Tag Archives: Church

The Politics of Jesus

Did Jesus have political aims? Of a certain kind, yes. Let’s talk about it.

In his book Politics, Aristotle wrote:

“Hence it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal. And he who by nature and not by mere accident is without a state, is either above humanity, or below it; he is the ‘Tribeless, lawless, heartless one,’ whom Homer denounces—the outcast who is a lover of war; he may be compared to a bird which flies alone.” (Book 1.2.9).

Human beings are endowed with reason and speech, and these powers cannot be brought into full actuality apart from human community. Human nature is so rich that it cannot be realized fully by one individual, but when many people over centuries contribute their gifts, each individual can enjoy the work of all. The products of reason and speech become common property and enrich everyone. In the first paragraph of Politics, Aristotle made this significant claim: “If all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all, and which embraces all the rest, aims, and in a greater degree than any other, at the highest good” (1.1.1).

Aristotle grounds the state in human nature. A being that is stateless by nature is either a god or a beast. The political order encompasses all other communities within its sphere. Unlike subordinate communities, it aims “in a greater degree than any other, at the highest good.” A family, a guild or a school will aim at the welfare of its members, a partial good. The state aims at the welfare of everyone, so that everyone may enjoy to the fullest degree the full flowering of human nature.

Let’s compare and contrast Aristotle’s thinking about the political community with the New Testament’s teaching about the church. Surely Aristotle is right that the state is an outgrowth of human nature and that a being stateless by nature is not human in the ordinary sense. The church is a human community, and Aristotle would number it among those subordinate communities that aim in a less comprehensive way at the highest good. But Christianity understands this community to be composed of a “new humanity,” “born again,” a people endowed with the “Spirit of the living God” and having under gone “the transforming of their minds.” They are in Aristotle’s words “above humanity.” A divine power is at work in the church to raise it above normal human life.

Aristotle is also on target when he asserts that every community aims at a good that gives it purpose, unity and identity. However, Aristotle’s “highest good” is limited to this world, this life. Christianity asserts that human beings should aim at a goal higher than the common good of the whole community within this life. God created human beings in the image of God, and human nature, empowered by the grace of the Spirit, can participate in the divine nature and attain eternal life. From Aristotle’s viewpoint, the church’s aim is off target; it aims too high and it demands too much of mere mortals. It is bound to fail.

The New Testament presents the church as the community founded by Jesus Christ. It is indwelt and empowered by the Holy Spirit and directed to God the Father. In analogy to Aristotle’s view of the state, the church is based on the nature of the new humanity and is necessary for the full flowering of this new human being. Christians are not “birds that fly alone,” but they really do fly. The Christian is not only a human being endowed with reason and speech but also someone united with Christ, who dwells in heaven and yet fills the universe. The Christian has received the life-giving Spirit and has been freed from the power of sin and death. Unlike Aristotle’s natural human being, the Christian lives by faith and not by sight.

The church is the community whose threefold purpose is (1) to enable the new powers and virtues that have been given to believing and baptized human beings to come into full use and benefit the whole church and through the church the whole world; (2) to embody as far as possible in the present the perfect community of heaven, the Father, Son and Spirit and the coming Kingdom of God, which is the union of human beings and God in the perfect divine/human fellowship; and (3) to call the whole world to rise up not only beyond the beastly nature of the stateless one, the ‘Tribeless, lawless, heartless one.’ It also calls human beings beyond the best political order human beings can create. She serves the whole human race by calling it to its final destiny and revealing its true dignity.

Hence to normal human beings, Christians will always appear to have their heads in the clouds. Their values are a bit askew. They are always rejoicing but never take pleasure in evil. They are serious about everything but in despair over nothing. The Christian is as courageous as a lion but as gentle as a lamb; they have wills as hard as steel but hearts as soft as wax.

The church will never subordinate itself to the political community because the good it seeks is higher than the good sought by the state. The virtues she promotes—love, faith and hope—are better than those the state values. She seeks heaven while the state grasps at earth. The state is built on violence and coercion, and it seeks wealth, power and worldly security; the church is built on freedom and love and seeks treasure in heaven. The church is the temple of God, the city of God, the body of Christ. The state is human nature writ large, with all its strengths and weaknesses.

For Aristotle, human beings are “political animals” whose destiny is achieved, if at all, only in this life. For Christianity, human beings are more; they are ecclesiastical animals whose destiny lies in eternity, in the divine life.

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The Church is Our Mother

What is the church? The New Testament calls the church by many names: “the assembly (or church) of God,” “body of Christ,” “the bride of Christ,” “the people of God,” “the family of God,” “the temple of God,” and “the pillar and foundation of the truth.” Each of these designations points to a certain quality of the thing that came into being as a result of the resurrection of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. None of these names captures the entire being of this thing we most often call “church.” Not even all of them together can create perfect insight into the nature, life and end of church. And simply thinking or saying the names apart from real participation and empathetic involvement in the life of the church cannot impart an adequate understanding the living reality of church.

In today’s post I want to consider another designation for the church, “the Mother of the faithful.” This name for the church is not found in the New Testament. For some, this absence alone makes the term questionable. And Protestants may shy away from a name that is used prominently by the Roman Catholic Church. But neither of these reasons can bear scrutiny. Paul calls himself “the father” of the Corinthians (1 Cor 4:15). And he speaks of the Galatians as his children “for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Gal 4:19). And for those who think the term “mother” is exclusively a Roman Catholic designation for the church, listen to a theologian whose Protestant credentials are impeccable, John Calvin:

“But as it is now our purpose to discourse of the visible Church, let us learn, from her single title of Mother, how useful, nay, how necessary the knowledge of her is, since there is no other means of entering into life unless she conceive us in the womb and give us birth, unless she nourish us at her breasts, and, in short, keep us under her charge and government, until, divested of mortal flesh, we become like the angels (Mt 22:30). For our weakness does not permit us to leave the school until we have spent our whole lives as scholars” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.1.4).

In the paragraphs that follow, Calvin enlarges and details the ways in which the church mothers her children. It is through her voice that we hear the gospel. Whether we read the words of the apostles in the New Testament or hear it in the persons of our parents, traveling evangelists or the ordinary ministry, the church gives birth to us in the faith. She evangelizes, teaches, nurtures, guides and disciplines us until, as Calvin so aptly puts it, we are “divested of mortal flesh.”

The living community of Christians, the faithful people of God, is the means by which each new generation and each person hears the gospel and sees it embodied in real life. Whether we are born to Christian parents or are converted as adults directly from the ignorance of paganism, we depend on the living community of faith, which exists in unbroken, living continuity with Jesus Christ and his apostles. And as John Calvin emphasizes, our relationship to our mother is lifelong. To quote him again, “For our weakness does not permit us to leave the school until we have spent our whole lives as scholars.” No one is strong enough to live as a Christian apart from the church. The passions of the flesh are too strong, the voices of the world are too alluring and the winds of teaching are too deceptive. We are too forgetful, too lazy, and too distractible. We need to hear the word preached. We need to participate in the sacraments, confess our sins, voice our faith and receive the church’s discipline. We can’t see ourselves objectively and we easily find excuses for our faults.

The 3rd century bishop and martyr Cyprian of Carthage famously said, “Outside the Church there is no salvation” and “you cannot have God for your father unless you have the church for your mother.” In one sense these sayings are self-evident. If the church is the people of God, the mother of the faithful, the family of God and the elect, then outside there is no salvation and no sonship. Put another way, outside the birthing, nurturing, caring, teaching, guiding and correcting embrace of our mother there is no safety and no certainty. There is only danger, abandonment and loneliness. Apart from our mother, we wander as orphaned children in a cold world.

Two Saviors and Two Kinds of Salvation

As we observed last week’s essay (“Progress? Whose Progress? To What End?”), modern culture aims toward the twin goals of mastery of nature through science and technology and mastery of the self through persuasion, social pressure and political coercion.  What goals does Christianity set before us as objects of hope and guides for action?

As a first step in answering this question, I need to deal with a misunderstanding that plagues this discussion. It is often said that on certain moral issues the general culture has been out front of the church and has embodied Christian morality in a purer form than the institutional church. Sadly, there is some truth to this charge. Churches have not always lived up to the gospel. Perhaps you have heard this idea used by Christian speakers as an argument for reform of the church. The argument derives its power from the shame in the thought that the pagans are living the gospel better than the Christians are. But we ought not thoughtlessly to give this argument more weight than it deserves. Jesus used a form of it in his parable of the dishonest, shrewd manager (Luke 16:8). Paul used a similar argument against the Corinthians who were tolerating and even celebrating an incestuous relationship among two of their own (1 Cor 5:1). In neither case, however, were the pagans commended for genuine virtue. It was precisely their lack of virtue that made the comparison effective.

In what moral sectors has the culture supposedly attained a superior morality over the church? In every case the “superior” morality has to do with the progressive liberation of individuals from “oppressive” political, social and moral structures. In no instance have I ever heard the general culture proclaimed ahead of the church in embodying the law of God, holiness or any other characteristic that limits the immediate desires of individuals or calls into question their autonomy. It’s always about liberation.

In other words, the moral areas where the culture appears to be ahead of the church—if it really is—is an accidental overlap between the trajectory of modern progress and the Christian ethic of love and individual responsibility to God. The narrow road of the gospel heads upward while the broad way of the world heads downward. At a few points they appear to intersect but in reality they do not. Such overlap is like a false cognate, a word in one language that is spelled or sounds exactly like a word in another language but with a totally different meaning. My favorite German/English false cognate is the German word “Gift.” It means not a thoughtful gesture but poison.

In analogy to the false cognate problem, consider the way the word freedom is used in the two frameworks, Christian and the secular cultures. For contemporary culture “freedom” means the absence every external thing that keeps you from doing what you please. But for Christianity “freedom” means the absence of every internal thing that keeps you from loving God and doing his will. The only thing the two uses have in common is the declaration that something is absent.

What is progress in the Christian frame of reference? Progress, as I said in last week’s post, is movement toward a goal. What is the ultimate goal toward which progress must be measured? Almost every New Testament book sets the goal before us. But I will just mention two texts. In Ephesians, Paul speaks of the mystery that God “purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (1:9-10). And in that great chapter on the resurrection, 1 Corinthians 15, Paul speaks of Christ reigning until he has subjected every enemy, even death, to himself. Christ will at that time give the kingdom to God, so that “God may be all and in all” (15:27-28). The goal of creation and world history is union with and submission to God. The means of that unification is Jesus Christ. And the space where that union is now taking place is the church, “which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (Eph. 1:23).

How do you measure progress toward the redemption of creation, toward the union of heaven and earth under Christ? I have to believe such progress is possible because I believe the goal will be achieved by God’s power. But I am extremely cautious about measuring progress toward that end. Surely growth in holiness, faith and love can be considered progress. But are we in a position to make a judgment about our growth in holiness, faith or love? Wouldn’t it be spiritually dangerous to do this? God alone is the judge of such matters. And wouldn’t the same caution be warranted in other areas too?

Here we see a dramatic difference between measuring progress toward a finite worldly goal and measuring progress toward the achievement of God’s plan. And this difference may be one source of the temptation for many contemporary Christians to identify progress in liberating individuals from oppression into autonomy with movement toward the time when “God will be all and in all.” I do not think this equation is sound.

The two goals we’ve discussing represent two kinds of salvation worked by two different saviors, the one human and the other divine. Hence, as far as I can tell, “faithfulness” not “progress” is the watchword for the Christian stance in this world.

In the Year 2113…Will There Be Faith on the Earth (Part 1)?

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…

Is Your Church a “Teaching” or an “Experiencing” Church? (Part 1)

Does the Christian church gather to be taught and reminded of its faith or to experience the presence and power of God? Perhaps most Christians would reject the dichotomy posed in this question. And I agree that we don’t have to choose one or the other. Most churches combine the two in some way. Nevertheless, I think it worthwhile to consider the alternatives just to clarify the concepts. Out of this exercise may arise deeper insight into the relationship between the two goals and the best means of keeping them in proper balance.

I might as well place my cards on the table. I admit that there are churches that are so focused on teaching (or doctrine) that they are cold, rigid, intolerant of deviation and exclusive of emotions other than jealousy for doctrinal conformity and righteous indignation against error and sin. I know these churches exist. But I don’t see the majority of contemporary believers rushing to adopt this extreme model. I see the dominant movement in the opposite direction, away from the “teaching church” to the “experiencing church” model. What concerns me is that I don’t see this movement headed toward a proper balance between the two but to a near exclusive focus on experience.

Here is my view of the appropriate relationship between teaching and experience: In working toward a balance between these two factors, the church should give priority to teaching and reminding itself of its faith; that is, its main goal should be to speak, live and enact the Word of faith. It should also expect the Word and the Holy Spirit to work together to drive the message home to the heart so that hearers of the message believe, feel and act consistently with the truth of faith. Christianly understood, religious experience should arise from hearing the Word and the work of the Spirit. But this means that Christian religious experience, as vital and necessary as it is, is secondary to teaching and the accompanying action of the Spirit.

Here is what I see happening among churches today: when experience becomes the primary goal of a church it becomes possible to think of religious experience as relatively independent of the knowledge of faith and the work of the Holy Spirit. The gathering of the church will be designed to evoke experience, and the means of evoking experience will include elements other than the truth of faith and the working of Spirit. Simply put, “experience churches” choose means that can provoke the desired feelings directly, completely bypassing, or spending very little time addressing, the mind and will. In effect, this model of church replaces the mysterious and free working of the Spirit and the inherent power of the Word with natural methods of moving the emotions. Continued in Part 2.

Note: I posted part 2 of this essay simultaneously with part 1. It’s ready to read.