Thursday, October 22, 2009

Name-Calling and Image-Bearing

My friend Jessica just made an excellent post over at her personal blog. You should also take a look at some of the ministry she's doing - there's some fantastic stuff there. (N.B. She's dealing with significant sexual addictions, so it's not light reading.)

Yesterday, as I drove to school, for some reason, I was thinking of Christianity. Recently, I have been working with a ministry that is predominantly Catholic. Mind you, I am not Catholic and do not intend to convert to Catholicism. In fact, I have been dubbed 'the Protestant' by their founder. The fact is, this Catholic ministry is doing more than any 'Protestant' ministry has done. Why is that?

...Do you realize that the world gave them that name [Christian]? It means "Christ-followers" or "Christ imitators." The world, at that time, had seen Christ, so they would know what a Christ follower would look like. Hence, the coinage of the term.

However, it has now come to mean anything from right-wind extremists to anti-government. Now, I know Jesus was not loved and He told us that we would not be accepted because He wasn't accepted, but would someone like to tell me why we are instigating this problem? Did Jesus instigate? No. He didn't. Did Jesus walk up to people, smack them upside the head and say, "You better listen to me, because I am God"? No! Jesus loved them. He reached out to them. He fellowshiped with sinners, and THAT is why people hated Him. Too often now the church is all about hating sinners, which would be why the world hates us.

My thoughts were capitalized last night when author Ted Dekker posted a similar line of thinking on his Facebook page.

According to a Barna Group poll, only 9% of those outside the church think Christians in America are nice, loving people. Whatever happened to ‘you shall know them by their love?’ Throughout most of the world Christianity is simply no longer associated with the core beliefs of sacrificial love that birthed our faith. It has become like a large vessel of dirty bathwater, full of nasty associations that fly in the face of Jesus’ teaching which centered on love and the cry that ‘we judge not lest we be judged.’ A Newsweek cover story cited the dramatic decline of Christianity in the United States. We live in a post Christian world, many would say. They might be right. And who’s to blame them? No one wants to swim around in dirty bathwater.

But wait a minute. There is more than dirty bathwater in this vessel. There is something precious and live-giving! And there is a rising generation of thinkers who are as eager to protect and cherish that life as they are to throw out the dirty bathwater.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, we say.

His cry was to get back to what it means to follow Christ and forget all of the hoopla and drammada of religion. We cling so tightly to the label "Christian" and it no longer means what we think it means. We spend so much effort and energy defending our stand and faith that we look more like Pharisees than followers of Christ. It's ridiculous really. So, I think I am actually going to drop the whole label of "Christian." I am not a Christian, I am a follower of Christ. Sadly, yes, there is a difference.

I definitely feel her here, and I've felt a lot of the same frustrations. I think Luke didn't really care for the term "Christian" much, either... he keeps saying "the followers of the way" even after the term is introduced in Acts. And the term has a lot of baggage with it to be certain.

A few other thoughts stemming from her post: While I appreciate where Dekker and Barna are coming from - and I certainly do think that there's an issue with the church involved! - I'd hesitate to take that finding too far. Certainly Dekker overstates his case when he claims that Christians "in most of the world" are not living out Christlikeness. Problems in the US church are simply not universal, and there is a lot of good going on in the world church. Insofar as the critique is accurate - and I think it is, at least for the American church - there are a couple root issues that we need to deal with to address the issue.

First and foremost, I think "Christians" in America by and large aren't. We have churches full of people who think they are believers who give no convincing evidence of that fact. If, over the course of years, one's life displays no fruit - however much moralistic attempting goes on - then the person is simply not a Christian. We're not being kind to pretend otherwise; we're sending people to hell who think they're saved. That's problem number 1, and until we deal with it, we're not going to see the world's perspective change. The world doesn't see Christians as loving because it actually sees not Christians - not disciples - but a bunch of moralizing deists (to borrow a term from Matt Chandler) whose moralizing makes them arrogant. They need a good dose of the real gospel, the one that says that Christ has become the source of eternal salvation to those who obey him (see John 3:34, Hebrews 5:9). Faith produces works. If it doesn't, it's not faith. Solutions: preach the gospel, exercise church discipline (which means practicing meaningful church membership, among other things), and build a church environment that recognizes the basic necessity of community - it's not something cool on top; it's foundational in the healthy life of the church.

On a much smaller, but still significant scale, we need to remember that the world's definition of love and God's tend to differ pretty radically. At this point, anyone who makes any sort of moral stand is considered to be inherently "unloving." I don't deny that Christians have done much to exacerbate this. The doctrinal position we hold on homosexuality may be perfectly accurate, but we've done a very poor job in communicating that position in a way that demonstrates Christ-like love. It's tended to be, instead, either an arrogant superiority or simple fear that gets communicated. I.e. "We're better than you, you dirty heathen," or "Stay away, I don't want you contaminating [insert vulnerable loved one of choice]." Both of which are distinctly unChrist-like responses. All of that to say, yes there's a great deal of growing to do there, but we should judge ourselves not on the basis of the world's perception but simply on the basis of Scripture. It's critique is much louder than the world's ever could be. (And I think Jessica would agree with me there.)

It's not surprising to me that Catholic ministries tend to do a better job than a lot of Protestant ministries at actually working in the world. They, and the Eastern Orthodox, both have a much stronger grasp on incarnational theology - understanding how Christ's incarnation impacts our mandate here and now - than most Protestants. Protestants also, quite rightly, have a historical revulsion for any sort of "social gospel." Unfortunately, that's had a tendency to bleed over into Protestant views of all social action (except political, apparently!). To restore that, we need to deepen our own incarnational theology and recognize that, though our hope is for a kingdom to come, we have transformational, serving work to do in the here and now.

Two major caveats, though. First, it's worth note that in many of the Catholic ministries I've encountered - certainly not all - the sort of good works being noted here are motivated by bad doctrine. When salvation comes by works, as is certainly still taught in many parishes, the faithful Catholic has no choice but to work very hard indeed. There are segments of Protestantism that are just as industrious and for precisely the same reason. As we deepen our theology, and remember that faith produces works, we need to remember that it is still grace that saves. Indeed, a real understanding of grace should prompt us to work.

My second caveat is that we need to be careful not to mistake serving in the world for proclaiming the gospel (or the other way around!). Both are necessary components of our faith, and thankfully we are not left with a contradiction between the two. (Again, I've no doubt Jessica and I are on the same page here.) It's easy, in recognizing the need for social action because of the good news, to forget that we're here as ambassadors. Our purpose is to proclaim that good news. All our social action is gospel-oriented. I'm not speaking of a sort of action that only goes in with the aim of converts, but rather social action that is so Christ-centered that gospel-proclaiming will inevitably be a part of it. If ever we lose the cross and God's grace displayed therein, all our social works are in vain.

The challenge, then, is to go forth and work - to be Christ-followers, disciples, image-bearers, intead of merely name-bearers. Work in the world, proclaim the gospel of peace, and keep the cross and the empty tomb ever in sight.

1 comment:

  1. You are certainly a spiritual progeny of Luther (at least, according to what I read today about his views on faith and works...I'll pass it on to you)!


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