Monday, August 18, 2014

N.T. Wright Helping To Put the Story of the Law Back Together Part 6 –Practical Implications for the Church

The medium is the message. – Marshall McLuhan

So far in this blog series, I have summarized a baseline picture of N.T. Wright’s way of looking at Torah, Christ, and their relationship. I have also begun to compare the differences between what we see and hear in the protestant evangelical church today and what Paul is saying, at least according to N.T. Wright. To serve that purpose, I started by summarizing a sermon I recently heard on Galatians 3, which was part of a series on Galatians in general. That sermon served as a prototypical Protestant Evangelical body of thought on Christ, the Law, and their relationship. I then, in the last post, explored how Wright’s thought either does or may provide commentary on that sermon. In this blog post, I will provide some thought on extended application points concerning where I see the rubber meeting the road for the church in light of all of that.

In the last blog post of this series, I noted that the teaching on Gen. 15: 1-5 and Gen. 17: 5 that you “don’t get the stuff God has for you” by being good but, instead, by faith: a) makes an argument against nomism that misses the mark, and b) decontextualizes the blessings of the covenant and recontextualizes them into what can only be heard by consumers. Such a montage of the gospel leads to the sacrifice of church unity in favor of competition over systematic theologies (which implies different factioned gods). It also leads to incorrect teachings on faith that come wrapped up together with triumphalism and imperialism. All of that commentary could more or less be said to come from N.T. Wright’s body of thought as I know it.

Even further than that, though, I would like to address how such commentary has further points of application for where the rubber meets the road, primarily in a particular church model that employs the teachings discussed in the last blog post. That model I would like to address is the attractional meg-church model, which can also be said to be “inviting.” So, to begin with, and specifically relating to concerns about that church model, why was the gospel – in which you don’t “get what God has for you by being good enough” – associated with “getting stuff”?

During the service containing the sermon discussed in the last post, the front of the T-shirts advertising the “bring a friend weekend” that came the week after had printed no them “God people vs. Good people.” During this “bring a friend weekend,” the Lego movie was played. A disclaimer was given in the video advertising said Lego movie, which had to clarify that the Lego movie does not necessarily reflect the views of the church, but that the church believes that the event will bring people to church who would normally not come. Why do I tell that story? What is the connection between that story and talking about the gospel in terms of “getting stuff”? The connection is that both fit with the rather pervasive construct of the attractional mega church model. Give away free T-shirts, because it will get people in the doors. Talk about the gospel in terms of “getting stuff,” because that’s what people understand. In the process, the gospel is castrated. The powers of the world remain, and the gospel has no power, other than to get individual souls to heaven. To that end, at least there were at least twenty five “decisions” to follow Christ that Saturday night of the Lego movie, which was the week after the sermon discussed previously.

Now, to be clear, I don’t hear the prosperity gospel in the church where this sermon was preached. What I think is true about this church, however, and not only this particular church exclusively, is that “getting stuff” is assumed to be the only thing to which people can relate. Even if the gospel were explained on the basis of Christ’s vindication of Torah and the resulting blessings proclaimed by Torah being poured out on Jews and Gentiles alike, then, based on this church model, the relationship between law and gospel would still have to be explained in terms of “getting stuff.” Or, at least that’s what most of the Protestant evangelical church would likely think. In other words, in this attractional church model, if one decided to present the gospel by referencing the blessings of life and glory pronounced by Deuteronomy 27-30, then said blessings would still have to be explained with the fact of getting them as the starting point rather than “if you submit and obey.” “Getting stuff” of course, however, implies the context of our consumerist society – without, I should add, challenging it as a “power of this world” by changing how we think.

I should also add that, in the following week’s sermon (the week of the lego movie), “getting stuff” (in terms of material possessions) was explicitly challenged – rather effectively, I might add – in the teaching of the sermon. To quote Marshall McLuhan, however “the medium is the message”, and the medium of the attractional mega-church in which that teaching occurred strongly undermined the content of the message spoken from the podium. The shallow soil with rocks that choke out the roots might just be the foundation of the church model. Why attract people by giving away free T-shirts and then teach about the slavery of “getting stuff”?

As discussed in the last blog post, as well, the teaching offered on Gal 3: 11-12 followed the same pattern. Paul was teaching that the church’s persecutions were not in vain, because faith in Christ and the resurrection life given by the Spirit are the mark of the people of God. Related to the Law, Paul was teaching that submission to the law in the specific ways discussed in the first three parts of this series would mean that those persecutions, along with Christ’s death on the cross, were, in fact, in vain. Instead, borrowing from the post-Lutheran and Romantic haze to which we can identify the pastor’s thought, in a generalized way, the sermon taught against a set of external rules that can run contrary to a “personal relationship with God.” What I would like to add here is how this relates to our Protestant evangelical mega-church attractional and “inviting” church model.

Firstly, although disdain for external rules in general has little to do with Paul’s teaching, and, in some ways, is even contrary to it (where does obedience fit into that picture?), it appeals to us precisely because it is one of the “principles” by which our world runs. Again, the attractional church is found to emulate and capitulate to the world rather than challenge it. Secondly, the church’s basing its operations on such appealingly worldly principles, in this way, helps – along with a number of other ways – ensure a lack of persecution. Thirdly, outside of how the worldly principles of the church prevent persecution, a church that sets out to be “attractional” would, of course, tend to avoid the topic of persection of the church. Such unpleasantries might cause people to head out rather than in the door.

Discussing Abraham’s becoming a “father of many nations” as “leaving a great legacy” follows the same pattern, as well. That’s what people want to hear, and it is distanced from the work of digging into the real story. You end up with a church full of consumers who get the gospel fed to them in an easily relatable way rather than a mutually self-sacrificing embodiment of the glory of God on earth that reveals Christ’s love to the world, because what Paul was really saying is ignored in favor of candy and theological competition. You end up with a church that embodies the broken and fragmented world and its powers rather than challenging them with the unity of the church (one of the ends of the real story) that is only possible within the mutually self sacrificial love that is the fruit of the Spirit, which is what really was Paul’s concern.

If we were to pay real attention to Paul’s real concerns, it would mean a number of things. Do we present the gospel as individual pie in the sky, or as resurrection life with Christ as part of God’s family to be vindicated when things, in the end, are made right? It also effects a shift in priorities, of what is important. Paul (and Wright) highlights the importance of unity of the church, as opposed to the often bitter tribalism that appears to rule the church currently.

Because Torah is not a bad thing and was part of the plan all along, Wright’s take on it effects the importance of mission to the Jews (Romans 10 and 11). Because we have generalized and decontextualized the message, we have largely abandoned Paul’s strong concern for reaching the Jews. This was Paul’s concern, because, as Wright says in discussing Romans 11: 25-27 “’Whenever’…Jews come to believe in Christ and so enter the family of God, in that moment, the promises of God made long ago to the patriarchs are being reaffirmed” (p. 251, The Climax of the Covenant). Notably, in that context, the “hardening” of verse 25 is in reference to the Jewish attitude of exclusivity and racial/national self-righteousness discussed above. And, in line with the faith that leads to self sacrificial love modeled after the cross discussed and mentioned in previous blog posts, the proposed reading of Paul by N.T. Wright emphasizes the importance of exactly that kind of love as opposed to the triumphalism and imperialism against which Christ warned in the sermon on the mount, which are pervasive in the Protestant evangelical church today.

If, in the Protestant evangelical mega-church model, the Law means “external rules,” then we end up emphasizing feelings and a “personal relationship with God.” If Torah is thought of in terms of racial or national self-righteousness, as Paul did, then we end up emphasizing church unity and mission to the Jews. If faith is defined as “belief in the supernatural,” as the evangelical church currently does, then we teach dying and going to heaven. If faith is what Paul teaches it to be, which is belief in God’s faithfulness and justice, we end up living a resurrection life – which is strongly akin to the blessings pronounced by Torah – as a recreated human beings living out God’s plan in the belief that God has fulfilled his promises and will, in the end, complete the recreation of all things. This includes the believers sharing in the glorious blessing of the life of bodily resurrection.

In other words, as is taught in the Protestant evangelical church, it can be said to be true that we are saved from a state of individual sinfulness, as Wright notes. Paul, however was not asking the Reformation questions of whether or not the law is abolished. Paul was also not asking whether the “deeds” of humanity in general are what save us. Again, consider “this is not your own doing…so that no one may boast” in the context of Paul’s concern for Israel’s racial and national self-righteousness.

Wright teaches that Paul was answering questions about the faithfulness, justice, and righteousness of God. Paul was asking if God was faithful to his original covenant if a descendant of David cannot be seen sitting in the place of Herod and Pilate. Paul is asking if God is fair and impartial in carrying out the judgment involved in establishing his kingdom. Paul is asking if God is good if evil still appears to reign in the world. And, concerning the law, Paul was asking about its role in that process of the establishment of God’s kingdom, in the fulfilling of the covenant, in God’s showing himself to be righteous and just.

Ultimately, then, for me: sure, “salvation is by faith alone” rather than by following external rules, but that is an answer to a question that is not very important in terms of the issues Paul was facing and how he went about responding to them. No one chooses not to worship God, because deeds have some sort of indexical relationship to salvation, or because they can’t wrap their brains around the idea that salvation is by faith alone. If people choose not to worship God, it is because they don’t believe God is good in light of all the evil that appears to rule the world. People don’t worship God, because they don’t believe God has blessings in store for them like those promised by the covenant. And, people choose not go to church to worship God, because what they observe about the church indicates a smaller god of fragmented cults and self-righteous indignance rather than the God who spoke the universe into being and who, in his act of recreation, is making all things new.

The Protestant evangelical attractional mega-church model, then, get’s people in the door, but – now outside of Wright’s specific comments – you have to ask if it is, in the long view, really to worship God or not. What is promised – both to get you in the door and to keep you from leaving – is not what God promises in the scriptures. Specifically in terms of what is taught about the Law, what we are saved from is not what the evangelical church teaches we are saved from. The attractional church teaches we are saved from “following rules” of (a generalized) law rather than from the sinful self-righteousness that was fulfilled and expressed in how the Jews used and abused Torah. In the process, something precisely like that self-righteousness reigns in the church that seeks to affirm its own historical roots that are its teachings on what faith means (as discussed in the last blog post). As a result, the church remains fragmented, and no one notices. No one notices precisely because they are looking at the triumph of their teaching over the “modern Christians” of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s (and those who continue to think in similar ways).

Thus, the attractional Protestant evangelical mega-church model makes it appear as though Christ did, in fact, go to the cross in vain. The greater church unity that is only possible through mutually self-sacrificial love modeled after the cross not only doesn’t occur but isn’t really sought. Meanwhile, in numerous ways already discussed, which include that disunity, the “evil of this world” remains heavily influential in place of the church’s challenging of the principles and powers of this world. All in all, then, one has to at least entertain the following question. Although the Protestant evangelical attractional mega-church model gets people in the door – and even gets “decisions to follow God” – into what are people being invited?

The incentive to follow God that is presented is presented, first of all, at least partially as an incentive. Secondly, said incentive is taught to be going to heaven when you die. That’s not even what the Bible is talking about, nor what the scriptures teach. Also, if, after the “decision to follow God” is reached on the basis of and immersed in this attractional model and all that comes with it, then, at what point do you learn the real story of what God is doing in the history of the earth and how you can participate in it? How do you know what choice you really made? If so much of what comes with that Protestant evangelical mega-church model is not from the scriptures, and therefore, not from God, then from where is it? So, when one makes a decision to enter into the life of that church, is one really entering into life with God, into growing into the fullness of the stature of Christ through participating in mutually self-sacrifial love, which makes possible ultimate church unity, which itself reflects the character and presence of the one true God?

To be clear, these thoughts on whether we are entering into worship of the one true God when we get or make “decisions to follow God” are mostly my thoughts rather than those of N.T. Wright. Also to be clear, I don’t think the answer is as simple as “no.” I think it is clear that God is at work in a place like that. I think it is also clear, however, that the Protestant evangelical attractional church has distanced itself from participating in the actual covenant story of God for the history of man, from which Paul drew his thought and his mission. Further, most of us have no idea that this is the case. I hope that my blog series has been helpful rather than hurtful, both in teaching what that story of what God is doing here really is, and in therefore showing the church how it could live in that story with God much more powerfully and, thus, reveal said story and said God to the world rather than simply “attract” it.

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