December 3, 2020

Marcus Felde: Alfa Church? Bravo Church? Charlie Church!

BLC

NOTE: The first time I met with the pastor with whom I’m working now, he shared some thoughts that I found extraordinarily wise and helpful. I asked if he would consider putting them in post form so I could share them with you, and he graciously agreed.

Rev. Marcus Felde is the pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Indianapolis. In him, I have found a kindred spirit and a good example as I seek to learn the ropes regarding pastoral ministry in the ELCA. Please welcome him and consider what he has to say as he draws an analogy between two groups Paul dealt with as an apostle, two strong points of view in the Church today, and the third way Paul recommended.

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Desiring that the church should be one as it was created to be, I think it necessary to understand how and why we are divided.  Can we find a clue in words of the apostle Paul?  In his injunction to a divided Corinthian church did he anticipate the fractured state of today’s church?

In 1 Corinthians 1 Paul identifies three flavors of preaching: “signs” (also referred to as “power”); “wisdom”; and Christ crucified.  Two are popular among elements of the church, but he finds them wanting.  The third he identifies as the true proclamation of the church.  The church is dividing into groups which rally around the proclamations they prefer:

For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

To make use of this passage, let us strip out the generalizations about “Jews” and “Greeks,” except to note that he is not prejudiced against either.  He loves them all.  Taken together, they represent all the Christians Paul knew.  “You’re both wrong,” Paul is saying to the whole congregation.  He could see where they were all “coming from”; but they all needed to get somewhere else, if the church was to be one.  Each “side” needed to surrender its preference in favor of the true proclamation of the Gospel, “Christ crucified.”

Let me rewrite the passage without its cultural observation:

For some people demand signs and others desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the former and foolishness to the latter, but to those who are the called, of either sort, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

Is that not just as true today?  Don’t some people crave proofs of authority, while others prefer to be led by reason?  Don’t people bring into the church their preconceived notions of what would constitute really good news?  Isn’t the pen mightier than the sword in some circles?  But isn’t it the other way ’round for other people?

If Paul were a graduate student in the sociology of religion today, he might develop his simple observation into a full-blown typology of the church.  He might say that the church seems to be divided into two sides, each of which accentuates one of the selfsame errors he pointed out to Corinthian believers.  Lo! Some crowd around preachers who threaten and cajole them with the power of God, while across town other Christians are listening eagerly to leaders who teach the wisdom of love.  Meanwhile, the proclamation of Christ crucified is shunted to the sidelines.

saint-paul-preachingI think Paul was onto a significant factor of human behavior when he pointed out that people tend to be attracted to either one or the other of two sorts of gospel, and that the Gospel of “Christ crucified” is not one of them.  Call it brawny Christianity and brainy Christianity, if you like, but there are still today people who prefer one of those gospels to the one Paul proclaimed.  Preferences for those “other gospels” are the reason, I believe, that the one Church is so divided today.

To stimulate a consideration of this possibility, let me outline some ways in which Paul’s trio of options—“power,” “wisdom,” “Christ crucified” seem to show up in today’s church.  For it is my opinion that in different denominations, different theologies, different congregations, and even individual Christians, we may detect that a center of gravity which corresponds to one of these options.

1. Center of gravity

Wherever the church’s center of gravity is power, I would expect the church to boast (see 1 Cor 1:29) about its strength and authority.  About being right.  The church will assert firmly that it speaks for the One who created the heavens and the earth, whose law is eternal and sure, and whose judgments are forever.  Miracles, especially that of creation, will be front and center.  They will applaud the dramatic effect of the Word on people’s lives.

On the other hand, wherever the church’s c enter of gravity is wisdom, I would expect the church to boast of how enlightened we are within the church community.  There will be much teaching of rules that are higher than commandments, or of rules which distill the commandments—such as the law of love.

Where the church’s center of gravity is Christ crucified, I would expect the church not to boast about its powerful connections to God, or its wise ways; instead, I would expect the church to be expressing its amazement at what God has done for us in our Lord Jesus Christ in his crucifixion.  The cross as is not an impressive proclamation, of course, but isn’t that Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 1?

2.  Chief distinguishing characteristic of their Jesus

For a certain audience, Jesus Christ will be portrayed chiefly as one who displayed great power, whether through his miracles or through his resurrection from the dead.  He is the Son of God!  His teachings are significant because of his great power.  He has many names, and they are all great.

For another audience, Jesus will be talked about chiefly as one who elucidated the principles by which the world may live at peace: turn the other cheek, be peacemakers, the Golden Rule, etc.  His miracles and his death and resurrection are employed chiefly to strengthen the case for listening to his wisdom.

Where the church’s center of gravity is Christ crucified, Jesus Christ will be proclaimed as the Crucified one.  Whatever power or wisdom there is in the Christ event stems from the fact that he was crucified for us and rose again to be our Lord.

3. Type of preaching

The first type of preaching (power) will attempt to seem authoritative, demonstrating this by rhetorical strength and much citing of Bible texts.  (The law of God will predominate, and sometimes in a harsh, judgmental way.)  Reasoning will tend to be top-down, arguing from revealed truths.

The second type of preaching (wisdom) will attempt to seem authoritative rather by reasonable demonstrations of understanding.  (The law of God will predominate, albeit in a more winsome manner.)  Reasoning will be bottom up, with much attention to insight garnered from the “real world.”

The third type of preaching (Christ crucified) will be Gospel, which rescues us from God’s own law, and will therefore be (ostensibly) less convincing.  The preaching may resemble a present laid on the listeners’ doorstep, for them to pick up.  Reasoning will incorporate both of the above, laboring to connect the two (sideways?).

4. Self-Classification and Affiliation

Those whose ears prick up when the Word of God is demonstrating power, and who do what the authoritative word commands them to do, are likely to refer to Christianity as a religion.  From that vantage point, Christianity is likely to see itself as either a rival or enemy of other religions.

Those who view the Word of God as a font of wisdom are more likely to view Christianity as a form of spirituality.  This form of Christianity is likely to make friends with other spiritualities, and to judge other religions or ways of living as better or worse forms of spirituality.

When the Word of God is proclaimed as a message of Good News about the Crucified One, Christianity will be seen to be a faith.  Adherents to this type of Christianity will identify with others whose faith is in Jesus Christ, and distance themselves from other faiths.  (That is to say, ecumenical dialogue is seen as most desirable, but inter-religious dialogue may be difficult.)

5. View of the Trinity

While all forms of Christianity are trinitarian by definition, it is likely that . . .

An emphasis on the power of God will lead, in the first group of Christians, to a doctrine of the Trinity which plays heavily to the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.  The theology of this party will tend to theocentric.  One hear the word “God” constantly, with much less use of “the Spirit” or “Jesus Christ.”   Jesus is Son of God.

An emphasis on wisdom, sophia, will go hand in hand with teaching about God which speaks most convincingly about God as Spirit.  The theology of this party will be quite anthropocentric, identifying God (more or less) with our own spirit.  Jesus is the human one.

An emphasis on Christ crucified naturally means that the doctrine of the Trinity will be—as it historically was—a doctrine that explains who Jesus Christ is.  The theology of this party will be decisively christocentric.  Jesus is Son of God and Son of Mary. He is our Lord.

8628005191_7f307c43cd_zIn Conclusion

I have found this three-way typology useful in thinking and talking about the church today.  I know it is ambitious, and I hope to learn from responses to this blog post.  Let me just add quickly a few other related thoughts, to qualify what I have already said:

We are tempted to view the church as having only two divisions (e.g., ecumenical vs. evangelical); each side finds the other unattractive and foolish.  I think Paul’s three-way typology is very promising because he anathematizes the contrary mistaken impulses, and lifts up what should be our common core proclamation.

I am very friendly to Luther’s distinction between theologia gloriae and theologia crucis (theology of glory vs. theology of the cross).  I think Paul’s “signs” and “wisdom” parties are both theologies “of glory,” just with different ways of locating power—in reasoning or in brute force.

I hope I have made it clear enough (but I’m not sure) that I am not criticizing people for attributing either power or wisdom to the Word of God.  What I am criticizing is a matter of centrality, proportion, emphasis.

Finally, I have attempted to find a shorthand for the three types.  So far, the best I have come up with is “Alfa Church,” “Bravo Church,” and “Charlie Church.”

  • “Alfa Church” operates with a Trinity that is skewed to the Father; proclaims a message of power accompanied by signs; and emphasizes commandments and judgment.
  • “Bravo Church” operates with a Trinity skewed to the Holy Spirit, which is perforce overly anthropocentric; it proclaims a message of wise living; and emphasizes that it is all about community.
  • “Charlie Church” operates with a Trinity which is centered on Jesus Christ; proclaims a Gospel of righteousness and peace won through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; and emphasizes the communion we have with Jesus Christ our Lord.

“Alfa Church,” “Bravo Church,” “Charlie Church”—if you have a better idea, let me know.

“For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” 

“Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

Do you belong to Alfa Church?  Bravo Church?  Charlie Church?

Comments

  1. One of the best things I’ve read in a long time.

  2. Wow…..takes the whole “us vs. them” ideas and reframes the issue of faith…..Do you think that people change as they mature in spirit?? I know that I belong to an Alpha-looking Church that works hard to be Charlie; and that I was totally Alpha regarding TRUTH and rules and fear for the first forty-five + years of my life. Through the Grace of God, I now can speak of Him and trust Him and move in Him in a very Charlie manner.

    The rules and authority still matter as the structural support of authentic understanding…….but trusting in the faithfulness of an All-Loving God-in-three-Persons is the bottom line for me….finally.

    • preferMarcus Felde says

      I do think there is a developmental angle to be brought out. I also “grew” from seeing things in an Alfa perspective, into preferring a Bravo way of looking at it all, but finally am persuaded that my own preference (still Bravo over Alfa) is not to be determinative. Thanks.

  3. Wonderful way to put it. The paragraph on the Trinity ireflects what guided me out of the wilderness. I realized so much of the Christian world had abandoned a Triune God for a generic and singular ‘God’.

  4. Excellent, but could you clarify the difference between ecumenical & inter-religious dialogue & why one might be a problem but not the other?

    • Marcus Felde says

      Ecumenical dialogue, with other Christians, should always have as its goal the elevation of the crucified One. Interreligious dialogue (i.e., with non-Christian religions) would tend to seek a higher or more fundamental reality or truth–to do which, for Charlie Church, would be to surrender from the outset its own very humble claims.

  5. Um, could you pretty, PRETTY please change all the instances of “Alfa” to “Alpha”? My inner-editor developed several tics while reading this article.

    Single mis-spellings I usually overlook, but in this case it is every single instance.

    • Marcus Felde says

      “Alfa” comes from the traditional radio alphabet–alfa, bravo, charlie, delta, echo, foxtrot, etc. I did not want people to think I was refering to the well-known “Alpha Course.”

      • Way back in 1961, when I first learned the NATO alphabet as a brand-new member of the U.S. Air Force, it was “Alpha – Bravo – Charlie – Delta – Echo- Foxtrot” etc. that replaced the old World-War-II era “Able – Baker – Charlie – Dog – Easy – Fox” etc. alphabet. It was never, to my knowledge Alfa, which makes me think of alfalfa. Alfa must be a later deterioriation/variation of the original.

        I’m just sayin’….

        • Marcus Felde says

          Not that it matters a lot, but Wikipedia’s page on the NATO alphabet spells it Alfa, as do other sources. I think it does not matter. (I was a missionary in Papua New Guinea back in the 1970’s and used this language all the time–we were “Delta Sierra.”)
          I was only trying to avoid people’s identifying this with the popular course which uses “Alpha.” What I would really like is a better trio of identifiers, since this one relies on a terminology which is a little dated, and, obviously, not uncontroversial. Ideas? Colors? Shorthand? I thought maybe “patricentric,” “anthropocentric” or “pneumatocentric,” “christocentric”? Not handy enough. I’d appreciate a better idea.

          • Marcus, I understand your frustration with what to call it. I had a very similar problem when I wrote a blog entry over a year ago on a very similar subject. I tried to define a view of Christianity that merged what you call alfa/bravo into a single unitarian type of religion, but the word unitarian was confused by many with Unitarian Universalists. I like your breaking down of alfa and bravo, but I am with you I don’t know a better name.

          • Chris Bell says

            I would like to put it as blue, red, green or perhaps blue, red, white where blue is the colour of conservatism and coolness, red the colour of action and warmth, green the colour now associated with nature, nurture and often spirituality, White, as a universal colour of inclusion might also be appropriate for Charlie.

            BTW I do realise that red and blue have been reversed in US politics!

  6. Nice taxonomy.

    As Father puts it, when it comes to ethnocentricity, the Jews take first place, the Greeks a close second, and everybody else, even the Japanese or the Hindu Brahmins, are so far behind it doesn’t even make sense to talk about rank. So, those of us who are neither Jews nor Greeks are fully capable of appropriating either or both of their pathologies as strikes our fancy.

    In the church world before entering Orthodoxy, though, I found the ones most obsessed with Power to be the Pentecostals and their offspring, yet their Trinitarianism tends to be heavily Spirit-centered. Maybe that’s because a generic Spirit somewhat disconnected from the rest of the Trinity is easier to “manipulate” for such Faustian purposes.

    On the other hand, I found among a certain kind of confessional Protestant a disconcerting faith in the power of the Academy to establish their truth-claims. Since God has withdrawn Himself behind the Wittgensteinian bulkhead with only the slender cord of the Bible connecting the phenomenal world to the numinal, those who control the cord control the DNA of the Church and any attempt by the uninitiated to tamper with that DNA is met with a barrage of historical and grammatical studies that need to meet the most rigorous academic standards. Yet their Trinity is heavily Father-centric, although their Father seems to approach a being of pure Will.

  7. well said sir!

  8. Remember on the preaching its not preaching unless the pastor is yelling at the congregation! 😛 Speaking of “Alpha”,”Bravo”,”Charlie” when I think of much of evangelicalism today I think “Whiskey”,”Tango”,’Foxtrott”

    Seriously I liked this essay but I don’t think many Christians have the ability to discern the different ways of looking at the Bible, preaching, Trinity, worship, etc… I’ve been around the block and I’m always on my guard about what to expect. For example let me illustrate… Yesterday I went to National Community Church for a Sunday morning. As I work my way forward I pay close attention to what’s being said and what the culture is like in receiving. Having once liked John Piper I have persoanlly grown sick over all the gender roles that are being pushed by Pope Piper and his minons. So at NCC yesterday they had a talk about gender roles and in the sermon the teacher spoke about how the issue of gender roles in the Bible has become very divissive in modern Christianity and threatening the message and centrality of God. When I heard that I started clapping. Actually I was the only one. First I was happy to hear some common sense which seems to be lacking in much of Christianity today. Then I was thinking and I wondered…do many people there understand the importance of what was said, and the context of it all? I thought it was a good pushback against Pope Piper and all. But do many people understand their faith to understand why it’s an important to understand why this is not a “make or break” issue for faith, despite all the whinning that is coming from that camp.

    So can Christians actually discern. I thought the same thing when I attended Fairfax Community Church and they did a talk “The Lost World of Genesis One”. Do people disern the biiger picture of context?

    • Speaking of which I got a good laugh yesterday morning. They did the song at NCC that got Chaplin Mike to give a rant a while back. It was the song that speaks about “sloppy wett kisses”. Well I laughed to myself because they removed that from what they were singing. I was standing there listening to this and Chaplin Mike popped into my head. 🙂

    • “Speaking of “Alpha”,”Bravo”,”Charlie” when I think of much of evangelicalism today I think “Whiskey”,”Tango”,’Foxtrott””

      I thought of you, Eagle, when I saw the title.

  9. Anybody who thinks a hurricane is anything at all like a sloppy, wet kiss ain’t never been through no hurricane. This includes writers of Contemporary Christian Music worship songs. I’m just sayin’….

  10. Robert F says

    I understand the distortions that emphasizing power or wisdom can lead to, and I think the paradoxical power and wisdom of the Cross is the right focal point. But I also think its important to recognize that if people fall prey to one or the other of the emphases that create imbalance in their theology and spirituality and faith, it is because they are in terrible need. They are not wise, and they need wisdom; they are not whole or strong, and they need healing and strength. The hunger for wisdom, which many have felt an acute dearth of in their lives and society, was what led to the importation of Eastern spiritual practices like Zen and Yoga in the last half of the twentieth century in this country, that is, the USA, where many could find no depth or relevance in the spiritual practices, or absence of spiritual practices, that existed so superficially in Christian churches. And the desperate need for healing in every sense of that word is what drives the continuing and accelerating growth of pentecostal and charismatic Christianity in the Two Thirds World, where power from God is often the only hope that actually seems realistic to those immersed in intractable poverty and oppression.

    The hunger for wisdom and power are basic human drives that need to be addressed holistically, and unless “Charlie church” addresses them in a balanced and humanizing way, without losing a focus on Jesus Christ as the Crucified God, they will continue to control much of the development of faith traditions throughout the world.