Friday, September 5, 2008

The Renewal Enterprise (4 of 4)

[I need to make a few qualifications here. First, I have been criticizing what I see as the net effect of the renewal movement. I believe this needs to be faced head on by those who seek renewal. However, I am also fully aware that many people have worked very hard with some success; nothing can take that fact away. It's just that the successes have been far fewer than the cirucmstances should in theory occasion. Additionally, if the renewal movement continues with the strategies it has been (and seems to be still) employing, it will fail.

Second, I've also been very critical of corruption within the 'hierarchies' or 'bureaucracies' of the mainlines. This springs from the fact that I am very naive about some things, and therefore, when I finally see them, I'm shocked and appalled by them. Yes, widespread corruption exists within the mainline denominations. Having said that, I'm also mindful that many people operating within them are NOT corrupt. Some stongly hold biblically Christian beliefs. Quite a few even recognize a need for a denominational change of direction - and have ideas about implementing this. I do not believe they will be successful, but it is important to note that this is occuring within the organizations.

Because my prior three posts were long, covered a number of things, and included tangents, I'd like to reiterate their main points. I believe the renewal movement concept (in the mainline denominations) merits reconsideration. Is such an effort viable? Is it worthwhile? What would be involved? Any analysis of this question must include consideration of why renewal efforts have been less than successful. Several issues need examination:

1. People who long for renewal (and renewal movements generally) have often had trouble articulating their specific objectives. This partly stems from the fact that renewal can mean a variety of things.

2. Renewal movements have experienced considerable disunity as a consequence of personalities, of divergent goals, and of strategy disagreements.

3. Those who desire renewal (and renewal movements generally) don't seem to fully appreciate the actual extent of the problems in mainline denominations.

4. Member apathy has not been adequately addressed.

5. Those who desire renewal (and renewal movements) tend to underestimate how nasty this pursuit can get.

6. Conservative and traditional Christians don't completely grasp that their presence is necessary to fulfill a progressivist agenda. The very things renewal groups often do inadvertantly help to move members along a trajectory away from biblical Christianity.]

The movie Anna and the King, based on the same story as the musical, The King and I, contains a line I try to always keep in mind. After a particularly bad series of events, Monkgut says to Anna, “Goodnight ma'am, you've helped enough for one day.” It is possible for a person to be completely well intentioned and still cause considerable harm. In fact, it is a common occurrence that the well-meaning do more harm than good. It occurs to me that there are three questions renewalists need ask: Is the renewal enterprise viable? And are renewal efforts worthwhile - are they likely to help more than they harm?

Is the renewal movement viable?
By viable, I am not asking if the renewal movement in general is 'healthy', but can it succeed at its goals? When I consider the movement as a whole, I do not find the results encouraging. At the same time, I must affirm that the salient aspects of renewal are all attainable in the legacy denominations. These are polity correction, advocacy for biblical Christianity, and revival. The first two can be done by renewal groups and individuals; the third cannot - it is solely the action of the Holy Spirit. There are, however, things that individuals who desire what I've termed 'revival' are biblically encouraged to do; nonetheless, the result is entirely outside of their power.

It should be observed that while polity correction is possible, it is also difficult and unpleasant. Those individuals and groups whose focus is on a particular issue have the greatest chance for success. Oftentimes single issues become aligned - at least in what passes for thinking among an alarmingly large portion of the population - with larger agendas and partisan support. However, there is usually still a certain latitude by which people will be willing to 'cross party lines' for a particular issue ... especially if they are able to fairly evaulate it before it becomes firmly entrenched as a 'party' position. Once it is entrenched in partisan lines, most people will lose their ability to examine it critically at all.

Similarly, advocacy for biblical Christianity within the mainlines is certainly possible. To a degree this has been done, but it has been done in a somewhat haphazzard way. To be effective, such advocacy must be two-fold: it must expose and oppose non-biblical doctrines embraced within the mainlines, and it must clearly articulate the doctrines of biblical Christianity. If renewalists manage to do the first without the second, they give the impression of being hyper-critical. Of course, those who embrace doctrines that are opposed by Scripture will ALWAYS regard those who point out that opposition as hyper-critical. However, solely exposing and opposing those doctrines still leaves the hearer without a sound understanding of biblical Christianity. There is a tendency to think that since we are talking about historically Christian churches, familiarity with the doctrines of biblical Christianity would be a given; sadly, that no longer appears to be the case. On the other hand, those who simply expound biblical Christianity and ignore the contrary doctrines that are widely embraced in the legacy denominations will also fail. This allows for a faulty impression of pluralism - a kind of pick and choose, build it yourself Christianity. It encourages hearers to mix biblical Christianity with other religions, and to conveniently ignore those biblically Christian doctrines they don't like. (Yes, people have a natural tendency to pick what we want to believe in an often self-serving fashion; that is simply human nature in a fallen world. But the person who tries to advocate for biblical Christianity while failing to identify its opponent philosophies is encouraging a chimera religion that is NOT biblical Christianity.)

Is the renewal enterprise worthwhile?
I am persuaded that, in the absence of the other two elements of renewal, polity correction by itself is not worthwhile. I say this for several reasons. First, the whole endeavor of polity correction exists as a product of polity violations; polity regulations are only formulated to deal with abuses of the spirit (and sometimes the actual letter) of the law that have occurred. Excessive regulation does not exist for those who are faithfully trying to do what is right; instead, such a cumbersome structure comes about because of the unacceptable behaviors of those who want to abuse the system. Polity correction without repentance - without an active rejection of corrupt practices, deliberate omissions, and customary negligence - is, in my opinion, useless. It may, in the short term, correct some specific abuses and corruptions; but in the long term all polity structures, no matter how thoroughly they have been thought out, require good faith participation. There is a way around every rule - more detailed and specific rules axiomatically indicate less trust and more problems. Unless people in the mainline denominations broadly and decisively reject the unethical practices we have been seeing now for a very long time, an environment of trust is impossible. One could, in theory, craft a manual to cover every possible situation in the life of a denomination - but who would want to function in that environment? And moreso, who would want to spend the time policing denominational officials and employees to find the areas where they evaded those regulations? Worse, what would that do to the spiritual health of the individuals involved? This is my opinion, but I frankly see no point in such a change without a massive change of heart on the part of the bulk of the membership of any denomination.

Second, most renewalists are out of their depth when it comes to polity regulation. The primary foci of renewal groups and individuals have been creeds, confessions, official policies decided at national level meetings. This neglects two important developments. The mainline denominations are changing their policies - in order to hinder biblical Christiainity and advance progressivist religious philosophy - at an increasingly rapid pace.these have decided to keep polity regulations, official statements of belief and practice, while allow these to be selectively ignored. This is, of course, entirely motivated by dishonesty; the proof of that is that in every case, specific denominational policies are enforced by draconian means. Only those violations that bend naturally against historic and biblical Christianity are ignored. This is no longer taking place at national meetings that are subject to considerable scrutiny and even press coverage. These changes are more 'executive' in nature; they come day by day and week by week; and they go unnoticed by members except in terms of their net effect. Renewal groups simply cannot keep up with the changes - though some have made admirable attempts to do so. For the most part, these might work to correct one problem while ten new problems spring up in its place. Also there is an increasing tendency among mainline denominations to attempt a 'postmodern' approach to polity. Specifically,

Having said that, I must acknowledge that attempts at polity correction, taken in isolation, can help in one way. These can mitigate instances of active harm caused by mainline denominations to people outside of those denominations. Additionally, when attempts at polity correction are combined with strong and consistent advocacy for biblical Christianity, their usefulness increases significantly. Were there an instance of genuine revival affecting large segments of a particular denomination, then polity correction would be one of several of its natural outgrowths.

Advocacy for biblical Christianity, on the other hand, is worthwhile and helpful in its own right. It must be clearly understood that this type of advocacy needs to be undertaken for its own sake and not in the service of any other end. If renewalists would systematically proclaim the Gospel and systematically resist and oppose aberrant teachings it would help in two ways. When people will be faithful to it, knowledge of the Gospel spreads. When people have a strong familiarity with the doctrines of biblical Christianity, those doctrines that oppose biblical Christianity cannot easily be passed off as Christian. In a sense, this practice will innocculate as many people as possible - not against aberrant teachings, but against the notion that those teachings are identical to biblical Christianity. In short, it helps prevent people adopting these teachings without full disclosure. But this two-fold practice is also necessary in order for those who adhere to biblical Christianity to be faithful - because both the positive proclamation and the rejection of its counterfeits are commended in Scripture.

Revival is always worthwhile. Were it to happen, it would automatically result in the proclamation of biblical Christianity, and in a somewhat radical change in polity - or at least in the policies of the legacy denominations. As I have mentioned earlier, I am using the word 'revival' to indicate a widespread repentance for sin, a rejection of error, and a rebirth of passion for and loyalty to Jesus Christ – as He is revealed in the Bible. I maintain this cannot occur except by the direct action of the Holy Spirit. Having said that, the Bible commends certain practices to believers that can facilitate such an action. These actions are, in themselves, worthwhile and helpful. These include (among other things):

* prayer - Jesus instructs his hearers to pray to the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into his field. We often underestimate the power of prayer so that it tends to be the last thing we think of even when it is revival we desire. Yet James tells us, "the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much;" and Jesus says, "If two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them."

* fasting - This practice is little understood and under-appreciated (probably for obvious reasons), but it is commended by Jesus. There is a story recounted in Matthew and Luke in which disciples of Jesus, unable to cast out a particular demon, asked him privately about it. He told them their inability sprang from their unbelief; but he added, "This kind goes not out but by prayer and fasting." In Acts, fasting seems to play a prominent role when people are seeking discernment. The practice is also closely tied to repentance.

* reading and studying the Bible - A person cannot help but be changed by sincerely approaching the Bible. (I do not mean readings designed to rationalize sins or to confirm pet opinions, and I do not mean reading to apply intellectually lazy critical methods not applied to any other text in existence ever - designed to discredit the text and to enshrine the ego of the self-satisfied, pseudo-intellectual. Instead I mean reading with an openness to be convicted by the Holy Spirit.) For those who genuinely approach it, "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works."

* seeking God's face - We all seem to have things we want to believe and things we would prefer not to. This does not have any resemblance to the actual truth. Some of what we want to believe is true; some of what we'd prefer not to believe is not true; the two just have no relationship to one another. In the same way, there are things about God we want to focus on and things we want to ignore. In this place and in this age, people have little problem contemplating a form of the love of God; people have little problem contemplating the providence of God; some people even find it easy to contemplate community within the Trinity (as if to sanctify our current push for valuing the group over the individual). Nonetheless, these miss the mark because they are incomplete. I believe the single most neglected characteristic of God today is his holiness. If, by turning our focus to God, we caught the tiniest glimpse of that holiness, we would realize how far from holy we are. By the same token, if we truly understood the love of God, we would grasp how unloving we really are. If we had a notion of the justice of God, we would no longer be able to maintain the fiction that we work for justice. There is a reason prophets who saw God said, I am undone. There is a reason Adam and Eve realized they were naked and hid from the presence of God. There is reason Peter said, depart from me. When we see God, we see our utter inability to help ourselves - and it is at this point that the Gospel's power is revealed: it truly is good news. I am suggesting this for those who seek revival because the Gospel must become as life to us.

* preaching the Gospel
- Jesus commissions his followers to do this. In Romans, Paul asks, "How shall they hear without a preacher?" In Acts, we're told the apostles "ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ"; that the Christians were scattered, and they "went every where preaching the word". In Romans, Paul asks, "How shall they hear without a preacher?" "To those who are saved", Paul asserts (to the Church at Corinth), "the preaching of the cross is the power of God." He adds, "It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe." Paul instructs Timothy to "preach the word, be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long suffering and doctrine." This is a persistent responsibility of believers given directly by Jesus Christ; no revival will occur without it.

* opposing the right enemy - There is a tendency to regard one's ideological opponents as one's enemies. This is especially pronounced if these opponents have endorsed corrupt or dishonest practices; moreso if they actually support harmful policies. The temptation is to see the one who endorses ideas (and more importantly, unethical practices) you reject as evil - and then make that into a caricature of a person. This is easy to do, but it overlooks two things. First, human nature dictates that all people are 'evildoers' - meaning your ideological opponents are nothing special. Second, even if your opponents are actually doing evil things, it is not about them. Yes, it may be necessary to expose and correct evil actions, but I believe we need to remember that Jesus tells us, "Whoever sins is a slave to sin;" that James informs us, "When lust has conceived it brings forth sin, and sin, when it is finished, brings forth death;" and that Paul tells Timothy, "But evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived." It is easy to fight people, but we are not seeing them rightly. There is a reason Paul reminds us, "We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places."

* repentance - This may be a bitter pill to swallow for renewalists who desire revival, but repentance is a thoroughly necessary element. The difficulty springs from the idea that those who hunger and thirst for their church organizations to step up and act like the true Church sometimes believe ourselves to be on the right track. In our minds, at least, we're not the ones advocating departures from biblical Christianity; we believe we can point to many who are abusing the denominational systems for their own cynical ends; to put it bluntly, we are tempted to believe we are the faithful ones in the midst of the faithless. This is not an entirely unreasonable opinion (though it is essentially an ugly mindset); it is, however, an impossible fiction to maintain for a few reasons. If we had even a small notion of the holiness of God, of the "badness" of sin, of the depths of God's grace - in short, if the Gospel we preach actually sinks into our own thinking, we would by no means view ourselves as righteous.

Repentance for what? The sins and failings of renewalists are often not the ones of which they are accused. These usually have nothing whatsoever to do with violating the "unity for which Jesus prayed"; in that very passage Jesus makes a vast distinction between his disciples and others - the unity of which he spoke cannot, therefore, indicate unity of purpose between the two. If people affiliated with the corporations of the legacy denominations embrace two conflicting faiths (and/or religious philosophies) - and they do indeed embrace them - then this passage does not apply. Instead, the many passages about biblical separation, about contending for the faith once delivered to the saints, about other gospels, about rejecting false teachings and not partaking in the works of their advocates are far more germane. Similarly, while judgmentalism is often a problem for renewalists, there are specific judgments the Bible instructs Christians to make. Standing for biblical doctrine and opposing its counterfeits is hardly the kind of judgment forbidden - in fact, quite the reverse: to fail to do so would be sin. Again, many who desire revival are accused of misrepresentation; but this is predicated on a false picture of the current situation in the legacy denominations. Those who level this accusation are either in denial or deliberately deceptive. The coup de grace of accusations leveled at renewalists is a lack of love. In cases, this is certainly true; but the 'love' envisioned here is a poor sort of enabler 'love' - the kind that affirms people's sins, their separation from God, and the misery that goes along with that because they want their sins. Lacking that unhealthy type of pseudo-love is hardly a bad thing. In short, very few of the alleged sins of renewalists are legitimate.

Nonetheless, those who desire revival do stand in need of repentance. We do have an assortment of very real faults. We would be well advised to repent of the sins in our own lives. We ought to practice what we preach; there are few things as detrimental to spreading the Gospel as hypocrisy. It is, perhaps, ironic, that a people whose Gospel is grace are held to a far more rigorous standard of behavior than those whose gospel is works; but this is the case, and there is a certain logic to it. We would be well advised to repent for compromise on clear issues of doctrine where they can be no compromise - where either biblical Christianity is right or the opposing religious philosophy is right. We fail to realize exactly how far we have been willing to compromise biblical Christianity with the philosophies of this world. We need to repent for supporting with money and silent affiliation, behaviors that are at odds with biblical Christianity; for cowardice in confronting non-Christian teachings within churches - whether out of a desire to be liked, a practice of false politeness, or the avoidance of unpleasant consequences; for participating in unacceptable practices (especially the worship of other gods and goddesses) at denominational events. We need to repent
for our pride in trying to spin biblical Christianity in ways that allow the speaker to avoid being thought of as ill-informed, stupid, or 'like those simple people over there'; for pride in bypassing the 'uneducated' members of the denominations. We need to repent for failing to practice biblical discipline in the arenas where it has been our responsibility - for the sake of those in error and for the sake of the whole community of believers. We need to repent of relying on strategic plans and not God; these are not mutually exclusive, but whenever one trusts in one's own plans, one will fall. We need to repent for criticizing the works of other biblical Christians because they were not our idea. We need to repent for our taste for clericalism and elitism. And we need to repent for picking and choosing which sins to oppose and which to ignore.

Where Do Renewalists Go from Here?

I had intended to speak at this point about the organized renewal movement; I'm going to do that in a stand alone post. Instead, I'd like to address individuals who desire renewal in the Church generally, the American churches specifically, and predominately in the mainline denominations or their traditions. I cannot tell you what to do - whether to stay in a particular denominational setting or congregation, or whether to leave. I am persuaded that the Holy Spirit often leads people to take different courses in our lives. I cannot say whether or not polity correction will work in any particular denominational organization. I also cannot say whether or not a particular individual is called or led to work on polity correction - though I do believe there exists a minimum general requirement to limit the damage done by organizations acting (disingenuously, in my opinion) in the name of 'Christianity'. Ultimately, what you do is a question of individual discernment.

I can say that
advocacy for biblical Christianity is always worthwhile - and is always something Christians are called to do. I can say that revival is always worthwhile - as are those practices that may help facilitate it. [I have listed only some of them; others are easily seen in Scripture. I realize that I have unnaturally separated these three things. Revival is tied together with advocacy for biblical Christianity; and in the face of these two, polity correction would become both less necessary and far easier.] I can say that situation that exists within the American church, most notably within the mainline denominations - the admixture of biblical Christianity and other competing philosophies - has passed crisis proportions. Ignoring this, pretending it is not the case, continuing with business as usual, agreeing to work together on 'mission' where 'mission' is inherently self-contradictory among these competing philosophies, giving moral authority to thoroughly compromised institutions, pretending these are legitimate variations within 'christianity' - none of these are moral options. Once a person sees the situation, once a person desires renewal, he cannot unsee it, neither can he continue acting as if all were well.

I caution you to remember that
the one who follows biblical Christianity is an ambassador for Jesus Christ; his allegiance cannot be to any human organization, but to Christ alone. The organizations that style themselves 'churches' are mixed - having believers and non-believers alike. As long as they facilitate the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the adherent of biblical Christianity can function comfortably within them; when these organizations no longer serve the Gospel, the believer's job is more difficult. But in any case, the biblical Christian, the follower of Jesus Christ is called to that first allegiance; when Jezebel is in charge, it is still not acceptable for the biblical Christian to bow the knee to Baal. I urge you to reject the myths of the 'mainlines':
> that you are powerless - that you lack the training, competence, or numbers to act morally;
> that you can be bound by a vow that overrides your allegiance to Jesus Christ;
> that unity outside of the Gospel is somehow virtuous;
> that you are in bondage to human made rules;
> that denial of real problems is Christian in any possible circumstance;
> that it is somehow kind to be dishonest;
> that you require professionally trained and ritually sanctioned mediators - in fact that you require any mediator other than Jesus Christ;
> that the official statements of organizations and corporations somehow changes God.
I am addressing individuals - because I don't believe we are seeing the situation rightly. It has always been the case with some religious leaders that these will stand in the door to the kingdom of heaven, that they will not go in themselves, and that they will obstruct the path to keep others out. Both our age, and our fashionable doctrines focus on groups, whether denominations, churches, renewal groups, advocacy groups, social institutions. But Jesus Christ calls us individually. The Church is the body of Christ and exists in unity among believers because the Holy Spirit joins us together. This is not a pre-existing condition; it is not a sanctification of community - no matter how much 'genuine community' appeals to our emotional needs; that particular unity, unity in Jesus Christ does not apply to non-believers. The individual does not gain value from the arbitrary group; you are not more or less worthwhile because of your race, gender, language, region, political party, social class, music preferences, clothes, age, education, income, denomination, or club membership. That's what our culture teaches - liberal or conservative, it doesn't matter, but it is NOT what Christianity teaches.

There is tendency for ordinary Christians who desire renewal to look to groups and leaders, but I believe this is mistaken. The Bible is crystal clear that God builds the Church. It will not be built by renewal groups; it will not be built by dynamic leaders; it will not be built by the denominational corporations; it will not even be built by Christians.
God will build His Church with or without us. But there is an invitation to us: to come along; to follow Him. There are good works which God has pre-ordained for His children to do. You and I can participate in this project, but it is not our project; we have been invited along for the adventure. God is not interested in our organizations and our groups. He may choose to continue to use the Methodists or the Presbyterians or the Lutherans. He may choose to remake these into something useful again. But even if He does not choose this, we are still invited along in the building of His Church. "Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build thereon; except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain."

What I am suggesting is this:
ordinary members and ordinary pastors can bypass the human organizations that are, by definition, distinct from the Church. We do not need to wait for the leadership of others - whether the corporations or the renewal groups. We can read and study the Bible ourselves; we can seek out teachers that will help us do that - rather than those who mimic the spirit of the age and/or who seek to close off access to the Bible. (There are two types of teachers - those who help a person acquire information, and those who want to claim one needs their specialized training to understand ... just trust them. There are those who spread the Gospel; and there are those who value elitism.) We can choose to support missions we actually believe in. We can pray - all believers can approach the throne of grace with confidence. We can fast ... it requires no special skill. We can seek God's face. We can be effective advocates for biblical Christianity where we live. We can even work to correct the polities of our organizations. (This requires some work, and there is a learning curve; but ultimately the corporations get what powers they have from their members. Those members can have a tremendous impact on what is done simply by making their presence felt.) In short, we can live where we are and bypass the system; it has bypassed us.

I spent a lot of time talking about
repentance because I believe it is the greatest need of this place and time. This begins with believers; and it is by necessity individual. (Yes, communities can 'repent' - but where this is genuine, it is the aggregate effect of the members within the community.) I belabor this point - in speaking to those individuals who desire renewal and revival - because there is an urgency in it. Repentance is the gateway to any positive change. We cannot continue to honor our sins and turn away from them at the same time. We cannot have revival that bypasses our sins. But the thing about repentance that makes it urgent is the fact that there is a narrow window of opportunity for it. I do it; most people I know do it; we have things we want to change, sins we genuinely want to abandon, destructive habits we want to break ... but not yet. Just a little longer .... We have relationships we want to repair, things we want to get done ... tomorrow. But there is often less time than we think there is, and our desire for change does not remain a pressing concern. Both rationalizations and the other cares of life tend to overwhelm it.

I'll give an example. A number of years ago I used to habitually drink to excess. Over the course of a couple of years, the number of times I humiliated myself, made really bad decision, or more importantly hurt others (and myself) without intending to - that I would not have done sober, became intolerable. If I woke up in the morning and tasted tequila, my first thought was, "Good Lord, what did I do?" I would only gradually be able to recall the events of the previous evening. On those mornings, while I would be dreading the angry phone call, or avoiding people, I also had remarkable clarity. I understood that the behavior was unacceptable; I understood the severity of the problem; and I understood that it must change. But this intense feeling was always short lived - a few hours, maybe a day. It was not long before rationalizations and excuses would make their appearance; it was also not long before I could think of other people who had done worse things ... you know ... the ones with 'real problems'. There was a portion of a Charles Bukowski poem that strikes me as extremely accurate in my case: "
Drunks are never forgiven. / But drunks will forgive themselves /Because they need to drink /again." Yes, for that brief period of clarity - when I had completely embarrassed myself, felt less than moral - in fact, vile, I wanted to change. But that window of opportunity soon ended because I also didn't want to change.

My point here is this: as ordinary members and pastors we do not generally see our own participation in the problems in our denominational organizations. We do not generally see how far these have gone. We do not generally see the situation for what it is - and our complicity in it. When we have the clarity to see our part for what it is - then we have the opportunity to repent. It is not a permanent opportunity. Outside of that period of clarity, we will not do so. I do not believe there is a way forward apart from repentance, so I present it as our most pressing need.

Will Spotts

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