Our pastoral staff had lunch with N.T. Wright (Yes, I like my job!).

Scott Arbeiter asked the Bishop of Durham what blind spots he observes in the American Evangelical Church.

As a good historian, Bishop Wright responded to the question by naming two periods of American history: The 1770s and 1860s.

The 1770s

Americans not only revolted against the British government,  they also rejected the Anglican Bishop’s authority over the Church. This may seem natural to Americans, but Wright noted two unhealthy trends in American Evangelicalism which he traces back, at least in part, to those events.

1.   Isolation of Our Faith from the Global and Historic Church. Wright believes that church unity must transcend place and time. He sees much of American Evangelicalism indifferent to the church outside of itself.

2.   Isolation of Our Faith from Our Public Life. Wright notes the tremendous influence of the Enlightenment upon the founding of America. This philosophy drives the idea that we can separate religion from institutions.

The 1860s

The Civil War has left a profound divide in American culture, and the Evangelical Church is not immune. Wright sees the Mason-Dixon divide as one of the roots of the culture war in modern America. He identifies two ways that this has harmed the American Church.

1.   Limitation of Our Church Unity. Wright believes that Church unity is a centerpiece of the scriptures. However, the American church is almost as divided as the rest of the nation in our ongoing culture wars.

2.   Limitation of Our Practice, Proclamation, and Discernment of Truth. Many Americans are so entrenched in their side in the culture war that they are not able to identify reality. Christians on the Left and Right often place a higher value on their team’s position than the teachings of scripture.

I have spent some time prayerfully thinking about this friendly critique and it’s implications for me, our congregation and the movement. It seems profound and urgent to me.

What do you think?

Where is this an accurate description of American Evangelicalism, and the American Church in general?

What can we do to (W)right the ship?

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One of my favorite lectures at the Wheaton Theology Conference was by Jeremy Begbie.

By “emerging churches” Begbie is referring to movements in the UK and USA that seek new ways of thinking about and practicing church. He is supportive of both N.T. Wright and these emerging church movements.

5 Elements of N.T. Wright’s Work that Emerging Churches often Embrace

  1. The Centrality of the Church in God Saving Work: God’s plan to rescue that world has always been focused on a Community, first Israel, then the Church.  In the scriptures, salvation and community are not separate. When we separate them, Church becomes either institutional or optional.
  2. The Future Nature of Church:  Our thoughts and practice of the Church should start from the end of the biblical story. We look forward to what it will be when all is right with the world. The Holy Spirit enables this kind Kingdom-centered living, worship and mission.
  3. The Cosmic Nature of the Church: God’s saving work is cosmic. God is rescuing all of creation. The Church is not only recipients of that salvation, she is also an active participant of the redemption the world.
  4. The Materiality of the Church: Wright rejects the dichotomy between abstract concepts of the Church and the physical Church. The true Church is located in space and time. The true Church has flesh and blood.
  5. Improvisation in the Church: Wright’s work on the Church combines reverent obedience to scriptures with flexibility on methodology for Church practice in our ever-changing culture.

3 Elements of N.T. Wright’s Work that Emerging Churches often Neglect

  1. Ascension of Jesus: Jesus, the risen Messiah, is standing over the Church. The Church is not filling the void of Jesus. Remembering this reality prevents both triumphalism and disillusionment. The Holy Spirit is the key link between the Church and the risen Messiah.
  2. Israel:  The Church must understand the story of Israel to ground us in the appropriate context.
  3. Catholicity of the Church
    1. Qualitative – The Church transcends all social, cultural, and natural divisions. Jesus gives a new way of relating to each other.  Unlike consumerism which segments people, the Church includes all kinds of people are included.  The victory of Jesus over the powers of darkness is shown in an inclusive Church.
    2. Extension – The Church is comprised of all believers in all places in all time. The united Church must have some physical presence beyond clusters of homogeneous units. There must be some kind of institution.  Many in the emerging church view institutionalism as the enemy, but avoidance of institutions is often an attempt to avoid the pain of Church unity.

While there are clearly exceptions to Begbie’s generalizations about new church movements, the picture of a Church that he painted (via N.T. Wright) was both inspiring and challenging.   That is the kind of Church that I want to work toward! What do you think?

To listen to Begbie’s talk, and other presentations, at the 2010 Wheaton Theology Conference click here.


Below are Notes from N.T. Wright’s Chapel Address at Wheaton College on April 16, 2010

Six Verses in Ephesians to Shape us for the Future

1:10 – God’s plan was to gather together all things in heaven and earth under Jesus.  There is no dichotomy between heaven and earth, no split level living. Jesus enables us to live the life of heaven and earth as a reality here and now.

2:10 – We are God’s art work. God created us to bearing fruit, to be co-creators in this world. God gives each of us  a calling to bring to the world unique thing(s) that only we can do. We are each playing a real role in heaven and earth.

3:10 – The Church is called to be a diverse and counter-cultural community so that the wisdom of God might be known by the principalities and powers of the world. The very existence of the Church testifies that Jesus is the true Lord.

4:15 – The Church is called to hold to the truth in love, growing up into one, connected with the head, Jesus. This is  not about us. We are growing together with the Church, under the authority in into the likeness of Jesus.

5:14 – The resurrection of Jesus displays the power of God to change our way of life.  We do not have to live the old way of life. There is hope for a new way of life because of heaven and earth’s union in Jesus.

6:13 – We must put on the full armor of God. This is a battle. The powers do not want to submit to the just and righteous rule of Jesus. We are to live out the way of God’s Kingdom in the face of powers’ resistance to the true King.

Should you run away from a church that is involved in social justice?

A popular media figure recently pleaded with people to do just that.

But, what do the scriptures say?

Here are just a few of the many scriptures that speak to God’s thoughts on faith and justice:

Isaiah 58

6 “This is the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke.

7 It is to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood.

Micah 6

8 He has shown all you people what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

Matthew 25

40 “Jesus will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

45 “Jesus will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

James 1

27Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

Should you run away from a church that is involved in social justice?

No.

In fact, I believe that the scriptures call us to the opposite action.

You should run away from your church if it is NOT involved in social justice.

The God revealed in the bible is not interested in any faith that does not include justice and mercy for the poor, oppressed and marginalized.

Why do people do good things?

We are often moved by external motivators.

–          Positive motivators or  “Carrots”

–          Negative motivators or “Whips”

We can also have internal motivators.

–          We want to do something because we see value in it.

–          It is our natural reaction.

External motivators are a lousy way to live a good life.

Philemon 14: so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will.

Paul was about to make a big request of Philemon. However, he was not only interested that Philemon do the good thing. He wanted him to do the right thing for the right reason.

Paul did not want Philemon to do the right thing because he was coerced. He was not interested in people being feared, shamed, or seduced into conformity.

Paul wanted Philemon to do the good out of his own free choice. He wanted people to live lives of grace and peace because they were touched by the grace and peace of King Jesus.

God does not call a people who simply conform out of external pressures. God calls a people who are changed internally and therefore live different lives.

I have asked myself this question a lot recently: Why do I do good things?

I am often tempted to act certain ways or say certain things because of the response of others – either gaining praise or avoiding conflict or shame. It is an act that cannot be sustained.

I need something more, something internal. I need the grace and peace of God to mold me so that I naturally live grace and peace, regardless of the praise or conflict that it might bring.

Why do you do good things?

To gain external praise, acceptance, blessings?

To avoid shame, conflict, punishment?

Life under king Jesus can be more free and more powerful than navigating external motivators. God’s grace and peace can transform  us into new people, a good people who do good.

Another Christmas Season has passed.

Once again, some Christians found it meaningful, others found it dreadful, still others found it stale.

Here are some suggestions to my fellow Christians on how they can have a better Christmas next year.

1. Stop complaining about how non-believers celebrate the holidays.

Many American Christians are furious about how “the culture” is treating Christmas.  They believe that there is a “war on Christmas.” And they are ready to fight!

That response is way off.  If people do not believe the incredible claims of Christmas, then they should not celebrate Christmas they way that believers celebrate Christmas.  Our anger will not lead anyone to believe in the incarnation.

We would do better to evaluate ourselves on how we respond to Christmas than to critique those outside the faith.

2. Dive into the wonder of the Incarnation.

Many churches act like it is not enough to talk about the birth of Jesus. They mention the birth, and then fast forward 33 years to the death of Jesus. Their assumption is that the cross is the real story and the manger is just background.

I certainly affirm importance of the death (and resurrection!) of Jesus. However, the incarnation is also a marvelous and crucial part of the story.The fact that we do not see it’s value reveals our shallow theological understanding.

We dare not gloss over the birth of Jesus, or we will miss the  riches of Christmas for life.

3. Live out the story of the Incarnation.

While remembering the pregnancy and birth narratives,  keep in mind that memorizing data is not the point. We are called into this story. We can live our lives in light of Christmas.

The story of the incarnation brings out some wonderful new realities for us to take part in: God with Us, Peace on Earth, Giving of Self, Giving to the Needy, Joy for All, Glory to God … (Do I need to continue!).

Our Christmas experience will be richer as we align our lives with these truths.

Resources

To learn more about joining the Christmas story check out the Advent Conspiracy.

Byron Borger lists several resources on faithful Christmas living at Hearts and Mind Books.

Good_Samaritan_(Watts)

The spirit of much of our current public discourse reminds me of one of Jesus’ best known and most often misunderstood stories.

One day a religious leader, who wanted to prove that he was righteous, cornered Jesus.

The two of them agreed that the most important things in life were: Love God with every ounce of your being. Love your neighbor as yourself.

The religious guy wanted more affirmation (Insert smug grin.). He asked about the qualifications of a neighbor.

Jesus answered with a story.

A man was walking though a tough neighborhood. As expected, a group of thugs mugged him. He was left for dead on the side of the road. In the next few hours two religious leaders walked past him without offering help.

That last line surprised the religious guy. He was normally the hero of stories.

Jesus continued.

Then a Samaritan, the religious, political and cultural enemy of the Hebrews, approached the man. He stopped his trip to help the injured Hebrew. He brought him back to heath, even at great cost to himself.  

This plot twist shocked the religious leader, and anyone else who was listening. They did not tell stories in which their enemies were heroes!

Jesus solidified his point by asking the painfully obvious question, “Who was the neighbor to this injured man?”

The religious leader (Remove smug grin.) stumbled to answer Jesus and still save face, “The one who helped him.”

His answer made Jesus’ point even more clear.

The religious guy could not bring himself to say that the “Samaritan” was the hero, because he hated the Samaritans.

Jesus’ point was not “help out an injured person.” That was a given.

Jesus’ point was “Everyone, even your enemy, is your neighbor. Love them.”

Our current public discourse, including religious, reflects the hate that Jesus confronted.

When we are unwilling to acknowledge any good in a person or a group, we are guilty of hating them.

When we hate any person or group, even our enemies, we do not love our neighbors.

When we do not love our neighbor, it does not matter how right we think we are or how smug we feel, we miss what Jesus says is important in life.