Tag Archives: World

“Churches Change the World” ~ But How?

Church

Churches change the world” is the theme for the Pentecost Offering of my denomination this year. This is the special offering that is directed to the support of new church development, and that’s an easy ministry for most of us to support.  Who doesn’t believe that churches are supposed to be spiritually and morally transformative. The only real question, it seems to me, is how?  How does the church actually go about changing the world?

The promotional materials for my denomination’s special offering for new church development this year names the importance of the church speaking to the world about her own faith’s values and convictions as one of the ways that the church goes about changing the world. In fact, this is how being “prophetic” is generally, if not singularly, understood by us “Disciples” these days.  We want to speak our truth to its power.  And so we have gotten pretty good at passing resolutions, and making public statements, and marching for social justice.  And while I certainly don’t discount the necessity or efficacy of the church’s public witness, it seems to me, that an equally important way for the church to go about trying to change the world is by the church speaking its truth to the church!  In fact I would argue that I would argue that this should probably come first.

Michael Horton, the Reformed theologian, has criticized the American Church’s historic failure to condemn slavery before and during the Civil War. And he is very clear that the “the racisms that still haunt our society” — “the New Jim Crow, broken window policing, and discrimination in every way imaginable” (Derrick Holmes) — are all the poisonous fruit from the tree of this historic moral and spiritual failure by the American church.  And at the heart of this failure, he argues, was not just the church’s refusal to speak out clearly against slavery to the State, it was also the result of the church’s refusal to speak out clearly against slavery to the church!  The evil of slavery persisted, he argues, not because the church wouldn’t address it publicly as a political matter, but rather because the church wouldn’t address it with its own members as a faith matter.   He notes, “the church itself was segregated – often more so than society at large.” And he wonders about how this might have been different had the church preached “the whole counsel of God, including his wrath against the sin of slavery” to its own membership?  What would have happened had the church spoken prophetically to the church?

Wouldn’t the members (of that church) been shaped by God’s Word and Spirit to oppose such a horrific evil?   And wouldn’t they do so not only in their extended families but in their towns and cities?  Wouldn’t they carry their convictions to the voting booth as loyal citizens?  Some would even do so as judges, legislators, and generals.  What if the church that nurtured R. L. Dabney (a major American theologian of that era) had denounced slavery with one voice, with all of the spiritual authority in heaven behind it?  Would he have become a notorious defender of racist religion as he preached, wrote, and served as chief of staff to Stonewall Jackson? (https://www.whitehorseinn.org/2013/09/two-kingdoms-and-slavery/)

It’s easy to think that the prophetic work of the church is what happens in the streets on days of protest, but I find that most of the prophetic work that I do as a local church pastor happens in the pews when I preach and preside at the Lord’s Table on Sunday mornings, and in the classrooms where I teach the Faith, and at the dinner tables and in the coffee shops where I talk about our beliefs and their consequences with people who are just trying to be faithful.

In a recent contribution to the “Rhetoric, Race and Religion Blog” at the “Patheos” Website (4/30/17), Derrick Holmes said that after he had participated in a public demonstration against social injustice at a city council meeting, another participant, grateful for his presence there, wanted to know why there weren’t other ministers with him?  And the clear implication was that if a minister wasn’t in the streets with them protesting or at a rally making a public statement, then he or she wasn’t really doing anything “prophetic” for the cause (http://www.patheos.com).

“Where are the pastors?” that essay asked, and my initial response was that where they really need to be is in their churches doing the slow steady work of the moral formation and the spiritual transformation of the people who are entrusted to their care. In my experience there is nothing more “prophetic” than the church preaching the message of God’s inclusive love in Jesus Christ, and then inviting “whosoever” would come to the Table of Remembrance of God’s sacrificial act of redemption and reconciliation in Christ each week  A church that is being consistently and consciously shaped by the Gospel’s word of God’s welcome and the sign of His saving inclusion will be a church that unhesitatingly speaks to the world about the worth of all people and that unambiguously speaks against the sins of prejudice and discrimination.

I understand that the single most transformative thing that I can do as a pastor is to get the people who are in my spiritual care to “to see what the Scripture says” about the big social and moral questions of the day with which we are wrestling, as Scott Cormode of Fuller Theological Seminary puts it  (https://fullerstudio.fuller.edu/one-basic-idea-get-people-see-scripture-says/). He says that for those of us with a high view of Scripture, the task is not to tell our people what we think, but to help them see how the Bible thinks. He explains –

I think it is easier to preach on uncomfortable topics in an evangelical congregation than it is in other kinds of churches. In a liberal congregation, everyone is entitled to an opinion and the preacher’s is just one voice among many. But in a conservative church, we have agreed on a standard. We all appeal to Scripture. In the evangelical churches I have known, we have all agreed that we should change our behavior to conform to Scripture. We may argue about what the Bible means (and, boy, can we argue), but we all come with a common commitment to obeying the voice of God as conveyed in Scripture.

And so the task is to get them to engage with the Scriptures. A Christian with a high view of Scripture who doesn’t know what’s in the Scriptures – like many in the American Church were before and during the Civil War on Slavery – is a menace and a contradiction. And they’re still around today.

In the June 2017 issue of Christianity Today, Mark Galli, its Editor in Chief, wrote about the criticism that white evangelicals are receiving these days for their reported widespread anti-Muslim, anti-refugee, and anti-others-in-dire-straits public attitudes. “You would think that a people steeped in the Bible,” Mark wrote, “would find closing the door to the world’s neediest people repulsive.” But he says that the research clearly shows that white evangelicals, “more than any other religious group, say that illegal immigrants should be identified and summarily deported.” “What’s wrong with these white evangelicals?” Mark Galli asks. “Who’s teaching them these unmerciful attitudes?” he wonders.  And he thinks he’s found the answer, and it’s not the church!

All those surveys that show white evangelicals to be anti-Muslim and anti-refugee also show that those who take these positions tend to be the white evangelicals who do not go to church. When asked by pollsters if they are “born again” and find the Bible to be true and authoritative in what it teaches, they say “yes.”  But when they are asked if they actually go to church, they often say “no.”  And Mark Galli wonders if there is a connection between the “mercy-shaped vacuum within them,” and the fact that they are not hearing “Scripture read and the Word preached, and sharing in the ‘breaking of bread’ and ‘prayer’ (Acts 2:42) – together in church.”   As Mark puts it –

This has been from the beginning the divinely commanded means that enables us to grow into the full stature of Christ (Ephesians 4:13), so that we might become a people who act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).

Churches change the world. But the kid of churches that change the world are the kind of churches that have first been changed themselves by the very truths that they want to speak to power, and this means that the first place where “prophetic” ministers need to be are in their churches with their people consistently and conscientiously preaching the Word, administering the sacraments, and fueling the vision of God’s coming Kingdom where His will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

DBS +

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Changing Laws ~ Changing Hearts

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Dr. Bill Baird, my professor of New Testament at Brite Divinity School, and the reason why I wanted to go to seminary in Ft. Worth in the first place, used to say that our natural reflex is to use Biblical texts as “springboards” to Washington D.C.

What he meant by this was our tendency to move immediately, unhesitatingly and uncritically from Biblical teachings to some specific public policy proposal. We get political in the blink of an eye and become partisan in a heartbeat. Both the Christian right and the Christian left pronounce their particular take on a pressing social issue of the day and leave the distinct impression that it is the only conscientious position that a serious Christian can take.  We call it being “prophetic,” and we think that it’s how we speak truth to power.

As Christians, we use the Bible politically to speak to the world. But when I read my Bible, in context, more often than not, what I encounter is not a word that’s being spoken to the world at large, but a word that’s being spoken instead to the community of faith, both to whole congregations and to individual Christians.  When He was in front of Pontius Pilate, Jesus Christ explicitly disavowed the suspected grab for worldly power through a political strategy that made Him a cause for concern to Rome.   “My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus said (John 18:36).  And when addressing a problem about sexual expression in the Corinthian Church, Paul explained –

9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. 11 But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. 12 What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? 13 God will judge those outside. [1 Corinthians 5:9-13]

I know, I know, these verses beg many important questions, but for right now try to focus just on the inside/outside distinction that Paul was making here; the difference between what the church is supposed to say to “anyone who claims to be a brother or sister,” and what the church is supposed to say to “the people of this world.”

“What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?” Paul asked, assuming that his readers knew that the answer was “none” — that it’s not our “business” to hold people in the world accountable to the moral and spiritual standards that we who have surrendered to the Lordship of Jesus Christ hold sacred.  “Are you not to judge those inside?” And again, Paul assumed that his readers knew the answer to this rhetorical question as well. “Yes,” we are supposed to hold ourselves accountable to each other within the community of faith for the things that we say we believe are true, and right, and good.

Don’t try to play the trump card of Matthew 7:1-6 here. Even in context, Jesus’ “judge not lest ye be judged” assumes a capacity on our part to be able to identify “specks,” “logs,” “dogs” and “swine.” And within a mere 8 verses of this teaching, Jesus was warning His disciples about “false prophets” and the necessity for His disciples to be able to know who they were by their fruits (Matthew 7:15-20).  The appeal to Matthew 7:1 as a universal prohibition to judging that we like to use to avoid the hard work of getting clarity for ourselves or being challenged by others about what it is that we believe and value ignores what the verse actually says in context and attempts to have it bear more freight than it was designed to hold, which brings us back around to the inside/outside distinction and to the question of who the Bible is talking to?

The reason why we use Biblical texts as springboards to Washington DC is because we think that the primary way that the world will be changed, made more just and compassionate, will be through legislation. And while I’m not unaware of the necessity of political action or unappreciative of the way that good legislation and responsible government can serve the establishment of justice and liberty for all, neither am I naïve.  I’m truly glad that racial segregation and discrimination was officially outlawed in the United States by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but as the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, 50 years later have painfully shown us, it’s one thing to change the law and another thing to change hearts.

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The “takeaway” from Carl F.H. Henry’s 1964 book Aspects of Christian Social Ethics for me was his strong emphasis on Christianity’s “supernatural resources” for social change. This was his restatement of Pietist Christianity’s traditional approach to addressing social problems and fueling social improvement.

The twentieth century has cherished high hopes for socio-politico-economic reconstruction. First it trusted mass education to propound a new vision of society, then domestic legislation and possibly even international jurisprudence, and more recently it has looked to mob pressures and revolutionary techniques to being about rapid social fulfillment. (9)

But the Christian Church ought to rely on the spiritual regeneration of individuals to transform society. (72)

History shows that the thought of Christ on the cross has been more potent than anything else in arousing a compassion for suffering and indignation at injustice. (29)

Supernatural regeneration is the peculiar mainspring for the social metamorphosis latent in the Christian movement… Evangelism and revival remain the original wellsprings of evangelical humanitarianism and social awakening. To ignore or lay aside this chief armor of apostolic Christianity for reliance on other social dynamics means retreat from the peculiar glory of the New Testament to the world-wisdom and world-power of the Greeks and the Romans.  Those who in social agitation sponsor a morality of compulsion, or simply trust the word and will of unregenerate men, thereby betray their skepticism of the adequacy of spiritual reserves latent in the Christian religion. This gnawing doubt is manifest in the notion that social problems are not wholly responsive to spiritual solutions. Consequently, the Church has often turned aside from its evangelistic and missionary priorities, attempting to chart a socio-political thrust alongside rather than in and through the evangelistic thrust. (26-27)

The Gospel of Christ is the Church’s peculiar “dynamis” (power) for facing the entire world. Christian social action condones no social solutions in which personal acceptance of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord is an optional consideration. Personal regeneration and redemption are inherent in its hope for the social order.  (25)

The Gospel is the Church’s distinctive message and its distinctive dynamism for social transformation. (79)

When the New Testament addresses a social issue like slavery in Paul’s letter to Philemon, what it says was not being offered as a plank in the platform of a political party, or as some specific political policy proposal. Rome wasn’t listening.  The Emperor didn’t care.  What the New Testament had to say about social justice was a word that was addressed to the hearts of believers who then as salt and light and leaven would penetrate the world around them.  And my hope as a Christian today for the emergence of a more just and compassionate social order still depends less on the persuasiveness of a political argument and the results of the next election than on the spiritual transformation of people by the power of the living, loving God in their lives through the Word and the Spirit.  As Edward Beecher, Lyman’s son, put it –

Great changes do not begin on the surface of society, but in prepared hearts; in men (and women) who by communion with God, rise above the apathy of the age, and speak with living vital energy, and give life to the community, and tone to the public mind. (Wirt 147)

In closing, I put into evidence in support of this argument a story that J. Mack Stiles told in his book Marks of the Messenger: Knowing, Living and Speaking the Gospel (IVP 2010).

When our missionary friend, Mike McComb, tried to introduce protein into the diets of the largely illiterate Guatemalan farmers, it was a masterful combination of expertise, training, and strategy. He started his work towards the end of the murderous civil war. During that time Mike also faithfully shared the gospel. And Mike noticed it was the gospel that allowed protein to get to the people.

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When the gospel was understood and accepted in villages, Mike reported, men stopped getting drunk and beating their wives. As they attended church, they started to attend to their crops and their children’s education. Tomas, the mayor of Nebaj, told me that it was only when the gospel came to the Ixil lands that real change happened. Mike says that the preaching of the gospel did more to eliminate hunger than fish farms or crop rotation ever did. We must never forget that the Gospel brings more long-term social good than any governmental aid program ever developed.

Changed hearts change the world.  DBS+

 

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The Abnormality of the World & the Sufficiency of Grace

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“My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.”

                                                                                                   ~ 2 Corinthians 12:9

We had a time for healing prayer in church on Sunday.  After the preaching of the Word and the sharing of the Bread and Cup of Communion, we invited people to come forward at the end of the service to put their special prayer request cards in a little basket on a table under a cross and to be prayed for by a minister with anointing with oil and the laying on of hands if so desired.  This is always such a powerful experience whenever we do it as a church.  People are usually so busy trying to persuade themselves and to convince others that they’re just fine, that when they are given an opportunity to actually let down their guard and to be ministered to at the point of their deepest wounds and greatest needs, something truly grace-filled and powerfully healing happens.

One time, years ago, a church member actually checked herself out of the hospital in order to be able to attend one of these healing prayer services, and then immediately checked herself back into the hospital when the service was over!  We certainly didn’t encourage this, but we were greatly encouraged by it, and I remember the example of her determination and effort now every time we plan a time of healing prayer in our life of worship as a church.  My heart tells me that this is a really good thing to do for people, and with people.   It is an affectively powerful experience.  People are deeply moved by it.  But I find that it is a profoundly “meaningful” experience as well, which is to say that it is an act that also closely conforms and firmly adheres to the truth of the Gospel, and it has been my experience that good things tend to happen when head and heart come together in this way.  For me the experience of Healing Prayer is like the flow of the river of the Holy Spirit between the two banks of head and heart.

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The “heart” bank of this river of the Spirit consists of our life experiences and the emotions that they generate in us.  Our hurts and hopes with their joys and sorrows firmly fix the “heart” bank of the river of the Holy Spirit in Healing Prayer.  It’s what’s happening to us and in us that directs the Spirit’s flow in this kind of praying.  This is not praying from a book or using set forms of any kind, but a praying that is by definition sensitive and responsive, more like jazz than a carefully orchestrated and well-rehearsed symphony.  You just step into its current and let it carry you along.

The “head” bank of this river of the Spirit consists of the revealed truths of Scripture and the way that the church has historically thought and talked about them.  Two of the big Biblical truths that are hard at work in the experience of Healing Prayer are the abnormality of the world and the sufficiency of God’s grace.  Part of my preparation for last Sunday’s sermon and service was listening again to Jerram Barr’s lecture on the “Basic Bible Study Themes, III” of Francis Schaeffer from his course “Francis Schaeffer: The Later Years” at http://www.covenantseminary.edu/resources/courses/francis-schaeffer-the-later-years/.  He says –

God is not responsible for the brokenness of the world. The world is not the way God created it, and human beings are not the way God created them.  Everything now is abnormal and is distorted by sin. Do not blame God for the way things are.  Human sin has made things the way they are…

(But) I hardly ever hear Christians talking about the abnormality of the world. If we do not talk about the abnormality of the world, we have absolutely no answer to give to people who have problems with suffering and evil. We end up saying that “it is okay.”  Someone dying of cancer might come to us, and we say, “This is really fine. God will take care of it.  Everything is going to work out well in the end.” This is an artificial answer that simply does not meet the person’s needs and is not true. It is not faithful to Scripture. Unless we understand the reality of the Fall, we have nothing to say to the person who suffers. Scripture forbids us to heal people’s wounds lightly or to try to soothe them with emollient words that pretend that things are not as bad as they are. One of the wonderful things about Scripture is that it takes the brokenness of our situation really seriously. It says it like it is. That is why it tells you to weep with those who weep, not to heal their wounds lightly. Just go and weep with them. Jesus is described as a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. That is the way every Christian ought to be, those who really take people’s suffering to heart. We need to understand that people are having experiences that are abnormal. They are not the way God created them to be. Their reality and their experience of it is a broken one. Our call is to weep with them and have compassion on them rather than heal their wounds lightly.

And this big Biblical truth about the world’s abnormality has its direct counterpoint in the Bible’s equally big truth about the sufficiency of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.  “The light shines in the darkness” is how the Gospel of John begins (1:5).  This is such good news.  There’s light and it’s shining on us!  But there’s darkness too, terrible darkness, and it’s this darkness that the light has been sent to penetrate and dispel.  70% of Christ’s public ministry reported in the four Gospels involved healing and exorcism according to the Rev. Jack Sheffield, an Episcopal priest with a ministry of healing from San Antonio.  Christ in Luke 9:2 said that we as His disciples are to preach the kingdom and heal the sick, and this is just exactly what we see Him doing throughout the Gospels.  Both by healing people’s sick and broken bodies and by forgiving their sins, Jesus Christ was God’s light shining in the darkness.  By actively challenging the abnormality of the world, Jesus Christ our Savior was forcibly pulling creation back into alignment with God’s original design, bringing wholeness to our bodies and souls.

The Biblical tension in all this is between the “already” and the “not yet” of it.   Just like the gap between D-Day and VE-Day during WW 2 in Europe, Christ’s work of dispelling the darkness has already begun but is not yet complete.   Our experience of it here and now is real but partial, substantial but fragmentary, and this shapes our believing and our praying.  Christian hope makes it clear that one day we will be delivered completely from the suffering of this world.  As Jerram Barrs puts it, “The whole goal of the work of Christ is to overcome the abnormality of this world.”  But our experience of this saving work will be incomplete until the consummation of Revelation 21 when God “shall wipe away every tear from our eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain” (v. 4).  And in experiences of Healing Prayer we feel this pull.  Even as we seek deliverance from the suffering that we are facing, we confess the truth that there will no permanent solution to the problem of pain until Christ returns, and so we ask for the hope that does not disappoint us that is born of the endurance in tribulation that produces godly character (Romans 5:3-5).

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The best illustration that I’ve ever come across of what this looks like is what the late Calvin Miller wrote in his fancifully imaginative book The Philippian Fragment (IVP – 1982).  In the style of C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, Calvin Miller used the vehicle of an imagined correspondence between some fictional characters to explore some of Christianity’s important ideas.

In the fourth chapter of “The First Letter of Eusebius of Phillip to his beloved Friend Clement” the church’s ministry of healing was closely examined.  Eusebius met a travelling healer named Helen.  “She rarely does anything one could call a miracle,” Eusebius wrote.  “Last week she laid hands on a little crippled boy and was not able to heal him,” he explained, “but she did get him a new pair of crutches and promised to take him for a walk in the park” (24).  And then he wrote about the healing of an amputee that he witnessed.

Yesterday with my own eyes I saw her pass an amputee selling styluses.  She touched his legs and cried, “Grow back! Grow back!” In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, grow back!”  Well, Clement, I so wanted to see the legs grow back, but they did not.  Poor Helen.  What’s a faith healer to do with an amputee that refuses to grow legs on command? Well, she sat down with the little man, crossed her legs on the cold pavement, and began selling styluses herself.  Soon she was talking to him, and before very long they were both laughing together.  For an hour they laughed together, and by nightfall they were having an uproariously good time.  And when it was time to go, Helen’s legs were so stiff from disuse, they refused to move.  Her legless, stylus-selling friend cried in jest, “Grow strong!  Grow strong! Grow strong!”  Helen only smiled and staggered upward on her unsteady legs.  And then she looked down at her lowly friend and said, “I offer you healing, you will see.  It is only one world away.  Someday…,” she stopped and smiled, “you will enter a new life and you will hear our Savior say to your legless stumps, ‘Grow long! Grow long!’ And then you will know that glory which Sister Helen only dreamed for you.”  He smiled and asked, “Do you heal everyone this way?” And she answered, “It is better to heal with promises than to promise healing.” To which he replied, “You are right, Sister Helen.  But more than right, you are evidence that our Father heals the spirit of amputees – even when they will not grow legs.  And, once the spirit is healed, the legs can be done without.” (24-26)

And between the banks of head and heart the river of the Spirit flows in times of Healing Prayer.  I felt its current pull last Sunday when praying with people for their wounds and the wounds of those they love. Between the depth of their pain and enormity of God’s promise, we found that promised peace that’s bigger than our circumstances (Philippians 4:7) and experienced the way that nothing we are facing has the power to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ (Romans 8:38-39).  DBS+

 

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