Thursday, May 26, 2005

The Ressurrection and Legitimacy in Ministry

Spencer Burke, principal architect for The Ooze website, often laments the condition of the church in North America. One of his main objections is how the modern church defines "legitimate" ministry. Similarly, Mike Yaconelli, author of Stories of Emergence, shares his experience of being told that even though he functioned as a pastor, he wasn't really viewed by the "church world" as a pastor, because he had no seminary degree, and his congregation was in decline.

Stories like these abound, especially in the United States, and they raise an all-important issue: How is the church called to define "legitimacy?" If you are a pastor reading this, I am almost certain that you have asked these questions of your own calling at one time or another. If you are not a pastor, please excuse my focus on them in this post, and let me enjoy some "comdradere" with them for the present. I'll get back to the rest of you next time! :)

Burke and Yaconelli rightly point out many of the fallacies present in the way the modern church growth movement would define legitimacy. While those in ministry should have a way of identifying themselves as the "genuine article" (We don't want surgeons operating on our bodies who received Ds in medical school. We want the guys who actually know what they are doing! Why should competency be any less important when questioning the qualifications of those who hold eternal souls in the balance?), there are certain assumptions about what gives a minister of the Gospel credibility that, in their view, must be challenged. They are largely correct.

Topping the list is formal education. Presbyterian theologian D.G. Hart contends that the importance of formal theological training can be seen in the "hermaneutical egalitarianism" that exists in the church today. Speaking specifically of seminary faculty, Hart asks "are church members likely to regard professors as doctors in the church whose judgement and insights, though by no means infallible, are worth hearing, if only because of their proficiency and expertise in a specific theological discipline?" His conclusion is that this is probably not the case, due again to an egalitarian hermaneutic that "makes the conclusion of the seminary professor no better than what the folks 'share' at the Wednesday Bible study."

While Hart's concerns are worthy of attention, his views on the essential distinction between clergy and laity transcend discussion of formal education alone, to include the solemnity of calling. He points out the notion that "Kingdom work," which bestows significance upon all vocations, leads people in all walks of life "to believe that their vocations have as much redemptive import as that of officers in Christ's church." In other words, part of what grants legitimacy to ministers in Hart's view is an understanding that vocational ministry is somehow of greater value to God's Kingdom than any other profession. Therefore, formal education is of absolute neccesity for the "legitimate" minister of the Gospel.

Another "modern credential" is, of course, the minister's "track record." This is no surprise, given how the American church has "syncretized" a worldly definition of "success" to be its own. Often, the "church growth" mentality even causes comparisons of ministries based solely on the "numbers game." Just a few weeks ago one well-known Louisville, KY pastor, when in disagreement with a more moderate pastor on the other side of town over a particular issue, answered his colleague, not by addressing the issue itself, but rather by suggesting that the other pastor pay closer attention to his own church, because "his numbers seem to indicate that he should." In other words, "my church is bigger than yours, therefore my ministry is more legitimate than yours." This sort of sinful pride has no place in the body of Christ, yet it is regrettably the driving force behind how many pastors and church leaders are recognized as "authorities."

The above faulty assumptions have been addressed with eloquence by Burke, Yaconelli, and others who share their views of "ministerial legitimacy." Formal education, while important, is not the end-all-be-all panacea to a succesful ministry (and as a terminal degree-holding, two-time product of my denomination's flagship seminary, I think I can speak here in an unbiased fashion) Certainly, a call to ministry is a call to prepare, but while a rich knowlege of the Scriptures should be the minimum prerequisite to the pastoral office, it is not a piece of "sheepskin" that guarantees such knowlege.

Similarly, one must ask if the rate of growth in a church corresponds to the level of legitimacy God places on a ministry. The fastest growing denominational body in the United States is presently the Mormon church. The fastest growing religion in Great Brittain is Islam. Burke and Yaconelli are correct: If we want to discover what is really important to God, we must learn how to judge the value of things we can't count!

Still, while many of the criticisms leveled at the modern church by Burke and company are worthy of attention, I fear that Burke unknowingly steps over the line in his search for legitimacy by criticizing Christ as well as His Church. Much of this criticism is well-intentioned. For example, Burke contends that Christians have been wrong about many subjects, such as slavery and women's rights. His conclusion: "Given a less-than-stellar track record, is it really so heretical to think that the evangelical church may be wrong about homosexuality as well? Isn't it wise to ask the 'what-if' question from time to time, if for no other reason than to test our contemporary application of Scripture?"

...Yes, it is heretical!

...and no, it is never wise to question issues on which the Bible speaks with crystal clarity!

In the end, legitimacy doesn't come from the "modern" trappings of education, or a worldly definition of success. In addition, legitimacy will not be found by questioning the truths given us in Scripture. Ultimately, our legitimacy as ministers of the Gospel comes from the Word of God, given by the God of the Word. The Apostle Paul believed this, and in his proposal to the Church at Rome for a mission to Spain, he grounds his authority and legitimacy there. Interesting, isn't it? Paul could have very easily appealed to his Rabbinical training, or to his "track record" as a church planter.

Instead, he simply finds his legitimacy in being "called as an Ap0stle, set apart for the Gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh, and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by His ressurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord." [Romans 1:1b-4]

Authority and legitimacy don't come from denying or questioning that which Scripture teaches with clarity. Nor does it come from any artificially-imposed "credentials" the modern church may attempt to use. It comes from the ressurrectd Christ!

Have you, as a minister, ever questioned your calling? Seriously, have you ever thought to yourself, "you know, if only I had more education." Similarly, have you ever looked at what appeared to be anemic results from your service as a pastor and said "maybe I should find another line of work."? You are not alone! But Paul, the most articulate theologian and successful missionary/church planter in the history of Christianity, said that his legitimacy was not based on his track record. It was based on the bodily ressurection of Jesus!

Our pride in the modern church has caused our failure to see what God truly values. I don't have any authority because of my educational attainments, or because of a "successful" ministry. I have authority and legitimacy as a minister because a dead man rose from the grave, and commands that I tell His story! But He also commands that I accurately represent His story, which means that as I hold to the living Word as my base of authority, I must also simultaneously hold to the written Word which reveals Him for who He is. In short, prepare as God gives you opportunity, be faithful to the clear teaching of His Word, and live to His glory until Jesus comes! Has God called you to this task? Has God "sent you out" to do ministry among His people? Do your spiritual gifts and skills confirm this sense of calling? Have God's people, the church, recognized this in you? Are you seeking to prepare yourself in all ways accesible to you, including the "seminary of real world experience?" If so, then let there be no question of your "legitimacy."

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Lessons in Absolute Truth; from Obi-Wan Kenobi

Like most other "Gen-Xers," I have long anticipated this day as one of "closure." What began as a monumental epic in 1977, has now come full circle, as "Star Wars: Episode III" has finally been released to the public.

As much as I enjoyed this film (though dark, it is undoubtedly the best of the last three movies!), one particular scene toward the end brought this fictional tale directly to bear on the worldview issues we face in reality. And in the process, I think that my own "real-life" Christian worldview may have been compared with the "dark side" of the force!

In the much-awaited battle between Anakin Skywalker (who by this time in the film had converted to the dark side and been dubbed "Darth Vader") and Obi-Wan Kenobi, Skywalker's life-long mentor says to him "only the sith deal in absolutes."

"Pop culture" of course, goes by that name principally because it is a reflection of the cultural values of the vast majority, and no one can doubt that most in our culture today are skeptical of any notion of that which is absolute. In view of this, is it any surprise that the iconic symbol of Gen-X heroism himself associates such thinking with evil? But the rejction of absolutes didn't arrive within pop culture by accident. It began with the collapse of modernism's "Empire" of epistemological certainty, and grew stronger with postmodernism's sweeping denial of any such concept.

The modern world of the past 500 years believed that human reason could deduce away any mystery from life. But in the midst of two bloody world wars, and the threat of terrorism and nuclear annihilation, postmodernists began asking if these contentions were accurate. Is the human mind entirely trustworthy? Can science solve all of our problems? Is the advance of human knowledge and progress a foregone conclusion?

Within the "modern" church, similar questions were asked: Is it possible to know truth absolutely? Doesn't Deuteronomy 29:29 suggest that God, while knowable, will forever remain ultimately mysterious? Shouldn't theology be utilized to stand in greater awe of the One whose ways and thoughts are much higher than our own, rather than for trying to "figure everything out"? These were valid questions. But in the end, postmodernism gave even worse answers to them than the modern age that preceeded it.

Postmodern philosopher Richard Rorty claimed that "truth" is made rather than found. In other words, any statement given as "absolute" was not actually something transcendent, but rather constructed by a given culture in order to facilitate the continuation of traditional cultural norms. Likewise, Jaques Derrida, the french philosopher who is often touted as "postmodernism's 'Abraham'" stated that metanarratives in the modern world were not drawn from absolute sources, but were stories constructed by various cultures to oppress. Therefore, the primary objective of postmodernism was to "deconstruct" all "truths" and reject all contentions of things absolute. Hence, we have Kenobi associating belief in absolutes with the dark side!

The late Carl F.H. Henry lamented these ideas when he wrote almost thirty years ago that "no fact of contemporary WEstern life is more evident than its growing distrust of final truth and its implacable questioning of any sure word." How is it then, that followers of Jesus Christ can confront such skepticism?

The answer is to go back to the Scriptures, and in doing so appeal to an authority that transcends both the modern and the postmodern. From the opening line of Genesis; "In the beginning, GOD . . . ." we see clearly that Scripture has no problem with stating that there are indeed, absolutes, because God Himself is absolute! As one theologian once described Him, "he is the only REAL reality in the universe!"

Are there things we don't know about God? Without a doubt! Are there mysteries for which we have no answer? Certainly! But just because we lack posession of the answers doesn't mean that the anwers don't exist! Must we "agree to disagree" concerning the way certain Biblical passages should be interpreted? To do anything less would be to promote a hubris that dishonors God. But just because we can't agree on one interpretations doesn't mean that there isn't one "right" interpretation, and that all others are wrong!

Close to the end of my undergraduate training, Dr. Walter Johnson, one of my dearest academic mentors, reminded me that my rigorous studies were not ultimately for the purpose of disproving neo-orthodoxy, classical liberalism, liberation theology, or any number of abberrations from the truth of Scripture. Quoting one of his own early mentors, I remember him telling me "Joel, we have taught you these things so that as a pastor, when you stand in front of the people over which God has given you charge, and you open the Bible, you can have complete confidence that God has spoken!"

If the church continues to "hide out" in the modern world, pretending that it has all the answers, sooner or later (if it hasn't happened already) the culture is going to call our bluff! If we "lift our sails into the winds of postmodernity" (as has been suggested by Leonard Sweet) then our aspirations to relevancy will leave us the most irrelevant institution in culture. Cetainly, the world sees belief in the absolute exclusivity of Jesus, the absolute existence of God, the absolute holiness of God, and the absolute truth of holy Scripture as something narrow, something bigoted. . . .dare we say. . . .something "dark." But lest we lose the foundation of the Gospel, let us forever hold to these two absolute certainties: God is, and God has spoken!

Now, go and enjoy the movie! (Seriously, I think its the best one of the six!) Don't take it as seriously as I just did. But do remember the cultural values it reflects. Remember that Jesus challenged us to be "counter-cultural," and commit yourself to His Kingdom enterprise. This is a far better thing than having someone say "May the force be with you." :)

Saturday, May 14, 2005

The Myth of the "Third Way": A Humble Polemic for the Emerging Church

First, let me state from the beginning: I am probably not someone who could be identified as part of the "emerging church" movement. I am a linear thinker who has the creativity of a #2 pencil. Yet there is much about this movement that I appreciate, and believe that it has the potential as one facet of the church of the future, to change the face of Christianity in North America for the better.

Still, there are things of grave concern within this movement; things which must be jettisoned if the emerging church is to help lead the body of Christ in North America into the 21st century and beyond.

Let me also say at the outset that although parts of this post may appear arrogant, they are not intended to be so. I have a deep and abiding respect for many who may be referenced in the forthcoming paragraphs because of the way they have challenged me personally. Yet, while certain issues should remain "non issues," there are others which define the church and the Gospel in which there is no--repeat no--room for compromise!

As a whole, the emerging church has provided a helpful push out of the "bowels" of modernity. Their reviving of the use of the arts in worship, their missional focus, Kingdom consciousness, and narrative approach to evangelism in a postmodern world do more than just help us to be more effective in making 21st century disciples: These revived foci also help us return to a Christianity that is less Constantinian and more Apostolic. In addition, it must be admitted that the "modern" church contends with its own demons (epistemological idealism, "establishment arrogance", and a borderline-legalistic perception of Biblical morality are but a few of these), and those among the emerging church movement are right and just in their challenges to these modern shortcomings.

Given these wonderful positives, the emerging church movement (or "conversation" as Brian McClaren prefers to call it) sometimes is touted as the group that could possibly "unify" the body in ways never dreamed possible. It seems, on the surface, to provide a way for evangelicals to enjoy an affinity with more liberal Christians that was not previously known or experienced. At a youth workers convention, Mark Oestreicher introduced Brian McClaren as a "pilgrim" in search of a "third alternative, something beyond the confining boxes of liberal and conservative..." and was met with erupting applause. But is there really any such thing as a legitimate "third way?"

I began to smell something rotten about this just today. In a recent post by Adam Cleveland, this Princeton Seminary student issues a challenge as to whether Mark Driscoll, pastor of Seattle's Mars Hill Church, could really be considered a part of the emerging church. His rationale was not tied to appearance, worship style, methodology, or missional commitment, but to theology. For example, Cleveland contends that Driscoll might be excluded because Mars Hill excludes women from pastoral leadership positions. He is also troubled by how Driscoll seems to come across with "absolutes." Cleveland states "I just get the feeling that Mark feels like Scripture is clear, black/white on many issues and he is sharing these answers with people."

Further troubling Cleveland was the fact that when he visited the church, "Mars Hill had a lot of John Piper available [at their book tables]" Cleveland's conclusion then, is that Mars Hill couldn't be a real emerging church, because "theologically, they resemble any other conservative, evangelical church [with the possibility of a bit of a fundamentalist streak there]."

Why don't we turn the tables a bit? What if I walked into Brian McClaren's Cedar Ridge Church, just minutes from my house, and made the following observations: "As I sat in worship, I noticed that women were prominent leaders in the worship service. In fact, this particular morning, one of the women pastors gave the message. In addition, when I walked by their book tables, I noticed both Walter Brueggeman and Joel Green. Also, McClaren is very 'fuzzy' on a lot of issues that I think Scripture addresses with crystal clarity. Therefore, McClaren couldn't possibly be a part of the emerging church movement, because theologically, Cedar Ridge resembles any other liberal, neo-orthodox church [with the possibility of a bit of an existentialist streak there]."

Think the above paragraph is unfair? Of course it is! The truth is that both McClaren and Driscoll have made helpful contributions. But Cleveland's post reveals a certain reality that I fear is not yet understood by many in this movement. Over a half-century ago, J. Gresham Machen revealed this same division in his classic text Christianity and Liberalism. Machen was sometimes hurtfully clear that the teachings of Scripture were incompatible with the teachings of early 20th century liberalism. For many in the emerging church movement today, this incompatability is the "elephant in the room." Few seem willing to acknowledge it. And as Machen first said in 1923, "Presenting an issue sharply is indeed by no means a popular business at the present time . . . .clear-cut definition of terms in religious matters, bold facing of the logical implications of religious views, is by many persons regarded as an impious proceeding." In other words, in the early 20th century people were asking whether it was really neccesary to discuss these differences--to risk division on the grounds of doctrine to the detriment of mission. Machen's answer was that the destruction of mission comes when the "fundamentals of the Christian faith" are compromised for the sake of a disingenuous "unity." If we don't know what message it is we are to carry, then what good is it to run with empty arms?

This same challenge must be made to the emerging church, only with much more solemnity! The issues at stake are more severe, because unlike the liberalism of the past, which claimed "scientific" answers to many questions of faith, that sector of the emerging church which holds to "post-liberal" understandings of Scripture claims no answers at all; only a "journey." Strange thing is, this "journey" has more "absolutes" than many will admit:

-They are certain that women should be allowed to serve as Pastors, overseeing the local church.
-They are certain that George Bush is evil, and that ALL war is unjust!
-They are certain that much that is wrong with the 21st century church is due to "doctrinal division" caused mainly by "fundamentalists."
-They are certain that orthopraxy is not just equal to orthodoxy. It superceedes orthodoxy.
-They are certain that the "conservative/Protestant" Gospel is not actually what Jesus or Paul were getting at.

If these "certainties" are troubling, consider their "uncertainties"

-They are uncertain about whether truth is absolute.
-They are uncertain about the veracity of the miracle passages in the Bible.
-They are uncertain about the substitutionary nature of the atonement of Jesus Christ.
-They are uncertain about the exclusivity of Jesus Christ as the only route to a relationship with God, and eternal salvation.

So you tell me, is this a legitimate "third way," or is it simply plain, old-fashioned liberalism? Though I strongly disagree with Adam Cleveland's post, I have to give him credit for being among the first to point out this "elephant in the room." There are differences on the two "sides" of the emerging church movement that will not be overcome, except by eventual fracture.

Contrary to the pictures of Jesus given by those on the "left" side of this movement, He was at times divisive! And He was most divisive when it came to the issue of His identity and purpose. To be sure, we can learn much from McClaren, especially when it comes to the way in which we display humility and graciousness. (Some might argue after reading this post that I could take a few lessons from McClaren in this regard, and I would probably agree!) But a compromise of the "faith once delivered unto the saints" will not move the North American church forward, it will destroy it.

Now, do not read what I haven't written! I am not suggesting a "takeover," or some other "political strategy." For one, there is nothing to "take over" (which may be the best thing about this "conversation," as McClaren calls it). But I am suggesting that in our dialogue we remember that there can only be one Gospel! Take away the meaning of the cross and ressurrection, the means of grace, the deity and exclusivity of Jesus, and all you have is a glorified copy of the United Way with a baptismal pool! If the emerging church is going to continue to legitimately be called the "church," it must continue to act as what Martin Luther called "God's mouthpiece." For those in the movement who believe in the ultimate authority of Scripture, that may mean becoming "divisive." But you are a debtor to God, and to the people He has called you to reach, to ensure that the message you bring really is able and mighty to save them.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

"Frat-House Faith" and the Missionary Call

In a world full of people living in a "Christian bubble" asking "What would Jesus do," Brandon Straub and Peter Howell are actually doing it, and their actions define what striking the tension between "cold-shouldering" and "compromise" actually looks like.

TIME's Religion article in their May 9 issue focused on those like Straub and Howell, who are struggling with how to live out their faith on the secular college campus. The article asks the pertinent question of collegiate-aged Christians: "Can they be, like Straub, both a brother in Christ and a brother in a frat?"

What makes this question all the more important is the "casualty rate" of faith. Many Christian young people enter college with a fath that is strong and vibrant, only to leave academia four years later with a greater degree of uncertainty about the relationship between life and faith. As the article states, "Faith matters to students as they head off to college, but then it begins to lapse." Even in the face of a growing number of evangelical fellowships on campuses, only 40% of UCLA students considered their faith important enough to discipline themselves for its daily practice.

Could the problem be that student's faith is weaker than it appears? How about the overwhelming pressure coming from culture? My suggestion is a bit more "scandalous," but I honestly wonder if this collegiate "backsliding" epidemic isn't systemic of our entire approach to moral development inside the church. From "cradle to diploma," we are efficient guardians of chastity and temperence, warning our young people against the "evils" of alcohol, drugs, and pre-martial sex. Yet rarely have I heard of Christian young people having a Biblical worldview instilled in them that allows them to think for themselves. Instead, they are encouraged to avoid sin, as well as sinners. (i.e. we are always exhorting them to stay away from the "wrong crowd.") By and large, we preach "separation" as if it were a literal, rather than moral concept, so that by the time our teenagers are granted the freedom that comes with dorm living, they are ready and curious to try things out on the "dark side." The result is the loss of testimony, the loss of purity, and the loss of Kingdom effectiveness.

For example, the son of a minister observed by the writer of this article, "was more interested in having a good time than in setting a Christian example." Why is this? He answers with "Christianity wasn't a choice, and I wanted to do what I wanted to do. The culture of the college is 'if it feels good, do it.'" Missiologists call this "syncretism," or capitulating to the sinful aspects of the culture you should be trying to reach. And let's face it, many of not most "Christian" college students have effectively "neutered" their witness for Christ before the end of their first semester on campus. However, this is not the only bad result of our "us-them" approach to moral development in the church.

Another is "sectarianism," or cutting onesself off from culture to the extent that one no longer encounters the lost in any meaningful way. Two examples of this kind of behavior are illustrated in TIME's article. The first is the "Christian" Frat-House. "Christian students share rooms with one or two other like-minded students, eat their meals in a communal dining room and get together for one-on-one spiritual mentoring and small-group Bible study." Although Christian community is important for further spiritual development, it is essential to challenge those in this environment with the question of when they have time to engage the lost?

Another, more extreme example of the sectarian lifestyle is seen in Old Paths Baptist Church, who sends a group to the Bloomington campus of Indiana University weekly, "touting posters of aborted fetuses and shouting anti-gay slogans." These groups practice "tertiary separation." That is, not only are they separated from sin (Biblical separation), but also sinners (secondary separation), as well as those who have company with sinners. Those who seek to influence college students for Christ by living among them are criticized for "living in a house of sin."

Bridging the gap between the "syncretistic" and "sectarian" are students like Straub and Howell, who, according to the article "are making their mark in ways that will never draw much public attention." They live among the non-Christian student population, and seek to influence them daily. After spending some time in the Christian fraternity, Straub recalls being challenged with this question: "Try to think of another time when you'll live with 100 other guys, most of whom don't want to be bothered with God right now." In other words, Straub was challenged to "look at the harvest." Sounds strangely like John 4 doesn't it?

There, Jesus breaks all the social rules of a "good Jew." He "lolli-gags" in the bad part of town, he approaches a woman of questionable reputation (actually, there was no question about her reputation, it was terrible), he drinks from her water container, and He offers her eternal life. And after all of this, the disciples still don't get it, and their ignorance becomes the impetus for a missionary calling that still echoes in our ears today: "Behold I say to you, lift up your eyes and look on the fields, that they are white for harvest [Jn 4:35b]." As we ponder how to train up our young people so that they will remain pure while influencing their world for Christ, some principles emerge from this story:

I. Train our young people to face the realities of a sinful world. The old adage "garbage in=garbage out" may in fact be a myth. By that I mean that keeping young people in a "Christian bubble" will not help them develop morally. If it did, we would most certainly see that result today. Mark Driscoll rightfully observes that "there is no such thing as a pure culture untainted by sin and sinners, including Christian entertainment, which has had its share of scandalous behavior." In addition, "sin looks good only from a distance; the closer you get to it, the more clearly you see it, the more sickening it becomes." Maybe we should be less concerned about young people being "exposed" to sin, since exposure is inevitable, and instead show them the reality of where sin leads. Regardless, sin is real, even in the church, and we do young people no service when we delude them into thinking they can totally escape it.

II. Teach Separation as the Bible Teaches Separation: When we trump Biblical teaching on separation to include separation from sinners, we give young people a perverted view of holiness, and in the process, we add to God's Word! For morally strong young people to overcome sin, they must be brought to understand that separation will not be acheived by focusing on their distance from the world, but rather, focusing on their closeness to Jesus. Ultimately, it is the Holy Spirit, not artificially-imposed rules, that develop genuine Biblical morality.

III. Teach Students the concept of being "Salt and Light." And remember, Matthew 5:13-16 isn't about the world hearing our voices, but seeing our good works! Influence which is most potent is personal influence. Peter Howell knows this, and it shows in his weekly "door to door" ministry at Sigma Nu. Trevor Loe, an unchurched member of that fraternity, notices. "In the biggest meathead frat" reports Loe," he's 100%. And no matter what day I say no, he'll always come back. One day, when I'm ready, I'll remember Peter."

IV. Teach Students to Love the Lost: Jesus didn't go to Samaria because it was the popular thing to do. He didn't go to impress His disciples, and He didn't go to make a good name for Himself. None of those things happened. He went because prior to the beginning of time, He had set his unconditional love upon a slut who didn't deserve His time and attention, much less His salvation. And like that woman, all of us are simply undeserving sinners who are who we are by the grace of God alone. When students really digest the deepest meanings of grace, the foundation for their moral development, as well as their missional calling, will have been laid.

Sectarians quote 1 Peter 1:16 out of context, forgetting that true holiness is extrinsically tied to the concepts taught in 1 Peter 2:21-25.

Those who fall to syncretism fail to see the truth of Philippians 3:7-11, that Christ is a treasure greater than any earthly pleasure.

Young men like Brandon Straub and Peter Howell however, embody the function of that most honorable of titles: "Missionary." They understand that one's moral compass cannot be divorced from one's missional calling, and their lifestyle and witness are undergirded by how they look at their place on the college campus; as workers in a field that is white unto harvest!

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Jennifer and Gomer: Examples of Grace

Until last week, most people hearing the phrase "Runaway Bride" would probably have first thought of the Gary Marshall movie that debuted in 1999 and starred Richard Gere and Julia Roberts. Now of course, that phrase is reflective of a real-life situation, and all of Gwinett County Georgia is up in arms about Jennifer Wilbanks' decision to go AWOL and then lie about it.

But there is in this story a powerful example of true, Biblical grace. Perhaps this is why most in our culture simply cannot begin to understand why her fiance John Mason is still committed to her.

Let's face it: Our culture knows little, if anything, of true commitment. Pundits and talk-show callers have all weighed in on this situation already, with most speaking in favor of severe retribution for what this obviouslly confused woman has done. Personally, I see many paralells between this story and another one, which took place about 2800 years ago.

The story of Hosea is much more tragic than last week's tale. Here, God tells this prophet to the Northern Kingdom to marry Gomer, and predicts that she will, in a very short time, become a "woman of harlotry." Can you imagine being in ministry with a slut for a wife? Probably not, as most churches would fire you on the spot the moment something like this was found out! But this was God's plan for Hosea, principally because He wanted to demonstrate the more offensive adultery that was taking place each day in Israel, as God's people "stepped out" on Him to court and worship idols.

In other words, 8th century B.C. Israel wasn't much different from 21st Century America. We are a culture adrift in relativism and self-centered individualism. And these worldly values are as present inside the church as they are anywhere else! As a result, commitment is not something we value. . . . .

. . . . . .This church didn't do what I wanted, or someone offended me, or someone made me angry, so I'll just leave . . . . .

. . . . . . .This person isn't who I thought he/she was. I'm just not as happy and fulfilled as I thought I would be, so I'll just get a divorce and move on . . . . . . .

Is it any wonder that in the middle of this cultural environment so many would look at the "runaway bride" situation and wonder if John Mason had lost his mind?

But this story, like the story of Hosea, serves as something of a modern-day narrative example of grace. In fact, there are several realities this story teaches that become apparent when one looks beneath the surface:

1. Human beings are prone to do illogical, even stupid things, for no apparent reason. According to those who know Jennifer Willbanks best, this was not at all in her character. Her father has recently been heard on the radio, making known his wishes that the public would get to know the "real Jennifer." Everyone blows it!

2. There are (and will be in this case, I'm sure) consequences to wrong behavior. Gomer's loose sexual living eventually caused her to end up on the auction block as a slave. And in this case, Miss Willbanks is probably looking at legal consequences for lying about her supposed "kidnapping" and costing the Alberquerque, NM and Gwinnett County, GA residents to the tune of $100,000. It is, therefore, appropriate that she answer for what she has done, not only to her family and future husband, but also to the public at large.
Understanding and forgiveness does not preclude the natural, and sometimes legal, consequences that come as a result of our mistakes. The repentant homosexual who is freely forgiven in Christ may still die of AIDS. The recovering alcoholic who has been sober for 12 years may still have to live with liver problems, and the glutton who loses weight may still have to pay years later with heart disease. Sin, by default, brings trouble, and when we make our proverbial bed, we sometimes have to lie in it.

3. Even Christian people are incomplete people. Those of us who are among the "redeemed" and still live on earth are unfinished works of God. No doubt the media will make a huge issue of the fact that these were both strong Christian families. Stories like this one remind us that while justification is instantaneous, salvation as a whole is a process that is worked out over the course of our lives as children of God. God is still working on Jennifer Willbanks, as well as the rest of us.

4. God's love is truly unconditional, and was illustrated beautifully this week by John Mason. Mason will be touted as a love-sick, desparate, and foolish husband-to-be. I'm sure Hosea was looked at with the same degree of cynicism. Again, our culture, including many inside the visible church, knows next to nothing of commitment, but this man has lived it, even before saying "I do." In an interview with Sean Hannity on FOX News, Mason testified that even though they were not yet married, "I believe in God's eyes, when I put that engagement ring on her finger, my lifetime commitment to her started then."

No one would deny that this woman deserves to face pretty tough consequences for her actions. But reflecting on this story, it's parallel to Hosea, and subsequent illustration of our relationship with God has reminded me that I too, deserve the most severe of consequences for my rebellion against the One who created me.

Just like Israel, our culture doesn't understand this husband's love because it doesn't understand commitment. But God is faithful, even when we are faithless.