Which Gospel? From Bill Hull

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Larger file for use in PowerPoint.

Previous version of graphic.

(Thanks to reader JohnF for the upgrade on the graphic.)

Thanks to Scot McKnight, I came across this chart by Bill Hull. The problem is that if your eyes are as old as mine, you can’t read the white against light green boxes at the bottom. My artistic skill set is pretty limited. I learned how to draw an owl in the second grade, and that’s about it. So I tried my hand at editing the image to improve the contrast, and got nowhere. If a reader would like to try his hand at improving this image, that would be great.

But by blowing the picture up bigger than the blog screen will hold, I find the following:

  1. Forgiveness Only; “Be Forgiven”; “What It Creates: Following Christ is Optional; Sanctified Passivity.”
  2. Left: Old & New; “Help the Needy”; “What It Creates: Accommodation to Culture; True Truth is Optional; Can’t Really Know.”
  3. Prosperity: “Claim Your Right”; “What It Creates: Entitlement, God Management.”
  4. Consumer: “Meet Your Needs:; “What It Creates: Self-Indulgent Impatience, Addiction to Desire.”
  5. Right: “Be Right”; “What It Creates: Theological Swagger, Exclusiveness, Detachment.”
  6. Kingdom: “Follow Me”; “What It Creates: Activist, Followers Intent on Learning to Live as Jesus Lived.”

Hull writes,

Most churches intend to produce mature, reproducing disciples, but this is generally not happening in reality. The answer is clear. We are attempting the impossible. We cannot create mature disciples from Christians who believe in a consumer gospel or a legalistic gospel—or any other gospel on the chart except the kingdom gospel. Trying to do so is like pushing a boulder uphill, because we are trying to get people to act in Christlike ways without correcting what they truly believe.

(Emphasis in original.)

Amen and amen!

Now, historically the Churches of Christ fit mainly in the Be Right category. Having the right “positions,” being “sound,” and having the right “marks” were the emphasis. And, yes, it tend to create exclusiveness — in the extreme — and a lot of theological swagger. And the result was an unhealthy detachment from the world. We had no interest in the “social gospel,” meaning we weren’t about to cooperate with local nonprofits or other churches to serve the needy and hurting in our communities. And we couldn’t have been more detached from the rest of Christendom — and from many other Restoration Movement churches. I mean, we were detached to the point of isolation. So Hull nails it.

During recent decades, thanks to the Church Growth Movement, some congregations have drifted into a Consumer mentality — seeking to fill the pews by making the members happy. This comes in several forms. For example, some preachers are well-trained in counseling, and so they preach on self-esteem, depression, and such, wrapped in a thin veneer of biblical language, but the real message is: Jesus died so you’d feel better about yourself and enjoy good emotional health. This is the Prosperity Gospel (God wants me to be happy right now and I need money to be happy) but with emotional health replacing money.

As is true of the Prosperity Gospel, there are elements of truth in what is being preached. Adopt a Christian worldview, work hard, defer gratification, focus on others, be self-disciplined, take care of your family, and your business will likely do well and you’ll make good money. The old Protestant Work Ethic actually works.

Just so, the narrative of scripture, properly understood, should help our self-esteem because we are, in fact, very important to the Creator of the Universe — which is a big deal. And there is a lot of wisdom in the Scriptures about how to live and relate to others. In fact, being a Christian and understanding God’s ways will lead to better mental health for many. But that’s not why Jesus died. It’s not the centerpiece of Christianity because I’m not the centerpiece, and therefore my emotional well-being is not the centerpiece. But you wouldn’t know it from much of our preaching.

The Forgiveness Only approach is also a serious problem in the Churches of Christ because so much of our preaching and teaching is focused on baptism rather than Jesus. When the point of our preaching is that baptism done correctly for the correct reason is the only path to forgiveness, then forgiveness becomes the focus rather than following Jesus. In fact, we are fully capable of teaching the Five-Step Plan of Salvation (hear, believe, repent, confess, be baptized) without even mentioning Jesus! Indeed, some churches preach more sermons on believing that baptism produces forgiveness than that Jesus is our Messiah. We are far better school on baptismal theology than the nature of the Christ. And since our baptismal teaching is focused on “remission of sins” and not “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” or “Jesus is Lord,” while we may not intend to preach Forgiveness Only, we shouldn’t be surprised that many of our members just might have heard Forgiveness Only — which explains why all of our congregations struggle to recruit volunteers. We weren’t saved to volunteer; we were saved to go to heaven.

The Left Old & New is a new phenomenon in the Churches (despite untold thousands of bulletin articles and sermons accusing good Church of Christ people of liberalism going back over a century). And so we see accommodation to culture creeping in. There are very few among us who would deny the knowability of true Truth, that is, some absolute truths revealed by God. But the tendency is there.

These tendencies show up most strongly when it comes to how the church and its members should respond to married gay couples. The society and culture wish to normalize such relationships. I mean, is there now anything more cliche on TV than a mixed race lesbian or gay couple? I mean, if the TV writers are to be believed, about 20% of all married couples are gay and most of them mixed race. And, of course, pre-marital sex has become so normalized on TV that we’d be surprised to find a show where people waited on marriage — and then  one of them would inevitably be a wife beater or serial killer.

So, yes, Bible-based Christianity is very out of step with the surrounding culture when it comes to marriage and sexuality — and we’re not comfortable being there. I mean, it really bothers us to be so out of step. After all, we’re Americans and therefore capitalists and therefore measure success in terms of growth and sales and the budget rather than changed lives and the successful formation of a truly Christian community. Indeed, some days I’m not even sure where to start with such an effort myself.

So we’re all kinds of messed up — but we’re not alone. Very few churches have managed to be truly and exclusively focused on following Jesus. It’s not easy. In fact, we would all struggle to define just what that means in today’s world.

And so a reminder from prior recent series:

  1. “Salvation” is not merely getting our sins forgiven so we can go to heaven when we die. It’s being incorporated into God’s redemptive (slave-freeing) story going back to the beginning of humanity’s walk with God. We’ll know we’ve been freed from Sin when we begin to live as Jesus lived.
  2. We are saved to be restored to God’s image, most clearly seen in Jesus. Hence, the Gospels are not just great lessons on moral living. Jesus is the way — and the cross is the entry point. That is, to follow Jesus means we take up his cross and serve, submit, sacrifice, and suffer for others who do not deserve it — just as he did. It means stripping down to a loin cloth and washing the feet of Judas Iscariot — but it does not mean being enablers of sin. It’s a difficult line to walk because it’s so easy to drift into antinomian non-judgmentalism — which my leftward leaning brothers struggle with. We eat with sinners while inviting sinners to leave their lives of sin behind — not merely to become good moral people but to become salt and light. We become a light to the nations not just by having sound doctrine but by living the sound way: like Jesus.
  3. The church has to become a cross-shaped community that loves one another with the intensity of a rabbi who would take 39 stripes and a crucifixion in hopes that his followers will give themselves to each other. The early chapters in Acts thus become a model for how to do church. It’s not nearly as much about how you conduct the song service and Lord’s Supper as whether the congregation is living Acts 2-5, 1 Cor 13, the Sermon on the Mount, and Rom 12 together. Without a Kingdom community, well, the gospel is just theory. It’s not incarnated until we live it together. And when was the last time your preacher preached on these passages (not counting weddings) as the way to live together as a congregation?
  4. So the individual spiritual disciplines have some limited value, but we weren’t saved to live as individuals. We were saved into a body, a family, a household, an ancient God-serving nation, a royal priesthood, a Kingdom ruled by Jesus. And so since Jesus came to bring a Kingdom, we may just want to work on some Kingdom disciplines, but that would require us to do something together, and we’re much more comfortable with the individual approach.

All of which is to say: there’s a lot of wisdom hidden in those light-green boxes, and if someone could help the readers by editing the colors or something, this would make for a great Bible study (email me at jfguin(at)comcast(dot)net). But we’ve just got to give that chart a more PowerPoint friendly look.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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6 Responses to Which Gospel? From Bill Hull

  1. JohnF says:

    Like most charts (including one I make), this is also over simplistic. “Truth be told” we are often a confused mess of two or more of these emphases. We tend to “want it all” from selfishness, but the true call to “Follow Me” is lost. We do not even want to preach on Discipleship, it might seems cultist. When was the last time any of the readers to OIJ heard a sermon on “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me?” While I preach almost exclusively expository lessons, “even I” fall down on such (confession good for the soul?).

  2. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    John F,

    Entirely agree. Most churches suffer from a blend of deficient gospels. The Churches of Christ are, of the whole, maturing and more sensitive to many of these failings, but every congregation is different. For that matter, so is every elder and every minister. When I was an active elder, inevitably someone would announce at a leadership meeting, “We need to start making disciples!” Which is doubtlessly true — but I always insisted that we define “disciple” before the conversation went any further, and each person at the table meant something different. I mean, is a “disciple” someone who is a good student of the scriptures? Or someone who does what the leadership says? Or someone who practices individualized spiritual disciplines? Or signs up to volunteer without being cajoled? I mean, we have no widely agreed definition.

    Personally, I think the correct definition grammatically and historically is what Ray Vander Laan teaches — a disciple is someone who wants more than anything else to be just like his rabbi. That is, to follow Jesus is to become like Jesus, esp. in terms of submission, sacrifice, service, and suffering. And that is rarely what our members mean when they use the word.

  3. Jody Barr says:

    Whoa! My toes are sore…all of them. Thank you for posting this, Jay.

  4. Mark says:

    There is also the Gospel of Paul. That is, Paul’s writings are the ones to be followed. His are the most important and were preached on every Sunday.
    Then there is the Gospel of uncertainty. That is, you never know if you are saved or not. Everything is done, almost resentfully, out of a fear of going to hell.

  5. Dwight says:

    Within the church, that is to say assembly, we often talk much and do/apply little. Our preacher gave a lesson on preaching, making the point that the saint themselves preached and yet the preacher still feels compelled to preach 98% of the time in the pulpit (while others could do it and free him up to go to the lost) and while the people are preached at, they aren’t talked to and pushed in that direction. In other words things don’t change, because we don’t make them change.
    In the morning our preacher also preached on following the “examples of Jesus”, but gave very few examples of Jesus doing things and then asking are we doing them.

  6. Mark says:

    The preacher preaches 98% of the time in the pulpit so no one questions the preacher’s salary. After all, that is what he/she is paid to do.

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