Conquering Wrong with Right

broken-crossSo Christians, tell me. What is the church really like?

Because I go to a church event for the first time in weeks and within twenty minutes, I hear people make off-the-cuff racist, sexist and homophobic comments and nobody bats an eye.

I lay on the couch, curled up in a ball with the phone to my ear and listen to a dear friend tell me how he feels like an outsider to the people he’s attended church with for years because he has chosen to plant his flag with the disenfranchised and the vulnerable in his community, as messy as that gets. And it got messy.

Another friend I grew up with sends me a middle of the night link to an article about the guy in Arizona who stood on his college campus holding a sign reading “You Deserve Rape.” We’ve been having conversations lately about some of his qualms with Christianity, and he sums it nicely by saying, “I don’t want to have to spend the rest of my life explaining this to people. I have better things to do.” And I sympathize. Because I don’t want to have to spend the rest of my life explaining that to people, either.

And that’s just in the last couple of weeks.

-Emily Joy Allison
“Church Prove Me Wrong”

The church is its own worse enemy.

I came across Ms. Allison’s blog (I get the impression she wouldn’t consider us on a first name basis so I’ll maintain some formality) as a link someone put on Facebook. That was well over a week ago, but this was the first chance I had to write about it. She says a lot of good things and a few things I disagree with, but she presents me with a struggle. Actually, she presents me with my own struggle, though I don’t conceptualize it in the same manner that Ms. Allison does. The struggle is with being a Christian and going to church vs. some of the really dippy and even hurtful things some Christians and some Christian churches do in the world.

For instance, she posted a screen capture of John Piper tweeting a message on twitter quoting Job 1:19 “in the wake of the terrible tragedies in Oklahoma,”

“Your sons and daughters were eating and a great wind struck the house, and it fell upon them, and they are dead.”

Even if Piper hadn’t intended this message to be taken the way it sounds, his timing (and probably his tastefulness) was ghastly. The tweet was subsequently deleted, but it’s another example of Christians (and people I refer to as “famous Christians” … more on that in a minute) standing on the platform of faith in Jesus Christ and throwing rocks at the injured and dying people of the world.

I sometimes have a problem with some “famous Christians.” These are usually televangelists or other Pastors or leaders who are in the public eye, people whose names are familiar even with atheists. Christians who typically are the worst examples of Christianity and who give the rest of the world the impression that we’re all like they are.

I recently heard an unsubstantiated story (that is, I can’t find it by Googling it) of scandal-plagued Jimmy Swaggart actually selling individual pages from his family Bible while leading a tour group in Israel. This would have been fairly recently, but I can’t find an online reference to the event. We’ve also heard names such as Benny Hinn and Joel Osteen, and I cringe to think that this is what the world sees when they think they’re looking at men who are disciples of and witnesses for Christ.

praying-aloneMany years ago, I knew some Americans who, when they toured Europe, would tell people they were from Canada (this obviously didn’t work at airports when they had to present their passports) because they were too embarrassed by America’s reputation overseas. There are days when I feel that way about being a Christian. I believe as a Christian, that I should be held accountable for my own behavior, my flaws, my mistakes, my errors, but it’s adding insult to injury if I have to be ashamed for every lousy thing someone else does in the name of Christ.

In terms of social consciousness and popular causes, it looks like Ms. Allison and I are different enough to where she would probably be embarrassed to be counted a Christian along with me, so from her perspective, I’m likely one of those folks she’s appealing to when she says:

YOU are supposed to be the living, breathing, embodiment of the gospel, and sometimes I can’t see anything good about it.

Church, prove me wrong. I’m begging you.

Church, prove me wrong. I’ve tried to be patient—and I will continue to try. I will be eating with you, talking with you, praying with you; from time to time I’ll probably be sitting in a church service with you. I will not abandon you, as long as Jesus has anything to do with it. But I need you to show me that he still does.

I recently read a blog post that quoted Jones, E. Stanley, (1925). The Christ of the Indian Road. Abingdon Press, 72-73. You’ve probably read this before:

“Mr. Gandhi, though you quote the words of Christ often, why is that you appear to so adamantly reject becoming his follower?”

Gandhi replied, “Oh, I don’t reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Ghandi’s rejection of Christianity grew out of an incident that happened when he was a young man. During his years studying law in Britain, he had become attracted to the Christian faith, had studied the Bible and the teachings of Jesus, and was seriously exploring becoming a Christian. One Sunday, in South Africa where he had gone to practice law after getting his degree, he decided to attend a church service.

As he came up the steps of the large church where he intended to go, a white South African elder of the church barred his way at the door. “Where do you think you’re going, kaffir?” the man asked Gandhi in a belligerent tone of voice.

Gandhi replied, “I’d like to attend worship here.”

The church elder snarled at Him, “There’s no room for Kaffirs in this church. Get out of here or I’ll have my assistants throw you down the steps.”

Gandhi is certainly an outstanding example, but how many Christians have thrown people out of the church or driven folks away who otherwise are men and women who act and think and breathe with the heart of Christ?

On the other hand, and there’s always an other hand, I can’t use all of this as an excuse to go “church bashing” or “Christian bashing.” From her writing, I get the impression that Ms. Allison is representative of a specifically narrow corridor of the believing world that exists in fusion with many of the popular values western society espouses today.

If the problem Ms. Allison or anyone else has with “the church” is that “the church” has a specific values system that conflicts with the non-religious social priorities we see continually in the popular news media, then maybe it’s a case of the church following its own priorities rather than believing it must “go along to get along” in American culture.

broken_godAlso, if your issue is that your particular religious group or you, as an individual, have difference of opinion with how other religious people or other religious groups conceptualize and operationalize a life of faith, that may not be a matter of the church needing to prove anything to you. That might just be a difference in how you see a life of faith vs. their perspective.

Some churches aren’t going to support what has come to be known as “marriage equality,” not as a matter of bigotry (note, I think the Westboro Baptist Church is reprehensible and does not represent Christ on any level), but a matter of conscience.

If your problem with “church” is that “church” doesn’t mesh with the values we see paraded in public by CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times, and such so that “church” refuses to blend in like a chameleon into the progressive social background, then that’s not the church failing to follow Christ, it’s the church failing to worship society and culture.

I can’t prove to Ms. Allison that she’s wrong. If the church has failed to live up to her expectations, then I’m sorry. The church isn’t perfect because it’s full of imperfect human beings. Sometimes we do stupid things. Sometimes we do mean things. Sometimes some people in the church need to be told that Jesus would never act the way they’re acting.

Ms. Allison will never find a church that is perfect. No matter where she goes to worship and fellowship, she’ll always find “bad apples.” There are whole churches that are “bad apples.”  I don’t doubt though that there are a number of Christian churches that demonstrate values sufficiently similar to her’s that she’d be comfortable worshiping within their walls. I’m not sure what to make of such churches, but if Ms. Allison wants a place to belong, I’m sure it’s out there.

But we’ll never be perfect. Frankly, if a church is following in the footsteps of the Messiah, they probably shouldn’t look and act exactly like the world around us. Jesus said that we are in the world but not of the world.

I’ve been afraid of church for my own personal reasons, but they’re my personal reasons. My problems with going to church belong to me, not church. And yet, I came to a point in my life where I felt I had no other option but to go to church. If you call yourself a believer and a disciple, you can’t go off half-cocked following your own priorities when you know you need to be in fellowship with other believers and you need to follow the Master.

If you want to think that “the church” is irredeemably bad, you’ll find plenty examples of bad churches and bad Christians. If you don’t want to accept church-bashing lying down, and you believe that Christ still exists within the body of believers, you can do something about it. Instead of pointing a finger at what’s wrong, you can be what’s right in the church.

Gandhi is famous for saying, Be the change you wish to see in the world. If you don’t like what you see happening in the church, then be the sort of Christian you believe Jesus wants to see in the church. Walking away doesn’t make you more noble, it just makes you alone. Jesus didn’t walk away from an imperfect world. He died for it.

Mahatma-GandhiAnd then he lived. Someday he’ll come back to redeem our imperfect world. In the meantime, if we call ourselves disciples, if we call ourselves Christians, then we have a responsibility to do here and now what he is going to do when he comes back. We need to introduce a little kindness, compassion, and self-sacrifice into an otherwise broken and bleeding world. Jesus didn’t complain about what was wrong. He was moved by compassion. He caused the blind to see, caused the deaf to hear, caused the lame to walk. Like Christ, don’t complain about what’s wrong. Just do what’s right.

To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:20-21

If I should ever leave the community of faith, it won’t be because church is broken. It will be because I am.

118 days.

22 thoughts on “Conquering Wrong with Right”

  1. I remember a quip by some smart-alek who observed that many people fail to recognize that the Christian Church is intended to be a hospital for sinners rather than a hotel for saints. And I appreciate your observation that it is likewise not to be expected to conform with the lastest fads in popular social mores, but rather it should have its own agenda of biblical values. Regrettably, many organizations claiming to represent Christianity actually represent something else in place of biblical values. Indeed, even among those whose intention is to represent biblical values, the majority of them haven’t understood the bible well enough during the past 15 centuries to develop a truly accurate biblical agenda in place of the tradition that cut itself off from its Jewish root. Also regrettable is how difficult it is to explain such matters to the Mr.Ghandis and Ms.Allisons of the world.

  2. …the majority of them haven’t understood the bible well enough during the past 15 centuries to develop a truly accurate biblical agenda in place of the tradition that cut itself off from its Jewish root.

    I have hopes that this is changing, albeit very slowly.

  3. Last night I (and some other people I was with) ran into a televangelist. I was eating with a group of people that had basically just met one another, except for the few of us who already knew each other who are involved at this same place often. She felt out the group for a little while and then she said who she was and what her purpose is. Then nobody would be able to stop what she was about to say. It’s like we got lost in a television sermon but it was in person, to a smaller group of people. I think she had a word for all or most people in the room, she definitely had one for me. I was blown away a little bit by it at first and a lot afterwards. When a lady came early to relieve us and sat down for awhile she said something like “I see it’s going to be an interesting night…chuckle chuckle” . So, she must have been blown away a little bit by it too.

  4. Hi Jill,

    Not sure what to make of your comment relative to the main theme in my blog post, except I happened to mention televangelists. I’ll I’m really trying to communicate is that as Christians, we should be doing better than we are, and also that if we want to improve the state of the church, we need to start by improving ourselves.

  5. Just trying to imply that televangelists are good people, too. They have often have a word from God, and they are not perfect.

  6. OK, that makes more sense, Jill. Thanks for the correction. I was wrong to paint all televangelists with the same broad brush. My bad.

  7. This idea is attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King:

    “We often hate each other because we fear each other; we fear each other because we don’t know each other; we don’t know each other because we can not communicate; we can not communicate because we are separated.”

    It increasingly seems to me that we Christians feel a sometimes unhealthy need to agree. If we disagree, something is wrong. So, we go off and do our own thing and start a new denomination, etc. I am exhausted by this need to agree that seems to drive out the more important need to find truth or, if not truth, understanding. Dis-agreeing within the church seems, I emphasize “seems” as in, to me, to have become a kind of sin. A threat of some kind. Jesus often disagreed with others, to include his own. “He who disagrees with me is my teacher.” This is an old Jewish proverb, I believe. Perhaps much of this attitude I think of as “Christian triumphalism” that we see, and which is so humiliating to see, has something to do with this need to agree. Just thinking out loud, here. We seem, like the rest of the world, to have dispatched with the educational value of vigorous civil discourse as one of the best and most satisfying and fulfilling ways to climb the ladder of thinking upward into truth. Instead, we just separate, physically or emotionally, seeking paths of least resistance.

  8. Wow, great post James and comments Dan.

    It’s so strange to see professing Christians conform to the world’s views about “morality” for a few reasons.

    1) the kindness, compassion, and toleration of those different from us is traceable back to Christianization of society itself. Although it took a long time to “take hold” and there was much resistance to the concepts of equality of races and classes of people, it was Christians who forged ahead with ending the slave-trade in Europe, as well as here in America. And I’m not arguing that all of our founders were Christians per se, but it was “in the air,” and culture.

    Wilberforce attempted to make it fashionable to be kind and civilized to people instead of literally turning a blind eye to the suffering right in front of them (Brits). And he was successful. Additionally is it not mainly, if not ONLY, Christians who try to defend the unborn’s right to life? I’m certainly not aware of any liberal “social justice” groups attempting to defend the unborn. (I could be wrong)

    2) growing up we understood the “world” did things differently than what God instructs. As believers we know that if we uphold the Biblicial view of right and wrong, it will put us at odds with the world.

    Yet you have these people pushing, shaming, and demanding, that the church abandon the Biblical principals and instead adopt the worlds standards instead of the opposite: the people of God should be affecting the World. “The Roaring Lambs” is a book dealing with this issue, albeit from more than a decade ago.

    But it actually isn’t surprising, since many of these folks have grown up seeing a Christianity modeled that attempts to show the world that Christian faith doesn’t turn us into weirdos, you know, the kind of religion that is a feeling, and doesn’t effect our behavior.

    And Dan, don’t worry, I don’t demand that you agree! JK 🙂

  9. Ruth, you’re SO demanding! 🙂 The Christianity of one and two hundred years ago, was, perhaps, less preoccupied with itself. And secular morality was more in keeping with Christian morality. The progressive-liberal movement as it is today is a force to be reckoned with, I think, because democracy as a choice of government demands the right to freedom to all. It is, within limits, “free will for all” even as God deemed it so since the Beginning. One can go to heaven or hell based upon their own free will. Democracy, I’ve long contended, has a fatal flaw in it that all but demands its total ruination over time, and that is… it must allow the rights of all to be recognized and eventually, legalized. Ultimately, as our common understanding of morality liberalizes, this includes behaviors that are unbiblical and destructive to both the society and the individual. A kind of legalized chaos ensues. Christianity has been tempted and drawn into this “progressive” thinking for good reason, so to speak: it is validated by the form of government that we raise up as “best” and hold dear. Hence, benevolent monarchy is the divinely ordained right of rule for all, but, of course, only as Messiah will establish. Democracy IS the greatest governmental form to allow for freedom and liberty, but only for a time. Unless all believe and follow the God of Israel and His ways, its life span is limited, as I see it, due to the human propensity to rebel against God.

    1. I believe it was reasoning similar to yours, Dan, that impelled the founders of the United States to eschew pure democracy in favor of a democratic republic, where democratic license would be constrained by the rule of law, administration by representatives chosen for their above-average personal characteristics, and a system comprising “checks and balances”. This was somewhat reminiscent of the biblical system of appointed magistrates and judges over groupings of 10s, 50s, 100s, 1000s, et al. Note that biblical benevolent monarchy constrained the king by the rule of law and by the approval of the people (in American parlance: “the consent of the governed”). It might be inferred that the American system has endured as well as it has done because until recently it was strongly informed by, if not actually constrained by, biblical morality (however imperfectly understood). The denigration of this particular influence during the past half century has left its void to be filled with personal, individual, self-seeking desires for an irresponsible sort of license in place of true liberty. I suppose it remains to be seen whether responsible parties can muster sufficient support over a long enough period to reverse this damage, or if we are observing one of the declines that will lead to the apocalyptic conclusion of history that preceeds the establishment of the messianic kingdom.

  10. “He who disagrees with me is my teacher.”

    I like that Dan, although I’ve seen it misused to the extreme on the blogosphere. I also agree that there’s a difference between two people of good faith debating a topic from different points of view and people who always need to be “right” as a way of self-validation. I had one of those conversations with someone on another blog last night and I’m not looking forward to their response (which I haven’t checked in on yet).

    I’ve been pondering my next blog post (Friday and Sunday are “in the can” so it will be Monday) and I think part of it will be the comparison between our relationship with other people and our relationship with God. No matter how good and kind some people are and how we depend on them for our support in doing the right thing, in participating in fellowship, and so forth, at the end of the day, only God is faithful and reliable in a completely unwavering manner.

  11. Dan, great points, even if you do have your own opinion. 😉
    Our founders at least alluded to as much— that it would only last for a time. I’m thinking of the reply of Ben Franklin at the Constitutional Convention when he was asked what they’d established, a republic or monarchy? He said: “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.” If this is fact or legend I don’t know, but it is true nonetheless!

    PL, I’m reminded of Jefferson (I think) who, while not religious himself, understood the importance of religion, particularly Christianity, as being the best friend of the “American experiment” style of government. For, if people don’t regulate their own behavior, the government that must do it for them will never afford freedom for it’s citizens. (Sorry if I’m incoherant, I’m “under the weather” and my brain is fuzzy this morning.)

    But back to the idea of Biblical morality and the Christianization of society, I’m reminded of a wonderful exchange at a “Socrates In The City” event, (hosted by Eric Metaxas) between Dinesh D’Souza (Christian appologist) and Peter Singer (atheist and animal rights advocate). I’ll leave the URL and hopefully James will trust me that it’s copacetic.

  12. James… I think your choice of “talking points” (If that’s the right phrasing) are one of your strong suits as a writer/blogger. I tend to see my relationship with God as decidedly “human” with all of its liabilities and assets at work all the time. I see my relationship with people similarly in the sense that I strive to be the person God intended me to be personality-wise, etc., eschewing Christian cultural affect as I sometimes see worn by Christians as they move about in the world. I would love to see our collective Christian culture somehow gain inner strength enough to be more “human,” so to speak, so as not to appear “untethered” from reality, thereby diminishing their testimony. As Jesus was 100% God and 100% human, I see us, as believers, as 100% believers, 100% human, if that makes sense to anyone. Sometimes I think Christians try to be 100% spiritual, 100% spiritual, as if being “human” was bad, which constitutes in my mind, an imbalance that is easy to perceive by all. Some elements of Christianity are “too heavenly to be any earthly good” as the saying goes; and I don’t think this gives our testimony great credibility with non-believers.

    PL…I agree. I see the embrace of post-modernistic thought as the main culprit. Gaining traction with the “deconstruction” movement thirty years or more ago, post-modernistic relativism as it applies to all truth has opened up the doors to the eclipse of truth, and has surely taken its toll on biblical morality as a social convention as well as on the legitimacy of the Bible itself in the open marketplace of ideas. If blatant government censorship of Judeo-Christian literature, philosophy, etc., ever takes hold in our society (as it does now in “passive-aggressive” ways in the public sector of society, schools and such) this would be the signature of the imminent fall, similar to that of the Wiemar Republic in Germany, which was also a form of democracy. I think such censorship, based on civil liberties, etc., is more possible now than ever in our relatively brief history as a nation. As Heinrique Heine said: “Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.” May the checks and balances keep us balanced as the Founding Fathers hoped… so that freedom of religion can continue to bring the Besorat HaGeulah, the tidings of redemption, to many.

    Ruth… I just read Eric Metaxas’ “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy” last year. As the centennial of Bonhoeffer’s birth occurred a few years back, new published material by him and about him became available. It’s the new definitive work, I think. I wrote a series of blogs way back on Bonhoeffer (see Jacob’s Relief, Archives, October 2010) when the centennial stuff came out. He was, I believe, loyal to the Replacement Theology of his time, acting more out of a powerfully heightened sense of Christian morality than of any sense of Christian connection to Jews or Judaism. An amazing witness of courage and bravery, of course, nevertheless. He is a model of Christianity in action confronting evil; a phenomenon that was utterly lacking in Europe at the time. And, he acted on a basis of Christian supersessionism, believing that Christianity had “triumphed” over Judaism, opposing the persecution of the Jews, nevertheless.

    Thanks for the link, I’ll check it out….

  13. Dan, I sometimes think at least some Christians take “in the world but not of the world” as an excuse to not even try to communicate to anyone who doesn’t agree with them. This causes a rift not only between Christianity and other religions as well as secular atheists, but rifts across different denominations.

    We need to choose to respond to the values we learn from the Bible but we also need to understand that we struggle with those values every day of our lives. How can we judge an imperfect world when we’re imperfect, too? That doesn’t mean throwing in the towel and ignoring injustice when we encounter it, but it does mean we’re not free to spread hate and harsh judgment against others just because we have a difference of opinion.

    In some ways, I wish Christians would be *more* spiritual, because the spirit encourages “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).

    1. Well put, James. I suppose “humility” has much to do with this issue. It’s taught-about alot, but how does it express itself given the confidence we should have according to Paul?

      “Now Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, to testify to the things that were to be spoken later, but Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. And we are his house if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope.” (Hebrews 3:5-6 ESV)

      In my life, I try to speak with confidence… while constantly taking care to note to myself exactly who it is that I am without Messiah… And that usually takes care of any haughtiness I may be storing up or harboring… the view is not a pretty one from there. 🙂

  14. I don’t think confidence in God and humility of our personal spirit are mutually exclusive. We usually get in trouble when we have confidence because we think we’re a rip-roaring big deal and expect God to be humble behind us.

  15. James, I hope it’s ok I comment here and that I get this right. I’m getting to know Emily a bit and I hope I’m not putting words in her mouth when I respond to what you analyzed from her blog.

    The problem for me is not that the church has a specific values system that conflicts with the rest of the world, but that where the Bible says to do certain things, a lot of the church finds excuses NOT to do it, because it doesn’t align with their values. (Not Biblical values, but whatever values they chose to take on)

    The issues that I have problems with are that in many parts of the US, the church has issues with treating people equitably. Privilege shows itself in many evil ways in the church, rather than people taking on humility and simply serving and actually being a hospital rather than a place everyone can party / country club their lives up.

    There is a lot of blindness in the church at the moment in regards to the issues a lot of bloggers like Emily have been talking about lately, which is precisely why they’re blogging about it.

    My take away is this:

    “When we criticize the Church, please understand our hearts. Most of us criticize the Church because it’s hurting our brothers and sisters the same way it hurt us. Because we love them too much to stay silent. Because we love the Church. Because what we’re saying matters. Please know that it’s easier to stay silent than to speak about the past. If we’ve worked up the courage to let our voices be heard, it must matter very, very much.”

  16. It’s perfectly OK for you to comment here. Emily actually “tweeted” me on twitter saying she is going to post a followup to the blog post in question and I’m looking forward to her missive.

    I’m not against criticizing “the church” and in the past, I’ve been one of the church’s biggest critics. I just want to make sure such criticism is measured that that we can distinguish between being critical of when the church is not following the Bible, vs. the times when it is. “The church” in its multiple incarnations, is not always good but then again, it’s not always bad either.

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