Progressive Churches of Christ: Resolving the Tension, Part 4.2

progressiveNow, to make the point made in yesterday’s post, I need to quote Mark Love, because he’s a better storyteller than I am —

Let me start, though, with a scene from last night at Starbucks. I was sitting uncomfortably close (within my introvert perimeter) to a young couple having a very passionate conversation about God. She was a winsome evangelical. He was a skeptical something-or-other. She was giving this her all, because it seemed to me, they were serious about each other, but she could only marry a Christian. This was an all-or-nothing moment for her and she was pulling out all the stops. And she was getting creamed.

She was not getting creamed because she lacked the intellectual ability or because he was a better debater. She was getting creamed because she had a story that’s tough to defend. It wasn’t just that he disagreed with her. He was offended by her view of God.

Her story was predictable. All of us are sinners, and it takes only one to make us unacceptable to God. And there’s hell to pay, literally. God can’t simply forgive us our mistakes. He has to have a victim before he can forgive, a blood sacrifice. So, he sends his own son to die for us, to appease his otherwise unappeasable wrath.

For the young man, this made God a monster. It failed for him precisely at the level of being moral. God really can’t forgive me for a mistake unless someone dies? With all that’s wrong with the world–disease, war, hunger, slaver–God is obsessed with who I sleep with? He kept telling her that he was a good person who cared for others and took care of the earth and cared about global issues of justice. God was going to send him to hell for pre-marital sex? (He did seem a little pre-occupied with sex).

Now, I won’t take time to dissect the particulars of her story or the problems with his critiques. I want to look at the starting place in her story. Her story had as its center the problem of individual sin. Everything flowed from that premise. As a result, her rhetorical strategy began with isolating him in his sin and warning him of the grave dangers to him personally.

Familiar story? Indeed. For a long time, this has been the Christian story among American evangelicals, and it’s a better story than “God will damn you because you were baptized the wrong way.” And because it’s better than what many of us were weaned on, we assume that it’s the best version of the gospel. It’s not.

Mark continues,

Now let’s try on a story that doesn’t begin with the individual as the issue. What if she had started this way: we live in a world that is totally screwed up. Sex-trafficking, poverty, disease, environmental disasters. We’ve made a hash of it. (He agrees).

And being a really good person isn’t the answer. We’re both really good people and know a lot of other really good people and we fix some things and some don’t get any better and some get worse (He agrees). Even science, which makes our lives better in so many ways, also threatens to wipe us from the face of the earth (He agrees).

And my question is, where is God in all of this? (And he agrees and hopes you have a satisfying answer). The Christian story says that God has revealed his power in a story of selfless love, which is the opposite of what the Bible calls sin and identifies as the root of this whole mess. God’s solution to the problem is not power as “control over” the contingencies of this life.

Rather, the Christian view of the world is that God suffers with us, joins us, endures with us, and works for justice through paths of faithful love. Love, not as an emotion, but love as a way of always acting for us. And ultimately, this is the power through which all things will be made whole.

The death of Jesus on a Roman cross is a demonstration that there is no power or circumstance that places us outside of his love. And his resurrection from the dead says to us that the powers of sin and death don’t have the final word. And the church is a group of people who live by the power of this selfless love, which the Holy Spirit gives to us, and who live in resistance to all other powers that would shape life in distorting or unjust ways, who live as a sign of God’s future where all things will be made whole.

This takes more than just good people or moral people. Christians hardly have that market cornered, but it takes people who share a commitment to this way of being in the world. And when you live this way with others, you learn to recognize the unmistakable ways that God shows up, like those moments of power when we learn to forgive each other the way God lavishly forgives us. And when I live in this story, I find myself being transformed by the love God.

The way this world gets on you and in you and contaminates you and weighs you down with shame and guilt and condemnation is defeated. And this transformed way of life survives everything, even death. (There’s lots more, but this is a blog).

Maybe he buys it, maybe he doesn’t. But the point is a different starting place makes a huge difference. By moving the primary issue from the individual to creation and history, the story unfolds in a different way. 

And you might tell it differently than I did. For instance, Paul doesn’t tell it precisely this way. But he’s starting with a different audience. I was starting with the young man at the Starbucks. This variety of audiences is one reason the Bible doesn’t tell the story only in one way. If the Bible doesn’t, why should we? And I’m convinced that if we place ourselves inside of a different story, it will change the ways we do things as well. 

(Paragraphing modified.)

My point? Well, churches split because the members tell themselves two different stories. It’s not as simple as “a cappella music is more important to me than the mission of God,” although it feels that way to many of us. Rather, it’s “I’m standing for the truth against the powers of deception, Postmodernism, etc.” versus “I think a better worship service will bring more visitors in.” That’s not a very persuasive story, is it? I mean, it’s speculation about what might work against the nobility of resisting change pressed on us by a wicked culture.

If you want to persuade, change everyone’s story by telling a far better story. Re-tell the gospel in terms of how it impacts the world and history and the church. Everything will change.

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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20 Responses to Progressive Churches of Christ: Resolving the Tension, Part 4.2

  1. John Acuff says:

    As usual you bless me. You inspire me and I ask God to give you wisdom and vision to see His will in our world
    John Acuff
    Old Country Lawyer

  2. Joe B says:

    The first distinction between the two stories is that the gospel does not start off with morality. I believe the discourse you describe above suggests the idea that attaining a certain level of morality is purely a humanistic idea. The confusion is that living a repentant life of high moral standard is the result of the God’s story becoming alive in us not the other way around. I can just hear some of my brothers screaming now yeah but then if we accept that then what’s to stop us from teaching once saved always saved? Then people will live however they want! This is also a very humanistic idea because the result they are concerned about is that rampant immorality will take off in the church if people think they are always saved so an almost unattainable level of morality personifies the story of God as gospel. When I was young I was sitting through one of the film strips home bible studies. Forgive me for forgetting the name of person who put them together. After viewing the film strip the adults I was with who were leading the bible study starting telling the family if they decided to be baptized all the immoral things in their life that would have to immediately change. Proceed to the end of the story the couple discussed it and decided that they didn’t think they could live up to that level of morality immediately so they declined to be baptized. I was shocked because in my young theological mind I was asking myself; don’t they know they will go to hell to if they don’t do this? Even today people are dropping out of church burdened with guilt because they are trying to do everything themselves and eventually get burned out again humanism not the gospel. Just for the record I don’t believe in the OSAS. But I almost do. I think if we can better understand things here it will help us move from humanistic attempts to attain to the gospel and replace them with letting God’s story come alive in us. First in Romans Paul teaches that as long as there is a remnant of faith God is faithful. So what does this mean? It means that as long as we are trusting the Lord even at the smallest level even if we struggle even if we make bad mistakes even if we struggle with doubt that God is faithful not only presently but eternally. This is the only just way of applying this. Otherwise you have to pull out your morality ruler again. The next thing is when people really encounter the Spirit of the Lord in their life and are not just trying to do something to avoid hell or have to worry about “sinning that grace may increase” aka rampant immorality because the graceful work of Spirit in one’s life is more effective than the fear of eternal damnation or the castigation of their Christian brothers and sisters. Now the unattainable level of morality I speak of here is synonymous with doctrinal perfection. Many people are burned out because they have put so much time and energy into hammering out the perfect doctrine for every little detail they eventually become spiritually burned out because there is not end to it and eventually realize that is impossible to have it. This doesn’t mean that we can’t have truth. But it does mean that story of God is the foundation for what is sound, healthy, effective, transforming, life giving, redeeming doctrine. Let me say that again if our doctrine is not congruent with the core story of God and his nature then our doctrine also becomes a humanistically plagued endeavor. Being influenced by humanism, doctrines turn from the story of God coming alive in our lives to methods of control and how to manipulate behavior and control people through fear and uncertainty about today and eternity.

  3. Joe B says:

    C.S Lewis was once asked what made Christianity different than the other world religions. He simply said grace. Then further explained that God came to man. In all other world religions man comes to god or works himself up to god through a set of acts or a system of morality. The story of Adam and Eve is less about following instructions and more about the story of God and the nature of man wanting to like God. If it was mostly about following instructions then God wouldn’t have eventually sent his Son or did any of the other things he did to reconcile humanity to Himself. The human side of us asks ourselves what must we do the God story says what he did. Only when we understand this can we really begin to understand the story of God in our own lives. If we base Christianity on a set of works or moral system then it is no different than the other world religions. The bible says God is love and God is Spirit. It does not say God is doctrine or God is morality or God is good works. The unique idea that the Spirit or God is the transformative working power in our human bodies and not just another religious system of morality, good works, and special knowledge where we try to make ourselves good enough for God is the defining factor. Now respectively to us we tried really hard to make the Spirit not alive in our bodies because we were afraid he might take over and make speak in tongues or smoothing crazy like that. Laugh out loud! But the worst thing was as we were desperately looking for the story of God in our lives a role only fulfilled by the Holy Spirit, we told people “Well you are just going to have to try harder”. Please tell me anywhere in scripture where people were told that? Why is such a bad thing? Well essentially you are saying that our own human will, understanding and mortal attempts are better than God’s spirit working through us.
    Remember when the Rich young ruler said he had kept the law and the prophets since he was child but was still wondering what he needed to do inherit eternal life? Then Jesus told him to sell everything he had and give it to the poor. What Jesus was telling him was that his question was wrong. What was wrong with his question? What must “I” do? The truth was not that he got eternal life for selling all his stuff. Jesus was telling him that eternal life is a part of the story of God not something we earn or do. But he was also telling him that if the story of God was really alive in him he wouldn’t have had any problem selling everything he had and giving it to the poor.
    Meanwhile back at the ranch in the context of what this means to the original post here. This humanistic attempt in replacing humanity with the story of God has spilled over into our theology and since the churches of Christ were formed during an age of modernism we asked most of our theological and ecclesiastical question from those assumptions and starting points. An example when we started using Acts 20:7 to say we must take the Lord supper every Sunday and only on Sunday we were sub consciously saying “well there must be a day and a way to observe the Lord’s Supper”. Once that became our question then we went looking for any scripture that would tell us that even it was completely taken out of context. This is how much of our theology and subsequent ecclesiology was formed absent of the nature or story of God. The problem with this is that it takes the story of God out of the picture and the questions assume that a religious system of “works”, sacraments, laws and legal requirements is what God is really all about. So then we wind up with people who follow those to enth degree but are still spiritually empty because…..the story of God is largely absent just like the Rich Young Ruler.
    To relieve the tension we must be willing to back up and challenge the assumptions and questions that started of this. So we must have the permission that it is ok to challenge, res-study and even come to different conclusions. Establishing that culture in a church is essential to overcoming the tensions. Now the problem is you have the GA and others who are telling people it is wrong to re-study and the smallest little doctrinal error will jeopardize your soul. Here is an example.
    Until we solve this problem then the tension is always underneath the surface because one group of people is ready and willing to go and the other believes that even considering re-studying with a new approach is heresy and violates their conscious. Creating an atmosphere where you have two or more groups doing their own things in a congregation will only put the problem off until another time. The fear for those who are reluctant to re-study using different approaches is that it opens up everything to re-study and that is very difficult because then people think that “we don’t know anything for sure”. I would suggest to you that if re-studying everything with a different perspective and approach is non-negotiable then a search for the truth is not really the endeavor but rather it is the emotional security of being right. Remember God is not concerned with us being absolutely right on everything Interpreting the bible is a human endeavor so the way we read and understand the bible will always be revised but that doesn’t not mean we can’t be sure of anything it just means that we need always need to be open to challenging our presupposed ideas, questions and methods. As an engineer and scientist I will tell you that the same phenomenon is true in my field. You have somebody that makes a discovery then writes a theory then makes a law of physics or something. Then before long all that is unquestionable people start ignoring strong evidence to contrary. Due to this significant additional discoveries and technologies have been delayed for years because the emotional security of being right is the underlying driver. The story of God suggests that we don’t have to be right on everything in fact it suggests that God really wants us to constantly challenge who we are in Him and be willing to let Him reveal more and more to us but that can’t happen if we don’t let the story of God be the prevailing narrative.

  4. John F says:

    I think of the true story — Korean war vet drinking, smoking, etc. He was considering discipleship and asked the minister, “Do I have to stop smoking and drinking if I become a Christian?” An insightful minister replied, “No, but someday you will want to.” They completed the trip to the water. Some years later discipleship led to life style changes.

    But what the story had changed? What if the minister had said, “Christians do not smoke and drink. You can never have another drink or cigarette if you want to go to heaven.”

    I have heard that response, also.

    To expect behavior changes without the empowerment of the HS within is futile. The hope of a changed life is an important part of the story.

  5. Joe B says:

    Oh yeah and Amen John F!

  6. Price says:

    I don’t know Joe B… God told Adam, don’t do this.. He did it anyway.. got banished.. Sounds pretty obedience oriented to me… The Law of Moses was nothing except law and punishment.. It seems to me at least that the Gospel or Good News is exactly that.. FANTASTIC news that we are no longer judged according to our ability to perform.. Anninias and Sapphira to the contrary notwithstanding… Are there instructions with the expectation of obedience ? Sure.. but Grace seems to be a unique ingredient to the new covenant that didn’t exactly exist in previous covenants.. IMO

  7. John F says:

    Grace has always been there; we just have to read and look. From the garden — God offered grace rather than immediate death. Why did not not zap Adam & Eve out of existence, and try again? GRACE. Noah found GRACE in the eyes of the Lord. (Favor in NASB & ESV).

    The 10 word and and further laws were RADICAL in that they brought grace to judgment.

  8. Mark Love says:

    Joe B, as the author of the two conversations, I just want to say that I think the second story is way, way, way more morally serious.

  9. Joe B says:

    I am confused by your last comment. Would you please clarify?

  10. laymond says:

    Rom 9:1 I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost,
    Rom 9:2 That I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart.
    (The Holy Spirit knows what is in our conscience)

    Rom 11:22 Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off. (what did Paul say to the Gentiles here? “if thou continue in his goodness”) (I suggest some here read the entire chap. 11)

    Heb 8:10 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people:
    Heb 8:11 And they shall not teach every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest.
    Heb 8:12 For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more.

    (who is God talking about here? The Jews, because the old law did not apply to the Gentiles)
    I don’t see where anyone included this in their “God story”.

  11. Jay Guin says:

    Joe B,

    Mark can answer for himself, but I think I see his point. If you look at the second gospel presentation, you read things like —

    Rather, the Christian view of the world is that God suffers with us, joins us, endures with us, and works for justice through paths of faithful love. Love, not as an emotion, but love as a way of always acting for us. And ultimately, this is the power through which all things will be made whole.

    The death of Jesus on a Roman cross is a demonstration that there is no power or circumstance that places us outside of his love. And his resurrection from the dead says to us that the powers of sin and death don’t have the final word. And the church is a group of people who live by the power of this selfless love, which the Holy Spirit gives to us, and who live in resistance to all other powers that would shape life in distorting or unjust ways, who live as a sign of God’s future where all things will be made whole.

    If we accept what Mark says here (and I think he’s quite right), we are called by the gospel to honor Jesus by living “in resistance to all other powers that would shape life in distorting or unjust ways.” Resisting injustice is moral.

    God’s mission calls on us to be faithful in resisting those who seek power over other persons through injustice. That’s much hard than declining to drink socially.

    What a bigger injustice? An unmarried couple has protected sex out of a genuine love for each other? Or the poor in Africa can’t earn a living selling farm products because the US and Western Europe so heavily subsidize their farmers that their farmers can sell food more cheaply in Nigeria and Kenya than then Nigerians and Kenyans can.

  12. Joe B says:

    Got it Jay. Thanks. I agree.

  13. “Her story was predictable. All of us are sinners, and it takes only one to make us unacceptable to God. And there’s hell to pay, literally. God can’t simply forgive us our mistakes. He has to have a victim before he can forgive, a blood sacrifice. So, he sends his own son to die for us, to appease his otherwise unappeasable wrath.”

    Isn’t her version essentially true? While I might choose to word it a bit differently (unappeasable wrath, etc), it seems to me that the gist of her story isn’t wrong. Granted, it’s not the ideal approach if you are wanting to convince a skeptic, but doesn’t the basics of her story hold up? Isn’t her version perhaps more “in the weeds” whereas Mark’s is more of a big picture version of the story.

    What am I missing?

  14. Monty says:

    One version (while true) is that “you screwed up” now repent. The other gives motivation for repenting. The you “screwed up” version is the cart before the horse. It’s the kindness of God that leads us to repentance. The gospel is more about relationship lost and regained(by Jesus) than “you sinned, God’s mad, he won’t be mad at you any more if you obey this command.” One version is beautiful and captivating, while the other, not so much.

  15. Dwight says:

    Eddie, I think you have a point” What was the story that Peter relayed to the people in Acts 2. Jesus came, Jesus is God, Jesus died, Jesus went to heaven and is “Lord and Christ”. Many, many were convicted in this.
    Now to the Gentiles the story might have been tweeked, but it should still always be that Jesus is God and Lord and Christ and Savior.
    That is the goal of John story in John 20:31 “but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.”
    The problem is when we start introducing doctrinal differences or ourselves and our system before we introduce Jesus. Jesus is the Big story and issue and all other things are peripheral in nature and secondary in order.

  16. Dwight says:

    Monty, I think we should approach it as “WE have all screwed up” and “God loves us and loves us so much as to send Jesus who offers us His way through repentence and then we gain Jesus and His blessings”. Unfortunately when we talk to people we often poin the gun at them, without letting them know we are all under the same gun and under the same grace and mercy and all you have to do is accept Jesus and the grace and mercy will be realized in salvation.

  17. Neal says:

    Awesome posts and comments. The Kingdom is now.

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