Perhaps it has always been so, but I see lots of short-term, consumer-driven thinking among Christian people and their leaders; and it has weighed on my mind lately. The questions to which we give our attention seem to be: “How can we meet our budgets for this fiscal year?” “How can we attract young people to our churches?” “How can we keep our worship or preaching or children’s program or youth ministry relevant to contemporary audiences?” Or, “How can we make our services guest friendly?” I would not say that such questions ought never to enter our minds or ever receive any consideration. But shouldn’t we take a broader and longer-term view of our mission? What if we ask a different question: “How would we understand, study, live, teach and practice our faith if we wanted to do all we could to make sure that our church is authentically Christian 100 years from today?”
Okay, I admit it: We can’t control what future generations believe and do. It may be that, despite our best efforts, our great, great grand Children will not profess Christian faith. Still, that is no excuse for not thinking about the task and giving it our best efforts.
The first step is to raise the issue of the long-term sustainability of the form of faith we teach and practice. Let me explain what I mean by the term “form of faith.” Each Christian community by tradition or by circumstance selects certain aspects of the Christian faith to emphasize while it leaves others in the background as assumed or otherwise neglected. Your church may place justification by faith, good works, evangelism, church order, social justice, election, experience of the Spirit or some other teaching or practice at the center of church life. This specialization of teaching makes sense in many ways. You can’t teach everything at once. The needs of every age and context demand more instruction in certain areas than in others. Churches tend to perpetuate their founding and traditional insights. However, if the form of faith we teach does not contain the whole range of Christian teaching held in proper balance, it becomes vulnerable to two common forms of change that can lead it astray over time.
Allow me call the first “the law of logical progression” and the second “the law of dialectical change.” The law of logical progression comes into effect when for whatever reason one truth is emphasized to the near exclusion of others and becomes a sort of master concept by which others are judged. This truth—a particular understanding of church order or charismatic gifts or any another—is treated as if it were clear, precise and absolutely true apart from its relationship to other Christian truths. Hence other truths are interpreted by and forced into consistency with this truth.
Already, we have surfaced a serious misunderstanding about how the faith is communicated. In my view, no single proposition of Christian doctrine can in isolation from other statements of faith communicate its full truth and only that. (I hope to defend this statement in greater depth in a later post.) A fine example of this can be found in Romans 6. The statement “we are saved by grace” communicates an important truth as long as it is understood in relation to other teaching. But apart from its relation to the whole faith, it is ambiguous. And bad things happen when you treat an ambiguous statement as if it were clear. Once an isolated statement of doctrine is assumed to possess its truth in itself apart from any modifying relations to other teaching, our minds cannot resist drawing out all the implications of that statement almost to absurdity. Paul reacts severely to those who would isolate grace from righteousness and extend its meaning so that it actually contradicts other teachings: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:1-2). As an isolated statement the assertion of salvation of grace may plausibly be interpreted to imply that sin is permitted. But given the whole context within which the doctrine of grace is nested, the implication that sin is a good thing appears not only unwarranted but ridiculous.
The law of dialectical change becomes operative when one party makes a strong affirmation (or negation) that evokes an opposing negation. In the previous paragraph, I asserted that no proposition of Christian doctrine can communicate its full truth and only that truth when asserted in isolation from the full range of doctrine. So when someone asserts an isolated proposition of doctrine as if it were unambiguous and absolutely true in isolation, our minds automatically begin the process of negation; we immediately see that this strong claim cannot be true. This mental process is both logical and psychological. It’s logical in that the very form of the words of an assertion of truth requires that the negation of that truth be false. An assertion always carries its negation along with it and smuggles it into our minds even against the speaker’s and the hearer’s intention. It is psychological in that strong assertions call up resistance to any person claiming such absolute and unambiguous knowledge. It seems a bit arrogant, and we can’t resist enjoying the humiliation of the arrogant.
Again, consider the proposition “We are saved by divine grace.” If this truth is asserted in isolation from other doctrine—because in isolation the statement is ambiguous, containing falsehood as well as truth— it could be taken to mean something like, “We will be saved by grace regardless of any other factor. Hence whether we sin much or little, intentionally or inadvertently, it matters not.” Suppose that we like Paul recoil against this permissive conclusion, but unlike Paul respond to the misuse of the doctrine simply by negating the proposition that we are saved by divine grace. In this case the law of dialectical change would become operative with a vengeance. A simple dialectical negation would also negate the truth that the statement “we are saved by grace” is intended to teach when set in its relation to the whole Christian faith. The simple negation would assert: “It is not the case that we are saved by grace.” In attempting to correct one distortion simple dialectical negation produces another, its mirror image.
A hundred years of logical progression and dialectical negation could move a church very far from where it is today. So I believe becoming aware of these processes is a first step toward preserving the continuity of faith between year 2013 and year 2113. Next time we will reflect on some positive strategies for preserving authentic Christian faith for our great, great grandchildren. To be continued…