Monthly Archives: August 2015

Why I support tomorrow’s Planned Parenthood protest

“Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward the slaughter. If you say, ‘But we knew nothing about this,’ does not he who weighs your heart perceive it? Does not he who guards your life know it? Will he not repay each person according to what he has done?” (Proverbs 14:11-12)

Anyone who knows me knows I’m not the protesting type. I prefer, whenever possible, solutions with which everyone agrees. I am generally conflict averse. I have always been an opponents of abortion (in theory, at least) but the issue became one thousand times more personal and devastating to me when I had my own children. The recent videos are horrific and shocking to the conscience, though the relative callousness of many people is nearly as distressing. Nevertheless, I have always believed that the most effective ways of preventing abortion is not protest but support for unwed mothers, church engagement in adoption, and a church that fosters a love for human life – all life. I still believe all these things. I still think that protests are neither the main nor the most effective tools in the pro-life movement.

And yet, I believe they have their place and tomorrow I will be attending a protest outside of a Planned Parenthood clinic.

I’ve been wondering recently how the church can exercise its “prophetic” voice in our culture and I think this is one of those ways.

For an excellent explanation I strongly encourage you to read John Piper’s post on this same topic here. Even though I agree with everything he said I want to articulate my own, personal, reasons as well.

The main reason I will be participating is to be a voice for the voiceless. The babies being killed cannot speak for themselves. They cannot advocate on their own behalf. People of conscience must advocate for them. The babies are a people without power. They are not even recognized as people. Instead they are mere tissue, pieces and parts to be bought and sold. We must defend the cause of the innocent and the powerless. To do so is to demonstrate love to our fellow creatures.

The second reason is to expose and decry great injustice. Christians are called to hate injustice and part of hating injustice is using our collective voice to speak out against it. Martin Luther King Jr. and William Wilberforce fought hard with their words to seek justice for the oppressed. They did so because they saw injustice and spoke out on behalf of the victims. My aim is to do the same.

The third reason is to recognize the presence of systematic and structural evil within our society. Many evils are individual and personal but there are also evils in our world which are systematic and structural, not merely based on the choices of individuals, but related to the laws and broader culture in which we live. The Planned Parenthood disaster is a demonstration of this sort of systematic evil. It exists in the laws which are patently unjust. It exists in our culture that freely admits a preference for convenience over life. It exists in a misogynistic worldview that glorifies sex without consequences. My participation in this protest ought to be seen as a protest against this sort of systematic evil and not necessarily as against those women choosing abortion, who are often as much victims as this system as the aborted babies themselves. Proponents of Planned Parenthood argue that they didn’t break the laws. If that’s really true, then this only demonstrates the extent to which systematic evil can exist with the laws of a nation.

Two final words:

First, I support many other methods to reduce the instances of abortion. My wife and I support Alpha Women’s Center whose primary efforts include support for women in crisis pregnancies. Protests and the like are secondary efforts, but still have their place.

Second, I don’t know exactly what will be happening at the event but if you join me at the protest then I plead with you to act in a Christ-like manner. Even in protest and advocacy we are called to love.

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Book Summary: Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas

Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Expanded 25th Anniversary Edition) is a worthy read. I have read it twice now and the second reading was different from the first. I am both more appreciative and more critical. Still, I think this book has some important words for American Christians today. Hauerwas challenges both the liberal and conservative positions and points us all to our identity as the people under the lordship of Christ.

 

Thesis and Opponents

 

Hauerwas’ central thesis is that the “church, as those called out by God, embodies a social alternative that the world cannot on its own terms know” (17)[1]. He calls this “social alternative” the polis, the people of God, and the true “political” concern of the church.

Hauerwas’ primary critique is of a church that has accommodated to the political concerns of the State, what he calls “Constantinianism.” He argues that both the conservative and liberal churches have basically capitulated to the State. Both have been primarily concerned with making life a little better for the world by promoting a particular social ethic. “Both assume wrongly that the American church’s primary social task is to underwrite American democracy” (31). In doing so, both have neglected the primary social concern of the church, being a people who see and follow Jesus.

Hauerwas believes that the “Constantian” view of the church is falling fast, and perhaps it is now even more so than when Hauerwas wrote Resident Alien. He argues that the demise of this worldview is not something to be lamented as a failure, but celebrated as an opportunity. “The decline of the old, Constantinian synthesis between the church and the world means that we American Christians are at last free to be faithful in a way that makes being a Christian today an exciting adventure… Now our churches are free to embrace our roots … a faith community that does not ask the world to do what it can only do for itself” (17-18).

What the church can “only do for itself” is be the people of God. Hauerwas argues that Christianity is more than just conversion and it is more than just a vague promotion of disembodied principles of love and social justice. Instead, “Christianity is an invitation to be part of an alien people who make a difference because they see something that cannot be otherwise be seen with Christ” (24). It’s Jesus, and our ability to “see” him, is what makes the church truly unique and radical. We cannot speak to the world about “peace” and “justice” in general ways that everyone can agree on. “The church really does not know what these words mean apart from the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth” (37). In other words, we only begin to understand those terms as we see them in the mission of in Jesus and then embodied within the church.

Hauerwas’ message is at times combative and subversive:

“The church does not exist to ask what needs doing to keep the world running smoothly and then to motivate our people to go do it. The church is not to be judged by how useful we are as a “supportive institution” and our clergy as members of a “helping profession.” The church has its own reason for being, hid within its own mandate and not found in the world. We are not chartered by the Emperor” (39).

This message, he understands, brings up the charge of “tribalism.” Is the church its own “tribe” which exists to the exclusion of other tribes? But Hauerwas argues that of all the various political identities in our world, “The church is the one political entity in our culture that is global, transnational, transcultural” (42). For Hauerwas, blind nationalism is the truly dangerous “tribal” mindset in our world.

The Confessing Church

Hauerwas envisions what Yoder calls the “Confessing Church.” The Confessing church does not take as its primary aim the transformation of the world through the political route of the State. Instead, it seeks to transform the world by creating a counterculture of people who live under the reign of Jesus. In this counterculture “people are faithful to their promises, love their enemies, tell the truth, honor the poor, suffer for righteousness, and thereby testify to the amazing community-creating power of God. The confessing church has no interest in withdrawing from the world, but it is not surprised when its witness evokes hostility from the world” (46). In doing so this counterculture church becomes the people of the cross, demonstrating God’s love for the world. The most “effective” thing the church can do is to become the “actual creation of a living, breathing, visible community of faith” (46) in a hostile world.

Adventure

Since culture is becoming more hostile to the cross the church must produce disciples who are willing to pay the price but, once again, for Hauerwas, growing hostility is not necessarily a cause for lament. Instead he sees it as a call to journey and adventure. “Life in the colony is not a settled affair. Subject to constant attacks upon and sedition against its most cherished virtues, always in danger of losing its young, regarded as a threat by an atheistic culture, which in the name of freedom and equality subjugates everyone—the Christian colony can be appreciated by its members as a challenge (50).” And again, “The colony is a people on the move, like Jesus’ first disciples, breathlessly trying to keep up with Jesus (51).”

Community and Ethics

Another major theme of Resident Aliens is Hauerwas’ connection between community and ethics. Modern ethics is based on an individualistic view of the world. “People seek individuality through the severance of restraints and commitments.” In other words, in modern language, people become more virtuous by separating from the constraints of community so that they can become liberated to “be themselves.” The virtuous man is the one not held down by tradition or responsibility but is the heroic self and is able decide and choose and he so desires. “Growing up, becoming a mature, functioning adult is thus defined as becoming someone who has no communal, traditionalist, familial impediments” (78).

The church offers a different reality. Ethics in the church are deeply connected, on the one hand, to our story. We are rooted to a tradition. Scripture is laid out as a grand story, not just as a set of ahistorical propositions. We are able to understand our ethical position when we understand our place within this story. On the other hand, ethics are tied to community, responsibility, mutual submission, and fellowship. Our individuality is not swallowed up. We don’t lose our individuality. Instead, we stand out as true individuals, with a greater degree of character, when we attach ourselves to the Messiah and to the people of God.

In attaching ourselves to the people of God Christian living becomes a possibility. This is true not only because we “get a little help from our friends” but because we are able to see what it means to be moral in the first place. The church not only gives us the support we need in being moral, it also teaches us what being moral is. “The church is crucial for Christian epistemology. We would not know enough to be moral without the colony” (94).

Telling the Truth

Central to what it means to be a Christian Community is the ability and willingness to tell the truth:

“The church is the colony that gives us resident aliens the interpretive skills whereby we know honestly how to name what is happening and what to do about it. Yet while the American church was busy thinking it was transforming the world, the world declared victory in its effort to extinguish or to ignore the church… We suspect that the church loses its vitality when its speech is cleaned up, pruned down, domesticated to ensure that our relationship with God is predictable and nice.” (146-148)

In other words, the church being the people of God and the church proclaiming the truth are not mutually exclusive for Hauerwas. We do not need to choose. Instead, the two are interrelated.

But our actions must match our words. As Haurewas later states:

“no clever theological moves can be substituted for the necessity of the church being a community of people who embody our language about God, where talk about God is used without apology because our life together does not mock our words. The church is the visible, political enactment of our language of God by a people who can name their sin and accept God’s forgiveness and are thereby enabled to speak the truth in love.” (171)

Critique

I agree with Hauerwas on several fronts. The primary task of the church is, in fact, to be the church and we can only be the church when we first attach ourselves to Christ through conversion, and then learn what it means, in community, to be the people of God. I also agree that in this regard we set ourselves up as “resident aliens” and as colonists in a world that is hostile to Christ.

I have two areas of critique. First, for Hauerwas, this position is closely tied to a critique of American war policy. He takes a position of pacifism that I don’t entirely agree with. In general he sets up a stronger antithesis between State and Church than I am comfortable with. Second, he seems to sometimes emphasize right living over right belief. They both are really two sides of the same coin.

Nevertheless, I really appreciate Resident Aliens. It’s very interesting to read Hauerwas because he comes out of a theologically liberal denomination and yet he speaks as a conservative. Much of his stronger critique is leveled against what we might today call “theological progressives” but it is a critique “from within” so to speak. He doesn’t speak as a conservative critiquing liberals but as someone from within the liberal leaning camp seeking to reform that part of the Christian movement, to bring it back to its central task of proclaiming and following Christ. Of course, the theologically conservative camp needs this call just as much.

[1] All page numbers are from the Kindle version.

Church as an “emergent system”

In my previous post I offered a slight critique to the center set model of church, observing that while it is helpful it is ultimately incomplete in describing certain aspects of church life. In this post I would like to propose my own[1] model: the church as an “emergent system.”

(Aside: While sharing the word “emergent” with the so-called “emergent” church movement, this post has nothing to do with that movement.)

In The Social Animal David Brooks discusses a dizzying array of topics, including poverty. In describing poverty he uses the terminology of “emergence,” describing it as an “emergent system.”

Emergence is the philosophical opposite of reductionism. Reductionism tries to understand an entire system by pulling apart and understanding its individual parts. The idea is that we can understand something complex by understanding all the components that make it up. Reductionism is, of course, a hugely important way of understand the world.

Emergence, on the other hand, looks at systems as a whole, as a system as something that is more than just the sum of its parts. An emergent system is made up of more than just individual parts, but also the dynamic interaction between those parts. An emergent system is irreducible to its components and, in fact, will have characteristics that its individual components do not have.

Brooks offers some examples of emergent systems. Hurricanes are made up of the relatively benign components of water and wind which come together under just the right conditions to form a system of incredible force. A story has an emotional force that is irreducible to the sum of its words. An ant colony is incredibly organized and complex, even though no single ant can direct, comprehend, or even see the whole system.

One more component of emergent systems is worth noting. When a system of interactions has been firmly established (the system is “in place”) that system has a strong downward force on the individuals within the system. This is evident when we think of culture as an emergent system. Cultures are made up of people, ideas, rules, etc. but they are irreducible to just the parts. They are also characterized by the dynamic interaction between those parts. Additionally, culture has a strong downward force on the individuals which inhabit the culture. It impacts what we wear, what we eat, what we value, and what stories we tell.

I think it is helpful to think of church (both Big C and little c) as an emergent system. For many years I was accustomed to thinking of the church as merely the collection of individual Christians but the more that I have studied the New Testament the more I have begun to see Church as a think in and of itself.

Consider some of the major biblical images of church. The church is a body. A body is an emergent system. It is more than the sum of its parts (despite what Planned Parenthood would have you believe). A body is animated when there is interaction between the individual members of that body, when the arm works with the hand. The church is a building. A building is irreducible to the sum of its materials. It becomes useful when the parts work together in a particular design. The church is a family. Brooks observes that marriage counselors will sometimes say that there are always three patients in the counseling session – the husband, the wife, and the marriage itself. The same is true for a family. The family is more than a collection of people, but the interactions, roles, rules, and culture of that particular collection and the family has a strong downward force in shaping its individual members.

A church, in other words, is as much characterized by the interaction of its members as it is by the relative strength and weakness of its individual members. I think this is why there are so many “one another” commands given in Scripture. Love one another. Bear with one another. Serve one another. Be of the same mind. Forgive one another. Etc. All of these commands describe interactions between members of the community that will, over time, form patterns of interaction, and thus a virtuous emergent system – a Christ-like church culture. This church culture will then have a downward force on its individual members.

When seen in a positive way we will see that a loving church (a church characterized by loving interactions) will produce loving members. A forgiving church, forgiving members. A mature church, mature members. A church where members think of ways to spur one another on to righteousness, a holy church.

In the negative we will see that a bitter church will produce bitter members. A legalistic church, legalistic members. A faithless church, faithless members. I think this is why so many people, even strong Christians, can be ruined in a toxic church environment. A house where the foundations are crumbling will not be helped by a solid roof. A body that has cancer will not be helped, at least not in the long run, by a strong arm. Indeed, the arm itself will grow weak and eventually die as it is destroyed by the disease spreading throughout the rest of the body.

As a preacher, I need to think through this. Discipleship is more than just knowledge acquisition. It comes, at least in large degree, from a community. When I preach I need to think not just of what individual response I am hoping the sermon produces, but what sort of church culture the sermon would produce. In my short time as a pastor I have observed that a Christ-like church culture does a lot more for long-term spiritual formation than does a rousing sermon. Sermons are important, obviously, but often they are important in the way they reinforce the virtuous processes of the emergent system that is the church.

Non-preachers should take note as well. If you want to grow in relation to Christ you need more than just more individual Bible reading (though the importance of that should not be discounted). You need to be part of a church.

This Sunday some relative newcomers to our church mentioned that they really appreciated the “spirit” of the church. They didn’t commend the music or the preaching or the programs, but the spirit of the church. I can think of few things I would rather have them compliment. Certainly of the things we do as a church the “spirit” of the church, by which I understood them to mean the culture, values, beliefs and interactions of our church, all the things that make our church more than just a collection of individuals, will have some of the strongest downward force of the spiritual growth of our members.

I’m certainly not convince this particular model – the church as an emergent system – is all encompassing. One big difference arises Brooks’ description of the emergent system and the emergent system that is the church, the presence of Christ. The body has a head – Jesus. The building has a presence – the Spirit. The family has a leader – Christ. And it is really this presence of God, which makes the whole system life-giving and entirely unique.

[1] I don’t mean “my own” to say that my thoughts are original, only that I haven’t seen the ideas described in the blog post linked in this way before. Basically everything in this blog is derivative, and intentionally so.

Bounded Set or Centered Set Church?

I read a lot of books about ministry and one argument I’ve seen proposed on several occasions now is that churches should move from a “bounded set” model of church to a “centered set” model. Most recently, I read this argument in Debra Hirsch’s book Redeeming Sex.

The language of bounded set and centered set, according to Hirsch’s footnote, comes from the social set theory which looks at how groups organize themselves. This modeling theory is then applied to churches.

A bounded set church is marked out by clear boundaries which determine who is “in” and who is “out.” According to Hirsch, “one’s inclusion, belonging, is based on how aligned one’s beliefs and behaviors are with those on the inside” (p 191). The more you align with the group’s beliefs and behaviors the more you are accepted into the group and the more you dissent the more you are excluded. Churches like this focus on conformity to the norm and for this reason don’t experience a lot of diversity or inclusion of outsiders. They have “hard edges” and a “soft center.”

In contrast to bounded set churches are center set churches. A center set church, according to Hirsch, “has a ‘hard’, well-articulated and vibrant theological center, but tends to be “soft” at the edges. It assumes that every person is somewhere in relation to the center – in this case, Jesus” (p 192). What matters in the center set model of church is not how close one is to the center, but which direction they are headed in. Someone could be close to Jesus (in belief or behavior) but moving away from him. Likewise, someone could be “far” from Jesus, but moving toward Him. In a center set church conformity to a set of beliefs or behaviors is less important than whether or not the person is moving towards the person of Jesus.

Hirsch, like others who have used set theory to describe churches, is a proponent of the center set model and an opponent of the bounded set model. Jesus, it is argued, opposed the bounded set thinking of the Pharisees. Bounded sets are moralistic and bad for the church. Centered sets are gospel-oriented and good for the church.

I really do appreciate the centered set model of church. This type of modeling has a lot to offer. It reinforces several important gospel-oriented truths. This modeling emphasizes the priority of the heart (direction) over external behavior. It recognizes that discipleship is a process. It sees how individuals often come to Jesus from a lot of different directions. A church of this sort will be well inoculated against a sort of moralism that is strongly culturally bound. In other words, there is a lot to like about a centered set model of church.

I am not so quick to completely abandon certain components of the bounded-set model, though, since I think the New Testament uses certain “bounded set” language. Jesus Himself often speaks in very binary inside/outside terminology. There are certain beliefs which are necessary to be “inside” the [invisible, universal] Church. Jesus definitely grew large crowds and a diverse audience (centered set) but ultimately people within that group had to decide to join or reject Jesus (bounded set). In Acts it was those who accepted the message of the gospel (belief) and who were baptized (action) who were added to the ranks of the church. Paul is operating from a bounded set model when he speaks of excommunicating the man who was sleeping with his father’s wife. Church elders are given the task of shepherding, which includes both leading thirsty sheep to water (center set) and watching out for wolves in sheep’s clothing who would infiltrate the ranks of the church in order to kill and destroy (bounded set). The pastoral epistles give a pretty clear list of behavioral characteristics for who can or cannot be in leadership in a church.

My point is not that bounded set theory is superior. I don’t think it is. I only want to say that both models can be used to describe different healthy and unhealthy aspects of church. An unhealthy bounded set church is one that sets boundaries in the wrong areas (see my blog post on good and bad “lists”). A healthy bounded set church maintains pure doctrine and spurs its members on to holiness and sanctification. A healthy center set church demonstrates love and hospitality to those who may not conform to the “norm” and rightly prioritizes the direction of one’s heart, consistently pointing people to the person of Jesus. An unhealthy center set church fails to guard the faith or protect the flock from wolves. I think a healthy church is one that adopts the right model for the right circumstance.

At our church we employ both models, though not consciously. We welcome all into our worship and really aim to demonstrate hospitality no matter where someone is coming from. We prioritize the heart. We understand the discipleship is a process and everyone is at a different place in their journey. We strive to point everyone to the center – the Person of Jesus. All of these would be characteristic of a center set model. But we also require conversion and baptism for official membership and ask individuals to agree to our doctrinal statement. Members are not “better” than non-members, and non-members can and do play a big role in our church, but certain requirements are important in order to maintain the fidelity and identity of the organization. We also require the board members adhere to the requirements set out for elders and deacons in the Pastoral Epistles. These are all characteristics of a bounded set church.

All models, like all metaphors eventually break down. They are useful, but only up until a point. I would only caution those who are so enamored with the center set model, to see its limitations.