Tuesday, September 25, 2012

What Is A Church Supposed To Do?

   Some might ask the question, "what is a church supposed to be?" as opposed to what the church is supposed to do.   Anyway you ask it the question carries with it some theological and ecclesiastical  implications as well as political ones.  It has always been interesting to me how non-Christians seem to have some definite opinions about what churches are supposed to be doing, as well as opinions about what they don't want a church to do.   Most communities, I assume, want local churches to be helpful and not a cause for trouble.  I don't assume all communities are correct or even well meaning in their opinions about what churches should do, sometimes they just don't want a congregation to be on the other side of a pragmatic or political question.
    Local pastors can find themselves caught between their theological positions and the need of the community in which they live.  They can also find themselves caught up with their own political positions, emotions, and causes.   I am not writing about national politics per se, or advocacy for national candidates and parties.  I am speaking about boots on the ground issues.  Obviously there are conflicts in a community that a local congregation should stay out of, and attempt to speak only to clear issues of morality or justice.  Sometimes the church property is the pragmatic or political issue, and then great humility and wisdom is needed.
    Good theology should be able to be universal in application (always true in every time and place), or else the universal principle must be that in some situations some applications are contextual.  I am not advocating relative theology, just the reality that some principles of theology are always in operation and some can only be situation specific.  It is the wisdom of the practicioner (pastor and leaders) and the guidance of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God that helps us to know the difference.
    Much of this kind of discussion happens around worship, and sometimes around programs or activities of the church and its members.  This kind of discussion covers everything from when we should have a worship service (versus the universal principle that yes, Christians should gather for corporate worship) to what kind of place should we worship in, what kind of music should we have, how often should we have the Lord's Supper, and what ministries or programs of mercy, education, justice, etc. should we participate in as a church body?  There are many who advocate that the answer to some or all of these questions are already established Biblical principles and that to deviate from their position means that one cannot be Biblical or Reformed.
    This is not to say that choices that are made by local leadership, even if basically Biblical, cannot still be confusing, distracting, controversial, and schismatic.  Take for example when someone gets caught up in an opinion that a certain kind of music is better than another and suddenly changes it for a congregation, and does it without sensitivity to the sentiments of the congregation.  Most of the congregation leaves, the church is reduced, the conflict is painful, but the person with the winning musical opinion feels that their idea of purity is a greater principle than unity.  On the surface nothing un-biblical happened, the new music is not antithetical to the Gospel.  The reality however is that selfishness, ignorance, obtuseness, and even meanness has prevailed.  It might be a good thing if we had more discipline trials over being divisive than we have been in the habit of having.
   The reader might think that I am an advocate therefore of "old music."  Actually this is an issue that has affected churches going in both directions, those that had classical or evangelical hymns and went contemporary, and those that had a contemporary service and went to classical or even to strict Psalm singing.  Ideological preachers and elders are usually the culprits here.  I am not saying that things should never be changed, only that even if the change is not in itself bad, the way the change is made can be bad, even sinful.
    Some choices are right, and always right, while some choices can be situationally terrible, bad, fair to middling, good, better, or best.  Pastors and congregations have to make choices, and sometimes they make choices without knowing they have made them.  They do what has been "normal" maintaining the status quo and have sometimes failed to realize that to continue to do business as usual has made a statement to the community they live in, and their own congregants as well.
    This inevitably leads to conflict with the surrounding community, and the church is sometimes the last entity to know about it, until the church wants to do something and they find strong opposition in the neighborhood.  This can be everything from enlarging the parking lot, or adding a drive way, or building a gym, or playground and sometimes the opposition comes because the church has failed to do anything about the poverty, violence, or community disintegration that has be going on around them.
Some of our churches have never bothered to do anything about the neighborhood except to call the police when they feel threatened or bothered.
    Some pastors have been taught that they only thing they have to care about is their flock, and what goes on inside their building.  They have a theology about those outside, and it can range from that of condemnation or fear of persecution from those who oppose the Gospel, to seeing those on the outside as lost and needing salvation.  Even those with the sense to see that their neighbors "need" salvation are not necessarily ready to do anything to help meet that need.
    Polemical arguments in a pastor's sermon about the bankrupt philosophy of the heathen surrounding the church, and giving a strong apologetic as to why Christian theology is correct does not translate into winning the lost to Christ.  It does not translate into loving our neighbors as ourselves, it does not translate into doing good works before men so that they might give praise to our Father in heaven, it does not translate into being salt and light in a corrupt and fallen generation.
    I go around the country saying things like, "we don't need any more irrelevant churches."  An irrelevant church is one that ignores its community, it doesn't love anybody around them only those within itself. (My suspicion is that it doesn't even do that very well).  Its only cultural influence is to tick off the neighborhood over parking spaces on Sunday morning.  It doesn't know how to corporately practice what Paul modeled for us in I Corinthians 9 where he became all things to all men so that he might by all means win some.  His goal was winning the lost.  He always knew who he was, never compromised the Truth of the Gospel, but was willing to give up so much cultural baggage, and enculturate himself in new ways so he could win the lost.
    Many of our people want the community around them to come to their church, but they want the community to accept the culture of the church, to change and accommodate themselves to the culture of the church (not accepting the fact that the present culture of of many of our churches is completely foreign to contemporary society).  This has nothing to do with challenging the foundational truths of the Gospel, only the preferred tastes and spiritualized opinions of plenty of our ivory tower clerics.
    My advocacy is not to be sensitive to anyone but the Holy Ghost, which means to be radically committed to winning lost and dying folks who are our neighbors, who are sometimes lying (figuratively and literally) beat up in the road, who need to see that we care and not just hear about it theoretically in a statement.  

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Peace and War, The Christian and the State.

 I am not sure how everyone else handles their various allegiances.  I am a Christian, not simply by culture but by conviction and by spiritual experience.  I am an American.  I am a man that is married, I have a wife and children.  All of these things matter to me and certainly at different times and in different ways I have felt protective of them.
    I grew up in an inner city housing project in Newark, NJ.  I learned how to fight in that place.  Then I learned personal non-violence.  I have been in discussion with people who do not share my faith, in fact with people who despised my beliefs.  I have been in confrontations with people who hated me because of my race.  I have had to figure out if I had the right to resort to violence in self-defense, or if the country in which I lived had a right to make war on another country and if I in good conscience could participate in that, or oppose it.
    I have met other Christians who had no problem with the concept of self-defense, or even the willingness to come to blows over a lack of respect shown to them.  I have met other Christians who were in the "peace churches" who felt that the Bible forbade believers to participate in violence or war, no matter how in the right they or their country might be.
    I read comments by people who react to what some Muslims do to our embassies, what some Muslims have done in attacking our cities or our people in various places of the world.  Here things go from simply a question of national defense to the idea of religious wars and some of my friends begin to equivocate in their reactions.  Some of the most conservative Christians I know, in regard to their beliefs and commitment to Biblical doctrine, can be some of the most ready to fight in behalf of the nation.  It is also true that some of the people I hear speak so liberally of being patient, turning the other cheek, and letting God handle things are ready to fight if attacked personally, or if their family is attacked.
    I don't think any of us should think the job and responsibilities of the American President are easy.  What a powerful lot of wisdom that office requires, and what great potential there is in that office to do good or evil in affecting many in the world.  It seems so easy for the rest of us to judge the President's actions, words, and non-action very quickly.  In regard to the use of American power for force, justice, or to oppose violence his decisions carry immense repercussions.  How important it is for us to pray for him, and how wise to humble ourselves before we go about second guessing (usually in instant reaction to a news story) what he does or doesn't do.
    Let me give some personal disclosure.  I am a Presbyterian, we are known as the people who believe in the "Just War" theory.  That does not mean, "just make war" it means that there are principles that help you to determine when it is just to go to war and when it is not.  Presbyterian heritage is a history of fighting, and certainly in the American Revolution Presbyterian preachers did more than preach, they participated. 
    More disclosure; I believe in personal non-violence.  That is I believe that Jesus was serious when he told us to turn the other cheek, that I should not take my own revenge but leave room for the wrath of God.  Of course this belief is only possible when you believe that there is a God, that he knows and cares about your situation, and will take action when and as he sees fit.  It is hard to turn the other cheek if you don't have hope in a God who loves you, even if you have to suffer.  Living this out is tough, and each confrontation means you enter into the temptation of pride, anger, hatred, and violence.  I believe in this, and I have practiced it, and I have had to take a punch or many, and I haven't always liked living out this principle.  I have always been glad I did.
    I don't believe the ethic of non-violence belongs to the State.  I do believe the ethic and responsibility of justice does belong to the State.  I also believe that running the State requires wisdom, patience, a commitment to equity and achieving an environment of peace.  What does all this mean in practical result in where I put my allegiance when it comes to force and violence?
    America is a State, when it is attacked, whatever the stated reasons of the attackers (whether secular or religious) it not only has a right but must protect itself and its citizens.  Radical Muslims can say anything they want about Christianity, the West, or America, but if they attack our citizens, embassies, or country the U.S. must respond.  It does so not in the name of Christianity, because for the U.S. this is not a religious war, it is only a religious war on one side.  The motivations of the attackers make no real difference, their actions and continued violent intentions do.  Once engaged or deciding to be engaged it is then that the principles of a just war are or should be put into effect. My role as a Christian in the State is to always demand our standard in national practice, in peace or war, be just.
    Personally I should be willing to die for my faith and not try to kill someone for attacking me or my faith.  As a husband and father, especially in my own home, I should not only be willing to protect my family if they are attacked but kill the person doing it if necessary to stop them (proportionate force is the principle).  This is a matter of protecting the innocent and helpless, even though my wife is not so helpless.  As a citizen I should vote for a president who seems to have wisdom, believes in pursuing peace, and is prepared to make war if necessary and has the personal constitution not only to make war but to win it and get it over with quickly. 
    As a citizen I should be prepared to participate in the exercise of justice, by serving in the military if necessary, paying taxes to pay for a war we might need to fight, allowing my children to serve in a war in which they might die. I must not allow everyone else to sacrifice while I and my family seek our own affluence and security.   I should also refrain from disheartening my fellow citizens by equivocating our nations actions with those of others and from a cynicism that never seems willing to take sides or choose right from wrong.  At the same time I should be vigilant that our nation never go to war unless it must, never treat other nations or people unjustly, and always seeks peace. This means political activism and if necessary civil disobedience if necessary to stop injustice. This is not a perfect world, and even if our actions as a nation are not perfect and others criticize us, our nation cannot allow violence against our citizens to be left without response.