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In Matthew 16, Jesus asks His disciples who they thought He was. Peter, as usual, is ready with an answer when he proclaims: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus, in confirming Peter’s answer tells him that “flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.” Jesus continues His point by saying: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Mt. 16:16-18). Although much has been made of this verse by both Catholics and Protestants, neither Peter nor his confession of Jesus as the Christ will be our focus here. I only want to make the reader aware of a simple pronoun: “My.” Jesus referred to the church as “My church.” The church belongs to Jesus, not to us.
This claim of ownership will prove to be very important to our discussion of Brian McLaren’s next question that is “transforming the faith” in his book, A New Kind of Christianity. This sixth question (of ten) is the question of the church, or as McLaren puts it: “What do we do about the church?” Although it sounds like a legitimate question, even one that is not uncommon among evangelicals, we should already be a bit suspect at the way this question is worded based on Matthew 16. Asking what “we” are to do about the church, misses the point that the church belongs to Jesus. Sure it is easy (and generally advisable) to refer to the church as “ours,” especially when we are referring to the local one that we attend, e.g. inviting your new neighbors to come and worship Sunday morning at “your” church. Taking ownership of our local churches is a good and healthy thing, as long it is always remembered that theChurch—as in the “holy, catholic, and apostolic church” (Nicene Creed)—belongs exclusively to Christ.
This means that questions such as “what do we do about the church” are wrong-headed and misguided from the outset. We can’t anymore ask what we should do about the church then we could ask what we should do about obeying the traffic laws when we drive our cars. Being a licensed driver means conforming our desires behind the wheel to what the authorities have deemed legal, otherwise we will be considered outlaws and possibly even lose our license. Likewise, when we become members of Christ’s Church, we must surrender our goals and beliefs about the church, and instead, conform our desires to what Jesus tells us His Church is to be and do.
This may not seem to be that big of a deal to many, and some may even think that I am clutching at straws just to find something to critique in this part of McLaren’s book. For those that are thinking this, you are actually pretty close to spot-on. In actuality, I don’t have much problem with what McLaren thinks the church should be doing and how we should begin to change in that direction. My problem with McLaren’s ideas of “what to do about the church” are not so much in the details, but in the bigger picture. He tends to look to the church with far too many unrealistic expectations. By this I mean that McLaren, along with the majority of evangelicals, put too much emphasis on what the church “should be doing.” Many accuse the modern church of being weak and ineffective in its attempt to be salt and light to the modern pagan culture we find around us; I have even been guilty of making this generalization myself. McLaren is not alone when he describes the reason the church exists is:
to form Christlike people, people of Christlike love. It exists to save them from the great danger of wasting their lives, becoming something less than and other than they were intended to be, gaining the world but losing their souls. (p. 164)
You will be at a loss to find anywhere in the Bible that the church exists to “form Christlike people, people of Christlike love.” I assume since McLaren italicizes this phrase, he thinks this should be the primary goal, the main motivation, of the church. I don’t believe McLaren will find many evangelicals that would disagree with him in this sentiment, or at least agree that this should be one of the main goals of the church. But, again, the Bible never states this. It sounds good, but I think this is one of the reasons why the church is becoming less and less equipped to do this very thing. As more and more responsibility is being heaped on the shoulders of “the church” for being less and less present in a needy and hurting culture, the church is becoming increasingly less effective, rather than more so.
Why is this the case? Could it be that as church members become more critical of the ineffectiveness of “the church,” they themselves are also becoming less effective? It is a well-established fact that critics are seldom the solution. As more and more church members place more and more blame on the doorstep of the church, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of total ineffectiveness, because the church is not a thing—it is a body. The church is the Bride of Christ, one body made up of many individual believers. If the “church” itself is being ineffective, this simply means that the church members themselves are being ineffective. You can implement program after program to try and counteract the “problem,” but until the members of the church see themselves as the heart of the problem, the church will continue to be ineffective atanything it tries to do (with the possible exception of organizing potluck dinners).
What I am saying is this: as the church sits around and laments its ineffectiveness, we never stop to think that it might be due to the fact that we are sitting around and lamenting. We take Jesus’ promise about the gates of hell not prevailing against the church as a defensive command. Since Jesus promised it, we have grown content to wait and watch how it happens. But Jesus didn’t issue this promise so that we might feel safe and secure behind ourgates, notice that the passage says the “gates of Hades.” The church is the one doing the attacking, not Hades; gates are used for defense, not offense. Jesus assured us of victory; but only as we are actively waging battle, not passivelywaiting for the battle to end.
Mclaren claims to be suspicious of thinking of the church as a monolithic hierarchical organization, yet he also seems to be appreciative of the concept. He writes in a footnote:
I don’t believe the old saw that hierarchical organizations are like ocean liners and you can’t turn them around quickly; I think hierarchical organizations are frequently the only ones that can be turned quickly. If you doubt that, imagine turning around a convoy of ten thousand motor boats, all of whose drivers are using their radios for broadcasting, not listening! (p. 278)
This seems to be an admission that a top-down hierarchical approach is good for getting things done quickly (e.g. ramrodding universal health-care onto a country’s taxpayers). Yet McLaren says he is uncomfortable with this type of top-down hierarchical authority structure when it comes to the church. Exactly one page after this footnote appears, he celebrates the diversity found within much of the Christian church: “What if the Christian faith is supposed to exist in a variety of forms rather than just one imperial one? What if it is both more stable and more agile—more responsive to the Holy Spirit—when it exists in these many forms?” (p. 164). This is a good (and biblical) point. As 1 Corinthians 12 makes plain, diversity of gifts do exist in the church, yet there is one Head. (This diversity within individual churches will also be true between local churches. That is, we should not only be surprised that a variety of gifts exist within the walls of a particular church, but also a greater variety of gifts will exist when we consider all of the churches in a city or town.) It is here that I think much of the misunderstanding of the role of the church comes into play. While it is true that the church is the benefactor and exhibitor of these many and various gifts, where is it that these gifts are developed and taught? If McLaren and the majority of the evangelical lamenters are to be believed, it is in the church. But I propose that this was never the goal or the intention of the church.
Remember that God ordained three separate and distinct realms of government: family, church, and state (civil). God expects His people to honor each realm within its own jurisdiction of authority and a properly operating society will have these three realms operating to the maximum efficiency. In the family, God ordained the father to be the head and gave him the rod as the tool of correction. In the church, God ordained elders to be the head and gave church discipline as the tool of correction. In the state, God gave rulers to be the head and gave them the sword as the tool of correction. The most basic of all of these realms is, of course, the family, and basic to the proper operation of the family is the practice of self-government. No family, church, or society will exist long with members that are not self-governed (self-disciplined). And where does self-discipline primarily get taught? In the home. And what if self-discipline is not being taught in the home? Anarchy or tyranny will soon result.
Do you see that the church is completely dependent on what is taught in the homes of its people? Likewise the civil society is also dependent on it. What has happened over the last 50 years is that self-discipline is no longer being taught in the home, either because parents are not present or because they have chosen not to take the difficult task of parenting seriously enough. McLaren sets the church to an impossible task when he writes: “Churches seek to save us from the hell of becoming and staying the worst we can be and to save us for what St. Irenaeus of Lyons called ‘the glory of God—to be humanity fully alive'” (p. 165). Churches don’t save anyone, only Christ saves. The church is nothing more than what pastor Voddie Baucham calls a “family of families,” that has been commissioned by her Lord—as His wife, His bride, His helpmeet—to exercise her collective spiritual gifts in meeting the physical and spiritual needs of the society.
McLaren completely ignores the role of the family and then limits the church to being a “school of love” (p. 170). Although he spends two pages discussing what a “school of love” would look like, I really don’t get the impression that McLaren makes the connection that the church is the only one of the three realms of government that have been commanded to actively feed the hungry, quench the thirsty, clothe the naked, and care for the sick. He does say that the church should be expressing its “love in word, deed, art and action” (p. 171), but he never develops what this deed, art and action would actually look like. The church, not the civil government, is the one that has been tasked with being the salt and light to the society.
But the church can’t do its job if the families aren’t doing theirs. A vacuum of self-discipline has pushed every responsibility within society onto the civil government. Members of a church don’t think about feeding the hungry or clothing the naked in their community because the civil government has taken it over. We have watched the nuclear family disintegrate before our very eyes and then we have the nerve to point fingers at the church for being “ineffective.” The church can’t become a “school of love,” until our homes become the schoolrooms. The church can’t compensate for something that isn’t being taught by the family. McLaren’s noble plea that we “form Christlike people,” is noted and enthusiastically endorsed by this writer, but I respectfully disagree on where this must take place. It is not to be and will not be accomplished “in the church,” it must happen in the homes of forward-looking, patient, sacrificial, and concerned parents. The church can then complement, supplement, and reinforce what is being taught in the home. It will not happen this year, or even this decade, but it can happen this generation. If we continue waiting on the church to “get its act together,” we will conveniently overlook our own contributions to making the act a mess. And as long as our hopes stay misplaced on the church as the solution, we will never see our own need for a good, healthy dose of self-government—for ourselves first and then for our families.
To be continued…