Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Normal Church

A Glorious Vision
“You have already become satiated? You have already become rich? Without us, you are kings?” I Corinthians 4:8

Like every other middle manager in the world, the pastor has his dreams.  The average pastor spends his day torn between ennui and overexcitement, a tug of war between the internal war of knowing what to preach and keeping certain parishioners off of each other’s throats.  But in a pastor’s careless moments he might reflect on what his ideal ministry would be, what some church leaders might have already achieved in his lifetime:

  • Thousands in the congregation, thirsting after his wisdom.
  • A large building, a modern cathedral with stained glass and exalted spires.
  • Programs seven days a week, meeting all kinds of needs from 12 Step meetings to singles outings.
  • A large paid staff.
  • Bible studies every day for different social categories.
  • Leading regular retreats for a variety of Christian groups.
  • A counselling center advising spiritual life direction at reasonable fees.
  • Meetings with the mayor… and perhaps even the governor!... giving counsel on political matters that relate to their constituents’ spiritual health.
  • Leading groups of local churches in important matters such as pornography or international persecution of the church.

This lowly pastor can see every Sunday, after worship led by a local conductor, he embarks on a verbal journey through the chosen text that week, which he has studied for almost twenty hours this last week.  His elocution and scholarship is praised and hundreds are moved to follow Christ in a deeper and more profound way than they had ever experienced due to his homiletic skill.
A pastor dreams of this, for this is what is called spiritual success in our society. Mind you, few pastors reach this lofty vision, even as few local basketball stars achieve playing in the NBA, but it is still the standard to which every pastor reaches.  And the local pastor is frustrated at his lack of talent, his lack of organization and, especially, his lack of fund-raising ability to obtain such lofty goals.

It is fascinating to watch what a society, or a segment of a society, calls success, because that determines the everyday goals of those who attempt to achieve that success, whether they have the skills or resources to obtain that particular definition of success.  What is “normal” for a person is determined by how far they miss their ultimate goals.  Some might think they could be president, but they might be satisfied with being on a school board or a state senator.  Some might think that they could be a Corporate Executive Officer, but they are content with being an office manager.   But none of these would be content with being a fast-food worker on minimum wage, because their definition of “success” finds that this occupation is too far from their lofty goals. 

Even so, in the church, there is no honor in being a poor congregation.  Not when the goal is to be a mega-church with thousands of congregants and a huge budget.  According to that definition of success, the house church with an unpaid pastor is a failure.  If they move from this model to another model with a budget or building, that’s wonderful, because it means that it is becoming a “real church”.  There are some denominations that will not call a congregation a member of their denomination until it has a building and enough money to pay for a leader.

Looking at the Gospels
If our goals determine what our measure of being normative is, then perhaps rather than looking at Christianity’s view of success, we should look toward Jesus and the apostles to determine our goals.  If we were going to look at the New Testament’s expectations of churches in general, this would be a very long text.  Instead, I would like to look at the social expectations of the normative congregation.  How is the church expected to compare to society at large on an economic and class level?

The writers of the gospels all had one goal: to communicate Jesus to their groups.  Matthew probably wrote to an early Antiochian Jewish Christian group.  Mark probably wrote to a mixed Jew and Gentile Christian group.  Luke wrote to a Roman and Greek Christian audience.  John probably wrote to a group of Greek and Jewish Christians. 

But they all used a base of sayings and narratives that all the church used to communicate Jesus’ life, mission and teachings to all peoples.  Although the books we have were written after some of the other writings of the New Testament, the foundational words and stories were from earlier, and they are the best representations of the person of Jesus that we have today.  These evangelists were trying to communicate Jesus, just Jesus, with the only resources they had.  They were not communicating a version of Jesus, but rather the only Jesus they knew, the only Jesus they loved and committed themselves to.

A Collection of Insurgents
"If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.” Mark 8:334

Jesus is speaking to his disciples, but especially to those who were considering to be his disciples.  Jesus’ method of proselytizing is unique in that he more clearly expresses the most difficult requirements of joining his group, instead of the benefits.  The benefits were clear to anyone who spent an afternoon with Jesus: healing and the ability to heal; wisdom and an education that was greater than the teachers of their day (Luke 7:20-23).  So Jesus emphasized the difficulty of obtaining a place in his school, and so the kingdom of God.

The requirement of “coming after,” or following, Jesus that is most shocking is to “take up his cross.”  The cross was not just a symbol of the death penalty, which today is used almost exclusively on murderers.  The Jews never crucified, but when the Romans used a cross, it wasn’t on common criminals, such as simple murderers or thieves (as many mistranslations of the gospels might indicate).  The cross was reserved for those who were the enemy of the state, those who planned the overthrow of the state or who acted against the rightful government or against society at large.  Alexander might crucify 2000 citizens of Tyre who defended their city against him because he saw himself as their rightful ruler.  It was exclusively used of non-citizens who attempted to undermine the proper order of society.  Slaves were crucified for running away because they were teaching other slaves to forsake their proper role.

Jesus is commanding all of his school to take up the mantle of the insurgent, the one who undermines the state.  Yet, at the same time, he implies that this insurgence will be unsuccessful, because they take up a cross, not a crown. The normative Christian is an insurgent who is caught and punished.

A School of Persecuted Paupers
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and insult you, and scorn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man. Be glad in that day and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven. For in the same way their fathers used to treat the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full. Woe to you who are well-fed now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for their fathers used to treat the false prophets in the same way.” Luke 6:20-26

Jesus is speaking to specifically to his disciples, who have already accepted Jesus’ call to repentance. Now he divides his congregation between the rich and the poor, the comfortable and the oppressed, claiming that the former will not obtain the ultimate blessings, while the poor among them receives all that He has promised.

The Lucan version of the beatitudes is less familiar to us than the version in Matthew which begins “Blessed are the poor in spirit”, for the Matthew account, it seems to some teachers, has eyes of the needle to allow the wealthy and important into Jesus’ blessings.  However “poor in spirit” refers to Proverbs 16:19, which commends those who lower themselves with the “anawim” poor, rather than being “haughty” and ambitious for social achievement.

It is certain, however, that Jesus expects his disciples to be of a lower economic status, for even the wealthy among them would be expected to surrender their possessions (Luke 12:33, Luke 14:33).
But the primary economic and status loss occurs not from personal surrender, but from attacks from the outside.  The heart of Jesus’ congregation, those who receive the promises, are those who are declared outcast.  Some of the attacks might be mild (insults), but some would be severe (hatred). 
Not all of Jesus’ congregation would be outcast from mainstream society, but all of those who truly receives the reward of God would experience this and live in this.   The normative disciple is poor and outcast.

Being Like Jesus
"If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, 'A slave is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also.” –John 15:18-20

John 14-16 is a discussion between Jesus and the twelve about the nature of a life of following Jesus without Jesus being physically present.  Many principles of faith and love are explained, which are not only for the twelve, but for the totality of those who follow Jesus.

The basic principle Jesus is drawing from is that a “slave is not greater than his master”, or, as this idea is communicated in Matthew, A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his master. It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher, and the slave like his master.” (Matthew 10:24-25).  The one submitted fully represents his authority by being like his authority.  Since Jesus was rejected, hated and persecuted, those who are under him would experience the same.   

It is interesting that throughout the history of the church, the typical understanding of imitation of Jesus is ethical: being loving or pure.  But in the New Testament, the almost exclusive understanding of being like Jesus is that of lowliness, vulnerability and rejection.  This passage is no exception.  The normative follower of Jesus is hated and rejected by mainstream society.

The Tough Choice
“Everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven. Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to SET A MAN AGAINST HIS FATHER, AND A DAUGHTER AGAINST HER MOTHER, AND A DAUGHTER-IN-LAW AGAINST HER MOTHER-IN-LAW; and A MAN'S ENEMIES WILL BE THE MEMBERS OF HIS HOUSEHOLD. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.”  –Matthew 10:32-37

In Matthew 10, Jesus prepares his itinerant apostles to expect persecution and arrests.  Beginning in verse 32, he broadens out his statements to be not only those who are travelling evangelists, but all who is a disciples of Jesus.

Not every follower of Jesus is required to evangelize, but all must be ready to confess Jesus’ name, and this is dangerous business. Jesus’ name and teaching is associated with division and those who stand with Jesus must be ready to accept the consequences. The “sword” Jesus speaks of is not a sword of violence but is a tool of division, that spurs hatred, anger and separation, as his quote of Micah 7:6 indicates.  At the name and teaching of Jesus, the closest-knit families will be divided and those who loved will become the bitterest of enemies.

At this point, the follower of Jesus must make a decision between remaining with Jesus, or remaining with their family.  And those who choose family who hates the name and promises of Jesus will also reject the kingdom Jesus offers.  The normative Christian will be divided from those closest to them.

A Conclusion to the Matter

The normative church isn’t the megachurch, and the normative pastor isn’t the charismatic, popular pastor.  Rather, the standard for church growth, according to Jesus, is persecution and oppression.  Not that everyone in the church must be oppressed, but that as a group, oppression is felt and community is built because of the outside pressure.


Please no spam, ads or inappropriate language.