Preaching An Offensive Gospel, Without Being Offensive

Yesterday I bemoaned the fact that I sometimes get much healthier instruction and encouragement from authors outside of my faith community than I do from authors who share my specific theological convictions. I do not rejoice in that particular experience. I find it distressing, to say the very least. But, it leads to a question: What is it about their writings that I find so encouraging, that I find lacking in authors/preachers from within the Churches of Christ? It is a fair question.

The issue I mentioned yesterday was that they make an unflinching defense of the gospel of Christ to confront not only their culture – but primarily of their own church community. Dietrich Bonhoeffer did not begin his journey by attacking Adolf Hitler – he was initially only interested in purging National Socialism from the German church (although, confronting Hitler directly was close behind). Lesslie Newbigin did not set out to attack the political system of England – he wanted to wake his church up to the idolatry that it had absorbed (although, you cannot attack idolatry without attacking the idol that inspires it). Os Guinness does not want to re-write the Constitution, he writes primarily to Christians in order to get them to follow the gospel of Christ (although, in so doing, we do have to take a serious look at the humanistic nature of the Constitution).

All three of these authors touch on and hover around a central theme – the gospel of Christ is at its core an offensive gospel. Not hateful, mind you, but offensive, yes.

The gospel is offensive to the modern, western, and in particular, American, culture. In our world the center is the self, the individual. Everything we do magnifies the individual. Life is all about ME! If I want it, I get it, no matter what it costs or how it deprives others of what they want. My personal happiness and my personal welfare eclipses every other concern. I can destroy the earth, I can ruin reputations, I can use derogatory and repugnant language, I can kill the unborn child in my womb, I can even change my biological birth gender – all because I am the king of my life and I can do whatever I want to do that makes me happy and self-fulfilled. To deny me that freedom is the worst crime that a person or a society can commit – it is a denial of my personal, individual, reign over my life.

Contrast that with the gospel. In the kingdom of God the community – the church – is the most important organism, and the individual only gains importance through that community. In the kingdom of God the other comes first, not the self. In the kingdom of God we die to ourselves and live for the other, and in particular, we live for Christ. In the kingdom of God the most important right we own is the right to relinquish all of our rights for the benefit and the promotion of the community. In the kingdom of God responsibility is as critical, if not more critical, than any supposed rights. In the kingdom of God no truths are considered “self-evident” – that is a fiction of the enlightenment. The only way we know truth is through the revelation of God himself. In the kingdom of God the most important symbol is not a flag or a gun or a piece of paper – it is a cross, the symbol of hatred on one side and divine love on the other. In the kingdom of God the only way to win is to lose, and the only way to live is to die. We ascend by climbing lower.

Bonhoeffer, Newbigin and Guinness all preach this gospel. They all make the same point, albeit in different ways and even though their message has been intended for vastly different audiences. It is only through this offensive gospel that a human can know his or her value, and it is only through this gospel that a bent and broken world can be healed. It is tough medicine – in a sense it is a medicine that actually kills the patient before it can restore the patient to a new life.

Exactly what the gospel proclaims in the pages of the New Testament.

So how is what I hear from authors/preachers within the Churches of Christ any different? What do I hear from our spiritual leaders?

  • We cannot tell the millennial generation to grow up and value the body of Christ as the preeminent reality because it might hurt their sense of individuality, and they might leave and go elsewhere.
  • We cannot tell the sexually degenerate or confused that there is one, single immutable truth about sexuality because it might scare them away from the church.
  • We cannot confront a hyper left-leaning or right-leaning political constituency with the reality that they have replaced their faith in God with an idolatrous belief in human reason for fear that they consider us crazed lunatics – or even worse, rabid fundamentalists.
  • We cannot confront an aging group of baby-boomers (and I am one) with the thought that the way in which they have used and abused the earth’s resources is in direct contradiction to the mandate in Genesis to husband the earth for fear that they might withdraw their necessary contributions to the church.
  • We cannot confront either Democrat or Republican with the gospel call to forsake all idolatrous nationalism for fear that we might be viewed as being unpatriotic.
  • We cannot preach the exclusive message of the gospel for fear that we will be considered hateful and prejudiced.
  • We cannot preach that there is one way, and one way only, to God and that is through the death of Christ. We cannot preach believer’s baptism because that is simply a dogma and is narrow minded. We cannot preach that there is only one church because that is sectarian.
  • On the other hand, we must preach inclusiveness, praise individuality, and above all, maintain the liturgy of the Church of the American Myth.

In short, what we need to preach is the insipid, watered down, meaningless pablum that we hear from every other religious organization that has swallowed Satan’s bait – hook, line and sinker. Oh, we will be popular, and I can list a number of congregations that are just busting out of their buildings to the point they have to have “multiple campuses” to demonstrate their popularity.

But, if I read the book of Revelation correctly, these are not of the church of Christ, even if they wear the name Church of Christ.

In preaching this gospel we cannot afford to be hateful, mean-spirited, ungracious. It is a command, not a mere suggestion, that we “speak the truth in love.” But is is simply un-loving to change the gospel into something that it is not. The apostle Paul had no hesitancy to know and to teach that the gospel is repugnant to a wide range of audiences – it is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks. The early martyrs, from Stephen on down, were not killed because they told everyone that they were quite all right. To Americans the gospel is “hate speech.” Because it challenges each and every one of us to die to ourselves and our selfishness, the gospel is deeply offensive.

To be sure, I have only painted one side of the picture. The other side is that the gospel is profoundly beautiful and loving. It is the picture of a God who so loved his (rebellious and fallen) creation that he became a part of that creation in order to redeem it. It is a picture of a God who so wants to totally redeem all of that creation that he has entrusted those who believe in him with the blessed task of sharing in that redemptive story. I do not want to ever lose sight of this side of the story. But just as the gospel story recounts, you cannot get to the resurrection without first going through the cross. No one objects to Easter. Gethsemane and Calvary are preposterously offensive, however, and it is exactly Gethsemane and Calvary that we are called to bear.

As our culture falls ever more deeply into a moral abyss, it is absolutely critical that someone, or a bunch of someones, preaches this offensive gospel, so that the cross of Christ will be effective and powerful to draw men and women to God.

The question is, who is going to preach it?

Some Reflections on Recent Readings

What do Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lesslie Newbigin, and Os Guinness have in common? Hmm. Not nationality. Not ecclesiastical connection. Not profession. Not currently alive. Seemingly, not much. There is, however, one thing that unites these three outwardly disparate characters.

All three make an unflinching, and in their own way, extraordinary defense of the gospel of Christ. How I became interested in each of the authors would require a separate post, but suffice it to say that my reading list takes me in strange, and in some cases, indefinable, directions.

This year my reading list has included a number of works from Guinness and Newbigin. I have read deeply and broadly on Bonhoeffer. That one characteristic that I noted above keeps coming back to me again and again. Bonhoeffer, Newbigin, and Guinness are all driven, in their own unique circumstance, back to the core of the gospel of Christ to confront their respective churches and cultures.

Some people may think it sad that I praise such men so highly. They each represent strains of theological convictions that I ultimately find to be lacking. Why read them? And, if I read them, why not critique them and discuss their flaws instead of praising them? Quite on the contrary, I think it is sad that I have to resort to reading Bonhoeffer, Newbigin, and Guinness to find such a courageous and counter-cultural approach to issues confronting the church today.

I may just be swimming in the wrong pond, but I find it singularly distressing that I just cannot find any author from my faith community, the Churches of Christ, who is taking such an unpopular, and convicting, stance against the idolatry of our western, and primarily, American, culture. There are those who rail against gross distortions of biblical morality, but it does not take too much of a scratch to discover that their Christianity is more related to “churchianty” than the gospel of Christ.

If there are such authors or preachers, please let me know, I would love to read/hear what they are saying. And, please, do not suggest such men as are leading the “mega” churches of our fellowship in Texas or Tennessee. I know the difference between healthy theology and pablum, and believe me, I know it when I see it. As Forrest Gump once said, that is all I’m going to say about that.

I am trying, in my own inept and halting way, to be what I hear Bonhoeffer, Newbigin, and Guinness calling me to be. I know they are imperfect, that each of them has said, or written, things about which I would strongly disagree. I know they are fallen human beings, and I am a fallen human being.

It’s just that I am deeply humbled, troubled even, with the depth of their commitment to, and defense of, the gospel of Christ to challenge all of the principalities and powers of the world that they see (or saw). I find myself too comfortable bowing down to the idols they refused to submit to. I find myself too fearful to preach against the idolatry they fearlessly ¬†attacked.

I hope to do better. I think, in order to be faithful to my calling, I have to be better.

Make My Life Easy, Lord

The people said, “Make my life easy, Lord, make my life easy.”

And the Lord looked down and said, “Abram, pack your bags and leave this place. You need to know what it means to trust in me, and you can’t do that if you are comfortable working your native soil.”

The people said, “Make my life easy, Lord, make my life easy.”

The Lord looked down and said, “You’re going to have to be uncomfortable living in this desert for a while until you learn what it means to trust me. It was nothing for me to get you out of Egypt, but apparently it is going to take a little bit longer for me to get Egypt out of you.”

The people said, “Make my life easy, Lord, make my life easy.”

The Lord looked down and said, “You know, it might be in a fiery furnace or it might be in a lion’s den, but you are going to have to learn to trust me again so I can lead you out of this strange place. But you will never know what it means to be forgiven unless you feel the whip of punishment on your back.”

The people said, “Make my life easy, Lord, make my life easy.”

And the Lord looked down to Peter and Paul, James and John, and said, “I called you boys for a purpose, and you can’t get that job done unless you hear the jail doors close behind you. The brightest diamonds are forged in the greatest heat. I didn’t call you in the hope that you might become great, I called you because I already put the greatness in you. Now get out there and shine!”

And the people cried out, “Make my life easy, Lord, make my life easy!”

And the Lord said there would be wars and rumors of wars, and earthquakes, and pestilence, and starvation. The rivers will dry up and the deserts will get bigger. Men will kill each other and women will kill their own babies. Philosophers will call evil, “good” and the good they will call evil.

And the Lord asked, “Will you believe me anyway? Will you trust me anyway? Will you seek justice and love righteousness, will you defend the defenseless and speak for the powerless? Will you have the courage to ‘march into hell for a heavenly cause’? If you get tired running against men, what will happen when you have to race horses? Don’t ask that I make your life easy, ask me to give you my strength – and you will never grow weary!”

And I kneel by my bedside and pray, “Make my life easy, Lord, make my life easy.”

I think I have a long way to go in this faith business . . .

How to be Remembered

Once upon a time I was asked how I wanted to be remembered. I was flummoxed. It was not the first, nor the last, time I was speechless, but the experience was unnerving. I still remember how uncomfortable I was, and that feeling still remains today. How do you want to be remembered?

So, I was reading in Eberhard Bethge’s magisterial biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer the other day, and I found it. I found the sentence that describes perfectly how I want to be remembered. It was penned by Bishop George K.A. Bell, Bonhoeffer’s friend and confidant during the stressful years of the church struggle, and later during Bonhoeffer’s dangerous work with the German intelligence agency and his connection with those who were conspiring to get rid of Adolph Hitler. Bell wrote in a 1948 forward to Bonhoeffer’s book, Discipleship:

He was crystal clear in his convictions; and young as he was, and humble-minded as he was, he saw the truth, and spoke it with a complete absence of fear.

(Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: a Biography, rev. ed. p. 362)

Now, that is how to be remembered.