There are two tragic results to this mentality and to the church’s response to it. The first is that when someone says, “Jesus Yes, Church No” they actually end up with neither, as rejection of the church is a rejection of Jesus. But, second, when church leaders wring their hands and try to create a congregation where these individualists feel like they are welcome they unknowingly destroy one of the main realities that the church was designed to create – a living, breathing, functioning body of disciples who have surrendered all of their selfish motivations to achieve the will of God on earth. Jesus prayed that his disciples “may be one” (John 17:11), not a collection of individualistic ones.
The disciple cannot choose between Jesus and the church. The disciple is a part of both. So, the next question is, if we truly love Jesus, but see a bent and broken church, what do we do about it? That is a question for another day.
In my last post I argued that an individual who claims to love Jesus but not the church is, intentionally or not, lying. In this post I want to show that biblically you cannot separate Jesus from his church, and in future articles I will get into other issues surrounding this movement.
To begin here I am at a loss as to how anyone could separate Jesus from his church. The first words out of our Lord’s mouth following Peter’s stunning confession included the promise, “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). Therefore, Jesus is the one who formed and “built” his church, so to use words disparaging his creation hardly fit the category of “loving” the one who created it.
Second, even getting past this passage, those who want to eliminate the church must also eliminate the letters of Paul from their New Testament canon, especially the book of Ephesians. Take for example the concluding verse of the magnificent first chapter, “…and gave him as head over all things to the CHURCH, which is his body, the fullness of him wo fills all in all.” (ESV, emphasis mine) Or how about 3:10, “So that through the CHURCH the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” If the church is to be abandoned it would seem that God’s manifold wisdom is not worth very much.
Third, moving on from the explicit mentions of the word “church” to Jesus, there is Paul’s use of “body” language which he relates to Christ. One primary text here would be 1 Corinthians 12, especially v.27, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” Remember that the Corinthian letter was written to the CHURCH of God at Corinth. Now, if the church is the body of Christ incarnate on earth, what does that say about those who claim to love Jesus but hate his body?
The bottom line is that there is no way, either biblically or theologically or ontologically, or philosophically, to separate Jesus from the physical church on this earth. Attempts to do so can be traced back to two fundamental mistakes: a misunderstanding of the nature of the church, or a misunderstanding of what it means to be unified with Christ.
I will note here, and I fully intend to discuss at length in a later post, that a person can truly love the church of Christ and be deeply disturbed by, and there seek to correct, the current manifestations of that church. To say that I love the church does NOT mean that I have to blindly accept all of its current weaknesses. In fact, one aspect of love is the desire to see the best for the object of one’s affection. If we love Jesus we will love his church – but that does not mean we will love or blindly defend every congregation or group that professes to be that church. Much more on that in a later post.
Those who say “Jesus Yes, Church No” cannot appeal to Scripture, which is fatal to their argument, since it is only through Scripture that we come to know Jesus as the Christ and Lord. I wish more theologians and ministers would point this out. As a lover of the church and also one who recognizes her human faults, I refuse to be held hostage by someone who makes claims of a Christological nature that are theologically impossible.
In other words, don’t try to make me feel guilty by telling me a lie.
This thread will be a work in progress, but I would like to begin by stating my general thesis – the church is being fed a lie and the sooner we recognize this fact the sooner we can call it out and move on.
The lie, simply stated, is this: “I love Jesus, I just do not want to be a part of the church.” I have read several books and numerous articles that have this as either a major or minor part of the subject matter. Theologians, ministers, church leaders – a veritable army of churchmen and women are wringing their hands about what to do with this phenomenon of young people (and others) who profess, at least on a nominal level, a devotion to Jesus but have no interest at all in the church.
The answer as I see it – “Nothing at all.” That’s right. I know it sounds heretical, unchristian and downright diabolical, but sometimes reality is a real downer. I say the church should extend it’s love, keep a light on in the window and the doors unlocked, but ultimately the church should let these “Jesus yes, church no” malingerers move on.
The reason? At it’s basic core that statement is a bald-faced lie.
I will move through several thoughts as these posts unfold:
1. The inseparable connection between Christ and his church.
2. The narcissistic nature of the statement “Jesus yes, church no.”
3. The fact that Jesus himself challenged false believers, and let self-centered individuals walk away from him.
4. The reality that if the church focuses on those who demand responses to their personal demands, the church will forever be a prisoner to special interest whims and fancies.
5. And finally, the reality that the church has always been, and will always be, a flawed human community. The response from those who love Jesus is not to abandon the church – it is to love the church and to seek to repair, restore, or to renew that community to its primary calling. That calling is to be disciples of Christ, lovers of Jesus, and radically different people in a bent and broken world.
My bottom line is this – if you love Jesus and all you see is a bent and broken church then grow up and recognize that this is all the church has ever been. Your calling is to love Jesus, to follow Jesus, and if necessary to give your life for Jesus, and that means at the very minimum to work with and for the church to make her the community of the saints that Jesus has called her to be.
I would love your feedback throughout this series, or if you prefer wait until I have finished. Either way, I would love for you to join in the conversation as we all seek to find a way to fly through this fog we call the real world.
At the risk of getting myself into trouble (which I am only too competent at doing) I want to make the observation that the New Testament nowhere reveals that Jesus was ever happy. I am relying on a thin memory, to be sure, but it seems to me that the closest statement that is ever made concerning Jesus’ happiness occurs during the conversation with the woman at the well when he tells his disciples that he had bread to eat that they knew nothing about. This might be an indirect way of referring to his joy at teaching the woman and having her respond so positively.
We are told Jesus loved several individuals, that he became angry several times, that he told some parables and other parabolic type stories that had to induce some chuckles in his immediate audience, but we are never told flat out that Jesus was happy. Why?
The idea of happiness seems to be a recurring theme with me. I remember one Sunday after I preached a sermon on marriage a friend came up to me and used a section of my sermon against me quite effectively. He said, “Let me get this straight – you said God never intended for humans to be happy, yet you also said that God fully intends for us to stay married? Right?” Touche.
I am convinced that humans, especially Americans, place far too much value on happiness. We even enshrined it into our Constitution – “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Now, I believe the framers of the Constitution had a much different definition of happiness in mind than we do (what we would call contentment or peacefulness), but the word remains and as words change in meaning so do ideas and consequences.
In politics this can be a problem, but in our relationship with Christ it can be fatal. How many marriages are destroyed because one partner or the other just does not feel “happy” in the marriage? How many lives are destroyed through this pursuit of happiness that leads through sex, drugs, gambling, or status seeking? How many congregations are divided because someone is not “happy” with the preacher, elders, or some effort that the congregation is involved in? You see, our world seems to revolve around the concept of happiness, and I’m not sure it is a biblical concept at all.
Back a few posts ago I critiqued a new translation of the Bible on this very point. The translators chose the word “happy” to translate the word which is more frequently translated “blessed” in the Beatitudes and Psalm 1, just for a couple of instances. There is a huge difference between being blessed and being happy! And to introduce the false idea of happiness into the sermon on the mount or Psalm 1 is to do significant damage to the concept of spiritual (and even physical) blessedness. But the cat is now out of the bag, and I’m sure the number of sermons on the “Be Happy Attitudes” is going to swell exponentially.
If someone can point out a passage where the New Testament writers specifically point to Jesus being happy, I will reconsider this post. But, until then I am going to maintain my mantra. God is greatly concerned about our blessedness or lack of blessing, but God is truly disinterested about our happiness or unhappiness. And, yes, God does intend for us to stay married. I just need to do a better job of combining those two sentences in a sermon.
I know “grow smaller” is a paradox. When a living organism grows, it gets larger or more complex, not smaller or less complex. So, in one way I should phrase the question, “will the church be willing to shrink.” But in this circumstance I believe that the growth that is necessary will be a reduction, a purification.
For years, at least as long as I have been alive, the only mantra I have heard has been, “the church must grow, we must evangelize, we must expand the kingdom, we have to expand, grow, get bigger, bigger, bigger.” I’m afraid we have been far too successful, to the detriment of the overall health of the body of Christ. In order to have bigger and bigger buildings, longer lists of conversions and baptisms, and in order for ministers to have bigger and more impressive resumes we have dumbed the meaning of Christianity down to the point that anyone can be a Christian at any time and nothing has to change.
What a fascinating change from the one who established – “built” – the church on the confession of his messiahship.
Jesus said that those who would follow him would be persecuted, not adored. He said death was the only certainty – his disciples would have to die to themselves, to take up the very emblem of capital punishment and carry it to the place of their execution. The great convert Paul said that he gloried in the fact that he carried in his body the on-going abuse of his Lord. Jesus, Paul, Peter, James – they all stressed that to live the life of discipleship was to walk on the ragged edge of abuse, persecution, and/or death.
But today its all about come as you are, bring your culture with you, you don’t need to change and you certainly do not have to be abused, persecuted or hated. We have distorted the assembly of living sacrifices into a sanctimonious social club, complete with talent shows (worship teams), democratic rule making (“elections” for church boards, etc) and a constitution of membership that can be and is routinely modified by a majority of members present (sort of like Jehoiakim’s knife, without the fire in the brazier).
I have been reading once again the saga of Israel’s fall from grace – 1st Samuel through 2 Chronicles. It is a story that the modern church does not want to read – or if we read it we relegate it to the trash can of history. We say, “that was the Jews, but we have the promises of Jesus, so what happened to them cannot happen to us.”
Of course, in order to do so we have to cut out the books of 1 Corinthians and Hebrews from our New Testament, but hey, if you are cutting out the entire Old Testament (except for the Psalms, which we like to distort into victorious Christian praise songs) why not cut out a couple of New Testament books as well?(Well, you would have to cut out a lot more than just 1 Corinthians and Hebrews – like Romans, and all the gospels, but I digress.)
I think I am going to start a new mantra. I think the church needs to get smaller. Let’s downsize. Let’s cut off all the dead wood, the useless trees that Jesus said his Father will burn with unquenchable fire. Let’s get rid of the people who don’t really want to be in church, who don’t want to become a living sacrifice. Let’s start worshiping in prison, let’s stay one step ahead of the state police. Let’s get to the point that simply owning a Bible is a death penalty crime, and then let’s see how many people show up for Bible class on Sunday morning.
The church might be smaller, but I’m sure it would be healthier. That’s what I mean by “grow smaller.” Small is good – as long as it is healthier than big. A funny thing might happen – it might actually start growing in size again. Great big healthy growth. The kind of growth the church experienced before Constantine came along and made it cool to be a Christian. The kind of growth that is created and sustained by true discipleship.
Let’s get small church, and let’s go home!