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four walls of evangelicalism? – I don’t think so

December 5, 2014

Chris wrote to me [below] raising a number of questions about the church and what we believe:
In response I can see some things on which we agree absolutely, but many things where Chris seems to have misunderstood or misrepresented Christian belief:
Let’s start with the things we agree on
There is clearly a move in the air, whether this is post modernism, or a revival of real Christianity, I don’t know – but what I see is example after example of the church coming out of its shell of “Christendom” and retelling the simple story of Jesus with amazing transformative power. Certainly the way Christian faith has been portrayed is `not how it used to be`
We also agree that what is central to church is an engagement with the community – (as if they were ever really two different species!) Our place is to have a ministry of presence in the midst of our communities and be Jesus – rather than limit ourselves to trying to explain Jesus.
However I can’t recognise the 4 walls of evangelicalism model. The essence of faith is in a relationship with Jesus. It is something that happens from the inside out, not but putting on a shell of beliefs that we agree with. Jesus tells stories about how people are included or excluded on the basis of what they do (behaviour) and whether he “knows” them (Parable of the sheep and goats). So consequently church is a place where people gather around the shared commitment to declaring that `Jesus is Lord` and living consistently in the light of that. It is from the central commitment to Jesus – and not from some artificially defined belief system.
However, if we are able to say “Jesus is Lord” then there are beliefs that are either consistent with or opposed to that commitment.
If Jesus is Lord – we need to experience salvation/grace because we recognise that we have failed to live up to the standard of behaviour that naming him as Lord requires
If Jesus is Lord – then his teachings – both directly and those he quotes from the “old testament” have to be normative. [Inerrancy is not a helpful term, because it is used differently by different theologians]
If Jesus is Lord – then those who he created, but who do not acknowledge his rule are committing acts of treason and such rebellion cries out for justice
If Jesus is Lord – then his rule (and not human opinion or reason) is law
The difficulty that is that reason puts grace and law (accusation) into different categories: But as Paul spends a lot of time in Romans explaining without law we do not know we need grace – and he goes on to explain that receiving grace does not take us back to holiness codes but to freedom!
Chris is right in his assertion that people outside the church do not get this – often because of the religious baggage that has come with the way it has been presented. But this is not a reason to throw out the central message – rather it is a call to return to the simple message of the gospel and throw out the packaging of Christendom.
Actually this is what happens- when the structures of Christendom are removed, by Islamic fanatics who crucify Christians for their faith – or by communist states (Russia, China) who outlawed the church and send it underground. Here people find the essence of what it means to say “Jesus is Lord” and who take up their cross to follow him. In these places Christian faith is exploding with eye watering rates of growth! and this is what has always happened! Persecution of the early church and oppression by the pagan Roman state enabled the early church to grow.

Against the same backdrop of the Roman empire were thinkers who struggled to reconcile the God of the Old testament with Jesus, thinkers who could not understand how Grace fitted with holiness, people who argued that God could not condemn those he loved. They were all consigned to the category `heritic`, but the Church focused on proclaiming Jesus as Lord continued to grow.
Across the world today the church continues to grow – except in those places where we imagine Christianity as either `take grace and do as you like` or `God is out to get you`.

What we need is not a new definitation of what we believe, that is less pagan, or more attractive, or whatever – what we need is to rally again to the piviotal value that Jesus is Lord.
My plea is that we live out what it means to name Jesus as Lord, right in the heart of our communities, this is what is happening in Dundee, in Dungannon, in Lile to name but three – this is far more effective than arguing over the validity of the theological straw men that we set up and knock down.

Chris wrote:
“in your piece `looking forward, looking back` you seem a little downhearted at the current state of the church and its attempts not only to grow as a body but also to engage with the community. You desire the courage to do things differently, which is good as something more effective would clearly be beneficial.
My question is how do you think this will happen if you are unable to leave the theological box in which charismatic evangelical Christendom dwells? Why would we be able to export a defective model from church to community and hope it will work? Perhaps it is time to look at the box, after all every religion, every denomination operates out of one.
What are the 4 walls of evangelicalism? There might be slight variations from church to church, but basically the boundaries could be defined as:
Penal satisfaction theory of atonement
Eternal conscious torment in Hell
Inerrancy of Scripture
Future retributive judgement
When we look at these walls and strip away the influence of Calvin, Augustine and others… how little is left? How much of what is left is Jesus?
What theology emerges from such a box? It doesn’t take much study to realise that it is sacrificial in principle, exclusionary in practice and despite all the grace talk, underpinned by holiness codes. It requires scapegoats and creates outcasts… it is (in that respect) essentially pagan. It is anti grace, not just because of a focus on `law` but because the opposite of grace is accusation. Such theology presents god as some sort of dualistic, two faced entity whose default position towards humanity is enmity, it produces an environment where dogma is more important than people. It can justify violence, retribution and exclusion of the `other` because… well god does that… right? I mean if it is ok for god to treat people like that then sooner or later it’s ok for us to treat people like that too… right? If god can draw a line in the sand and declare who’s `in and who’s `out` then we can too… Hmmmm? What we believe to be true of God will influence how we treat others eventually… for good or evil.
Is it any wonder that the non-church community has so little time for Christianity, do you think that the bad news message (that translates as something like “god loves you when… or … if .. or … until… or… but if you don’t love him back, he will burn you in hell forever” … and by the way he is coming back and he’s pretty pissed off with some of you…) has gone unnoticed? It seems to me that the desired change is one-sided… the church keeps doing the same thing but expects the response to be different. How is that going to work? Relationship with the triune God has been placed into an economy of exchange that has no appeal to those you seek to engage.
Thankfully there is a reformation underway and gathering pace in which the box is being deconstructed, there will be those (many probably) who will fight to their last breath to defend the walls… but it is happening nevertheless. Once again change is on the move and is being brought by people who have spent decades in study and prayer and have not been afraid to sacrifice `sacred cows` blocking the way. The way that the bible is read and how we see Jesus and His oneness with the God he reveals and calls Abba is changing. That gives me hope that the church and community can come into a revelation of oneness too. There is so much happening now which, should it ever trickle down to the pulpit and into the church would begin to transform the relationships you wish to forge.

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2 Comments
  1. Chris permalink
    December 11, 2014 12:13 pm

    David, in some ways it is surprising that you do not recognise the ‘4 walls’ I suspect that you would give a passionate and robust defense for each of these doctrinal beliefs. How radical a change in the way you read scripture would it take for you to not hold onto the 4 points mentioned? I’m not suggesting yours isn’t but if our theology hasn’t changed in the last 12 months or 3 years or 5, perhaps we are bound more tightly than it seems.

    If we want to know where we are – we have to know where we have come from. What we have learned be, be it true or not, has a profound effect on who we believe we are relating to when we say Jesus is Lord.
    Your “if Jesus is Lord….” statements would appear to have been birthed in a legal and transactional system, one which stifles the freedom Jesus brings. It is a pity you chose not to include the last paragraph of my initial email to you as the questions that cause us to ask ‘how’ have we learned Christ are pertinent.
    When Jesus (and Paul) critiques Torah, He gives us a hermeneutic to help us recognise the different voices heard in scripture. He shows how to begin the process of separating revelation from religion, that which is divine from that which humanity has projected onto God to justify it’s own anger, violence and thirst for retribution. You are quite right to say we don’t need new definitions or new models……..it is a much older one we need to rediscover. One that was lost far too early in church history.

    I am most certainly not suggesting that only when the theology is spot on can engagement with the community, social action or charitable works commence. Compassionate people of all religions and none have demonstrated that beautifully However if such activities are undertaken with the hope of drawing people into a discipling environment, then unfortunately theology matters.

    You note that early church thinkers struggled with the concept of God condemning those He loved and that they were all consigned to the category ‘heretic’. I am a bit confused as to what you are actually referring to here but if it a dismissal of universalism or ultimate redemption then to say that all those who embraced such a belief were declared heretic is an inaccuracy that does a great disservice to a complex issue.

    You also make a wonderful observation that “Across the world today the church continues to grow – except in those places where we imagine Christianity as either ‘take grace and do what you like’ or god is out to get you’.
    i don’t think I have ever heard anyone seriously claim the former…….although it could be possible with an immature understanding of grace. I have however heard the the ‘god’s out to get you’ notion spoken regularly,,,,rarely quite as blatantly as that, usually in a more subtle and dangerous presentation in messages of mixture.
    However your observation may have identified an important point that may bring you closer to resolving some of your own questions. I hope so.

    Chris

  2. December 11, 2014 2:19 pm

    Thanks for your comments Chris. The `Jesus is Lord` centre is biblical. Paul writes that those who acknowledge Jesus as Lord are saved (Rom 10) that this cannot be done without the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12) as such it indicates relationship not legal adherance to a code. In the context that the NT was written Lordship was experienced by having a master either in the household, or the city or the empire to whom you gave allegiance and obeyed. A law code would not have been in mind
    If unsure of what you mean when you say that Jesus and Paul critiques Torah. Jesus said that it would not be laid aside and added a further layer of (apart from the Holy Spirit) impossible expectations on top of it, “You have heard it said… but I say to you”. Paul also does not dismiss it but describes it as the Guardian that leads us to Jesus (Gal 4). These passages do not seem to describe a rejection of the law as Pagan, although many things in scripture as clearly described and rejected as such.

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