Looking for Grace and the Gospel
I was preparing to pass the baton over to someone else for the national evangelical newspaper to which I had given leadership. We were interviewing a candidate who had flown in for the weekend. Since he was staying over Sunday, I decided to take him to a couple of churches so he could catch a bit of the flavor of the evangelical community. The first was a well-known seeker-sensitive, yuppie-oriented Mennonite Brethren church in the city. He and I both carried our Bibles as we walked into the service and immediately I sensed a strange conspicuousness—our Bibles stood out. Virtually no one else had brought one. During the service there was little reference to the Bible. A text was flashed on the screen later in the service, using a paraphrased translation. Little in the service had much reference to the Scriptures.
God has brought the church into being to be the presence of Christ in the world. . . . We live for the world Christ came to redeem.
That experience reminded me of a comment made by a former board member of our publication. He was the minister of a large mainline church in Ottawa, but thoroughly evangelical and orthodox in faith. While at one of our board meetings he went to Sunday morning worship in another large evangelical church of our city. When he came back he commented on the absence of the Scriptures in the service. He had thought evangelicals paid more attention to the Scriptures.
In the third chapter of The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, Sider asks why there has been so much slippage in evangelical practice. What is it about our preaching and teaching that has made it possible for the practice of large numbers of Christians in America to come to resemble so closely the practice of those who make no faith claims? Indeed, how can it be that in some cases their practice might appear to be worse?
A CHEAP GRACE GOSPEL
Sider believes that it has a great deal to do with the sort of gospel (a cheap grace gospel) that is being offered in too many churches. It is a “reductionist” gospel that promises forgiveness and “a one-way ticket to heaven” while we live “like hell until one gets there” (58). It is a gospel of salvation that teaches justification for the sinner without calling for sanctification.
Actually, says Sider, what many churches are doing is ignoring a central New Testament teaching, one that proclaims the “kingdom of God.” He calls the kingdom “that was dawning in his own person and work” the core of Jesus’ teaching. Without minimizing “God’s astonishing love for sinners” and the “sheer grace” and “God’s freely given mercy” by which we enter into Jesus’ “dawning kingdom,” Sider says that Jesus’ message had an equally important horizontal aspect. It had to do with a “new . . . community of disciples . . . who began to imitate Jesus in living according to the norms of the dawning kingdom—a kingdom where the poor would receive justice and peace would prevail” (61-62).
Jesus announced this kingdom by “word and deed.” Thus when Christians today “reduce the gospel to forgiveness of sins” they are offering a message that “is flatly unfaithful to the Jesus they worship,” says Sider (63). They have embraced the understanding of Jesus as Savior but not Jesus as Lord; they welcome forgiveness, but not conversion and discipleship. “Discipleship is at the very core of the salvation Jesus commands us to offer to the world. And discipleship means turning from sin and following Jesus as absolute, unconditional Lord” (69). Grace refers to both “God’s amazing act of forgiving us and his equally wonderful act of transforming us” (137, n. 10).
Sider challenges the notion of speaking of people as “souls,” as though we are disembodied people, disengaged from the material world around us and separate from relationships to others (70). Whether we intend it or not, it encourages the ancient gnostic idea that the spiritual is good and the material is bad. We separate the two and fail to see how the issues of our material world can be redeemed. He argues furthermore that sin is not merely “personal,” it is also “structural” and systemic (75). In fact, he argues, in their eagerness to become seeker-friendly, evangelicals have largely abandoned the language of sin. He quotes an agnostic commentator on the American scene who claims that “nowhere is the gap between what religion as it is supposed to be and religion as it actually is” as great as among evangelicals, and specifically in “the area of sin.”
Evangelicals are quite strong in seeing the need for personal salvation and individualistic responses to evil and wrong in their world, but weak in recognizing how they might deal with structural and systemic evil. They seem to have forgotten the lessons of someone like William Wilberforce and his abolitionist allies in their battle with the slave trade. Similar struggles face us today in the struggle with abortion rights or the definition of marriage (76). These deal with structural issues.
Sider quotes Old Testament prophets like Amos and Isaiah to illustrate how they spoke to the evils of their day. They did address the individual, but they also challenged “oppressive legal systems” and named “legislators and bureaucrats who [wrote] and implemented oppressive laws.” Likewise, the Apostle Paul saw “fallen supernatural powers under the control of Satan himself . . . behind the distorted social structures of our world. . . . These fallen supernatural powers work to twist and distort the social systems that we as social beings need in order to be whole.” Sider quotes the late Pope John Paul II who insisted that “evil social structures are ‘rooted in personal sin,’ ” but it is the “accumulation and concentration of many personal sins” that “create evil social structures that are both ‘oppressive and difficult to change’ ” (78-81, emph. in original).
It is this failure to recognize social and systemic evil among evangelicals that Sider finds especially troubling. “Unless we embrace the biblical truth that sin is [both] personal and social, we will never understand either the full set of causes or a comprehensive set of solutions to racism and economic injustice—or, for that matter, the destruction of the family and the loss of respect for the sanctity of human life,” writes Sider. While this may not provide the entire answer, Sider concludes, “greater biblical fidelity would help end the scandal” (82-83).
REASONS AND RESPONSES
I can’t disagree with the gaps that Sider finds in the teaching in evangelical churches and the weakness of much of our life and witness that has resulted. Yet I’m left with several questions: Have we really fallen as far as he claims? If so, should we be surprised? If he is correct, why do evangelicals read the Bible so poorly? Why does biblical teaching appear to have had so little impact for today’s evangelicals? For Mennonite Brethren who are rooted in a Pietist/evangelical/Anabaptist spiritual history, what directions should or could we be taking?
Whenever I encounter issues such as Sider raises, I can’t help recalling a little book written years ago by Richard Mouw. He entitled it Consulting the Faithful, 1 and in it he described the muddled way most ordinary Christians have to live their lives in a world as confused and confusing as ours. Most of us have to live our faith in the midst of a very broken and corrosive culture. Many of us don’t have the benefit of a supportive environment as we make dozens of decisions daily about how we will act and react in the midst of settings that have very little about them that honors God’s heavenly kingdom. Mouw’s booklet encouraged intellectual leaders among evangelicals to value the desire of people to live for Christ even when they seemed to be doing it so inadequately and badly. It has always seemed like good advice to me.
I see a great deal to lament in today’s church and yet as I come closer to people, again and again I discover a desire to encounter the real Christ and live for him. As I was writing this I was involved in interviews with several people who were applying for a position at a Christian shelter for persons with HIV/AIDS. One was a fairly recent Christian, the other longer in the faith. Both had experienced failure and brokenness in their lives. What impressed me was their desire to serve others, especially to show the love of Christ. Both expressed it clearly. One had recently come through a course in conflict resolution and noted the clear Christian underpinnings of the professor. It had inspired her greatly and reinforced in her the desire to work where the brokenness of our world is plain to see. The other had already worked in several places where he could encourage others and expressed eloquently his desire to reflect the love of Jesus for our world.
I am also cautious about using statistics about the failures of Christians to make sweeping judgments on the church. In one sense what we are seeing is nothing new. We shouldn’t be surprised that Barna or Sider might have found so much failure among evangelicals. The church has struggled with huge failures throughout her history. It will in the future too because a culture’s influence is often so invasive and powerful. Perhaps we should be surprised that they didn’t find more. The world “is too much with us.” And yet we should always be open to the possibility that it is the church that is keeping evil from becoming even more blatant and destructive. Isn’t this in part what Paul is talking about in 2 Thessalonians 2:7 when he writes that “the power of lawlessness” (NIV) is being held back?
At the same time we have to understand the need for the church to keep on being renewed and reformed. This also is as true as it has ever been.
A poll of Canadians was taken recently by the Ipsos-Reid organization that identified evangelicals within the population and arrived at some interesting conclusions. It found a high percentage of the Canadian population agreeing with evangelicals on belief questions (76 percent said Jesus is the Son of God, 44 percent said they had committed their life to Jesus), but only 19 percent were also part of a weekly worshipping community. 2 These were found in “evangelical” churches, evangelicals in the mainline denominations, and evangelicals within the Roman Catholic Church. Contrary to the statistics that Sider cited for the U.S., it found that fewer were divorced or living common-law than among nonevangelicals (7 percent divorced, 3 percent living common-law compared to 10 percent divorced and 14 percent living common-law among non-evangelicals). 3 The survey also found that evangelicals were more likely than non-evangelicals to volunteer for community organizations outside the church (46 percent vs. 43 percent); more likely to donate to causes outside the church than non-evangelicals (60 percent vs. 46 percent); and opposed to same-sex marriage at a much higher level than non-evangelicals (75 percent either opposed somewhat or opposed strongly as compared to 46 percent for the total population).
On a series of questions regarding social issues, Protestant evangelicals mirrored the country as a whole, while Catholic evangelicals usually showed a higher level of concern. These had to do with questions about helping children in poverty, reducing homelessness, or supporting children in poverty in places like Africa. In other cases—like preventing the exploitation of children through pornography or protecting the unborn—evangelicals showed higher levels of concern. And in still other cases, they fell behind non-evangelicals. These had to do with such issues as reducing racism, caring for people with HIV and AIDS, or helping reduce pollution and preserve the environment. 4
There is some encouragement in these statistics. Even in areas such as HIV/AIDS, evangelicals have not been inactive. Committed Christians have been leaders in the response to AIDS. Right at the international forefront of research into it, for example, has been Dr. Allan Ronald, a member of a Winnipeg Brethren congregation, who has done pioneering work in both Canada and Africa. He and his wife Myrna have also been leading Canadian churches to respond to the AIDS crisis in Africa. A Mennonite Brethren family from Winnipeg joined World Vision a few years ago to initiate a major project in Kenya that raised nearly a million dollars at a single event. The speaker was Stephen Lewis, the United Nations special envoy on AIDS in Africa, who, together with several Christians, moved many to action. Evangelicals in Winnipeg were the first in the province to found any kind of home for persons with HIV/AIDS, naming it the House of Hesed, from the Old Testament word for mercy. Mennonite Central Committee’s Generations at Risk program in Africa has focused a great deal of attention upon the tragic impact of AIDS on children and worked at bringing help especially to them.
Sociologist Rodney Stark once described the responses of early Christians to the terrible plagues that sometimes swept through countries during the first centuries of the Christian era. With little knowledge of how to combat them, they had to cope with the fear and superstition that plagues engendered. Their compassion and care at such times profoundly impacted many who witnessed their behavior.
Then and today those who know how to embrace the brokenness of our world will be people who understand something of what it means to be citizens of another kingdom and who are nurtured by a vision for that kingdom. But how will that happen?
Sider writes about a “reductionist” gospel: too little understanding about God’s kingdom, too little sense of the church, too great a separation between the personal and social dimensions of sin. He is right in identifying these. But how do we counter these weaknesses?
I think for a start we should place greater emphasis on the disciplines of the Christian life—beginning with reading the Bible for direction in thinking Christianly about our world and our role within it. I’m convinced that too few of us are reading the Bible consistently and reflectively. We need to recover the discipline. It might be to find just twenty minutes a day to hear what God has to say to us. How can we maintain a direction if we don’t take the time in our often fragmented days to listen to God through his Word?
The reasons we don’t do it are many. I’m sure many people think they are too busy. Young couples face the pressures of jobs, children’s activities, involvement in a variety of groups and interests, and issues that call for attention. People with large jobs and responsibilities are called hither and yon and may feel too torn and distracted to take time for reading, reflection, and prayer. The teaching or preaching of those more schooled in the Scriptures may leave us with the feeling that we know too little to read the Bible with understanding. Television may be crowding into our time.
Fifty years ago when Christianity Today was being established, Billy Graham said, “We seem to be confused, bewildered, divided, and almost defeated in the face of the greatest opportunity and responsibility, possibly in the history of the church.” 5 It is impossible for us to become focused for the encounter with the world if we aren’t anchored in an intimate relationship with Christ through his Word and prayer. We need to find the rhythm of “withdrawal and encounter,” 6 as Elton Trueblood once put it. More than four decades after Graham’s original speech, Christianity Today editors wrote, “Evangelicals are still confused about their role in society, divided as a body, and even bewildered about what evangelical means.” 7
We won’t find our role and the courage to take our place as Christians in a broken world unless we commit ourselves to spiritual disciplines. It can’t be otherwise. No one becomes a good athlete without training. No one masters an instrument without long practice. No one comes to know the mind of Jesus without immersion in his Word and prayer. Again Elton Trueblood: “We have not advanced very far in our spiritual lives if we have not encountered the basic paradox of freedom . . . that we are most free when we are bound. The one who would be an athlete, but who is unwilling to discipline his body by regular exercise and abstinence, is not free to excel on the field or the track.” 8 That applies to developing a Christian mind and sense of direction as much as it does to developing skills in sport or art. Christians who make a difference in their worlds are people who have learned the discipline of immersion in the Scriptures and prayer.
When reading, reflection, and prayer become an integral part of someone’s life, a process begins that may happen without the person even being fully aware of it. Life will find an order. It will begin to be arranged in terms of priorities. The competing claims will begin to find their proper place and some may be eliminated altogether. We will grow in our ability to recognize what it means to be part of God’s kingdom. That will be good. We will begin to focus our energies where they can do the most good for the kingdom.
Part of a Worshiping Community
Almost as important is the commitment to be part of a worshiping community in which Christ is the center and the focus is service to him in the world. Shortly before his death in 2005, Regent College and Carey Hall theologian Stanley Grenz wrote a fine book he entitled Renewing the Center. In it he attempted to address the challenge that postmodernism and growing theological uncertainty are causing for evangelicals. One of the strong emphases of his book concerns the role that the Christian community plays as it communally “views the world in connection with the God of the Bible.” “Christian theology,” he wrote, [is the] enterprise in which “the community of those whom the God of the Bible has encountered in Jesus Christ seeks to understand, clarify, and delineate the community’s interpretive framework . . . of the action of this God on behalf of all creation.” 9
God has brought the church into being to be the presence of Christ in the world. We are his body here. We don’t live for ourselves. We live for the world Christ came to redeem. Much of our time together as a worshiping community has to involve hearing God speak to us about our mission to the world and taking strength from our worship, teaching, mutual encouragement, and prayer to be energized for the tasks expected of us in the world.
If, as Sider says, many evangelicals have been exposed to a reductionist gospel, and these ideas are for them quite foreign, we must work to deepen the appreciation for ways that can make the church a place of equipping for witness and service in the world. That includes a witness that addresses both personal and systemic sin, and service that sees both local and global needs.
In our city I’ve been close to an evangelical agency (with close links to Mennonite Brethren) called New Direction for Life Ministries. It holds out its hands to persons struggling with sexual brokenness, especially same-sex issues. Through it we regularly encounter the effects of our culture in the lives of vulnerable people. Many of these are people who have struggled for years with devastating addictions, promiscuity, pornography, and shame and guilt. We also operate a home in which we care for persons living with HIV/AIDS. These are thoroughly evangelical ministries.
On another day as I was writing this, I leafed through the first several pages of one of our city’s daily papers. The front page and another full page were devoted to a dinner recognizing Harry Lehotsky, an evangelical Baptist pastor and inner city activist. He was dying of cancer. The news of his illness brought an outpouring of tributes to a man who, as the paper said, had made a “deep impact” on the city and was being honored for “practicing what he preaches.” 10 Earlier stories had chronicled his work in building community, restoring housing, exposing drug pushers and criminals, and creating safety for people. Especially impressive was the way he responded to the news of his illness(terminal cancer. A miracle would be “cool,” he said, “but if I die, I get to meet the guy I’ve been working for all these years.” 11
A couple of pages past Lehotsky’s story in the Winnipeg Sun, another article told about Graham Snyder and his family who had decided to publicly forgive NHL hockey star Dany Heatley who was driving the car at high speed in which the Snyder’s son, Dan, also an NHL player, was killed. And still another article reported a speech by Kim Phuc, whose photograph as a child fleeing a napalm attack became one of the defining pictures of the Vietnam War. She is now an advocate for children of conflict and a marvelous witness to a life of forgiveness and peace. 12 The Sun stories did not say that both the Snyders and Kim Phuc are also deeply committed Christians, thoroughly evangelical, the Snyders Mennonite. Both were speaking at a conflict resolution conference largely organized by Christians. These people and Lehotsky may be a minority, but their influence goes far beyond their numbers.
Nonetheless, the reality is that Mennonite Brethren—as most other denominations who claim an evangelical identity—are not very strong at equipping people of the church to address these issues or to witness to the powers of our day. For the most part, we are unwilling to speak out for the poor, the homeless, about war and peace, or about our concerns for the environment, and only somewhat more prepared to speak or act about issues related to birth, death, and sexuality. It is not by chance that Catholic evangelicals do better than many other evangelicals on some concerns. They are living their faith out of a richer tradition than many of us possess.
But I don’t think we are indifferent to these needs. In most cases, we’ve been given few tools (either with teaching or practical means—to address such issues. Nor do most of our members think they can relate them to the good news in Christ and the teaching of the New Testament. It would be very hard for most of us to consider any social witness in evangelistic terms. That’s the challenge to us as a community of believers who confess Christ as Lord and the Scriptures as our guidebook for living faithfully in this hurting world.
- Richard J. Mouw, Consulting the Faithful: What Christian Intellectuals Can Learn from Popular Religion (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994).
- Aileen Van Ginkel, “Evangelical Beliefs and Practises: A Summary of the 2003 Ipsos-Reid Survey Results” (a Church and Faith Trends publication of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, Markham, ON, 2003), 2.
- Ibid., 3.
- Ibid., 7-8.
- “CT Predicts: More of the Same,” Christianity Today, 6 December 1999, 36.
- Elton Trueblood, Confronting Christ (Waco, TX: Word, 1960), 77.
- Christianity Today, 6 December 1999, 37.
- Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1996), 23.
- Stanley Grenz, Renewing the Center (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2000), 203.
- “Lehotsky Spreads Passion” and “Tough Guys Never Intimidated Harry,” The Winnipeg Sun, 9 June 2006, 1, 4.
- “Ministry Founder Dying,” Winnipeg Free Press, 17 May 2006, B1.
- “Best to Forgive: Late NHLer’s Dad,” and “Child of War Inspiring,” The Winnipeg Sun, 9 June 2006, 6, 7.