Right before Easter, our denomination made the national news. Our General Minister and President, the Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins wrote a letter to Governor Mike Pence of Indiana voicing her concerns about the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Our denominational headquarters are located in Indianapolis, and our 2017 General Assembly was scheduled to be held there as well.
Dr. Watkins’ letter explained –
We are particularly distressed at the thought that, should RFRA be signed into law, some of our members and friends might not be welcome in Indiana businesses – might experience legally sanctioned bias and rejection once so common on the basis of race.
That letter indicated that our General Board would be rethinking their decision to meet in General Assembly in Indianapolis in 2017, and, in fact, the General Board has now officially “directed the Office of the General Minister and President to seek a new location for the 2017 General Assembly.”
Explaining this action, both to Gov. Pence and the citizens of Indiana, as well as to the congregations of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Dr. Watkins wrote –
As a Christian church, we are particularly sensitive to the values of the One we follow – one who sat at table with people from all walks of life, and loved them all. Our church is diverse in point of view, but we share a value for an open Lord’s Table. Our members and assembly-goers are of different races and ethnicities, ages, genders and sexual orientations. They have in common that they love Jesus and seek to follow him.
Now, I am deeply grateful for the theological clarity of this statement. Too often pronouncements have been made and positions have been taken by church leaders on sensitive social issues without any rationale being offered as to why. I have previously described this as doing spiritual algebra rather than spiritual geometry – offering what is believed to be the right answer without showing how you got to that answer. To Dr. Watkins’ great credit, she gave us the spiritual geometry of this decision, and it is a rationale that conforms exactly to who we say we are as a church –
And so I fully support the stand that has been taken by our denominational leaders, and agree with the reason why we find it necessary to take it as a church. But even as I write these words, I am acutely aware of the fact that, generally speaking, I am not a big fan of official resolutions and formal pronouncements.
Kennon Callahan of the “twelve keys to an effective church fame” was a vocal critic of congregational mission statements. He argued that “missional outreach is not best accomplished by developing a purpose statement.” As he explained, “developing a statement of purpose is not delivering effective mission; it is simply developing a statement of purpose.” How many times have I been part of a process in a local church that has carefully crafted a mission statement, gotten it officially approved, framed it beautifully and hung it prominently on a wall somewhere, and then never quite gotten around to doing anything that it actually says? Such statements look good, sound important and keep you busy crafting and then endlessly revising them. But too often they become ends in themselves. And this is my concern with denominational resolutions and pronouncements as well. They have a dangerous capacity to make us “feel good without actually doing good.” As the United Methodist Bishop James Mathews explained, “such resolutions don’t cost us anything… they lead to ‘resolutionary’ Christianity rather than revolutionary Christianity.” Typically they are “a tip of the hat to social issues,” without any binding force or consequential actions. As William Tillmann Jr., a professor of Christian ethics at the Logsdon School of Theology at Hardin-Simmons University, observed, “there have been too many statements and too few actions” by too many churches. This prophetic “witness by signature” has made very little difference “in the public square.”
A generation ago D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones of London’s Westminster Chapel challenged the church’s infatuation with resolutions and pronouncements.
I think it is true to say that during the past 50 years [he wrote in 1959] the Christian Church has paid more attention to politics and to social and economic questions than in the whole of the previous hundred years. We have had all this talk about the social application of Christianity. Pronouncements have been made and resolutions have been sent from Church Assembles and the General Assembles of the various denominations to the governments. …But what is the result? No one can dispute it. The result is that we are living in a society which is much more immoral than it was 50 years ago… Though the Church makes her great pronouncements about war and politics, and other major issues, the average person is not affected. (Studies in the Sermon on the Mount – 136)
And this, it seems to me, is the watershed between “resolutionary” Christianity and “revolutionary” Christianity. How does it affect me? How does it change me? How does it compel me to look at a situation differently than I had before, and what changes does it convince me to make in my own beliefs and behavior?
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones strongly believed that the presence of a single Christian in the world has a profound effect. Things change socially for the better, he argued, not by the church publicly denouncing social ills or by the church persuading the government to pass certain laws, “but by the sheer influence of Christian individuals” (135). And while I would push him on this, arguing that agitation, education and legislation all have their roles to play in social change, I don’t disagree with his core point, namely that the Christian transformation of the world does not begin with the resolution of a Church Assembly but by the revolution that the Gospel foments in a human heart.
I was recently rereading The Christ of the Indian Road by E. Stanley Jones (Grosset & Dunlap 1925) for our upcoming Faiths in Conversation program with Pravrajika Brahmaprana of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society of North Texas, and in Chapter 12, “The Concrete Christ,” the strands of my thinking on the recent resolution and action taken by the leadership of our General Church were brought into sharp focus for me.
E. Stanley Jones began by pointing out that Jesus was an “amazingly concrete and practical” teacher in an “atmosphere filled with speculation” where people were “often drunk with the wine of their own wordiness.” And then he began this vivid string of observations about the “concrete” work and words of Jesus Christ (191-198) –
…He did not speculate on why temptation should be in this world – he met it, and after 40 days’ struggle with it in the wilderness he conquered, and “returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee.”
…He did not discourse on the dignity of labor – he worked at a carpenter’s bench and his hands were hard with the toil of making yokes and plows, and this forever makes the toil of the hands honorable.
…As he came among men he did not try to prove the existence of God – he brought God. He lived in God and men looking upon his face could not find it within themselves to doubt God.
…He did not argue, as Socrates, the immortality of the soul – he raised the dead.
…He did not teach in a didactic way about the worth of children – he put his hands upon them and blessed them and setting one in their midst, tersely said, “Of such is the kingdom of God…”
…He did not argue that God answers prayer – he prayed, sometimes all night, and in the morning “the power of the Lord was present to heal.”
…He did not paint in glowing colors the beauties of friendship and the need for human sympathy – he wept at the grave of his friend.
…He did not teach in the schoolroom manner the necessity of humility – he “girded himself with a towel and kneeled down and washed his disciples’ feet.”
…He did not discourse on the equal worth of persons – he went to the poor and outcast and ate with them.
…He did not discourse on the beauty of love – he loved.
…He did not merely ask men to turn the other cheek when smitten on the one, to go the second mile when compelled to go one, to give the cloak also when sued at law and the coat was taken away, to love our enemies and to bless them – he himself did these very things.
…He did not merely tell us that death need have no terror for us – he rose from the dead, and lo, now the tomb glows with light.
…He did not go into long discussions about the Way to God and the possibility of finding him – he quietly said to men, “I am the way.”
Saying the right things makes us “resolutionary” Christians, but doing the right things makes us “revolutionary” Christians, and there’s no doubt in my mind about what Jesus Christ expected of those who would follow Him as their Lord and Savior. I think that our church under the leadership of Dr. Watkins said the right things about Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). But I think that even more important than our words are our actions as a people who “love Jesus and seek to follow him.” And this means not just applauding the actions of our church 750 miles away from here, but looking around for the ways that “loving Jesus and seeking to follow him” is going to challenge and change us outside our very own front door. DBS+