Sexually pure gospel
Watch enough 24-hour news shows and pretty soon you’ll see some evangelist interviewed. The subject will be sex — abortion, divorce, homosexuality, abstinence. It’s as though the only thing Jesus taught us was to keep our pants on outside of marriage!
Now, the Bible is very, very moral and holds us to very high standards. But is this center of the gospel?
Ask a Christian teenager about the youth rally he just returned from, and he’ll tell you that most of the lessons were on sexual purity. It’s good they’re being taught this. They need to hear it. What else do they need to hear? And what else might the government or the TV audience need to hear?
“Ecclesiology” is the doctrine of how to organize and do church as an institution. And the Churches of Christ have a highly developed focus on ecclesiology — so much so that many of us define who is saved by their ecclesiology.
This is what the Gospel Advocate advocates — Jesus came and died so we’d all have the right position on the issues, especially ecclesial issues, and so be saved. Get a position wrong, and you’re damned, so you’d better study hard!
Now, regular readers know that I’m pretty big on doctrine. But isn’t it odd that Jesus spent his entire life on earth saying nothing about how to worship or how to organize a church? He didn’t even give his church a name!
Indeed, some of our preachers conclude that Jesus was simply the last of the Old Testament prophets, as his ministry was before Pentecost. Therefore, the doctrine that really matters is found in Paul — not the gospels.
Doctrine is, of course, important. But have we found the right place for it?
The gospel of spiritual discipline
One of the biggest movements in current evangelicalism has to do with the spiritual disciplines — prayer, meditation, solitude, journaling, fasting, and such. Much of the idea is that we can’t truly become disciples (defined, in this context, as fully obedient) unless we submit to such disciplines.
And no one denies that such disciplines can be beneficial. They are. But are they the path to being what God called us to be? Is this God’s recipe for disciple-making?
One of my favorite books in Resident Aliens, by Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Williamon. It’s had a big impact on evangelicalism. The authors argue,
[The Sermon on the Mount] is an invitation to a way that strikes hard against what the world already knows, what the world defines as good behavior, what makes sense to everybody. The Sermon, by its announcement and its demands, makes necessary the formation of the colony, not because disciples are those who have a need to be different, but because the Sermon, if believed and lived, makes us different, shows the world to be alien, an odd place where what makes sense to everybody else is revealed to be opposed to what God is doing among us. Jesus was not crucified for saying or doing what made sense to everyone. (p 74)
Christian community, life in the colony, is not primarily about togetherness. It is about the way of Jesus Christ with those whom he calls to himself. It is about disciplining our wants and needs in congruence with a true story, which gives us the resources to lead truthful lives. In living out the story together, togetherness happens, but only as a by-product of the main project of trying to be faithful to Jesus. (p. 78)
Hauerwas famously likes to say, “Let the church be the church,” meaning that the foremost problem of the church is that it doesn’t much act like the church.
I think he’s right. Is it enough?
The gospel of bringing heaven to earth
N. T. Wright in Simple Christianity explains that the Bible can be viewed as being all about bringing heaven and earth together. At times, the two have come close — in Eden, in the Tabernacle and Temple, and especially in Jesus. But at the End, when the new Heaven descends to the new Earth, the merger of heaven and earth will be fully consummated.
Until then, as he explained to Steven Colbert, we are to be about the business of bringing heaven to earth, helping God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Of course, the hard question is the one Colbert asked — if God made the heavens and earth in 6 days, then he could make the new earth in, say, an afternoon! Why does he need our help?
Imagine a church that taught new members a class that covered all the gospels listed in this and the three previous posts. If each idea were taught fully, it would be a very, very long class!
And, as a practical matter, churches, being made of fallible humans, can’t focus on two dozen things at once. Write a 12-page position paper on what the church needs to be, and you’ve wasted your time. No one can focus on so much at once.
Therefore, the practical necessity is for us to sort through all these ideas — some excellent and some not so excellent — and find the center of the gospel and then build the rest around it. Get the center right, and the rest should fall into place.
That’s not to say that the center of the gospel is all of the gospel. It’s not. But it seems to be the best place to focus our energies.
And the challenge is this: the reason there are so many claimants to “gospel” is that people come from differing backgrounds and have differing needs. We bring a lot of baggage to our studies. And so, how do we pull out of the scriptures the core that matters the most?