Dear James (2), Housekeeping in the House of God

Dear James,

I am very glad to hear that I understood you rightly in your last letter—or, at least, that in responding you feel that we have come to a common place of understanding. It is, I say again, the only way we can move forward together. I also appreciate hearing about your church experience, although it grieves me to hear your concerns about your own fellowship. I didn’t know the question would open such a response! Maybe we can begin by addressing some of those concerns.

It seems to me now that your concerns about orthodoxy come from closer to home, don’t they? Having a minister who doesn’t communicate the word of God to a congregation can suck the life from a fellowship like nothing else. You will need to be on guard against two responses. First, make sure that while you are critical you do not become cynical. We must always be critical—that, I take it, is one of the essential characteristics of the wisdom of a serpent. To be critical means to listen attentively, listen scripturally, and to listen theologically. You aren’t listening in order to witch-hunt errors, but listening with an ear to God’s character and faithfulness. The danger of cynicism creeps in when we come to think we are better than our fellow church members, our fellow Christians, or better than the pastor. Cynicism is when we take more pleasure in our criticism than we do in the work of God around us. Guard against that carefully.

The second response to guard against is that of dismissing your pastor outright. You probably don’t know the struggles he is enduring at the moment, and perhaps his preaching is only one sign of a greater spiritual crisis within him. In point of fact, that is almost always the case with ministers that bad preaching (and by that I mean unscriptural preaching) is a sign of sickness of soul. I think what happens is the minister begins to compromise with sin, then the Scriptures become inconvenient in their condemnation and call to holiness, and it becomes easier to preach his or her opinions than what the text claims. All that to say, have you sat down with your minister and found out what’s going on in his life? Ask some questions—and try to ask some deeper questions. Ministers are first-rate evaders of questions—life at the front makes it difficult sometimes to share. But make sure your questions come from a loving and sincere heart. That is precisely one of those situations where you aren’t supposed to judge. Make sure you are praying while you visit, as well.

You have expressed relief that “at least he speaks about some issues that matter,” and those issues, I presume from what you’ve said, are political in nature? I would be very careful here. I’m not sure how this happened, but at some point in the past century certain political opinions have become social shibboleths in the pulpit. This is the case on both sides of the political spectrum—if you are on the more leftish side and neglect the political mentions of justice and mercy for the poor, you are suspect. From the rightish side, ignore the moral dictates of abortion and homosexuality and you are equally suspect. Always be on guard against any “all-or-nothing” catch-words which aren’t expressly the gospel. The first and last hill we die on as followers of Jesus is the hill of the resurrection, and while issues of justice and holiness are extensions of the Christian witness, we cannot use them as bludgeons to get our will without violating their very holiness and justice in the process.

Of course, the other side of this is that it is sometimes easier to preach a political message—or a message charged by a cultural issue—than it is to speak about the gospel itself. The gospel is good news, but it is also really hard news. The allure of being popular and relevant, I fear, stands behind much of the political and social mongering from the pulpit these days.

Speaking of political and social issues, you mention a number of stories from the recent news. Yes, I have seen them, and yes, they do concern me, but before it is time to comment on those issues, don’t you think we ought to consider the amount of time we devote to these kinds of public issues? It seems more and more that individuals who are “up to date” on the goings on of the world simply shift from one outrage to another, maintaining a constant state of anxiety about the happenings in and around the world. There is very little stillness, prayer, and reflection about these issues. So as a simple challenge, have you considered spending as much time in prayer as you do browsing news stories each day, or reading opinion pieces about this or that political issue or moral concern? I think it would change our outlook significantly if Christians everywhere were known more for our prayerfulness and lovingkindness than our public outrage.

All of this, I hope you can see, has been a kind of housekeeping. We must work to make sure that our own houses are in order before we begin to address the houses of others, or the house of our world. It does little good—and has done much harm, in fact—to promote marriage as a great Christian value when our own track record on marriage is so slipshod. It does us little good to intensify our outrage over the representation of Christians in popular culture when we have not sought diligent faithfulness to Christ on our own time. “Seek first the Kingdom and His righteousness,” Jesus says—place our pursuit of God first, and all the other things will be added as well. Jesus was speaking about worldly possessions, of course, but I suppose that when we live for Christ the world in all its glory and potential is our possession as well. We care about politics because in Christ, all of politics is our possession.

I’ll pray for your visit with your pastor. Please let me know how things go. Remember to pray for your fellow members as well.

Every Blessing,

Jeremy Rios


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