Monday, November 30, 2009

Life Together

Dietrich Bonhoeffer's lesser known (than The Cost of Discipleship)but equally profitable book Life Together speaks of how Christians are to get along with one another in the church, not with illusions of everything being in perfect accord all the time (for we are sinful and short-sighted), but rather the beauty and benefits of struggling within the bonds of love.

So, both Tim Keller's comment on my last post, and a moving sermon on the gospel in the midst of relational conflict by Scott Roley(Christ Community, Franklin, TN), have got me thinking about this.

There was a lot of conflict in the early church. We see it in Acts on how the Gentiles were to be incorporated into the church, and the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas over John Mark. Corinth was fraught with conflicts over personality and false teaching. Galatians mentions the conflict with Paul and Peter.

The church does not do conflict well. The Scriptures lay down clear teaching on how to deal with conflict, both in situations of interpersonal offense, and in situations of false teaching or false practice.

Having grown up in the mainline (Reformed Church in America) and coming into the PCA, I thought it was a city set upon a hill. But, what I realized is that though there are significant sins of liberalism, the sins of orthodoxy are more heinous. A radical statement that! But, we are accountable for the knowledge that we have. My friend J. R. de Witt used to talk about the sins of dead orthodoxy a lot --and I have experienced them firsthand. A cold, censorious, judgmental and narrow spirit, a lack of compassion and brotherly love, a hidebound insistence that one's own way is THE WAY, anger, consumerism, Spirit-quenching, and cathedral-building (yes, I know, I hate Reformed cathedrals --they are sinful in an age of poverty and hunger, sorry people, but it's my blog).

And I say again: these are far more egregious than the sins of the mainline, simply because we ought to know better. IF we have the Holy Spirit, then why isn't he more manifest?

I have to note that: a.) I am incredibly guilty of everything I say above, except that I haven't built a cathedral (yet). b.) these sins are no respecter of party in the PCA, but seem to me to be equal on all sides. Each party has its jerks, and all of us are jerks now and again.

The danger in our post-modern context is multi-form. One of the chief dangers is confusing persons with arguments. This happens in two ways: either my opponent in an argument is my opponent in life, and therefore not only mistaken but evil, or at least stupid, or, that an attack on a person's position is an attack on their person.

We need to understand that Satan loves to push us to both of these poles. I have both experienced each of them, and been guilty of them in debates in the church. Both of them hinder understanding, and the advancement of the truth. Both of them leave lingering resentments.

We also have a false understanding of unity that says it means we must be in complete conformity of opinion and practice all the time. Disagreements and disputes ought never to arise among a family, or the people of God. This is conflict avoidance, and it hinders the triumph of truth.

So, I don't know how to do this. But, I know it's crucial that we do it. We need to find ways to deliberate and debate without horns and without teeth. We need to understand that good men may differ.

But, the most disheartening thing of all is that I have never seen a minister challenged on the grounds of his deviating from the truth who has been humbled, confessed his sin, and returned to the straight and narrow. I have seen men who have sinned in their behavior broken and contrite, and returned to the fold, but I have yet to see a minister chastened as to his beliefs and teachings who humbly confessed, and returned. I believe I have a pretty good grasp of church history, and even there, I can find no examples of a man whose doctrine was challenged, who admitted he was wrong. Surely someone in the course of the history of the church has indeed been wrong, and been humble enough to admit it!

So, how do we debate, discuss, and rebuke in the church? It's Monday, and per usual, I have no answers on Mondays, only questions :-)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

What Will You Do While Your Straw Man Burns?

First, credit where credit is due. Thanks Ben Kappers for getting me thinking about this.

The great danger in any "inner ring" is that we talk to ourselves, and thereby become firmly convinced that we are right, and the other guy is not just wrong, but stupid, evil, and a bum.

There is a great danger of this in the gospel ministry. Our friends, sad to say, are all people who think pretty much like us. Even in the ranks of ministers in a denomination with a common and heavily-enforced statement of faith, we subdivide into particular camps, and rarely are friends with the "other guy." There are twin sad results. One is, our rationales for our own positions are weaker than they need to be. The second is, we fail to love the others, and become prideful of our own opinions.

How this might be handled in the church (where reproof, standing up for truth and correction are necessary things) is a subject for another day. The topic for today is the world.

So, a ministerial student or other ardent young Christian has been taught in his Jesus incubator that all atheists are not only wrong but stupid, angry, selfish people, that all homosexuals have deep personal issues, that all secularists and statists are just self-interested fools.

Then, God, in his good providence, puts them in contact with the world. And maybe they meet a real, living atheist who feeds the poor, is kind and generous, and doesn't care much that you are a Christian, if it works for you.

Or, he meets a homosexual who is a decent person, no more "flawed" than he himself is, and pretty likable, diffident, and humble.

Or, he develops a friendship with a liberal who really does think that government is the answer to the worlds problems, and is a sincere, devoted friend.

What then? His whole paradigm crumbles. Sometimes, he starts to question everything he's been taught. If those who taught me are so seriously wrong about this, what else in my world-view is wrong?

I think of two models in this regard. One is my mentor who maintained a close friendship with the atheist minister of the prominent self-described "liberal" church. This was no mealy-mouthed liberal, but a fiery, strong, and very intelligent man, as my mentor is. Yet, they respected one another, loved one another, even as each was firmly convinced of the other's error. The bond was love and respect, not agreement of opinion.

The other model is a pastoral friend in Western North Carolina who, for years, has carried on productive dialog with local abortionists. Does he want to change their minds and practices? OF course he does. Why? Because he loves them as much as he loves the unborn, I suspect. Are they murderers? Well, so am I.

And, this is something we in the church need to learn. Nobody out there is any more particularly evil than we ourselves are, by nature. A homosexual is not a worse person than I am. A liberal is not necessarily mean and nasty --some of them are far kinder and more generous than many who can rightly state every Biblical doctrine.

The point is not that we should abandon our beliefs about any of the above things. The point is that we should love people, even as we disagree with them, and try to understand them. The old principle of debate, so neglected in our current practice, among my own "party" in my own denomination is instructive: know your opponent's position so well, and be able to state it accurately in a way he himself can affirm.

And then love him. Respect him as a fellow creature in the image of God. The only difference between him and you is not you. The only difference between him and you is that you believe in Jesus, and he doesn't. Or, he does, but he doesn't quite see the full picture. Then, ask yourself, "Is it possible there are places where he sees more clearly than I do?" I may be right about morality, but he may be right about generosity of spirit and wallet, for instance.

Our church culture needs to change. We need to know unbelievers, love them as persons, and show Christ to them. We ought not shy away from giving the cause for Christ, but it must be done out of humility, love, and respect.

Why? For we are no better, no better, no better....And such were some of you, but you were washed...Did you wash yourselves? Did you make yourself clean? Did you rescue yourself from erroneous opinion and sinful practice, or did Jesus do that for you? And, if Jesus did that for you, then why don't you think he won't do that for someone else?