John Nugent’s Endangered Gospel: Being the Church

endangered gospelSo I find Nugent’s theology of the powers helpful and more detailed and more deeply rooted in the scriptures than Yoder’s — not that Yoder is wrong, but Nugent has helpfully deepened the teaching.

And like Hauerwas, Nugent argues that the task of the church is to truly be the church. Which requires some unpacking, and he works hard to explain how he sees Christian and church life in light of his studies.

But I don’t think he quite ever hits the nail on the head. I mean, he says many good things I agree with, but as is true when I read Yoder and Hauerwas, I find myself thinking that they never quite articulate the ultimate, real point.

To me, the point is this: the church’s foremost task is spiritual formation for individuals in community. If we skip this step, then we’re just a secular social club or do-gooder organization with a cross hung on it. If our goal is to save the damned or to help the poor and we skip shaping our members into the image of Christ individually and in community, then we’ll fail at every task.

If our members and churches aren’t shaped into crosses, then our evangelistic efforts will feel like pushing rope up a hill. We’ll be constantly chasing the next evangelistic fad, looking for new methods, seeking the key to the hearts of Millennials, or the Y Generation, or whatever — buying lots of books and going to lots of seminars and converting hardly anyone. Sound familiar?

If our members and churches aren’t shaped into crosses, then our efforts to improve the lot of the poor will be just as ineffective as the efforts of the government and other secular organizations. We’ll just apply one more bandaid on top of another, patching what ought to be rebuilt from the ground up. We’ll dig lots of wells but we won’t build communities that can dig their own wells — or dig wells for others for the sake of Jesus. We’ll just throw money and volunteers at the problem and never truly solve the problem. But we’ll be able to report to our members how our lives have been impacted by being around the poor. We won’t give many talks about how the lives of the poor have been transformed by their being around us.

What makes the Kingdom a better society? Why leave the world to live there? Is it just that you get to go to heaven when you die? Just that the church paints houses and digs wells? Or is there something … more? In fact, what is it that Jesus spent three years preaching? Was it just the afterlife? Just good works for Gentiles?

So maybe we need to drop back 15 yards and rethink this whole church thing. I mean, if the goal is to create a cross-shaped community filled with cross-shaped people, what would we do differently from what we’re doing now? I don’t think we’ll get there by passing out sample ballots for the next election or tracts on how to convince an atheist to believe in God.

Or let’s tackle the question another way: how is the modern church unlike the First Century church? What did they do that we don’t do anymore? What’s changed?

Here’s my own thinking, but I’m more than open to suggestions:

  1. Modern churches don’t spend much time on the Christian virtues. We don’t talk about Christian living. In fact, I think Nugent is right that our emphasis on evangelism and serving the world has distracted us from first becoming cross-shaped people and cross-shaped churches. And our preaching and classroom instruction reflects this shortcoming. 1 Cor 13, Rom 12, and the SOTM should be central teaching. The Kingdom parables should be a focus of instruction.
  2. We have an identity issue. Rather than thinking of ourselves as members of the Church of Christ or Baptist Church — even if we say “Christian first and Baptist second” — we should in fact think of ourselves as Jesus followers first and only. I mean, how can we tell the world that the Kingdom is a better place and then have to explain that some parts of the Kingdom are better than others, and we really need to have conversation about moving into the right Kingdom neighborhood?
  3. Our identity issues lead to unity issues. We are badly divided and it shows — and it’s embarrassing. There is only one Kingdom, one church, one Messiah, one Spirit. And to have any appeal to a lost and broken world, we really need to be united. In fact, the original Restoration plea was quite right: to unite based on faith in Jesus as Messiah. That’s the key. Alexander Campbell was right all along!
  4. But the identity issue is bigger than unity. It’s about the extent to which submission to Jesus affects our lives. We think of Christianity as the spiritual part of our existence. But we have other parts that are largely untouched by Christianity. We haven’t learned how to be Christians 24/7 in all aspects of our lives. And if you doubt me, read the Facebook posts your friends put up on politics and tell me that they love their enemies.
  5. Which brings us to politics. We serve a king, Jesus, and no one else. We serve the powers only because Jesus tells us to and only to the extent Jesus tells us to. Therefore, we should be Republicans or Democrats to the extent and only to the extent that Jesus so commands. We should be Americans to the extent and only to the extent that Jesus so commands. We can’t be so naive as to imagine that the next presidential election will bring salvation or the Golden Age or the Millennium. Neither party is my Savior. No political or economic or political system is my Savior. The solution to the world’s problems died on a cross, and he is not running for office. I emulate him by being cross-shaped in all my choices.
  6. We really need to learn to do a better job of caring for our own. It may be Christians in other congregations that most need our help, but we should be a people among whom no one needs anything. And yet for some reason we much prefer to care for the needs of non-Christians.

Let’s take the Exodus as an example. The story of the Exodus is filled with great moments, with heroes, and with miracles. It would make into a great movie. But imagine that you’re just a regular Hebrew slave. You are a child of YHWH, the Hebrew God, and you spend your days making bricks.

What’s your part in the story? Do you do great miracles? Make historic speeches? Engage in great acts of heroism? No, your task is to cry out to God.

(Exod. 2:23 NET) During that long period of time the king of Egypt died, and the Israelites groaned because of the slave labor. They cried out, and their desperate cry [za ‘aqbecause of their slave labor went up to God.

The next job you have is to take the Passover, because only those families who take the Passover lamb will be spared from the death angel. And then you grab your stuff and head out into the desert, hoping that God finds a way to get you across the sea as Pharoah’s army approaches on chariots.

There’s no evangelizing. No good works for the Egyptians. Your job is to be a part of God’s people, living as God instructs. And he’ll soon give the Torah and explain what your new life is going to be like. But the attraction you and your people will  hold for the world is not your superior numbers, your wisdom, your technology, or really anything about you. It will be your God. The Exodus is an amazing story because of what God does for you — and you will be a light to the Gentiles only because you tell the story. It’s not about you. It’s about your God.

On the other hand, part of the appeal of YHWH is the Torah — and the nation that he creates through his wise and just laws. Your obedience to Torah is essential to the plan, not because obedience earns your salvation. You were saved from the Pharaoh before you received the Torah! But because your obedience leads to a society in which the oppressed are lifted up and the poor cared for, where even slaves are treated better than many “free” people in neighboring nations.

In other words, Israel will become a light to the Gentiles by how they treat each other because of God’s instructions. It’s not about the details of how they avoid working on the Sabbath but whether they care for the poor, the fatherless, the widow, and the sojourner among themselves. Their care for each other, as commanded by their God, demonstrates the superiority of their God and so of their salvation and their way of life.

Therefore, it should be no surprise to read in the NT, which in many ways is modeled on the Exodus, that the primary task of the disciples of Jesus is to form a Jesus-shaped community and live as Jesus taught. We aren’t lights of the world because of our great gospel sermons or our great works of charity. We are the light of the world because of how we treat each other — which why the overwhelming majority of NT instruction is about how to get along.

(Jn. 13:35 ESV)  35 “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

(Jn. 17:20-21 ESV)  20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word,  21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

Love for one another and unity mark us as God’s people. It’s not that we don’t dig wells and care for orphans and preach gospel to the lost — but we begin with love and unity or all the rest is futility. And if we were united in love, evangelism would be natural and organic.

If we love our friends and neighbors, we’ll tell them about Jesus and help those who are in need. But it does mean that when we tell them about Jesus, we can also tell them about his body on earth, the church, that exemplifies what he stands for. The church will not about right doctrine or right worship or right creeds. The church will be about the right King — and obviously so. In fact, the church will be a preview of the new heavens and new earth — so much so that the church shines like stars .

(Phil. 2:14-16 ESV)  14 Do all things without grumbling or disputing,  15 that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world,  16 holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. 

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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9 Responses to John Nugent’s Endangered Gospel: Being the Church

  1. Mark says:

    “We haven’t learned how to be Christians 24/7 in all aspects of our lives.” This is the truth. Whether or not you agree with female cofC ministers, I remember some women writing online and posting videos about the female preaching intern under Dr. Patrick Mead and calling her “a child of hell.” It was appalling.

    “We don’t talk about Christian living.” The cofC did but only discussed all the bad things that the younger people did supplemented with what they should not do which was pretty much everything. You’re right in that living a Christian life while being a university student, young professional, etc. was not discussed. I guess the reason for never preaching on Jesus attending dinner parties, weddings, and drinking wine was because would say that if it were acceptable for Jesus, why not for them? It is a legitimate argument.

  2. JES says:

    Less preaching and more studying is what we need. Freedom in Christ is a work of grace.

  3. Dwight says:

    For one thing…we need to get rid of mission theology for the church. The church doesn’t need to be sent out to those it is already among, we just need to impress upon the saints that they too can influence another towards Christ. And we need to unify with others who are doing this, even though not among our particular group. The lost won’t want to be with a schizophrenic group that is fighting amongst itself, who seemingly have more issues than they do.
    The assembly was designed to lift the members of Christ up and strengthen the core in unity, whether physically, but surely spiritually, but not designed to convert the lost or even supply for the lost. The saints were designed through Christ to spread the message and help those around them.

  4. Mark says:

    Dwight, Please explain what you mean by “The church doesn’t need to be sent out to those it is already among.”

  5. Bob Brandon says:

    We may not have always been “Christians 24/7”, but many of us know what it is like to be “family 24/7” in a not dysfunctional way. Folks with healthy family relationships (and those with ones that could use a little/a bit/a lot of work) know their particular lines of fellowship, and they tend to be rather expansive and generous, especially in light of foibles everyone is already thoroughly familiar with.
    Maybe that’s a place to start?
    The good thing about family is that I don’t come to family events with an agenda (although there are members who do; we all know who they are, we kind of contain them but love them anyway); I come for the fellowship and the renewing of bonds and of love. The kingdom is different primarily in the sense that we have relationships with so many (more) while mindful of the fact that there are so many relatives we need to get to know and convince to come to the next gathering. We are reminded of the people we are supposed to be around as our kin, and we are gleeful at the prospect of welcoming our relatives we have scarcely met and barely know. We don’t “convert” to family; we just are. Loyalty oaths are the stuff of Hatfields and McCoys.
    There’ll be some awkwardness – and awkward kin; no family is immune to that, but they are moments to grow and remember who we are, who they are, and what family is about. We emphasize getting along, being there for each other, and standing by and for each other.
    Being family means being grateful for the child who stayed with dad and for the child who ran off and wasted his inheritance early.

  6. Dwight says:

    Mark, First of all do we read where the “church” in the sense of a gathered entity was sent out to do anything? Not that I am aware of.
    If the church had one goal as a gathered entity it was to be unified and build each other up in Christ.
    Secondly, if we are in Christ we are the church and we are among those in this world, thus we have access to the lost, thus we are capable and responsible for teaching those who we are among about Christ. It is not up to a group, but up to us.
    I am not saying I am a shining example of this, but I do recognize that we don’t convert people as groups, but people as people. And as individuals our mission is before us, but for some reason we want to be a part of a group that has that same mission and we want to label it…2016 Go Tell The World Mission, etc. The word spread from person to person in the early church because they were among those who needed it and they were willing to tell others about Jesus.
    I’m not saying that it is wrong to gather into groups to spread the gospel, but that even before we make it to a group we can spread the gospel. Often what we call missions are limited in time and place, but we are not in our contact with the lost.

    Bob, I think family is the right way to look at us as the church. The problem is that we have a list ready for qualifying who is family and who isn’t and it usually is grounded in what group you associate with. We equate not being a part of our local church family and or denomination as not being a part of God’s family.

  7. In the early 1960’s I became a ‘missionary’ to New Zealand. Shortly before leaving, I stopped by the GA bookstore to pick up books I thought I might need to go along with my Jule Miller films to enable me to convert Wellington. One book I bought was Jack Exum’s ‘How to Win Souls.’ I remember how disappointed I was when I discovered that it begins by discussing the Beatitudes.

    How naive I was about joining the ranks of those who are wise because they win souls. The idea of being like Jesus had no place in my concept of evangelism. I didn’t have a clue about how I was supposed to go about winning souls.

    It is only in recent years that I’ve thrown away all of the canned approaches (and I’ve used many of them – JM films, at least a couple of other filmstrip series, OBS, FOM, The Roman Road, and Circles of Truth). Instead, now I seek first to follow Jesus so he can make me a fisher of men.

    I wish I could report great success in bringing lost sheep into the fold. I can’t, but I do believe I am influencing some younger people into a better path than the one I followed for much of my life.

    Great post, Jay! You’ve given us all a lot to chew on and hopefully digest. Let the church be the church – by becoming more and more like Jesus. What a novel idea! But how much it is needed in all of our congregations.

  8. Bob Brandon says:

    We have a ready list for those who are members of our flesh-and-blood families, but we invariably loosen those rules for those who marry into our families or who are brought into our families by marriage. We readily embrace those rules and the exceptions as well. And we further muddle those rules by including family friends who are every bit as close as kin themselves, essentially adoption by acclamation.

    We can as surely appreciate the exceptions we appropriate for ourselves in our own families in our fellowships. It ultimately comes down to a turn of mind, a will to be gracious, and a realization that we don’t have all the answers – or rules – to adjudicate every situation.

    Which should be incentive enough not to adjudicate at all.

    Nonetheless, some will object to thinking of family in this manner, and they will decide to disown, arguing for some sort of family purity. Which we can already confess as ridiculous, since few of us will ever confess with a straight face that we have our own acts together and that was ever a basis for family in the first place. One is as created and adopted into God’s family as we were created or adopted into our own. We’ve never had to prove ourselves worthy of family, at least of a normal family; families that insist on members validating themselves are families in disorder and disintegration.

    There is a certain futility in devising a mission statement for family. Families just are and exist across multiple dimensions of relationship. Any healthy church will as well.

  9. Mark says:

    Dwight, I understand now. People are sent. Areas around churches in cities have a large number of agnostics and are ripe for missionary effort. People though have to go out, not churches.

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