September 29, 2020

iMonk 101: Gospel Relevance = Gospel Application

foodpantry.jpgConsidering the discussion on treating servers like Jesus would, this seemed like a good post to resurrect. From April of 07.

Studying Acts with my students, it’s freshly clear to me that the immediate struggle of the early Christians was not only, or even particularly, theological, but practical.

How do we live out, in the church, family, community and world, the significance of Jesus NOW?

What kind of behavior, actions and community appear in “”the Kingdom of God” as Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit create it on earth (and as the church is a “demonstration plot” of the Kingdom?) That is what we’re praying for…right?

What are the relevant issues where the application of the way of Jesus will make an immediate difference?

I heard Mike Goheen say something like this: faithfulness to the gospel and the relevance of the gospel to culture are the same thing. This is deeply true, and pulling them apart damages everything that the church is left on the earth to do. The assumption that “culturally relevat” means skateboard services is ridiculously shallow.

It amazes me that the apostles immediately know- they KNOW- that Christianity has to be applied in ways they had never thought before. Perhaps the story in Acts 10 is a window to how the Holy Spirit stirs us up to get off of the roof and down into a Roman’s house.

The Apostles apply the Gospel broadly. There must be a different kind of economics. There must be a different kind of inclusion around the table and in relationships. There must be prayer, breaking bread, teaching doctrine, but there is more. You cannot leave out the issues of hunger, inclusion, assistance, mercy ministries, economics or even political theology. While you can point out the kinds of issues that weren’t addressed, it’s remarkable what kind of issues are addressed…and how they are addressed.

“Christian culture” is always a counter-culture, not a consumer culture, an entertainment culture or a political lobby. “The Church” is a gathering of people loyal to Jesus who believe certain things, but it is a movement of people who apply the gospel to those issues in their midst that demonstrate the meaning of the Kingdom of God.

There is a lot of scholarly controversy over whether the “communal” passages in Acts reflect the teaching of Jesus or whether the Apostles are going beyond what Jesus taught and forcing an application of the gospel that Jesus did not require.

This “either/or” may be missing the point. If a particular form of the application of Jesus’ teaching turns out to be a failure on some level- such as the communal experiment of Acts 2 and 4- that does not mean that it was wrong to conclude “the gospel must be applied and practiced, as well as believed.” If this is a failed “program,” it is not a wrong application of the Gospel. Jesus leads us to issues of ownership, the lordship of mammon and the meaning of being one body. We may not see the Acts “commune” passages repeated throughout the New Testament, but we do see the relevant questions and hear the relevant applications in most of the New Testament letters.

For example, Paul may not have approached the issue of slavery the way a Justice Mission might today pursue the same issue. But does anyone argue that Paul believes Christ does not transform, undermine and put in motion the eventual end of slavery?

This is why I can commend many Christians for their attempts to put the Kingdom of God into practice even if I disagree deeply with their particular application. I have mixed agreement with many liberals and conservatives, but I commend them for seeing that Jesus has a meaning for politics, relationships, community and culture.

This is the kind of “cultural relevance” that many churches and younger leaders are seeking that is ignored or misunderstood by critics. Caricatures always criticize younger leaders and missional churches for seeking to be “cool,” but what is to be said to those who are asking these questions:

What are the pressing human needs in the community that surround us, and how can we help meet those needs?
What are we doing to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the widow and visit the prisoner?
What are the ethics of building when the maintenance of facilities takes away substantial support for mercy ministries?
What priority can we give to supporting denominational programs as we seek to use our resources to become a missional congregation?
How do we connect the gospel as proclamation to the application of the gospel?
How can we make our gospel application meaningful to those who see any application of the gospel as capitulation to liberalism?
How can we keep our application of the gospel from manipulation by those with agendas that are not Christ-centered?
How can the teaching of the faith and the application of the faith in proper balance so that the faith confessed and taught is never displaced by works of any kind?

One other thing is sadly clear: there were and will always be people who do not want the Gospel to change things. They want women in their place, economics ordered as best benefits them, politics left to the politicians and “those people” left to suffer since the poor will always be with us. The only widows who should be cared for are the ones they know. People of different color, different beliefs and different religions aren’t our business. We should grow our church by sticking to our own kind.

That kind of sad thinking- untouched by Jesus and the power of the Spirit- will always be around, and those engage in it are usually generous with their views. The application of the Gospel means responding to those kinds of opponents as well. We give an answer, we choose to suffer in order to love, and we keep doing what Jesus would do.

Comments

  1. This post and the post on rude “Christians” have helped me decide to completely stop using the terms “Christian” and “church”. These terms carry so much baggage to the point that they have become almost meaningless. I am a follower of Jesus and am trying to model what I do after what He did and taught. Anything else is following people and what they think, and that basically gets us nowhere.

    Jesus prayed, Jesus loved, Jesus fed the hungry and the list goes on and on. If it isn’t on the list, don’t do it. We don’t have time.

  2. Sam,
    I will admit to feeling the same way you do sometimes. On those sites like Facebook and others, I have been putting in that same phrase, “I follow Jesus Christ” in the religion ID for a year or two now. I don’t know if that is the best answer, but it is frustrating to see Christians become a derogatory term again, only this time it isn’t a backhanded compliment like it was in the 1st century.
    iMonk,
    there were and will always be people who do not want the Gospel to change things
    This is a key for me. If the gospel doesn’t change anything in my life, what’s the point of it? More and more I am convinced that we are better off rumbling, bumbling, stumbling and fumbling forward trying to follow Christ’s example than we are sitting around waiting for a theological epiphany or vision of our life’s work for God. He is used to cleaning up messes and working through failures. We are just too afraid to make any these days.
    Thanks for being willing to make a mess.

  3. I actually love this ALMOST unreservedly. Can’t quite go all the way into unreserved, but pretty darn close. 😉

    What I wholeheartedly agree with is the need for Christians of every stripe to ASK THE QUESTION. Don’t think that the Gospel doesn’t have implications for ______ part of your life.

    But… on the other hand…

    I struggle with this with my students — encouraging them to “live Christianly” without turning them into neurotic, “I have to pray about the color of my wallpaper,” indecisive weirdos. But I guess that’s my issue, not yours.

  4. I’ve heard a lot of people tempted eschew the title of Christian in favor of some more pristine neologism. I sympathize with the intention: the word has indeed become a byword among the nations. However, I’m reminded of the words of the “Imitation of Christ”:

    Nature fears shame and contempt, but grace is happy to suffer reproach for the name of Jesus…. Nature seeks to possess what is rare and beautiful, abhorring things that are cheap and coarse. Grace, on the contrary, delights in simple, humble things, not despising those that are rough, nor refusing to be clothed in old garments.

    The name of Christian is indeed an old garment, a true coat of many colors. It has so many stains that one wishes to be rid of it. But while some stains are excrement, wine, issue and other filth, some others are blood: some is from violence, but some is from tending to the wounded while other stains are the blood of martyrs. Do you really wish to throw out this garment?

    And also a saying of the Desert Fathers:

    A young man who bears insults willingly is like a tree watered daily.

  5. Once upon a time; (it seems like a life time ago), we use to sing a song that contained these words:

    “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love. They will know we are Christians by our love…”

    Does anyone sing that song anymore? And if they do, do they realize the meaning and implication of what they sing? May God forgive us….

    Peace…

  6. lest the road be wide and jesus a liar..

  7. I agree, although in light of your “evangelical demise” posts, aren’t you open to the observation that all that is going on is that you disapprove of right-wing culture warring, but approve of left-wing culture warring?

    Too often — and your attempt to caricature it as it as a caricature ain’t gonna stop me from observing it — it seems today that those who say that the Gospel means challenging the status quo, mean that it challenges the status quo as long as the challenge doesn’t align with what those oh-so-unhip Republicans want to change.

    I’ve experienced it personally — when I talk to teens and 20-somethings about my prison ministry, it’s all “that is sooo cool.” When I talk to the folks from the same groups about abortion being a sin, or sex between unmarried folk (of any gender) being a sin, I get the opposite reaction.

  8. iMonk,
    Great post and some incisive comments from Sam and Jeff. The crux of the matter is do we make personal salvation or discipleship the aim of 21st Century Christianity?

    I believe Personal Salvation is the bane of Evangelism–we get them saved then cast them on the rocks of legalism, moraltiy and mindlessly misquoting scripture. When was the last time a Pastor preached or taught on being a disciple of Christ? Where are the modern day Pauls teaching on living in Christ and radical and liberating nature of the Gospel?

    I still think communities will be forged online in the future, because we can’t get manna in church anymore.