Is There a Bulls Eye On My Back?
Lately I have either been reading essays or hearing reports of opinions that seem to be attacking either directly or indirectly things which I believe or have said. Since no one has quoted me by name I am grateful to be out of the line of fire, nevertheless some of the comments have come fairly close to at least a caricature of some of the things I have said or believe. I am not a polemicist, and I do not write a blog out of desire to be controversial and certainly not to gain notoriety. I do however become a bit agitated when things are taken out of context, or misrepresented, or a straw man erected so someone can blather on about how bad this straw man is or can become. Actually I would probably agree with their criticism if the straw man was not straw. My concern is for those who might read or hear such diatribes without knowing the difference between someone making hay out of their own imagined fears, as opposed to substantial issues. Lately some issues of concern are the Sonship movement, social Justice and the social application of Gospel truth, and being “missional.” All of these topics are relevant to me and to my congregation and, as a pastor and a Teaching Elder of my denomination, I attempt to hold to my vows to guard the peace and purity of the Church. I hope I have done this sincerely and conscientiously. I will speak to these issues in reverse order, since they are relevant to us at New City in that chronology. We began as a mission Sunday School, then we were a mission church, and then we became a particular church with an urban mission. We seek to remain true to that sense of mission thirty-five years later. In the days when we began as a work we didn’t use the term “missional.” The church I grew up in had an annual theme but was then extended through the following years in the life of the church and that was, “Missionaries to Newark.” When you are in a city, or an inner city, and the forces of darkness seem so strong and the people seem so lost it is not hard to think in missionary terms. In fact if you don’t think in those terms you probably won’t survive or reap the harvest that is there to be reaped. When a new church is planted being “missional” is all about reaching out to the lost, winning people to Jesus, bringing new people into the body. If that doesn’t happen then the church doesn’t grow. If a new church plant is simply a new location for already reached people the dynamics of simply tending to the needs of these older Christians can become the central point of gravity. Relocation and transfer growth can sometimes give the illusion of movement and speed in a new church, but ultimately the demands of the families for pastoral care, child and youth ministry, and stability can outweigh the passion for growth. The passion for growth in unreached territory is a necessity for scratch church plants. As the founding pastor of my church (and evidently the statistics in the PCA show that churches who still have their founding pastor maintain a higher rate of new professions of faith) I want to keep the passion for reaching the lost before my people. I have made the statement “this church is not all about you.” Some have picked up on this statement (out of context in my opinion) to make the point that we don’t see the church as made up of Saints or for the Saints. We certainly believe the church is made up of the professing saved, and that they must be discipled and taught everything Jesus has taught us. What we don’t want is for any Christian to become self-indulgent and self-absorbed, and we see this as happening to many established and settled congregations. Our use of the phrase, “this church is not all about you” is derived from our understanding of the saying of Jesus, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” (Matthew 16:25, NIV) My personal discipleship strategy for the members of my church is to challenge them to die to themselves, to give themselves away for the cause of the Gospel, the glory of God, each other, the lost, and the poor. As a shepherd of the flock I must concern myself with their protection, their feeding, and their care. But as with any shepherd I am also looking toward the day when the wool is cut and the mutton is cooked. That is so crude; and yet are we not the Lord’s sheep, and are we not to be used to accomplish his will? Good shepherding produces willing sheep; not simply cloistered, fat, lazy, self-protective and always bleating sheep. We don’t pasture sheep just because we like to tour the hills and valleys. Some folks have begun speaking against the challenge and call to mercy ministry as a revisiting of the “Social Gospel.” This seems to be both a complete misunderstanding and slander of the teaching of Jesus advocated within conservative circles and the raising of a false alarm by citing the spiritual vacuousness of the liberal theological movement of the early Twentieth Century known as the Social Gospel. That movement was no Gospel at all but a false millennial perspective on “Christian” social progress. There was no cross in that message, no conversion of the lost through repentance and faith, no spiritual vitality but only an attempt at civilizing the savage. The ministry of mercy being advocated in the PCA is being done by men and women committed to the inerrancy of Scripture and the Westminster Confession of Faith. It is being advocated as a result of obedience to the Scripture, not a deviation from it. How can one be a Christian and not love mercy? We are all Christians because we have received mercy, and now we are to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). What motives anyone could have to speak against the teaching, training, and advocacy of more effective mercy ministry in and through our congregations is beyond me, and I can see no part of Jesus in such opposition. The challenge to participate in such ministry may be intimidating, it may strike the conscience of those not yet involved in it, (and indeed there may be local problems in how mercy is taught, applied and delivered), but to compare real Holy Ghost empowered and Jesus demanded mercy with a dead liberal movement is simply a lie and slander. Our church has benefited greatly from the training of Sonship, first produced by Dr. Jack Miller and World Harvest Mission. Lately I hear caricatures of the movement that set it up as a teaching that does not call believers to obedience and lulls them into some kind of moral passivity. I am sure, as with any emphasis of certain doctrines and renewal movements there have been errors and aberrations. My concern is that people often hear gossip, hearsay, and criticism and give little serious thought to the reality of the case, they then go on to publicly attack a caricature of the real thing. It seems strange to me that any thinking Reformed teacher would oppose the Westminster Confession’s view of Justification, Sanctification, and Adoption. These, and the Scripture that underlies their statement, is what Sonship is built upon. What is different about Sonship is that it uses these great truths not as intellectual formulations or theological weather vanes but as truth to liberate and empower believers. Sonship was designed to prepare people for the work of evangelism and mission, not spiritual self-indulgence. Whenever there is revival people around the revival but not part of it can become wary, defensive, and suspicious. Some may think that, “if this was a real movement of God why am I not as pumped up about things as these people seem to be? Since some seem enthusiastic but others don’t, then this movement must be divisive. So if the happiness of others makes me feel bad, well then their must be something bad going on.” If anyone is jealous of Christians who have been renewed and enlivened because they are finally getting a grip on God’s wonderful love, his accomplishment of our righteousness through the cross, the resurrection and our faith, and the joy of living in God’s freedom from legalism then the answer is to embrace the teaching of the Gospel for yourself, not to begrudge the growth of others. If the criticism of Sonship is that it tells people they don’t have to obey the commandments or any of the mandates of Jesus or the Apostles then that is either a total misunderstanding of what is taught or a deliberate fabrication. The whole point of Sonship is holiness; real, lived out, and impactful holy living. Colossians chapter two already teaches us that “touch not, taste not” etc. will never get us to holiness. Grace is in no way an enemy of commands, mandates, or instruction but rather the power to accomplish them. Without the mercy of God’s power in your life your efforts, ambitions, and moral tenacity will not make you a more godly person. We do not obey because we are filled with gratitude for God’s grace, we obey because we are filled with grace. Sanctification is not a matter of will, not a matter of work, but a working of God’s grace that affects and changes the will. So, if I am identified with these things, with being missional, advocating mercy ministry, teaching a course called Sonship and thought of as being “aberrant” I could not be happier. Sadly, it seems to me that this is all part of our heritage, where throughout the history of the Reformed faith there are always those picking up the negatives on the fringes of movements, building a “theological” case against it, and then using the issues as a litmus test for orthodoxy. When I compare the preaching of the Gospel in missions and evangelism, the living out a life of mercy and justice, and the freedom of living in the power of the Gospel with the critics of such, well I am content to stand with Jesus. You choose your place; as I have chosen mine.