Author Archives: ifaqtheology

About ifaqtheology

Professor of Religion, Pepperdine University Specialties: Systematic Theology, Christianity and Culture Author of: God, Freedom & Human Dignity: Embracing God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centered World (IVP, 2013)

WHAT’S THE PROBLEM WITH THE INSTITUTIONAL CHURCH? (Part Two of “Are You “DONE” With Church?”)

In the previous essay we considered four reasons some people are “done” with the institutional church. This movement is documented in a recent book by Packard and Hope, Church Refugees. The “DONES”, as they are called, stopped attending church not because they cease to believe in Jesus but because they found the church too bureaucratic, too top-down, too inwardly focused, too judgmental, and too impersonal. Most of its available energy, they complained, is focused on self-preservation. Today I want to deal with the promise and problem of institutional churches.

What is an “Institutional” Church?

This question is not easy to answer in a precise way. Any group that meets together intentionally, regularly, and for a purpose has already been institutionalized. Apart from some level of institutionalization, there can be no group identity. Without leadership, order, and purpose no group exists. Hence there is no such thing as a non-institutional church. The real issue, then, is this: at what point and under what conditions does the church become over-institutionalized? That is to say, at what point do the means by which the church organizes itself to accomplish its God-given mission become hindrances to carrying out that mission? The answer to this question depends on your understanding of the church’s mission and your judgment about the best means by which to accomplish it. Well-meaning people differ and have different tolerance levels for institutionalization.

What is the Mission of the Church?

I am asking about the church’s original God-given mission and mandate. Ekklesia (church) is the designation Jesus and the apostles used most often to describe the community of believers. These individuals were made into a unity by their faith in Jesus and by the indwelling Spirit of God. Putting it as simply as I can, the mission given to the church falls into three categories: to be, to act, and to speak. This community was to be the body of Christ visible in the world. It is to embody his Spirit, character, devotion to his Father, and cruciform love for others. Each individual believer and the community as a whole should make visible Christ who is the Image of God. The ekklesia and each individual member should act toward those inside and outside as Jesus did: in love, compassion, truth, and faithfulness. And the church must speak to the world about Jesus. It proclaims the gospel of forgiveness and renewal, of judgment and hope. It teaches men and women how to live, think, and feel as Jesus did.

What are the Church’s Practices?

Every group must have a purpose, an order, and an identity. And it must engage in practices in which it works toward its purposes and expresses its identity. As we noted above, the ekklesia is called to be, act, and speak; and the central goal of acting and speaking is that it may be formed into the image of Christ. Hence in the New Testament we find the ekklesia meeting together often and engaging in certain practices designed to hold before it the image of Christ, to create and reinforce the unity and love among the believers, and to impart strength and gain understanding. These corporate practices are baptism, the Eucharist, fellowship meals, prayer, the reading of scripture, teaching, and singing. Baptism and the Eucharist allowed believers to participate in and be reminded of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. In these two practices we confess and proclaim our faith openly, and in this way it becomes real to us. Believers unite their hearts in prayer to God and in listening to the Word of God from scripture. They cultivate friendship though sharing meals and conversation. They draw strength by confessing their weaknesses. Through these common practices, they became a family, God’s children, and brothers and sisters of one another. In my view these simple practices are indispensable for the ekklesia. How could a church dispense with baptism, or the Eucharist, or fellowship meals, or prayer, or the reading of scripture, or teaching, or some form of singing?

The Means Must Serve the Ends

A group’s claim to be a Christian church must be measured by the extent to which it embodies and carries out the original mission and mandate Christ gave to his disciples. An institution that ceases to work toward the original mission ceases to be the church. The church is free to advance that mission by whatever means it believes are effective and consistent with the original message and mission. However, the original practices I mentioned above are so intimately tied to the original message and mission of the church that they cannot be excluded. Baptism and the Eucharist were commissioned by Jesus, and prayer, confession, scripture reading, and teaching are intrinsic to the story the church tells itself and the world. Table fellowship and conversation are necessary for the communal life into which we are called.

It seems that the mission and the essential practices of the church can be carried out effectively by a very small group and a very simple organization. Nothing in the original mandate requires a large, highly organized institution. In fact, the mission of creating a community in which people are formed into the image of Christ—to be, act, and speak like Jesus—seems doable only in small groups. Many of the practices lose their meaning when removed from a small into a large group setting. How can you share table fellowship, prayer, Eucharist, or confession with a thousand people at a time? Admittedly, there are things a large group can do that a small group cannot. A large, highly coordinated group can leverage significant economic and political power to get things done. A large church can purchase land and build an impressive complex with worship, educational, and recreational facilities. It can hire a large, talented staff to run its programs. It can put on an impressive worship service. I can see why someone might be attracted to such a church. You’d have the feeling of being part of something big, powerful, and impressive. A huge array of services would be at your disposal. You could participate at whatever level you wish.

All this “added value” may be related indirectly to the original mission and message. But it may also obscure the original mission. The “extras” that become available in the large church model have a way of becoming the essentials. It is a law of sociology that the larger the group, the more complex the organization and the more detailed the rules required to keep it unified and coordinated. Bureaucracy, top-down leadership, impersonal style, inefficiency, and rule-centered life is the inevitable outcome of the desire to become large and coordinated. And once formed, bureaucratic institutions and the bureaucrats that manage them tend to adopt the primary aim of self-preservation. But in its original design the ekklesia is supposed to gather as a family, a fellowship, a Eucharistic community, a set of friends. Each person’s goal is to become like Jesus and help others be formed into his image.

Thoughts

I don’t know of a one-size-fits-all solution to the problems I see in the typical institutional church. I am still thinking through this question for myself and in my own situation. I am clear on a few things, however. I will speak for myself: (1) No matter what my relationship to highly or over-institutionalized churches, I need to be part of a small, simple, Christian community whose central purpose is to help believers to be, act, and speak as Jesus did. (2) I want and I need to acknowledge and be in communication with the universal ekklesia insofar as possible. No individual or small group in isolation possesses all the wisdom needed to sustain and pass on the fullness of the faith. (3) I believe church leaders should take great care not to allow the means and programs they employ to hijack the mission and drown out the message Jesus gave the church. (4) It has helped me to realize that many churches act more like parachurch organizations than the intimate community Jesus envisioned. They do many good things related to the Christian message and mission. I can gladly support many of these good works, but I no longer expect to be “churched” by these institutions. That’s just not what they do, and I am making my peace with that. Perhaps some of those who are “done” with institutional churches left because they expected them to be something they were not and could never be. If they had not expected so much they would not have been so disappointed.

I think I am “done” with this topic until I am blessed with more insight. We shall see.

 

 

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Are You “DONE” With Church? (Part One)

You’ve been an active member of a church all your adult life, giving generously of your time and money. You’ve been right in the middle of church life since you can remember, within the leadership, perhaps, or even as a staff member. You’ve listened to hundreds of sermons, attended countless committee meetings, showed up at prayer breakfasts, choir practices, and planning meetings. You’ve been a member of the worship ministry, education ministry, building and grounds ministry, finance ministry, tech ministry, involvement ministry, and more. And all along you thought you were serving the Lord and making a difference. But now you are not so sure. You’re tired, disillusioned, and ready for a change. You gave it your best, but you’re DONE.

Recently I had a conversation with a friend, a sincere believer, who falls into this category. He no longer attends a church. He’s done with the traditional way of doing church. He recommended that I read a book about people like him:

Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope, Church Refugees: Sociologists Reveal Why People are DONE With Church But Not Their Faith (Loveland, CO: Group.com, 2015).

My friend kindly gave me a copy of this book, and I read it immediately. I am not going to do a full book review in this post, but I do want to condense its basic message. Church Refugees summarizes the findings of a qualitative study of 100 interviews with people who have stopped attending traditional/institutional churches. Most of these people had been very active in their churches, and 20% had been in volunteer leadership positions or on staff. They are not part of the growing segment of the population with no religious convictions, the so-called “Nones,” that is, people who choose “none” on religious preference surveys. They are the “Dones.” They are not unchurched but dechurched. As one participant put it, “I was churched right out of church.” Most of them retain their Christian faith. Indeed many left institutional churches because they found themselves unable to practice their faith effectively. Four central themes recur across the interviews (p. 28):

  1. They wanted community…and got judgment.
  2. They wanted to affect the life of the church…and got bureaucracy.
  3. They wanted conversation…and got doctrine.
  4. They wanted meaningful engagement with the world…and got moral prescription.

The authors explore these four themes in the four central chapters of the book. (1) The “Dones” longed for community, honesty, understanding, and intimacy with people of like faith. Instead, they found that no matter where they went the dominant ethos of institutional churches was judgment, that is, an anxious, unsympathetic, and impatient attitude toward the weaknesses of others. (2) They wanted to participate meaningfully in the life of the church, to try new things and serve in new ways. But their efforts were stymied by layers and layers of bureaucracy. In institutional churches there are many stakeholders and limited resources. Small changes in one area may affect the whole organization in unpredictable ways. The Dones finally concluded that no matter what its stated ideals the main purpose of bureaucratic churches ends up being self-preservation. (3) The Dones wanted their churches to be safe places to express opinions, questions and doubts and to explore their faith both intellectually and practically. But what they experienced were demands for doctrinal conformity. Questions and expressions of dissenting opinions were met with coolness and sometimes hostility. They were not expecting doctrinal anarchy; they understood the necessity of a church having a confessional identity. But they wanted church teachings to be presented with humility and openness to change. (4) Many of the Dones wanted the church to be engaged constructively in the social issues and needs of their communities, in alleviating poverty and homelessness, in addressing racism and other forms of injustice. But what they experienced was moral pronouncements from the leadership. In their experience, institutional churches were almost completely inwardly focused.

Sympathetic But Not Done

As regular readers of this blog know I have many concerns with traditional/institutional churches. (See my post of August 14, 2017, “Is Your “Church” a Parachurch Organization?”) I am very supportive and empathetic with my dechurched friend, and I expected to resonate with the experience of the “Dones” and to be in agreement with the basic message of Church Refugees. So, I read it within a day of receiving it. But my overall feeling was disappointment. I agree with many (not all) of the Dones’ criticisms of institutional churches: they are too bureaucratic, too top-down, too inwardly focused, too judgmental, and too impersonal. But I was disappointed with what the Dones are putting in place of the institutional church. As a whole they are no longer participating in the communal life of the people of God. They don’t seem to understand what the church is. For sure, they have a nose for what it is not: it should not be the bureaucratic, inwardly-focused, clergy-dominated, self-perpetuating organization they left. But they don’t have a sound theological understanding of nature and mission of the Spirit-filled and Christ-shaped community that was created by the Resurrection of Jesus, the Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit, and the apostolic mission. Nor seemingly do the authors; at least they don’t venture into those waters.

The last few chapters of Church Refugees offer recommendations on how institutional churches can keep people from becoming Dones or, less likely, reclaim some of those who already have. Most of these suggestions involve ameliorating some of the problems that provoked the exodus of the Dones. I don’t find these suggestions very convincing. The biggest problem I have with the authors’ proposals is that they are not radical enough, that is, they do not go to the root of the problem by rethinking the faulty, thoughtless theology of the church that lies behind the typical institutional church the Dones are leaving. I do not think churches should first ask themselves, “What can we change to keep people from leaving?” As far as I can tell from these interviews, the Dones’ theology of the church is just as superficial and defective as that of the churches they left; so, it cannot serve as a norm for reform. Indeed, it seems to me that many of the problems the Dones raise exist because the church has tried to serve too many constituencies and defined its mission too broadly. They won’t be solved by adding another group to please. I believe the first question we should address is, “How can we make sure that the institution we call “the church” really is the church as measured by the New Testament vision of its nature and mission?” What radical changes we would have to make if we took this vision seriously!

Looking forward

There is a church in my neighborhood that displays in view of a busy street a sign that says, “Saint Evagrius Lutheran Church [Not its real name]: Everyone is Welcome.” Every time I drive by this sign I groan. In my view, the idea that the church’s inmost life, its most intimate and solemn moments are matters open to the public at large arises from the superficial theology of the church that is shared by most institutional churches and the people who are leaving them. Radical problems need radical solutions.

To be continued.

La Résistance

French Résistance

During World War II, the city of Lyon was part of Vichy France (1940-1944) and a center of resistance against French collaboration and NAZI occupation.  On a recent trip to that beautiful and historic city I heard a talk by one of the few living members of the French resistance movement. As a young man, this gentleman was tasked with smuggling weapons past the German soldiers guarding the transportation systems. I was amazed at his stories of defiance, death, and heroism. He has received many honors from his grateful nation for his service. But if you described the actions of the French Résistance, which included theft, assassination, and sabotage, but changed its name and names of its opponents you would think you were learning about a terrorist organization. We so readily admire defiance and resistance when they directed against what we think is an unjust power. Hence it seems that our attitude toward “the resistance” depends on whom it is resisting and to what end.

American Resistance

In contemporary American society we hear much in the media about “The Resistance” movement; or perhaps it’s better described as a “mood.” It’s a mood of defiance and resistance to the current administration, which it pictures as an unjust power in analogy to the opponent fought by the French Résistance. And no doubt its name was chosen for its resonance with that heroic French movement. Resistance and defiance appear honorable and heroic—even when they involve violence, destruction, and hatred—as long as they are directed at the supposed evil and injustice of a greater power. To repeat the principle stated above, our attitude toward “the resistance” depends on the power toward which its opposition is directed and to what end. If you think your cause is just and your opponent’s is evil, you can justify whatever means necessary to succeed at resistance.

Ancient philosophy taught that only “like knows like.” And common sense tells us that only physical forces resist physical forces. Resistance, then, must be of like nature to the thing resisted. The French resistance movement resisted the occupying military and police power with physical force of like nature. The American “resistance” movement resists political power with political power, namely with protest, mobilization, and sometimes violence. To define it crudely but accurately, political power is the legal right to use military and police force to enforce the will of its possessor. It is understandable that people would become distressed when military and police power falls into the hands of their enemies. But we must understand that la résistance whether it has justice on its side or not always meets its enemy with the weapons of its enemy.

Kingdom Resistance

The City of Lyon was founded in 43 B.C. as a military outpost of the Roman Empire. Two centuries later, in 177 A.D, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius instigated a vigorous persecution against the Christian community in Lyon in which its bishop Pothinus was martyred. In 178, Ireneaus (130-200 A.D.) became bishop of the church in Lyon and, in executing the duties of his office, became one of the most influential writers the church has produced. The cause for which Pothinus gave his life and Ireneaus labored exists throughout world today while Marcus Aurelius’ Empire has long since collapsed. Ever since the arrival of Christianity Lyon has been a center of another kind of résistance.

In the New Testament, Christianity is often described in terms that resemble an ideology for resistance, and the church is pictured as a subversive community. However the power we are urged to resist, the means we must use, the type of community we form, and the ends we aim to achieve differ radically from those of the resistance movements discussed above. James, John, Peter, and Paul agree on this:

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you (James 4:7).

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith…” (1 Peter 5:8-9).

11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Eph. 6:11-12).

The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work (1 John 3:8).

According to the New Testament, our real enemy is not the empire, the current administration, evil corporations, your boss, the opposing political party, the guy who cut you off in traffic, or your abusive neighbor. Our real enemies are sin, death, and the devil. And sin is the central player, because death is but the final outcome of sin and the devil needs sinners to do his work. Jesus is the leader of the real Résistance; for he came to “destroy the devil’s work.” And what is the “devil’s work”? The devil’s work is the hatred, selfishness, envy, jealously, rage, cursing, greed, falsehood, idolatry, lust, and fear that dwell in human hearts not yet touched by Jesus and the Spirit he promised. And how does Jesus destroy it? Jesus and his community resist the devil by returning good for evil and love for hate. His resistance strategy takes the form of resisting the urge to resist power with power, violence with violence, lies with lies, and greed with greed; that is, Jesus breaks the cycle of “like knows like” and shows us how to overcome evil with good.

The church is the Résistance that maintains no army, the kingdom that needs no guns, and the community whose cohesion needs no enemies. It desires no police power and collects no taxes. It invites everyone but forces no one. Its soldiers use only the weapons of truth, faith, love, the Spirit, and the Word of God. It gives life and never takes it. Jesus’ people are willing to suffer but not willing to inflict suffering on others.

In an age of resistance perhaps we should be even more wary of taking the putative justness of our cause as justification for using the means of the enemy against the enemy. Thoughtless resistance to an enemy of “flesh and blood” on earth always involves collaboration with the spiritual adversary “in the heavenly realms.”

Note: The picture above is of the Church of Saint Ireneaus in Lyon, France.

A Culture of Diversion for an Age of Boredom

The deeper you probe human nature the more alike human beings from every class and country and age appear. Language and customs change, but the human condition remains the same. And yet, every age has its signature, a particular way the human condition manifests itself. Each age combines humanity’s perennial virtues and vices, pains and joys, and strengths and weaknesses in a unique way. What is the signature of our age? I admit that seeking an answer to this question is asking for superhuman knowledge, which no human being can attain. Nevertheless we cannot help but wish to understand.

I will leave it to others to describe the unique glories of our age. I am driven to understand its spiritual sicknesses. Every time I think about this question two concepts force their way to the top of my list: boredom and despair. Today I want to explain why I think contemporary culture, if it could sign its name, would write “the age of boredom.” I leave despair for another day.

Perhaps you are already objecting to my thesis: “We live in an age of frantic activity, of 27/7 city life, nonstop entertainment, and ever-present social media. How can you say that we live in an age of boredom?” To anticipate my full response let me say here that your objection actually supports my thesis. I argue that we live in the “age of boredom” because fear of boredom drives us to live the frantic lives you describe.

What is boredom, and why do I think it’s at the root of the spiritual illnesses that plague our age? Perhaps our first thought about boredom is of a feeling of having nothing to do, or more precisely, of having nothing that appeals to us at the moment. We feel restless, at a loss, decentered, numb, scattered, empty, and directionless. We need something with enough power to gather the scattered elements of our souls into one place, focus our attention on one task, and energize us toward one goal. The activity of this powerful object in gathering, focusing, and energizing our souls puts us in touch with ourselves; it enlivens our numbness and fills our emptiness. We feel alive again.

The nature and quality of our revived feelings depend on the nature of the object that overcomes the boredom. Some objects move us by awakening feelings of compassion or love or hope. Others call forth fear or anger or grief. Still others evoke greed or pride or lust. In every case boredom is overcome by placing (or finding) ourselves in the power of an object that possesses our souls in a way that unifies, energizes, and directs them. It seems that the soul doesn’t have the power to unify, energize, and direct itself. Hence boredom is the state of every soul not possessed by a power greater than itself. But not every power is truly greater than the human soul or worthy of its highest love.

We live in the age of boredom, not in the sense that everyone is always in the actual state of boredom, that is, the state of being restless, at a loss, decentered, numb, scattered, empty, and directionless. What I mean is this. Our age is dominated by fear of boredom. For many, much of what we do is designed with one purpose in mind: to fight off boredom for another day. In past ages boredom was a malady limited to the leisured classes. Most people were too occupied with digging a living out of the dirt and keeping their families clothed, warm, and housed to wake up Monday morning feeling aimless. Coping with disease, death, and war left little time to dwell on the emptiness within. But very few people living in the western world today are poor in the same sense that the twelfth-century French peasant or the eighteenth-century Russian serf was poor. We’re all members of the leisure class now! Boredom and fear of boredom have become pervasive problems.

The vast expansion of wealth in modern culture has allowed our spiritual poverty to come to the surface. When struggle for survival no longer possesses, unifies, and directs the soul, we face prospect of boredom. We look for other powers and goals to energize us and give us purpose. Many fight boredom by seeking exciting experiences. Fearing to be alone with their empty selves they seek ways to stimulate the feeling of being alive. They want to feel fear, compassion, triumph, surprise, delight, sadness or desire. And the entertainment industry’s main function is to invent ways of creating these feelings within our souls whenever we desire. We listen to music, watch movies, and go to concerts. We buy stuff. Protest stuff. And eat stuff. We hang out and hookup. We numb ourselves with alcohol and prescription drugs.

Modern life is a gigantic, multifaceted project designed to draw our attention away from the nothingness at the center of modern soul. The present age knows of no power great enough to gather all the soul’s passions and focus them on a goal worthy of all its love. And in my view, this absence is the cause of its sicknesses and the reason it deserves to be called “the age of boredom.”

Some Things Cannot Be Delegated

Never has an age promised so much and delivered so little as ours. Modern culture assures us that pursuing boldly our individual tastes and preferences is the way to create our identities to our liking and escape confining social roles, customs, and prescriptive morality.  Happiness will be ours if only we refuse to conform to readymade social roles and begin to live consistently with our inner selves. And yet, we find ourselves herded into groups whose identity is rooted in ethnicity, a political cause, gender, age, and a hundred other categories. We want to be unique as long as we are surrounded and supported by others just like us. By identifying with a group that vociferously distinguishes itself from other groups, we seek to resolve the conflict between individual and social identity. We self-deceptively adopt the group’s identity as our individual identity, assuring ourselves that we’ve done our duty to “become ourselves.” Becoming a unique individual is not as easy or as pleasant as modern culture makes it sound! Nor is becoming a Christian.

Christian people find the task of becoming an individual no less difficult and subject to self-deception than do our secular contemporaries. Identifying yourself with the Christian faith, a Christian denomination, or a local Christian congregation does not make you Christian. Although becoming a Christian involves adopting an identity that is shared by others and living as a Christian requires that we live in community with other Christians, no one else can become a Christian for you or live the Christian life in your place. The institutional church cannot do it. The clergy cannot do it. Others can guide, encourage, and provide good examples, but you must step into that bright, heavenly light alone and relate directly to your God.

To live as a Christian you must believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. No one else can believe for you. Repentance and confession of sin must come from your heart and your mouth. Identifying with a church where communal prayers and liturgies speak of repentance and forgiveness cannot replace your own inner contrition and secret confession to God. You have to change your own life. The two greatest commands are to love God and love your neighbor. To love God is to acknowledge his love for you, to place him on the throne of your heart, and to seek him as your highest good. No institution, no other person can do this for you. And you have to love your neighbor from your heart. You cannot delegate this task to someone else. No one else can pray your prayers, give your praise, and express your thanks. Experiencing God’s presence is not a group activity.

Living a good life and practicing virtue, while done in community, must be done by the individual. Faith, hope, and love cannot be inherited from your parents or distributed like communion wafers. No one can complete your God-given assignment. It’s not like such tasks as cooking dinner, washing the car, or taking out the trash, which you can have done for you. God gave the task to you, and your doing it is part of its nature. If you don’t complete it, it will not be done.

Human beings judge each other on superficial grounds, external appearance, church membership, group associations, social status, and professional accomplishments. God judges the heart. God knows us from the top of our heads to the bottoms of our feet, inside and out, down to the depths of our souls. We cannot hide from God within the crowd, in the audience. To become a Christian, you and I must first give up the self-deception that the secrets of our hearts are known only to us. We must face the fact that we have been found out, that is, we must come to realize that God has always known our sins. And then, under our own names and in our own persons, we must deal with God directly.

 

 

 

Social Justice and The Great-Cause Fallacy

It seems that everyone who’s anyone these days has attached themselves to some great cause. In introducing yourself to another person you give your name, where you work, and the cause that drives you into the streets. You’re nobody if you’ve not founded a nonprofit organization or haven’t been arrested for chaining yourself to the White House fence or at least have “Activist” printed on your business card. You’ve gotta fight for something—for social justice for the oppressed, for the homeless, for the poor, for the trees, for open spaces, for endangered species, for the climate, for gun rights, for gun control, for children’s rights, parents’ rights, for women’s rights…for somebody’s rights! It’s “Up with…” or “Down with…” or “Out with… or “In with….”

No one presents their cause as evil. No one protests, “Down with justice, up with injustice!” Have you ever seen anyone carrying a sign that says, “Tax the Poor!”? No group occupies the halls of state capitols chanting, “Trash the environment!” No. We adopt causes we think are good, noble, and great; or at least causes we can present as good, noble, and great. Perhaps it should not escape our notice that by adopting a good and just cause I demonstrate to myself and others that I am a good and just person. I present myself as a defender of the defenseless and a champion of the oppressed. I set myself in opposition to the oppressors and polluters, the privileged, the greedy, and the selfish. I manifest my love for the beneficiaries of my zeal for whom I sacrifice an evening a week and a weekend a month. And I am righteously outraged at the evil doers who exploit those I love so much, and I am disgusted by those who turn a blind eye to such injustice. If such a self-presentation were a prayer it would go like this:

“God, I thank thee that I am not like other people—greedy, racist, unpatriotic, or lazy! I am a vegetarian, I recycle, I drive a Prius. I stand for the National Anthem and pay my dues to the NRA” (See Luke 18:9-12).

Am I being judgmental? Then let me bring in a witness. What about the great-cause activists’ claim to love those for whom they fight? The letter we know as 1 John has much to say about loving others and loving God:

“Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20).

Many great-cause activists resonate with John’s critique of the religious hypocrite who claims to love God but doesn’t love other human beings. But the reverse principle is just as true. If you claim to love people but do not love God, you are a liar. If you claim to love some people but do not love all, you are a liar. If you claim to love some of the time but do not love always, you are a liar. 1 Corinthians 13 lists many great causes one could adopt and noble actions one could perform without loving God or human beings:

13 If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing (1 Cor. 13:1-3; NASB).

Identifying with a great and good cause for which one is willing to give up everything is no sure sign that one loves, that one is a good and just person. In his profoundly insightful book, Søren Kierkegaard reminds us of something we should keep in mind always:

Christianity teaches that love is a relationship between: man-God-man,  that is, that God is the middle term…For to love God is to love oneself in truth; to help another human being to love God is to love another man; to be helped by another to love God is to be loved (Kierkegaard, Works of Love, pp. 112-113).

In our relationship with other human beings, with God’s creation, and with ourselves, God is the “middle term,” that is, we must never try to love anything other than God directly. Nothing can be loved in the right way unless it is loved within the act of loving God and because we love God. If you think you are loving people by championing their rights and fighting against their oppressors but are not helping them to love God, you are self-deceived. You do not love them at all. Indeed you may be making them seven times worse off. If you think you can love yourself by asserting your rights and your dignity directly apart from loving God, you are dressing pride in clothing of justice. The greatest cause is learning to love God. The greatest act of love you can do for others is to help them love God, and the most loving thing anyone will ever do for you is to help you love God.

So, you are looking for a great cause? Be sure that your desire to serve a great cause is not secretly a desire to become great by associating with a great cause. We might begin by learning to pray the prayer of tax collector instead of that of the Pharisee:

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ (Luke 18:13).

Social Justice and the American Prophet

The issue of social justice remains the hottest topic I’ve ever written about on this blog. My essay, “On the Difference between Seeking Justice and Doing Justice,” written two years ago, still receives more hits per week than any other essay. So, I’m going to address the topic again from a new perspective.

American Christianity has a long tradition of producing social reformers, social ethicists, and public theologians. These individuals are often seen as carrying on the tradition of such Old Testament prophets as Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Micah. They speak to the general population and their leaders, that is, to the whole nation, as if America had inherited the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai. They demand justice for the poor, for minorities, for women, for gay people, for transgender people, and for every other oppressed group. And they often root their demands in the biblical vision of justice and community. And this prophetic persona is not limited to left-leaning personalities. Others, right-leaning prophets, take up the mantle of Moses, Elijah, and Elisha and call for repentance from immorality and idolatry. This phenomenon is not limited to high profile preachers, professors, and nonprofit CEOs. With the advent of social media, every Tom, Dick, and Susan can become a prophet to the nation. Of course no one listens to Facebook prophets; no one cares and no one changes.

As venerable and as American as this “prophetic” tradition is, it is based on a false premise. There are no American prophets, and there never have been. And the reason is simple. God has not made a covenant with America or any other nation or nation-state to be his people. The Old Testament prophets were sent by God to challenge God’s covenant people to repent of their unfaithfulness to the covenant. The prophetic ministry presupposes a divine covenant and its binding responsibilities. Apart from a covenant, a prophet is without authority; she or he is just another political advocate. The covenant nation was a failure. The only divine covenant in force today is the New Covenant Jesus sealed with his blood. The new covenant people is not composed of one ethnic group, or of the people living within the borders of one nation state, or even of all humankind. You cannot enter it through birth or the social contract. You enter by faith and baptism into Jesus Christ and in so doing you place yourself under the sole Lordship of Jesus. Prophets have authority only as they speak on the basis of the New Covenant to the New Covenant people, the church. The death and resurrection of Jesus marked the end of divine covenants with nations. There are no state churches or church states! And there are no national prophets!

Does Christianity have a message for the people of America or for the world? Yes. But it must be spoken by a different persona, the evangelist! The message to those outside of God’s covenant people is “Repent and believe the Gospel.” To speak prophetically to people outside the new covenant deceives them into thinking that as long as they believe in whatever social reform is being advocated, they don’t need to repent of idolatry and immorality and become Jesus’ disciples. They are deceived into thinking that political power can accomplish as much good as the power of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; that they don’t need to “be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12:2), that they don’t need to “live as Jesus did” (1 John 2:6), that they don’t need the gift of the Spirit (Acts 2:38),  that they don’t need to worry that “the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4), and that they don’t need divine mercy and forgiveness.

If you find yourself wanting to be a prophet to America (or Canada or Germany or any other nation), if the state of things outrages you, be careful lest you substitute a political message for the gospel and a superficial call for social change for radical conversion to Jesus. Don’t mistake anger and personal offence for passion for justice. Don’t mistake insults, judgments, and self-righteousness for prophetic inspiration. Don’t take Amos or Elijah as your model. Their day has come and gone. Don’t be ashamed of the gospel of the crucified and resurrected Jesus. Live it and preach it. If you aim to live as a disciple of Jesus your life will have an inadvertent prophet effect. The light will shine in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.