The Imitation Danger

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Look at those robes! If I had robes like that, I’m sure I could preach like him.

I’ve been slowly reading through Phillips Brooks’s Lectures on Preaching, which thus far has been an experience both brilliant and enriching. Originally delivered at Yale in 1877, the series of lectures examine the life of the preacher and the construction of the sermon. Whether or not you are a preacher, Brooks’s insights into the ministry and the nature of formation bear fruit in many areas. If you are a preacher, I don’t know that I can recommend it highly enough.

In one chapter on how to construct a sermon, Brooks warns sternly against the danger of imitation in preaching—the unique pitfall of copying the style, mannerisms, and delivery of another preacher. One of the chief criticisms he offers is that, essentially, we are bad at measuring what makes someone successful. He writes, “that which is worst in any man is always the most copiable. And the spirit of the copyist is blind. He cannot discern the real seat of the power that he admires. He fixes on some little thing and repeats that perpetually as if so he could get the essential greatness of his hero” (167). We hear one speaker who tells great stories and conclude, “I ought to include more stories.” We hear another who exposits the text verse-by-verse and think, “I ought to go verse by verse.” One minister reads a manuscript, while another memorizes a manuscript, while yet another preaches extemporaneously. Each model is attempted as an avenue to a certain kind of success. In each case we miss the real point, and in imitation we are perpetually wont to ape secondary, rather than primary, things.

This is as true of church growth models as it is of preachers. Studies are performed which analyze and decode the elements of success which mark churches that grow—the casting of clear vision, administration, the humility of the members, healthy organization, buy-in, etc. Other churches, wanting to succeed, strive to imitate these elements. But in copying, they miss the heart of what brought growth to the church. In essence, all those features are secondary. Churches don’t seek humility as an end in itself, they seek Christ and are made humble in the process. Churches don’t seek good administration in itself, they follow Christ and are forced to learn administration as they follow. Churches don’t invent vision, they seek God’s vision and follow it as it pertains to their particular location, people, and needs. I remember reading about a minister who attended a Willow Creek conference. Returning, and energized, he announced to his church that he knew what they needed to take the church to the next level: they would remove their pews and replace them with Willow Creek style theater seats.

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Brooks admonishes, “if you really reverence a great man, if you look up to and rejoice in his good work, if you truly honor him, you will get at his spirit, and doing that you will cease to imitate his outside ways” (169). If we would truly grow our own ministries, or our own pulpit service, then our imitation must be in seeking the same spirit as those we admire, and not their accidentals. We must become adept at discerning between what C.S. Lewis once called in an essay “First and Second Things.” An application of Augustine’s Ordo Amoris, Lewis observed that we must love in the proper proportion those things which are most worthy of love. If we love second things first—an incidental rather than an essential—then we are on a path to losing out on both the first and the second thing. But if we love the first thing first, then we are likely to get the second thing thrown in as a bonus. Ape the style, and you will miss the soul. Great preachers are great not because they have great style, but because they are marked by a great and convinced love of Jesus. Great churches grow not because they are well organized and manifest all the fruits of the Spirit, but because they have sought and are pursuing a vision of Jesus in their midst.

All in all, you can never put on another preacher’s, or another church’s, success as your own. The clothes will not and cannot fit. At best, they will provide a temporary surge of energy. At worst, in distraction you will lose sight of your true call—which is not to attend to the success of others but rather to obedience to Christ where you are. Brooks has this to say as well, “The temptation of imitation is so insidious that you cannot resist it by the mere determination that you will not imitate. You must bring a real self of your own to meet this intrusive self of another man that is crowding in upon you” (169). The preacher must be true to himself—an individual exhibiting the transforming power of the Gospel as it is filtered through his personality, not the personality of another. In the same way the local church must be true to itself, manifesting the transforming power of grace to its people, in its location, in the flavor and aroma of its city. To do less is to cheat both ourselves and our neighbors of the power of the Gospel.

There will always be shining lights among both preachers and churches. Brooks, of these, says somewhat sardonically that, “There are some preachers who have done noble work, of whom we are often compelled to question whether the work that they have accomplished is after all greater than the harm that they have innocently done by spoiling so many man in doing it” (166). It falls then to individuals and churches alike to ward against the danger of imitation—not by ignoring God’s work done through these bright stars in ministry, but by connecting ourselves with their true source for success: our vine-tapped life into the living work of Jesus Christ.

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Of Orlando and the Ordering of Love

Boiled down, the primary issue between the LGBTQ community and the Church is not a matter of sexuality but of love—of the definition, the rights, the responsibilities, and above all the ordering, of love.

caution-out-of-order-sign-1045The central problem in the LGBTQ community is one of disordered love. The central witness of the Christian Church is a call to ordered love. The ongoing confusion in the Church’s formal response to the LGBTQ community is in its failure to properly disambiguate love. Quite naturally, we ought to anticipate conflict where a group anchored in ordered love comes into contact with a group espousing disordered love. But the elements of confusion and outright deception thrive when the Christian fails to comprehend the complexity of his own loves. No one is served well when we fail to understand love.

This confusion was on clear display in the aftermath of Omar Mateen’s furious June 12th rampage at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, to which vocal outpourings of Christian support flowed. Hasty judgments affixed blame on the Christian Church for the shooting (Mateen was in fact Muslim), then on ISIS (he shouted allegiance to that group at one point), and by proxy on all who oppose the LGBTQ agenda (specifically, religions). Time, however, revealed a different story, and in point of fact the shooter was himself a patron of the club, and reports indicate that he himself engaged in homosexual sex. Whatever the causes that led to this horror, they were far more complex than anyone perceived at first, and yet the kneejerk activity of the Christian world produced a bleak poverty of reflective response, a plethora of shibboleth solidarity, and a profound failure to be “quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). In haste to show a certain kind of love—civil solidarity—Christians failed to acknowledge the complexity of what we mean by love.

A community which espouses disordered love loves the wrong things in the wrong ways. Put differently, to live out disordered love means that some good love (in this case, sexual love), is placed in a position of priority over other loves. In this circumstance, sexuality is crowned king and made to rule all other loves. The Christian witness claims that sexual love, an implicit and God-given good, is meant to serve other loves, not rule them. The love of God receives the position of authority, and all sexual love must be brought into subservience to that love. This is the primary point of conflict between the LGBTQ agenda and the Christian faith.

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You have to have the right part at the base, or the rest of the structure will fail.

Disordered love renders the fulfillment of love impossible. A person who places a false love at the centre of life is incapable of achieving fulfillment. She might achieve ecstasy, or a feeling of temporary euphoria, or a sense of liberation, but in time all false loves will degrade to despair. Disordered love also warps perception, because a single love misplaced distorts other loves. This accounts for the excessive role that acceptance and affirmation play in the LGBTQ community. Idolizing sexuality as central to identity—to such a degree that there is little identity apart from sexuality—generates the all-or-nothing need for acceptance. If all you are is your sexuality, and someone questions your sexuality, then that person has actually questioned all that you are; there is no other part to you that can be questioned. In disorder you have collapsed your identity into a single facet. Acceptance in time becomes the single greatest demand, because the LGBTQ individual has wagered his whole identity on the affirmation of this disordered love. Deny him that love and you have denied his existence.

Such high stakes highlight the necessity of extreme care when the Church addresses the LGBTQ community. At the same time, the implicit danger of affirmation is that to extend friendship, or “solidarity,” can be taken as complete and unequivocal acceptance. LGBTQ individuals are persons who, desperately hungry for love, have adopted strategies that actively remove them from the fulfillment of love. The Church contributes to this inevitable and eventual despair when it fails to account for the deeper need. When the Church offers unconditional acceptance it contributes to the destruction of souls. In a tragic way, to offer “affirmation” or “acceptance” to a self-identified LGBTQ person is like offering beer to a recovering alcoholic. The drug will fail to resolve the addiction.

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The break fractures perception.

In a letter on the 18th of February, 1954, C.S. Lewis wrote the following about disambiguating our loves,

Charity means love. It is called Agapë in the N.T. to distinguish it from Eros (sexual love), Storgë (family affection), and Philia (friendship). So there are 4 kinds of ‘love’, all good in their proper place, but Agapë is the best because it is the kind God has for us and is good in all circumstances. (There are people I mustn’t feel Eros towards, and people I can’t feel Storge or Philia for: but I can practise Agape to God, Angels, Man & Beast, to the good & the bad, the old & the young, the far and the near.)

The Christian is called to express charity (Agape) to all persons—this is the love that most clearly images God’s love. And yet, Lewis warns, we must not exhibit Eros or Philia toward the world, if only because “friendship with the world is enmity toward God” (James 4:4). This tension raises two difficulties in loving others well. The first trouble in communicating Christian love to non-Christians is to love without friendship, to love without approval or allegiance, to love without an affiliation of causes; to love both wisely and with discernment. This requires a commitment to extend God’s love to an individual while acknowledging that our aims are fundamentally different; so different, in fact, that we have no concord or relationship whatsoever in our ideals or aims; that, in point of fact, I hold your ideals and aims to be foundationally inimical to the Kingdom of God. This is, decidedly, a love that does not affirm.

The second trouble lies in articulating what is meant by loving with God’s divine, Agape love. How are we meant to go about Agape-ing people? God, who is Love, must Himself be the defining arbiter of the meaning of love; we look to Him to discover the meaning of Agape. But this brings us to a discomforting place, because the love of God exhibits itself most clearly in an act of horror and rejection—Agape is cruciform. God is Love, and Love is a cross, and therefore Love somehow contains judgment, death, and punishment. The Love of God is not an act of uncritical acceptance, but acceptance at great personal cost, acceptance which demands acknowledgement, change, and submission on the part of the recipient. This is the fundamental—even crucial—place where our loves are ordered. We come to God with self in priority, and love of self regnant; we submit at the cross to the love of God, crucifying the self and self-love, and allowing God’s self-giving love to take the throne. Thus, salvation is free but demanding once received, and acceptance of God’s true Love generates hatred of the unlovely. Ordered love hates the usurping love which seeks to drag the soul back into corruption and despair.

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In the story of St. George and the Dragon, the Dragon is actually the body, brought into submission to God’s way.

Orthodox Christianity can not, does not, must not, never has, and never will affirm the LGBTQ lifestyle, and any who do so but claim to follow Christ have compromised on the central witness of the Christian faith. They worship the god of love, but he is a god of their own manufacture, because his love is defined by their loves. Their expressions of love are idolatrous because they elevate their human perceptions of love in priority over God’s self-revelation of love. They have projected upon God their own perceptions, their own follies, and to them God says, “You thought that I was altogether like you” (Psalm 50:21). They are disordered in their thinking, and the result is confusion and eventual despair. They claim to follow God, but know Him not. They claim to love but have rejected the cross.

Returning to Orlando—but not Orlando because it is a matter for the world—what does it look like to love the LGBTQ community? How do you love without affirming? How do you offer an open door without acceptance? Three guidelines might help:

First, the difficulty of the Christian witness must be acknowledged. Christian love cuts against the grain of the world’s love. These loves are not the same, and the Church does neither the world, nor itself, a service when it confuses its commitments to love. Faithful Christianity is a difficult thing difficultly upheld. A commitment to orthodoxy is never easy. Christians must therefore resist the urge to affirm what should not be affirmed, to accept what must not be accepted.

Second, Christians must faithfully order our own loves so that our witness will not be compromised. If Agape is truly our call, then we must exhibit it in visibly cruciform living. The logs in our own eyes must be faithfully expunged as we approach our neighbors for the logs and specks in theirs.

Third, Christians must carefully strive to know our truths and understand our own hearts. Jeremiah proclaims that “the heart is deceitful above all else” (17:9). Unchecked, we will allow our passions to influence our commitment to truth. Love is more pain than pleasure, and commitment to truth is never accommodation. God’s truth is unchanging, God’s love is unchanging, but we, when we fail to seek both of these, fall short of our call to be images of God in the world, and in the worst case we become deceivers, even of the elect.