Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Start of Something Big? Or "Here We Go Again"?

My friend Mr. K thinks it is time for a new reformation, or at least a new denomination.

Mr. K is quite serious (he wants me to be the theologian).

Mr. K, to give you some background, is an ordained minister with a missions-oriented ministry based in Central Illinois. Mr. K has had experience with a Pentecostal denomination and with a Pentecostal fellowship of affiliated churches. When he began to pursue ministry, he was, shall we say, bounced around for a few years, pigeon-holed into children's ministry, and led on by a couple of pastors. He was, in fact, ordained only when he told his then-senior pastor that he was leaving the church he served as associate pastor because he had been asked to lead a small and unique church start-up in Urbana, IL.

Mr. K told me about a chat he'd had during that time with another pastor who'd become a mentor to him. The subject was ordination, and the mentor asked: "Do you tithe?" Mr. K, rather surprised, said that he did. "Then he's not going to let you go," the mentor said. His point was blunt: Mr. K tithed, he filled in for the senior pastor, he made the senior pastor look good. He fit a niche for the senior pastor. "So why would he let you go?"

This is the background that has led K to think we need another denomination, if not a new reformation. It's not a reformation of doctrine so much as of ecclesiology. A new structure to the church that makes for real community, in which the people of God share a common life. Less hierarchy (perhaps none at all!), a form of mutual submission among pastors, a place for each man and woman to use his or her unique gifts for the body of Christ. And a place for all the offices of the New Testament church: apostle, prophet, evangelist as well as pastor/teacher.

My own take on the church is not that far from his. I think the church has become an organization and not an organism. The structures of denominations, associations, and local bodies need to be re-examined and changed. I'm not sure that a single structure that is meant to be a model for every assembly, from now till the Second Coming, is the answer. But our ecclesiology needs a real re-thinking.

So the question is: Do we need to do this through a new denomination? Or would yet another denomination lead to repeating the same error somewhere down the road, oh say a couple centuries from now? As our mutual friend Mr. J has said to K and to me: "Why not work within the fellowship we're a part of?" Why start something new? Wouldn't it be better to change what already exists?

The thing is, in the experience of the three of us, the fellowship we're a part of has not been exactly helpful. In part, that's because we're a "special needs" group: 3 guys who have full-time jobs and can't rush off to conferences and gatherings and networking meetings. And maybe we're the future of the church--trained but non-professional leadership--but the present isn't treating us well.

Still, the question needs to be asked: Why start something new? Is this (unintentionally) a "give me my ball 'cause I'm going home" thing? Or is it a legitimate answer to a problem that's cutting through all evangelicalism today?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Politics, Part 2

In this political year, the divide between parties is showing up in the divide among believers--especially evangelical believers. This year more than any in the past two decades, there is a rift between evangelicals. The rift has been a long time coming. It's getting a lot of attention in the media, both secular and Christian. The secular press seems to be playing the story as a "cultural shift" away from "the Religious Right" and towards a more moderate (hopefully liberal?) evangelicalism. But in fact the rift is the fruit of dissatisfied believers who want to live out the Gospel more fully.

I've wondered in the last two national elections if I were the only one who saw my votes as "the lesser of two evils." I've cringed at Bible-thumping crusaders who have made Americanism an integral part of their faith. I hear them proclaim that God has a plan for America and wonder: Is there any country He does not have a plan for? I hear the rhetoric about reclaiming America for God and wonder what exactly that means. Is it a moral vision? A moral nation is not a righteous nation. And when I hear them talk about persecution of American believers, I look through the latest news from Voice of the Martyrs.

But the rhetoric from the left is just as wrong-headed. It's an anything-goes, "Judge-not" kind of love that hasn't a hint of holiness, except in poverty issues. Even there, the solution isn't to bring the poor into your home for a banquet; it's increasing government programs. This is a poor substitute for the Gospel, but a nice dodge. It lets a man feel good about meeting the needs of the poor without ever actually meeting the poor themselves. It wants government to play the role of the church but in an inoffensively secular way.

There are so many things about this that are wrong. I have been left wondering where the complete men and women are, the ones who want to follow the Gospel in all its fulness. These would be the ones who proclaim Jesus as Savior of the world, as righteous Son of God with something to say about every part of our lives: how we spend our money, whom we go to bed with, how we dress, what we say of or to those we disagree with and how we say it. . . . Such people would be looking for a way to show love without compromising the holiness of the Gospel. Some aspects of their lives would be "conservative" and some would be "liberal."

You can see this as the expected norm in the New Testament church. The apostles taught believers to give to the poor among them and to have nothing to do with believers who lived immoral lives. If a brother were taken in a fault and refused to repent, he was to be expelled from the congregation.

All this might go to explain why I've begun to take the Anabaptist view of politics, at least to some degree. Political involvement has been a thing that divides and distracts us. We are not the people of God; we are Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal. We do not define ourselves fully by Scripture but more by the bits and parts that our sub-culture finds acceptable. Politics changes faith. Do we stand for America, for a better future, for a transformed culture, or for the Kingdom of God? Are we first and foremost believers in Jesus Christ or partisans of one or the other party?