Thompson’s book, The Church according to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ, is top-notch theology. The problem with the book is that it’s really nothing but top-notch theology. Thompson doesn’t offer anything in the way of examples or illustrations.
Now, I hate preacher-books where each chapter begins with a Ted-and-Alice story; you know, “Ted and Alice came to my office and asked me whether Adam had free will to sin or whether God required him to sin so his plan of redemption could come true.” Some of these stories are a little too convenient, and few are really helpful to understanding the rest of the chapter. It’s how preachers clear their throats before they get to the meat of the lesson.
So it’s with considerable reluctance that I present these Bob-and-Jim stories, but I think true cross-shaped living is so foreign to the contemporary church that I would be remiss should I move on without pausing to make Thompson’s point clear by parable.
Bob is an elder in a church of Christ. (The little “c” means I’m referring to a church founded on Jesus as Messiah and has nothing to do with its historical roots or whether it subscribes to the Christian Chronicle (not that there’d be anything wrong with that)). Jim sells insurance for a living. And he’s a good and hard-working salesman. He is also an elder.
The church decides it needs to purchase a plan of long-term group disability insurance to cover its ministers because so many have elected out of Social Security. The elders have determined what they think they need, and Jim has been immensely helpful in advising his fellow elders on the options involved in such a purchase.
Bob suggests that the insurance coverage be put out for bids under a request for proposals (RFP). Jim is incensed. “I know the church’s needs better than anyone. I’ve spent untold hours helping my fellow elders design the best plan, and I guess I just assumed that I’d be allowed to sell the insurance! I mean, isn’t it only fair ….?”
QUESTION: The hard question isn’t what Jim should do at this point as a Jesus-shaped Christian. My question is: What should Bob do? Bob doesn’t know insurance. He’s just a good guy ordained an elder. He and Jim are very close friends. They often eat together. They discuss the church’s problems together. They are as bound to one another as two good men can be. What should he say?
ANSWER 1: Jim, you’re right. “A worker is worthy of his hire.” You’ve invested so much of yourself in this church that we owe you an insurance commission. The rest of us are working for free out of love for the congregation, but because this happens to hit in your area of expertise, you should be paid for this.
ANSWER 2: Jim, you’re right. But we’ll expect you to service the policy and earn your sales and renewal commissions just like an independent agent.
ANSWER 3: If this was a business and you were on the board of directors, you’d be fired for suggesting such a thing. Surely, our ethics are higher than business ethics!
ANSWER 4: You are welcome to compete with the other agents, and if your proposal is the best proposal, we’ll be delighted for you to have the business. But we can’t ask the church to pay a penny extra because it’s an elder selling the policy.
ANSWER 5: Elders should be blameless and of good reputation. To protect you from any accusation and to protect all of us, I think the wise course would be for you not to participate in the RFP process. If you were to win, even if it was perfectly fair and square with no cheating of any kind, it would look bad. And the church is too precious to risk any sullying of her reputation.
ANSWER 6: Bob says nothing for fear of losing his good friend. He hopes another elder will speak up, but they see Bob’s silence, read his fear of losing his friendship, and so they remain silent as well. The meeting ends awkwardly and the subject of long-term disability insurance never comes up again — or if it does, it’s never brought to a vote. Friendships among elders are too important to risk over such a thing.
OR is there another better answer?
Now let’s revisit the same scenario from Jim’s perspective.
ANSWER 1: Look, guys, I’ll cut my commission by whatever it takes to be fair to the church. Let’s bid this, and if my bid isn’t the lowest, I’ll match the lowest. I’m happy to bump my tithe by whatever it takes to be sure the church isn’t hurt by my getting this business.
ANSWER 2: I know you’ve all worked hard and never once asked for a penny from the church. If I win the bid, I’ll donate my entire commission to the church.
ANSWER 3: I know you’ve all worked hard and never once asked for a penny from the church. If I win the bid, I’ll donate my entire commission and all renewals to the church.
ANSWER 4: I know you’ve all worked hard and never once asked for a penny from the church. If I win the bid, I’ll donate my entire commission and all renewals to the church in addition to my usual tithe.
ANSWER 5: What with all the time I’ve invested in the church, I deserve to get paid. This is what I do for a living! If I can’t sell to my good friends a church, who will pay me to sell insurance? My enemies?
ANSWER 6: I won’t make a bid but my partner who goes to another church will. (He’ll split the commission with me, but let’s pretend you didn’t hear me say that.)
ANSWER 7: Bid? Are you crazy? I’m an independent agent and I can get proposals from all the major insurers. We don’t need to bring any other agents in — and no one will take better care of this church and its ministers than someone who knows them as well as me!
ANSWER 8: I recuse myself from any involvement in the bid process so that there will be not the least appearance of impropriety.
ANSWER 9: If I don’t get this piece of business I’ve worked so hard for, my and family and I are leaving this church — and taking our giving and volunteer hours with us. Is it really worth losing me and family over a little ol’ insurance policy? Trust me, the church comes out ahead if I stay.
OR is there a better answer?
LESSON: How hard is it for Bob to stare down Jim and force the right result? If Jim pushes hard (Answer 9, for example), their friendship could be in jeopardy. Jim might leave. He might lead a church split. He might stay, sull up (Southern for “pout”), and make elder meetings miserable.
What price should Bob be willing to pay to do the right thing? And does the fact that “the right thing” is less than clear to most church members change the outcome? I mean, no one will really know about this process. Most will assume it’s all above board. The odds of someone raising an issue are miniscule whereas the odds of Jim getting bent out of shape may be quite high. Does that factor in?
If Bob is truly cruciform, if he’s willing, having seen a cross on the ground, to pick it up, what must he do? Remember, “take up your cross” doesn’t mean “suffer what you have no choice but to suffer.” In Jesus’ saying, crosses are lifted off the ground by choice.
(Lk. 9:23 ESV) And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
N. T. Wright explains,
Once again, the summons (‘We are going up to Jerusalem; the son of man will suffer, but will be vindicated; so take up your cross and follow me!’) could well have sounded like the call to revolution. Those who answered such a call would have to be prepared to act in such a way that, if they were caught, they would be likely to pay for it with their lives.
N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1996), 304.
The demand is not to accept the inevitable suffering common to all mankind. It’s to voluntarily risk everything — even life — to follow Jesus. Every day.