The “Church of Social Justice” and the Inner Ring

Years ago, my wife read Boundaries, that classic book on interpersonal relationships by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. As often happens in marriage, my lovely bride wanted me to understand her more fully, and so she asked me to read the book as well. The opening chapter described a “day in the life” of an un-boundaried person, and I will never forget my incomprehensible response to that description: “Why would anyone live this way?” I was overwhelmed with a tragi-comic sense of disbelief that anyone would struggle to say ‘no’ in a way that so catastrophically inconvenienced his or her life.

I recall that experience because I had a similar reaction to an article I encountered this past month, called “Excommunicate Me from the Church of Social Justice.” The piece, written by one Frances Lee, a self-identified QTPOC (Queer Transgender Person of Colour who prefers the personal pronoun “they”), documents the angst and anxiety of life within the social justice movement. That piece had, to me, the same tragi-comic flavour—tragic, because the account of the insider life of a social justice advocate sounds horrible; comic, because I simply can’t imagine ever choosing to live that way.

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Photo by Rogaz Gugus, from Flickr.

“It is a terrible thing,” Lee writes, “to be afraid of my own community members.” Why the fear? Lee is formally an insider by virtue of his/her/their gender and sexual identity. Furthermore, Lee is clear about his/her/their formal alignment to the critical list of modern causes, expressed in a desire to “obliterate white supremacy, anti-blackness, cisheteropatriarchy, ableism, capitalism, and imperialism.” What is the source of the fear, then? Lee writes:

It is the fear of appearing impure. Social death follows when being labeled a “bad” activist or simply “problematic” enough times. I’ve had countless hushed conversations with friends about this anxiety, and how it has led us to refrain from participation in activist events, conversations, and spaces because we feel inadequately radical.

It is, then, the fear of inadequate radicality—the fear of misalignment at the core of a given issue which is, de facto, defined by the experience of the other who holds all of the markers that define the cause. It is, presumably, the fear that generates strings of letters like LGBTTQQIAAP (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, ally, pansexual)—which seem grounded in the horror that a category might possibly be left out. In response to this fear, Lee writes, “I am always ready to apologize for anything I do that a community member deems wrong, oppressive, or inappropriate—no questions asked.” This is a horror to me, simply because it doesn’t describe a relationship so much as a tyranny—the tyranny, in this case, of the self-identity of the offended which produces not so much a relationship as a hostage situation.

Neglecting these declarations bears real repercussions, such that “Punishments for saying/doing/believing the wrong thing include shaming, scolding, calling out, isolating, or eviscerating someone’s social standing.” You are either in, or out, and this is primarily because, Lee suggests, “dogmatic activism creates an environment that encourages people to tell other people what to do.” The end result, Lee reflects, is that “The amount of energy I spend demonstrating purity in order to stay in the good graces of fast-moving activist community is enormous. Activists are some of the judgiest people I’ve ever met, myself included.”

Wild Swans CoverAs I read—and as I’ve thought about it over the past few weeks—my mind has gone to two places. The first was to remember Jung Chang’s Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, which is the story of her life, her mother’s life, and her grandmother’s life as they span the events in China from before the revolution to the present day. Poignant in my memories from that book are her descriptions of her mother’s life during the Cultural Revolution, when everyday citizens had to labour to prove themselves sufficiently proletarian, to mask all vestiges of bourgeois identity. She documents how Chinese under Mao plucked grass by hand from outside their homes because grass itself was considered excessively bourgeois. In the midst of these horrors Chang recounts the system whereby one citizen could denounce another with an accusation of bourgeois sentiments or activities and destroy that person’s home, family, and livelihood in the process.

The second place my mind has gone is to C.S. Lewis’s essay, “The Inner Ring.” There, Lewis describes the social phenomenon of insiders and outsiders, and especially insiders and outsiders where the key identity markers of a group is that “we” exist by virtue of a “them.” And yet within this the boundaries for what marks inside and outside are not necessarily clear. A given individual has a clear sense that certain people are “in the know,” that he is not one of those in the know, and that he must do all he can to get himself in the good graces of those in the know so that he can be part of the inner ring himself. And yet even these boundaries are unclear, because there is always a ring within the ring, a circle within the circle, where the mystic source of true power lies. It is an image of community that is in fact a pure expression of hellish divisiveness. It is also a picture that Lewis puts to powerful effect in his novel, That Hideous Strength.

The correlation between Mao’s China, Lewis’s Inner Ring, and Lee’s “church of social justice” are hopefully clear. They are also ironic. In all three situations, groups with the ostensible purpose of coming together for some greater good (political, institutional, social) by virtue of their subjective nature in fact perform the opposite of that good. In the process, the mechanics by which humans collaborate are utilized hellishly, so fellowship collapses into fear, understanding gives way to uncertainty, and identity into fractiousness. To further this irony, Lee’s title suggests that his/her/their experiences of insider activist life correlate to an experience of the church, and this is teased out with references to dogma, purity, and the like. However, if you read the article (and I think you should), I think you’ll find that the metaphor simply doesn’t play out. Lee’s experience correlates to no church that I’ve ever known or experienced, and perhaps only marginally to some churches I’ve heard about in certain horror stories. And yet, Lee’s experience within social justice activism (as testified by comments on the piece) appears to resonate strongly with a broad range of likeminded people. Lee’s experience, while apparently normative for social justice, is abnormal for the church (and when it does happen the church has recourse to call it out and correct it).

Fractured Glass_Brenda Gottsabend

Photo by Brenda Gottsabend, from Flickr.

I suspect that the key difference between the church of social justice and that of Jesus Christ is one of subjectivism and objectivism. On a subjective scale of values, the “other” always holds the cards of self-definition, issue-definition, and, of course, authority on a given narrative of pain or injustice. On an objective scale of values, a given thing external to both you and me becomes the standard by which actions and persons are judged. For Christian communities, this external thing ought to be the Scriptures and Tradition, and it seems clear that when churches slip into the kind of aberrant inner-ring, witch hunting relationships, it does so by ignoring the objective standards and projecting a subjective one on others.

“This is what the Lord says,” cries Jeremiah (6:16), “Stop at the crossroads and look around. Ask for the old, godly way, and walk in it. Travel its path, and you will find rest for your souls.” For a given issue, I have my marching orders—seek the ancient, godly path and walk in it. I need no anxiety, no nail-biting, no fear that I am conforming to the subjective projections of my peers, because, fundamentally, they too are called to seek those ancient paths, and, in fact, we are called to walk them together. In that mutual walking, we have common recourse to our text and tradition; these sources help us to adjudicate any and all disagreements. Of course, we can always ignore God’s ways—something that Jeremiah goes on explicitly to say in the very next phrase. He finishes (or rather the Lord finishes), “But you reply, ‘No, that’s not the road we want!’”

I’m grateful, for what it’s worth, to have been given the opportunity to see the inside of Lee’s world for this short time, if only because our world is increasingly divided and siloed. In this, my intention has not been to pass judgment, but simply to reflect upon and identify what is the tragic, strange world which many of my more liberal friends appear to inhabit. I find in them an admirable, rich desire for justice. And yet, to their desire, a question remains: “Which Justice?” If you give an objective answer—one that stands in judgment over both you and I in equal measure—then that objective judgment has become in that moment tyrannical and oppressive, if only in regard to the injustice of our previous thoughts and actions. There can be no justice, in other words, without power, some kind of domination, and without an objective standard with which to negotiate these activities. And this, for my liberally minded peers, may be the greatest tragedy of all—that the further they move from the Author of justice, the further their desire extends beyond their reach.

Tuning Congregational Worship (On Ministry and Feedback)

For the past three years in pastoral ministry I’ve dedicated a significant portion of my attention to my church’s worship ministry. This has been a strategic choice. A church’s weekly worship service is the highest commodity hour of a given week—it has the highest visibility, the largest attendance, and typically the most buy-in. It is also the place, in sung worship, where the Spirit most often and most powerfully shows up in a congregation. Such visible and valuable time ought to aspire on every occasion to be a visionary channel through which God’s gathered people receive refreshment, restoration, challenge, and encouragement to truly live out the reality of the church in their daily lives. The wise pastor in leadership will take a keen interest in his church’s worship ministry.

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No, Matt Redman is not one of my worship leaders. But I like both him and his music.

Honoring this weekly time has required a number of small changes along the way. One of the first was my insistence that video be used in a strictly limited fashion. Too much of our attention is directed to screens throughout our weeks, and in this we too often ape the world’s ways, showing videos and clips as cheap bids for attention rather than invitations to worship. I also limited the phenomenon of individuals “coming up to give announcements.” In every church, members see the pulpit for what it is—a powerful organ of communication. Seeing that organ, they desire to access it for their ministry agendas, whether good or bad. However, the pulpit and its public power do not exist for promotion of anything but the gospel message. The whole service, in all its power, exists for the exaltation of King Jesus—from prayers, to sung worship, to sermons, to announcements, to Holy Communion, to the benediction. That, indeed, is a critical aspect of forming our theology of worship—to understand that from the opening words to the closing benediction, the entirety of the service is worship, and ought to be prepared and regarded in that way.

A critical part of this process has involved my worship leaders. We have met monthly for the past three years, praying, listening, worshipping, planning together how we might best exalt our God every Sunday. It has been a very rewarding experience to walk with them in this way, not least of which because they are a wise, discerning, and heartfelt group. Together we’ve set standards for our worship, determined which songs to sing and which to proscribe, discussed ideal rehearsal strategies, preparation strategies, and so forth. We also troubleshoot problems. At one point, about a year ago, it became clear that our Sunday members had largely stopped singing. My leaders had each been serving for years, and many of them were tired. In their exhaustion, they were attempting to keep up interest in worship by playing new songs. But the new songs, while interesting to the worship leaders, were sectioning out the congregation. In response, I placed a six-month moratorium on new songs, and insisted that we play only familiar songs in the interim. This did the trick, and within a few weeks, members were singing once again, and they have continued to sing. This provided us with a further opportunity to examine what kinds of songs we ought to be selecting, and as a result we’ve agreed as a team to only introduce new songs by mutual agreement and review. Beyond this, the chief criteria for songs in public worship are their orthodoxy and singability. Orthodoxy, because we must acknowledge the fact that sung worship is a part of the teaching ministry of the church (on the spiritual gift spectrum, I believe that worship leaders qualify as teachers); and singability because it’s in the tune that the song sticks and helps us to remember and internalize our faith. Beyond these criteria, my leaders are free to sing whatever they wish.

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From Getty Images. This is the desert outside Masada in Israel. One of things people don’t realize is just how many rocks there are in Israel’s landscape–it’s so many that if they were to cry out in praise, their numbers would rival the voices of people.

Our meetings have also given us opportunity to explore our ideas of response and feedback. During one of our meetings I offered the following conversation topic: “What kinds of spiritual experiences do we expect from our congregation realistically?” From this, we had an illuminating conversation. Feedback, of course, is a curious phenomenon. We are not, of course, performers looking for personal acclaim after a given worship service. And yet, we most certainly desire to have some effect on our people. What does that effect look like? Here are some of the answers my worship leaders gave:

We want people to be humming the songs when they leave the church building. One of the great benefits of our sung worship is the way it cements truth in our hearts through song, the way a song will be remembered even when spoken words are lost.

We want people to be engaged in worship—eager to hear God’s voice in the service and after. When people show up on time, ready to worship, it makes a huge difference in the worship leader’s job. Instead of generating worship, it becomes his or her job to direct it.

We love it when we can move past the form of worship and get to the really real. Music always reflects an uncertain balance between freedom and limitation, between emotion and rationality. Weekly religious services are by nature patterned and formal, and can by virtue of their regularity begin to stifle the authentic experience of worship. It takes a special obedience, and occasionally an act of God, to move past our forms and really begin to worship.

We are encouraged when people tell us that the worship “spoke” to them, and when they thank us. Good feedback is hearing where God’s word and God’s Spirit meet a person—in this way we receive a note of encouraging return on our investment of time and effort.

We are encouraged when we have a sense that what we are doing in worship is working in tandem with what God is doing in your life. When a song speaks to a particular place, or where your presence in worship brings healing, comfort, or conviction, then we are encouraged to see that God’s hand has been present in our preparation beyond our knowledge and capacity.

We are encouraged when we can hear the congregation singing back to us. Nothing is worse than the feeling that you are alone. The problem is that our sound systems and monitors can isolate our worship teams, removing from them the awareness of the congregation’s effort. At times our enjoyment of public worship is shielded by our own technologies. But in those moments when we can hear the congregation swell, then it is a powerful reminder of the nature of the church as one body, praising Christ.

We are encouraged when we ourselves enjoy God’s presence, and when worship is fun. It is easy for the details to crowd God out of our own experiences of worship—to be so concerned with time, and how many times to repeat the chorus, and the mistake someone just made, that we forget to worship. But when we can remember to be worshippers first, and leaders second, then in those moments worship once again becomes fun.

We are encouraged when we transcend our own inhibitions and simply worship. Church services are not performances. When you stand in front of people, they are your friends, family, and coworkers. Churches inhabit political environments, pretences, and memories. Navigating all of these pressures can easily lay burdens upon worship leaders which inhibit their freedom to transcend inhibitions. But by God’s grace, we can forget all those fears and focus on Him alone.

I am, and have been, deeply impressed with the quality and dedication of my worship leaders. I have enjoyed watching God change our worship service these past years as well, to honor Himself more and more in our weekly worship. I hope, that in some small way, these simple reflections might help you in your life of worship as well.

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Four Essentials for Leadership

The world appears to be in a crisis of leadership. Regardless of circumstances secular or religious, institutions, individuals, and even nation-states worldwide struggle to earmark and support quality persons in positions of leadership. Governments are saddled with corrupt and inept officials. Churches are stewarded either by the obtuse and power-hungry or by avoiders who shrink from responsibility. Presidential candidates in America appear to lack basic skills of moral and personal restraint. While positions of social power already come ready-made with a host of dangers, added to these dangers Lord Acton’s words continue to ring true, that “power tends to corrupt.” The result is that not only are leaders fundamentally un-skilled in leadership, but access to power in their unskilled state magnifies their inadequacies. It is deeply troubling to acknowledge that, more often than not, individuals in effective positions of leadership lack some of the essential characteristics requisite for good leadership.

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I’ve been privileged in my work to spend a good deal of time reflecting on the nature of leadership, and while my reflections are birthed from the world of the Church, I believe they apply in a more global sense as well. So without further ado, here are my four essentials for leadership, paired with four tips for growing in each of these four areas.

1. Knowledge of Self. This is the single most important—and possibly most overlooked—characteristic required from any leader. The individual who knows himself knows his strengths, weaknesses, embodied life (mental and physical), and anxieties. To know your strengths is to know those areas where you can trust in your abilities, it is to possess an accounting of the assets you bring to your position. But knowing strengths means you must also know your weaknesses, to be aware of the limits of your capacities, and to know when to call in assistance. This means acknowledging that other people bring strengths which are different from yours. The individual with self-knowledge will also be aware of the impact of his or her embodied life on the work. The unaware person lives out a kind of unhealthy self-denial—unacknowledged exhaustion, hunger, burnout, depression, illness, and life changes become factors worked out at the expense of the people in the institution. In this, unacknowledged personal liabilities tend to become institutional liabilities. By contrast, the bodily self-aware individual will rest well, exercise well, recover well, exhibit boundaries in work and personal life, and make allowances for sickness and life changes. Finally, the self-aware leader will manage her anxiety well. Anxiety is the extension of worry into situations of personal powerlessness. Consumed with his or her own worries, the anxious person seeks to fix problems or to change people, not for the benefit of the organization, but to relieve his or her personal experience of tension. Feeling anxious about a job review, such a leader will project her anxiety on her coworkers. Anxious in the face of tension, a leader will create tension in his whole staff. For each of these four factors, power given to an individual without self-knowledge is a recipe for the wounding of the organization: He will not know his strengths; she will not know her weaknesses; he will not know how his embodied life shapes his perceptions; she will be unaware of how her anxieties impact the organization. Unaware of self, such an individual will in turn project these weaknesses, anxieties, and bodily changes onto the organization. Blind to the self, such individual naturally conclude that the problems are generated by others.

Hand Mirror

Buy it on Etsy from Storybook Artifact and increase your self-knowledge!

Tip #1: Journaling. Journaling is probably the single greatest tool for growing in self knowledge. So buy a notebook and take a little time each week to reflect back on the week. What were the highlights? What were the low points? What was going on with your body? What did you do well? What did you feel? Don’t make it belabored, but take 15-30 minutes each week to write out some reflections on the past week, and see how your knowledge of self grows in the process.

2. Knowledge of Others. The person who knows only herself and not others is self-absorbed—her capacity to encourage, embolden, and galvanize a group of people will be severely curtailed. Because of this the knowledge of others is a second essential skill in the life any leader. At the most basic level, knowledge of others means possessing an outlook on life that is open to input from other people. Knowledge of self without knowledge of others is a closed system; I take myself as the measure of all things and project my own understanding upon everyone around me. Situations that don’t fit within my own small perception read as incomprehensible to me; I am the measure of all things, and the result is a remarkably small world. By contrast, knowledge of others demands the capacity to read (among other things) the strengths, weaknesses, embodied life, and anxieties of your coworkers, and to take that data in and seek to shape it in a way that strengthens the operation of the organization. Simple data acknowledgement and collection is the rudimentary level of the knowledge of others—the mature leader will strive to empathize with the people he leads. Empathy is an imaginative engagement with the perspectives that others bring to the table—it is the effort a person makes to understand a situation as the other person understands it. Patrick Lencioni in his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team observes that people will go along with something, even if it’s something they disagree with, so long as they feel that their concerns have been heard and acknowledged. Only an empathetic leader, robust in his knowledge of others, can truly extend such understanding to the people within his organization.

Walk a Mile Criticize

Tip #2: Read a Novel or a Biography. If you struggle to get into the heads of other people, there’s no better place to practice than in reading a novel or a biography. Novels can provide us with great insight into our own emotional lives by helping us to empathize through the eyes of the novelist. Biographies help us to see how other people have handled other difficult situations and surmounted them. Set aside some time each day to read for 15 minutes. You’ll cover a surprising amount of ground and be greatly enriched in the process!

3. The Capacity to Learn from Your Mistakes. In this leadership essential we come against a widespread cultural misperception—namely, the idea that mistakes are always and in every way unwelcome. Institutions often demand perfection—or at least the illusion of perfection—at every level. But in time such unacknowledged errors become buried and then quietly embedded into the DNA of an organization. Pretense develops and people (especially leaders) who continue as humans to make mistakes labor to present themselves as perfect, and to do this they look to pass the buck of blame on to others. The result is that the lesson most learned is not one of being perfect so much as it is of not getting caught. Additionally, people who make mistakes are also people who are willing to take risks. A mistake-free institution is also likely to be a risk avoiding institution. There is no question that wise and well-functioning institutions work to limit moral and institutional errors, but an institution which ignores the human factor will cripple itself. After all, the most stable and long-lasting growth comes not from unchecked success, but from surmounting obstacles, and to do this institutions require leadership that can make mistakes, own up them, and grow through and by means of them. This is why institutions require individuals who have the capacity to learn from the mistakes they’ve made. For the leader, this is an attitude of humility, a recognition that even at his or her best he may not always be right. This is in turn combined with his knowledge of self and of others, and with these combined tools such a leader will be able to discern the point of error, go back, and correct it accordingly. Furthermore, a leader who can own his or her own mistakes will be better equipped to manage the mistakes of others, helping the institution to grow as a whole.

Sorry Dog

Tip #3: Feedback. Solicit feedback from people working under you about areas where you can improve, or places where you might have made a mistake. Add that feedback to your journal and reflect on the experience, imagining how you can grow through that mistake.

4. Skills Commensurate with Your Field. This is the final essential factor required for leadership, and it should be obvious, but often is not. To lead well in a given field you will require the skills necessary for that employment. To lead as clergy I require, among other things, knowledge of the Scriptures and knowledge of the human heart. To lead as a business owner I require knowledge of the product, the market, and production. To lead in a financial capacity I require understanding of mathematics and administration. No amount of self-knowledge and knowledge of others will surmount the difficulties in leadership if I am fundamentally incompetent in the field in which I am working. Unfortunately, institutions are often not very good at communicating what, precisely, are the skills required for a position of leadership. The best source of information then is to speak to other individuals in similar fields.

Speaker at Business Conference and Presentation.

Tip #4: Pro-D. Want to succeed in your career? Take a class. Read a book. Attend a seminar. Take other similar professionals out to lunch and pick their brains for how they work. Do whatever you can to round out your skill-set. Don’t be afraid to cross-pollinate as well. If you’re in business, read a book on social relationships. If you’re clergy, read a book on science. If you’re in administration, read a book on art. Surprising benefits can come from attention given to sources outside your specific field!

It ought to go without saying that all four essentials are, well, essential. But you don’t have to be active in a position of leadership to begin developing them. So whether you are in a position of leadership, or considering one, I encourage you to begin the process of self-development even now. Your life will be enriched, and very likely the lives of people around you as well.

Concerning Christians Wounded by the Church

Just last week I wrote about Christians who reject the church, and while I wrote I purposefully chose to make no mention of those circumstances when Christians have been so wounded by the Church that they feel they have to leave. My intentional omission was, and remains, grounded in the conviction that the prideful rejection of the Church—the refusal to submit—is an attitude which warrants a ruthless manner of redress. I did not wish to mitigate my argument against the prideful even by mention of the wounded because there is no room for such an attitude among people who claim to follow Christ.

And yet the prideful are not necessarily the only ones who walk away from the gathered community, because there are also many who explain their own withdrawal from regular Christian fellowship on the grounds of wounds received within the Church. I was vividly reminded of this while I sat with an old friend this past week. Several years had elapsed since we’d seen one another, and while we caught up he shared with me that due to a series of extreme and difficult circumstances, married to a consequent wounding by the Church, he had ceased to attend fellowship for a time. So, what should be said to Christians who have been wounded by the Church?

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Courtesy of Flikr. Photo by Amanda Tipton.

But let’s imagine now that you have self-examined and pride is not at the root of your experience of wounding. What now? There are a few things to consider. First, have I been wounded because the Church is composed of imperfect people, or because this particular congregation is systematically broken? This distinction is terribly important. All people are broken, and while the Church is an agent of healing for brokenness, it remains composed of people on the way towards new life. If the Church is doing its job of evangelism, then it is continually bringing in new broken people who augment its overall brokenness with their own individual eccentricities. Have I been wounded, then, because the people around me are still undergoing a transformation under grace? Am I wounded because the people around me are not equipped to deal with my particular brokenness, and I am simply impatient with their rate of growth in care? However painful the wounding might be, it is the wounding of humanity and of family. To escape this kind of wounding will require retreat from all human contact. What is more, if you were to find a Church which could guarantee no wounding in this capacity, your own personal brokenness would disqualify you from membership. We must remember that grace in community is not a one-way street, for in the same manner that you wish for a kind of grace from the people of God (to meet your wounds), you must yourself extend grace to the gathered people of God (who are broken as well).

But the above condition assumes that the gathered community is striving to live faithfully the reality of God’s kingdom here on earth. What about those communities where there is a system of brokenness? For example, when leadership ensconces itself in protective policies, ensuring that power is preserved at all costs, or when churches cover brokenness to save face, wounding the people of God to save the “institution” (and forgetting that the institution has no life apart from the people that constitute it), or when gross ineptitude on the part of leadership is never addressed by the laity, or when gross ineptitude on the part of laity is never addressed by the leadership. I submit to you that in these circumstances of systemic brokenness such Churches are in the process of violating their very purpose. All Churches will wound, of course—sometimes intentionally in accord with the mission, sometimes unintentionally because of our broken humanity. But these Churches wound in order to self-preserve; they fleece and eat their own sheep in violation of the Lord’s command to feed and care for the sheep. They have exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worship at the altar of their own image, rather than the image of the Lord who gave his life for the Church. This is a Church that is in the process of becoming not-a-Church, a branch which is severing itself from the lifegiving vine. Its doom, if there is no repentance and change, is certain.

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Sometimes people use tools to ensure the locomotive keeps running.

But there remains a further difficulty. What of those situations where wolves masquerade as sheep within the people of God, whether as leadership or laity? What do we make of the wounds brought about by faithless, manipulative, deceptive people walking among faithful and earnest Christians? Sadly, this is a reality that is promised in Scripture—in other words, we knew this could happen. So our response as members wounded by wolves hangs on the Church’s response to the wolf-in-sheep’s clothing. If the false leadership/membership is not addressed, then it points to a systematic issue—the Church is now protecting its own image by refusing to deal properly with the deception, and is in the process of violating its mission. (This, I should note, is often reflected in the bitter and ongoing situation with sexual abuse in the Church.) However, if the Church does seek to address the problem, however falteringly, then it is part and parcel of the way the kingdom operates in this broken world.

What does all this mean for the wounded Christian? In the first place, it means that if your wounds fall under the first category—those wounds which are an unfortunate but unchanging part of the brokenness of the world—then you have little ground for leaving the Church. You might need a break, depending on the nature of your wound (I think here of grief in particular). But you should remember that your wound is as much a vital part of the life of the Church as anything else—it is the vivid reminder of our need to love and care for the body in community. But in the second place, if you discern that you are part of a deeply broken Church, a Church on its way to becoming not-a-Church, then you still have further discernment to make, and two options from which to choose. 1) Am I called to stay in this broken fellowship, although wounded, and strive through faithfulness to effect Christlike change? This is a difficult, self-denying decision, and it must be particularly shielded against the influence of pride. Pride would claim, “I am the one to change this church, and I’ll do it if it kills me.” Humility is a necessary component for all such engagement, and if you are called to this, you are called to suffer for the sake of change. The second option is this: 2) Has Jesus given me permission to remove myself from this fellowship and to engage with a new one? Again, the decision to leave must be discerned through prayer. The question, put another way, might be this, “Lord, are my wounds calling me to fellowship with a different group of your followers?” Once again, pride lurks in the background—the pride of imagining yourself better or more enlightened than the people you have left behind. So, whether you stay or leave, you are called to stay or leave in humility of heart.

Hospital Bed Child

Photo by Cecil Beaton.

A few concluding thoughts. First, the astute reader will note that throughout this I have made no room for a solitary Christian. It is assumed that, having faith in Christ, you will commit to finding a place to live out your life in fellowship. Second, you will also note the repeated and emphasized role of discernment in this process. Life in the Church requires a great deal of self-examination, searching out pride and the motives of our hearts. Third and finally, we should mark the persistent role of humility throughout this process—humility of leaders and laity alike, of wounded and broken people, of all within the Church. After the presence of Christ, humility is the most important characteristic of any functioning Church, and the certain ground of any solution to wounds within the Church.

Concerning Christians Who Reject the Church

 

Church_White“I’m a Christian, but I don’t go to Church.” It’s a fairly common expression to encounter, whether or not you’re a minister like me. It’s a favorite catch-phrase of the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd, ascribing a certain nobility to those people whose faith has personally transcended the need for outmoded and backwards institutions. The Church, after all, is for hypocrites, and I’m not one of those, and the Church is scuttled by politics, and I’m above that, and the Church is anti-homosexual, and I’m more enlightened than that. And by aligning myself with Jesus as an individual, yet throwing the gathered community of Christians under the bus, I grant myself an elevated spirituality that is unhindered by the difficulties of average (and presumably unthinking) sheeple—er, that is, people. The attitude is similar to the statement, “I love Jesus but not religion,” which has always struck me as deeply and unintentionally ironic. To say I love Jesus but not religion is like saying, “I love food but not eating.” Sure, I can make too much of eating, and I can even rob food of its implicit joys by over-ceremonializing the procedure of eating. I can, indeed, make an idol of “eating.” But as long as eating is the procedure that brings me access to the food I love and need, then it serves its purpose. Religion isn’t bad—it can’t be bad—it’s the things I get to do because I love Jesus. To claim otherwise is to sorely misinterpret the whole of the religious life.

To cultivate a desire to associate with Jesus while spurning his bride, his chosen vehicle to change the world, is to stand on dangerous ground. “You I like, Jeremy. You’re a great guy, I love being with you. But that wife of yours? Liesel? Ugh. What an embarrassment! I’d prefer to just ditch her and hang out with you.” If you said that to me I would begin to gather serious doubts about whether you actually like me, since you feel so free to spit on someone I have committed my life to loving. And when you say essentially the same thing to Jesus I imagine that his response might be similar, and I imagine also that he might begin to think your attitude reflects some further and even graver misunderstandings about what precisely this “Church” thing is all about. And behind all of this I perceive that these attitudes of rejection toward the Church point to a refusal to submit, and this is a refusal that reveals a deep-seated arrogance and pride. There are five ways this shows up in particular.

1) To refuse to submit to the Church is to reject the God-ordained process by which we become Godly persons. It is to say, “I don’t need you.” But you do need the Church. In the Scriptures we are commanded to love, to forgive, to be generous, to serve, and to sacrifice. Where do you first learn these exalted practices if not in the community of God’s people? Where do you practice them? What lie to you ascribe to the power of God if you claim to follow Jesus in his love, forgiveness, generosity, and sacrifice, but refuse to love, forgive, be generous toward, and serve Jesus’ own chosen people? The Church is the gymnasium where we, called out of the world, practice God’s love both as a sign of God’s Kingdom presence and in preparation for our mission as God’s people.

2) To refuse to submit to the Church is to reject the necessary conflict that sharpens and hones us into useful servants for God’s mission. It is to claim, “I will not be hurt by you.” And yet pain, discomfort, and failure, are precisely the mechanisms by which we discover our faults and grow through them. It is easy to be loving when you’re alone—it is far harder when you have to love an actual person sitting across from you. It is easy to be generous when you imagine generosity alone with God in the woods, it is far harder when the brother or sister sitting across from you has tangible needs for which you have practical means. Will you allow yourself to be sharpened, then? Iron Axe HeadProverbs 27:17 seems to me to be a central verse describing the work of the Church, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” This is not a comfortable and polite process but the rough contact of two intractable pieces of hardness, being brought further and further into sharpness by their persistent grating, one against the other. The purpose of the difficulty is honing, creating and edge which has a purpose and function. Conflict and difficulty in the Church is often precisely the process by which we are brought low from our pride and made useful for God’s Kingdom.

3) To refuse to submit to the Church is to elevate the individual over the community. It is to say, “I am better than you. My judgment of the Church is superior to yours, to even Jesus’ judgment of the Church. I inhabit a privileged position from which I can perceive all of your failures, and I will now distance myself from those failures. Not only am I spiritually superior to you, I will now exhibit that superiority by expressing condemnation of your Church community by means of my withdrawal from it.” This is the arch-hypocrisy. The Church is full of hypocrites, but I’m not one of them. The Church is judgmental, but I am free to judge the Church. The Church is full of hateful people, but I am free to hate the Church. Each of these in turn reflects the elevation of the individual “I,” above the gathered people of God. This is the heart of arrogance, to promote the superiority of self at the expense of others, and it is the essence of pride, to place confidence improperly on my own judgments and thoughts. You are an eye, denying your need for hands or feet, not realizing that it is impossible to live on your own; a coal, thinking it can retain its heat apart from the fire that gives it life.

Shift from the Last Battle

4) To refuse to submit to the Church is to overlook your own broken participation in God’s people. This is to claim that, “Those people are broken, but I’m not like them.” The Church is indeed broken, because it is made of people, and people are broken. And whenever broken people gather in community their brokenness is present in those communities. The Church has never been a community of perfection, and were it so there would be no place for you or me. Instead, the Church is a community of people who are in the process of finding healing for their brokenness in the Fatherhood of God, at the cross of Christ, and by the power of the Spirit, and that healing is being mediated to them through the gathered community of God’s people serving one another with the gifts of God. Is there a danger of pretence? Of course, because the brokenness extends to every aspect of a community’s identity—and yet, Jesus has not yet given up on loving his Church. What right have you to do so? The only reason would be because your personal perfection has graduated you to a class of post-Church Jesus followers; having discovered perfect personal holiness, you no longer need nor fit in with the gathered community. Funny, isn’t it, how only one person actually qualifies in that way, and how his choice from that perspective of holiness was to give up his life for the Church? Blessed are the poor in spirit! But that’s not you, is it? Because you’re wealthy. Glutted and satiated on your own individualistic spirituality.

5) Lastly, to refuse to submit to the Church is to gravely (and sometimes willfully) misunderstand what the Church is. To say that “I’m a Christian but I don’t go to Church” is to speak an absurdity. There is, in reality, no such thing as “going to Church”—when you believe in Jesus you are Church, you become Church, you are irrevocably Church. To believe in Christ situates you in God’s new people, expressed eternally on earth and in heaven as his Church. Neither you nor I have ever actually gone to Church, but there have been regular times when we have congregated as the Church, coming together in faith to confess our Lord, practice our faith, be encouraged in our identity, and be reminded of the true reality of Heaven which we then take back with us into our workaday lives. Our gathered meetings, Scripture readings, songs, sermons, and ceremonies each serve this edifying purpose—to centre the people of God on the Kingdom of God and the mission of Christ in a fresh and enlivening way. lighthouse_westcott_bigFurthermore, our participation in the gathered community testifies to our unbroken belief that this broken group of people on the way is the great sign and program for God’s Kingdom advance in the world. The Church is no accident, it is God’s sovereign plan for the world. Christ is reigning, even now, through us. That means that this broken house is the only hope for transformation in the world, the only hope for relief from evil, pain, grief, sorrow, and death, and that we members of Christ are sent out weekly as an advance army into enemy territory to seek and save the lost, to bring others into the light of Christ and fellowship with Him, to draw them into the restorative community of people learning to walk with Christ side-by-side.

I believe in the Church because I confess the Church. I believe in the Church because Jesus believes in His Church. And I am weary of the attitude of individuals whose impoverished ecclesiology poisons Christian fellowship with pride. If you believe in Jesus, and yet reject the Church, the word that describes your attitude is disobedience. You are a bad person and you should feel bad.

So, to give the final word to the Scriptures, and in obedience to the command of Hebrews 10:23-25, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.” Amen and Amen.

Dear James (6), Race, Reconciliation, and New Creation

Dear James,

While I am glad, of course, that you tell me you can now see the danger of your little fellowship in a new way, I feel, just a little, that I should stress that we are not having this conversation merely so that we can agree. Or, more to the point, merely so that you will agree with me. I’m not all that interested in being right in myself—I’m far more interested in discovering the truth and then working to get myself aligned with that truth as best I can. If you show me a place where I am inadequate, I must change! In this, let’s keep in mind that we are holding a conversation together side-by-side with the truth (as revealed in our Scriptures). After all, it seems explicit to me, in regards to the power dynamics of the church, that we are all equally bound to measure ourselves against the absolute standard of Christ. My rightness matters little—knowing and conforming to His rightness matters quite a lot!

You’ve asked a key question, from our discussion of race, about the business of reconciliation. If I’ve got it right, you seem to be saying something like this “This New People of God business sounds great, but what’s the role of reconciliation, especially when there are real and historical grievances?” You are absolutely right, of course—just because we are called to be the New People of God doesn’t mean the old humanity immediately goes away, or that race itself somehow disappears, or that there aren’t enduring difficulties. So what can we say about this?

First things first, of course, we must keep the first things first. All the business we’ve talked about so far comes into play here—the main thing is that Jesus is doing a work and making a new people out of the old divided humanity. That is the most important fact which gives meaning to all our reconciliatory work—it is a work which finds its ground and purpose in the cross of Christ. We cannot allow grievances, or pain, or history itself (no matter how grievous or poignant) to determine the contours of our conversations. The work of Christ, in the ministry of reconciliation, must have first—absolute first—place.

Just the other day I sat at a table with a group of men—by ethnicity we hailed from Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines, First Nations, and me, a Puerto-Rican American. What we talked about together was Jesus of Nazareth and the world of the Bible. I experienced something sublime in that moment in the realization that what we had in common, sitting in table fellowship, was greater than everything we brought from our unique and varied histories together. What I share with you as a fellow believer in Christ is greater than our nationalities, greater than our ethnic histories. I have more in common with the impoverished third-world believer living on less than two dollars a day than I do with my own family members who don’t yet believe. That is the measure of how radically we are redefined by the work of Christ.

Does this make race irrelevant? By no means, but it puts race in its place—and especially the divisiveness of race in its place. The efforts of race and racism to divide humanity are products of Babel, not Pentecost. Babel, remember, was about creating a false unity of humanity based around power. God came down and frustrated our efforts at false unity, dividing our languages. In its place, God determined that He would be the source of our unity, and overcame the curse of Babel at Pentecost. What we see there is remarkable—not that God un-does diversity (as if sameness were the goal of the new people of God), but instead He transcends differences by means of His Holy Spirit. As the Church we are called to be a Pentecost people, unified in the midst of our differences.

Now Pentecost unity, to my mind, is quite different from the methods of reconciliation that are often utilized by the church today. In fact, I have a great deal of trepidation about the methods that many ministers employ today—to my perception, they are using shame, fear, and guilt as tools of power to equalize a discourse on race. They seem to me to be acting more in the spirit of Babel than Pentecost—especially when the authority of “race” and “racial experience” are converted into weapons to silence others. It seems as if revenge, in these circumstances, merely wears the clothing of reconciliation.

What happens, then, when the Church comes together to be this “New People,” but the “Old People” who are being made into this “New People” struggle with issues of historic or present racism? I think the single most important verse for us here is what Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation—behold, old things are gone, new things have come!” It is a striking verse, and it is commonly read in a kind of devotional way, especially with new believers in mind. The message is that you are the new creation. This is true, but I don’t think it is Paul’s point. Paul, in 2 Corinthians especially, is speaking about the ministry of reconciliation, and this verse plays a critical role in how Paul envisions that ministry playing out. The point is not so much that I am the new creation, but that you, my disputant, my enemy, the person against whom I have a grievance, you are the new creation, and that therefore I must deal with you in a different way on account of this fact. This is why Paul opens the passage with those words about once viewing Christ “from a human point of view,” but that “now we do so no longer.” In other words, when Paul viewed Christ with merely human eyes he made a misjudgment—when Paul viewed Christ with spiritual eyes he saw something new. In the same way, in any matter where reconciliation is required, what I must do is commit to seeing my disputant as a new creation in Christ. Reconciliation, in other words, begins with my sight.

I think that if we took this verse seriously it would radically change our racial discourse. If my first commitment in relating to another believer who is of a different race is to see that person as a new creation in Christ, and that person’s commitment is to see me as the same, we are coming together, side-by-side, as equal conversation partners with this third thing, which is Christ. Most certainly I will need to change—then again, most certainly you will also need to change. No one who comes to the table of fellowship with Christ gains a specific advantage based on his or her ethnic or nationalistic profile. Jesus is neither white, nor black, nor Asian, nor Indian, nor American, Chinese, Russian, or Australian, but he calls all people to unity in himself which transcends our racial, nationalistic, and historical identities.

You might ask, “What about people who cannot, or will not, see?” Certainly there will be some, and some who struggle more than others. There will people of one race who refuse to admit the existence of race (a kind of willful blindness), there will be people of other races who refuse to see anything but race (a kind of poisoning the well). There will also be people on both sides who refuse to deal in the present but paint all members of one race or another with a broad, historical paintbrush—one kind of paint is unforgiveness, the other kind is ungracious; both are sin. What do we do in response to these? The same we are commanded to do with every other difficulty in the Church—commit to the vision of Christ, seek to create authentic communities around Church, and reject compromise with grievances and causes as the basis of our fellowships. The answer to badly formed communities is healthy communities, not reactive communities.

In the end, writing about reconciliation is one thing—actually doing it is what really matters. And what matters more is not that you, in your fellowship, wait for a person of a different ethnicity to begin practicing reconciliation, but put this “new sight” into practice at this moment. Racial differences do not create the need for reconciliation, they only highlight in a special way our need for reconciliation everywhere. Once again, if you refuse to practice this with your neighbor in the pew, what good will you be when someone of a different race comes into your fellowship? Are there people with whom you can begin to practice new sight right now? I’m willing to bet there are.

Every Blessing,

Jeremy Rios

Dear James (5), Communities of the Aggrieved, Race

Dear James,

I see that I will need to explain more clearly this business of being “selective” without excluding. You are pleased to tell me that you already have a fellowship of church members who are “concerned about what’s happening” with your pastor. I am grateful that you are not alone, but that is precisely the wrong kind of community to be building together! The point of intersection for this fellowship is not Christ, but your common grievance. That fact alone sets you up for a whole host of difficulties—what happens when one member doesn’t feel the grievance to the same degree as the others? What happens when the issue causing the grievance goes away? What happens—God forbid!—if you should set your minds to do something about your grievance and get your way? Will you split your church, harm the faith of the greater community, and then pat yourselves on the back because you did it together? You must—you absolutely must—ensure that you have set your own heart on seeking Christ above all. Every sub-committee, fellowship, clique, or “group of concerned members”—however they might style themselves—if it is not meeting in the interests of forwarding Christ’s agenda is forwarding its own. And as far as I’m concerned, angling for my own personal agenda is tantamount to performing the will of Satan himself. Be on your guard! You are swimming in dangerous waters.

I wish these “companies of the aggrieved” were less common, but they are everywhere. It seems as if whole sections of the Church have given themselves over to kinds of unity that are simply the accumulations of the perceived pain of the individuals. We’re the church for the poor, the church for the downtrodden, the church for the city, the church for the sexually broken, the church for those who don’t like church, and so forth. Don’t misunderstand me—the Church ought to be a place for all those kinds of people, but when the factor that unifies a community is a sense of grievance then that community is no longer centred on Christ alone. The grievance may pass—what then happens to the faith of the community? When the very reason for faith and community is gone, what then? You see the danger, I hope, of building the Church on anything but Jesus.

It is ironic that many such communities are formed in response to perceived pretense in the church. And it is undoubtedly true that many churches in the past century had become inhospitable to struggling people. Impervious, cold, locked into man-made traditions, they were exclusive in quite a different way—exclusive because inaccessible, perhaps. There needed to be a change, a drawing-back to the centre. I only wish we were better at correction and less hasty for reaction. After all, grievances are an emotionally powerful way to attract people to fellowship. The rampant denominationalism among Protestants can be attributed, in part, to our passion for grievances. It’s worth remembering, however, that while the early reformers were certainly aggrieved, they took their stand, and stood their ground, on the centrality of Christ. We do their memory a disservice when we employ their methods (schism) without reference to their principles (Christ).

This, possibly, is a place where we can begin to touch on one of your original questions—the matters of race in the Church. It is appropriate to segue here because racial and ethnic churches can really highlight for us what it means to be exclusive and excluding. The factor that brings people together is both an ethnic profile and the gospel. Where do you fit in if you don’t match the profile? And when those two get married together, there is always some confusion about which takes priority. Are we a Church, or are we an ethnic Church? If you review the New Testament—especially the book of Acts and the letter to the Galatians—you’ll see that this business of Church and (fill-in-the-blank) was one of the biggest struggles. Are we Jewish, or are we not? If we are Jewish, how much Jewishness ought we to demand of the non-Jews in our midst? The early fight for the soul of the Church was a matter of whether or not it would be a Church or a Jewish Church. The showdown between Peter and Paul boiled down to a matter of whether or not Peter would force his Jewishness on the Gentile believers. By God’s grace, Paul prevailed—because God was the one Who had called and formed this new community out of the old divisions in race, the “new man.” The new race of the people of God is at the very heart of the gospel.

There are always going to be natural divisions in the Church according to language, region, and comfort. But whenever those factors are taken, reinforced, and redeployed as defining factors for fellowship, the people have strayed from what it means to be the New People of God. Furthermore, when ministers gather their people around ethnic and racial grievances, cultivating community around the shared experience of minority life, or oppression, or by whatever other means, they are no longer acting to gather people around Christ. Instead, they are using Christ’s name to advance their own purposes. And where the grievance is first, Christ is not.

You might ask, “What should the Church do about race issues, then?” The simple, difficult answer is this: we must be the Church, in all the fullness of what it means to be the Church. The New People of God, living so radically for Christ that Christ’s love is visible in our midst toward one another. This means that we must live out this “new people” mentality toward the people in our midst first of all. It’s no good attempting to love our “minority” neighbor when we’re doing a poor job of loving our neighbor in the pew next to us. It’s no good extending Christ’s forgiveness to strangers the world over when we aren’t working to forgive the people in our own fellowship who have hurt us in the past. And it’s no good seeking racial diversity as an end in itself within the community of the church. That may sound strange, given what I’ve been talking about, but hear me out. I’ve met my share of pastors who were eager to add the word “multicultural” to the description of their church fellowship. Toward that end they counted their members, targeted ethnic gaps, then worked to bring in others for the sake of their concept of “multicultural.” As far as I know, most of these efforts fail completely. Why? Because deep inside that “minority” person knows that he or she is loved, not because he is a child of God, but because by loving him we are trying to change our ethnic profile. Thus, the love of Christ is made to serve an ulterior agenda.

Should we ignore issues of race, then? By no means! But as followers of Christ we can never reduce any person to his or her race alone, or reduce a class of people to a cause. Our unqualified and non-discriminating love—the love of Christ in action—means that we love each individual as a person created in God’s image. Practically speaking, this means that our job is to love unreservedly, and God’s job is to shape our congregations accordingly. I shall love, and teach my people to love, and let God worry about how “multicultural” we appear.

Tell me what you think, James—because it seems to me you are confronted with an opportunity. You can gather around a grievance in your church, or you can gather with the intention to love one another, to love those who are lukewarm and complicit, and to love especially your pastor. To which option are you called as a follower of Christ?

Every Blessing,

Jeremy Rios