Life Lesson #101: Scoffing at what is wrong is easy. Loving the church and contending for it is hard.
With 100 some hits on the previous post (Critique of "Your Love Is Strong") in less than two days--for this little blog--I must have hit a nerve, especially at Hope College. I remember my freshman year at Wheaton was full of many late night debates in the dorm. I tried to avoid them or I mostly listened, but a few times I dove right in. We had disagreements about everything from the classic Protestant conundrum of the 'free will' versus 'predestination,' the naive dichotomy of 'secular music' versus Christian; we questioned whether speaking in tongues is for Christians today, and which was right independent or denominational churches? Baptists or Reformed? Dispensationalism versus covenant theology? It was a nerve wracking translation of ourselves from our safe, parochial home churches and youth groups to a comparatively more ecumenical academic community. Some conversations would go on for hours with new voices adding into a conversation throughout the night. So many strong, intelligent opinions and experiences held with Christian vigor. Freshman year could be painful and awkward at times.
My assumption is that there are more reading who disagree with me, and I want to encourage such disagreement. There is nothing wrong with having differences of opinion. After all, our differences will not matter too much if we actively remember how much more we have in agreement. Disagreement, doubt and questions are fine, good and healthy even. The greater concern is not so much about the convictions we arrive at, but the charitable, Christ-like way we engage one another in conversation. I'm not saying that our ultimate conclusions are not important or relative but that our convictions are shaped by the journey we make to identify and confirm those convictions. Our ideas and beliefs are for better or worse shaped by our context.
A disagreement can cut deep into the ego and threaten what each of us believe is real and true. To do theology, to be a part of the church, to be committed to the growth of our shared understanding of God and his purposes, we have to wear these things carefully with humility. I admit that I can be weak in the wrong moment. I know the temptation to strive to be right and to have control. A large obstacle is that we often approach God like we might math. We tend to believe that if each of us could just become objective and get outside the question at hand, then surely we could all come to perfect agreement. But our ideas are not so much shaped by our rational minds in a kind of objective, abstract bubble. A conviction is held in the heart as much if not more so than the mind. A conviction is shaped by our character, by our affections, insecurities and fears. It is a wonder God has revealed himself to us at all.
St. Augustine has been my favorite model of how I might posture myself when daring to use words to explain or understand the things of God:
The Confessions Book XI, Chapter I. O Lord, since eternity is Yours, are You ignorant of the things which I say unto You? Or see Thou at the time that which comes to pass in time? Why, therefore, do I place before You so many relations of things? Not surely that You might know them through me, but that I may awaken my own love and that of my readers towards You, that we may all say,Everything that Augustine 'confessed' (a double meaning of confession, both of his sin and his faith) was in accordance with the ordo amoris, the order of love. To paraphrase him, let all that this wretched person has to say about God lead to loving God and each other more abundantly. Our 'theologizing' should lead to doxology. Our talk about God should itself be a kind of worship.Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised.I have already said, and shall say, for the love of Your love do I this. For we also pray, and yet Truth says,Your Father knows what things you have need of before you ask Him.Matthew 6:8 Therefore do we make known unto You our love, in confessing unto You our own miseries and Your mercies upon us, that You may free us altogether, since You have begun, that we may cease to be wretched in ourselves, and that we may be blessed in You; since You have called us, that we may be poor in spirit, and meek, and mourners, and hungering and thirsty after righteousness, and merciful, and pure in heart, and peacemakers. Matthew 5:3-9 Behold, I have told unto You many things, which I could and which I would, for You first would have me confess unto You, the Lord my God, for You are good, since Yourmercy endures for ever.
So while I am practicing critique, I do not believe that the primary role of the Church or a theologian or a pastor is to act as a watchdog. A Christian's primary posture is not critical but doxological. If we are to be critical, it is for the sake of discernment rather than judgement. Jesus' teaching as accounted in Matthew 7:16 and Luke 6:44 is often misquoted as "judge a tree by the fruit that it bears." The English translation is instead most commonly "know" or "recognize" not "judge." In fact, it is interesting that chapter seven opens with "Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get." "Judge" here is closer to "condemn." It means to separate and divide in the way a court judge pronounces a sentence. To "know" a tree is to be close, to become acquainted with it, to discern its value.
Romans 12:2 contains a very helpful use of "discernment,"
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.This passage is often used to pit Christianity against so-called "worldliness." Such interpretations can lead to a sectarian or isolationist posture to encourage wary watchdogs, alert and on the ready to spot and root out sin. The fruit of such a critical posture is strife and bitterness. Our hearts become constrained more by condemnation/judgement rather than discernment/judgement. This Romans 12 use of "discern" calls us to practice redemption. To discern is primarily about identifying what is right and good and true rather than pouncing on what is wrong. We discern for the sake of pleasing God and worshiping God. We go into the world, into the fray of confusion with love to dust off and prize the beautiful rather than obsess, control and despise what is broken. We are better as lovers--at least a concerned parent or the biblical caring shepherd rather than the police, the Inquisition or the Gestapo or the acidic talking head politico.
So let me be clear, when I identify what concerns me about the state of the church today, when I ask questions about contemporary worship music, when I write a film, TV or CD review or critique a worship song, I do these things because I want a better love life, I want to worship more freely. If anything, even if you don't agree with me, I pray my teaching, leadership and writings might stir up good conversation and prayer, as Augustine says, "that I may awaken my own love and that of my readers towards You...."
May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing to you oh, God. Would you burn away any empty word or thought in the consuming fire of your love. If we have anything worth saying to each other, the those words be yours, eternal, unmovable and filled with your mercy.
Thanks for reading.