Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Our Real Moral Crisis

Recently I was asked what I consider to be the major moral issues facing Christians today. There are many possible ways to answer this question: justice issues, sexual issues, family issues, and the list goes on. But it seemed to me that all these take their place under one over-arching moral crisis, and that is a dual natured crisis of authenticity and credibility. To say this in more theological language, we Christians must become more truly Christ-like if we really want the world around us to take seriously the Gospel we proclaim, or stated even more obviously, we must “practice what we preach.”
Especially in the United States and Europe, there seems to be a kind of Christianity that emphasizes a nebulous belief in some amorphous divine force that is separated from the nuts and bolts of how we actually live our lives. This produces people who use the name Christian in their understanding of who they are, but then live life essentially the same as anyone else in the world. Diettrich Bonhoeffer used the term “cheap grace” to describe this type of thinking, but he had another term that described it even better --- the “church of the World.” This kind of “church” is opposed to the “church of the Word,” and seeks to make itself righteous by offering grace without repentance, proclaiming reconciliation without the Cross, and celebrating hope without holiness.
Prominent pollster George Barna has found that those who claim to be evangelical Christians show no appreciable difference from non-Christians in how they live. They are just as likely, and in some cases more likely, to engage in sinful or questionable behaviour as any non-Christian. If this is true, how can we ever expect those who are not yet believers to have any reason to take seriously the message of Christ’s transforming love expressed in the Cross and the Resurrection? Where’s the evidence in our own lives? Where’s the passion for following Christ and being His faithful disciples?
If we as Christians are to have any hope of countering and overcoming the power of the radical Islamists, we must demonstrate a greater passion and a greater desire than they do to sacrifice our lives for God’s purposes. In our case, our passion and sacrifice as Christ-like people are expressed in awesome acts of love and service for others, even for the Islamists themselves. The world sees the power of the Islamists’ sacrificial dying and cowers in terror. The power of the Christian’s sacrificial living results not in terror, but in peace, hope, and transformation through Christ.
I believe as Christians we must become truly authentic in our passion for God in our life together. This is more than fellowship, this is the healing baptismal spring of koinonia, where faith is shared honestly, deep relationships are formed, and growth in Christ is experienced together according to the truth of the Word and the power of the Holy Spirit. The Scriptures joyfully teach that all Christians are priests. As such, Christ calls us to set aside our own interests and to serve others. In doing this, God weaves us into a gift-giving, gift-receiving community, displaying the splendors of God’s grace to the world. Our life together as brothers and sisters in Christ, then, is more than a casual association for our social convenience. It is the very means by which God empowers us for living out our baptism into Christ. Only when the world sees this transformed reality will they listen to the Message we proclaim.


Monday, August 6, 2007

Gray's Deeply Pernicious Heresy

While I generally respect Joan Gray the current Moderator of the Presbyterian Church USA, the type of thinking she expressed in her editorial "A Deeply Pernicious Heresy" (see, Saturday, August 4th edition) is a frightenly excellent example of the kind of thinking that has made such a mess of the PCUSA. She divides belief in Christ from obedience to Christ, resulting in a view of salvation and church membership as consisting of only certain creedal or mental affirmations. In this way, it is possible to simply believe in Jesus without actually giving one's life to Jesus.
This is the old "heresy" that Dietrich Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace," which allows people to believe they are okay with God just because the have the right belief. Actually following Christ as a disciple is then divorced from belief, allowing one to live life in actual rebellion against God while holding to "right beliefs." How many churches would admit a person to membership who holds only "right belief" in Jesus while practicing pedophilia, or racism, or drug-dealing, or human trafficking? Would anyone say it is being heretical and unfair to insist that a person's life line up enough with their confession of Christ that they seek to eliminate these practices from their lives?
Yes, we should be compassionate and seek to offer such persons the promise of transformation through the grace of Christ, but few if any would say that simple cognitive affirmation of a few certain beliefs is actual Christian discipleship. This is why the same Paul that Joan Gray appeals to in her editorial instructs the Corinthian church to expell from their fellowship anyone who is "sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler." (I Corinthians 5:11) Even these few behaviours mentioned here would have a radical effect upon the PCUSA if we took them all seriously as reflections of our profession of faith in Christ.
I am not saying we become a legalistic legion in our judgements toward one another. Joan Gray is rightfully warning against this. However, it is critical that we not divorce our lives from our profession of faith. The scriptures do not divide life practice from faith, which according to Paul is belief in our hearts more than our minds (Romans 10:9-10). Even the great reformers Luther and Calvin insisted both that salvation is by faith alone in Christ and this same faith must be evidenced by the good works that follow. Neither reformer could be accused of adding another condition for salvation besides faith in Christ, but their understanding of faith is much more life encompassing than mere mental assent. As Luther said, faith is a complete trusting of one's whole life to God, or more typical of his terminology, "You cast yourself entirely upon the Word."
I think that if Joan Gray and I were having a discussion with each other at the local Starbucks, we would probably find a lot of friendly agreement as we talked through our differing points. But the message of her editorial as it stands alone right now is itself "a deeply pernicious heresy."