Novelist Asks Familiar Question

If we think the matter of authority is an internal issue for church-going folks to keep to themselves, think again. The secular world is asking the same question: who speaks for the church?

This point was brought into clear focus recently while reading John Grisham’s The Confession: A Novel. While the plot revolves around the question of capital punishment, it does so through the experiences of a young Lutheran pastor and his encounters with a variety of “good, Christian folks.” Some of portrayals are noble, some are embarrassing; none of them are far-fetched or unfair to the realities of church life in America. The intertwining of cultural and biblical ideas Grisham notes are entirely true to what Christianity must look like when viewed from a distance, such as is provided in this engaging story. He’s not a best-selling author without reason.

Those who have read Grisham’s novel will recognize how far-reaching the question of authority is in Christian witness. It has to do with public image, with pastor-community and pastor-family relationships; it impacts such matters as the confidentiality of private communications, of access to medical and legal information, and private judgment. It has much to do with power within the local congregation and between the local church and the denomination, as well as the decision to move on in ministry from one place to another. Those who have not picked up this novel may want to do so. If I were to teach a course on pastoral ethics, it would be required reading.

What’s my point? Simply this: evangelicals are generally enamored with the notion of private judgment and personal leading of the Holy Spirit, quite often without reference to any authority which might temper the way in which they speak publicly about such leading. It happens with pastors as well as with lay Christians. Is there any responsibility to test the spirits, so to speak? Is there any higher authority to which to submit? The messes alluded to in the consideration of Christianity Today’s Top Ten stories of 2010 should give pause. Seeing the church displayed in a novel underscores the matter.

Any ideas about how our public words and actions should be both Spirit-led and appropriately expressed?

Who Speaks and Acts for Christ? CT Top Stories, Part 4

While I’m not certain that this is a case of saving the best for last, I am concluding this brief series on the top ten stories of 2010 with the #1 entry, as chosen by the editors of Christianity Today. On the surface, it seems an odd choice; but what it highlights is an issue this blog has touched on several times from a variety of angles.

The story comes from the beginning of 2010, when the impoverished nation of Haiti was struck by a devastating earthquake. The event itself made many lists of the top news stories for the year, but that was not the interest CT had in its citing of the disaster. Rather, it was the manner in which aid was offered to the survivors that claimed the attention of the editors. Remembering that their interest is in the impact the stories have for evangelical faith, witness, and mission, we are led to consider the confusion over the children identified as orphans and scheduled to be adopted by families in the U. S. Reasons for the confusion are manifold, beginning with the spotty and inconsistent laws of Haiti and ending with well meaning but not necessarily well considered intervention of private citizens in the United States.

Though it may not be the direction of the story intended by the CT editors, the question of authority is raised by this chain of events. The well meaning, probably loving people who initiated the journey to Haiti thought they had done what was necessary to rescue some orphaned children from a lifetime (probably a short one at that) of poverty. When further investigation revealed some serious questions about the true status of some of the children, things got a bit sticky. Questions began to surface; and some others have been raised since that time which deserve serious consideration. Here are a few of them.

How do we, as Christians, move from an inner compulsion to an action that involves international travel and administrative procedures? How does the Holy Spirit lead people to acts of compassion and/or witness? Is such leading ever open to the discernment of other Christians? If so, by whom specifically–one’s home fellowship group, pastor(s), an entire congregation or denomination? Especially when so much is at stake, should we not be aware that we can either misread or misinterpret the promptings of the Spirit? The question which connects this incident to prior blog posts is the one of authority. Who has the authority to act in the name of Christ? Is it anyone who claims to have a revelation? Is it only church leadership? Surely there is something between these two poles—but what relationship might exist between them? We cannot forget that all of Christianity is implicated in the actions that anyone takes in the “name of Christ.”

What do you think about following the Spirit’s leading and recognizing any church authority? To me, that is the enduring issue behind what might actually be a top story, inasmuch as it causes us to revisit some of our easy assumptions.

Stories That Will Continue–CT’s Top Ten, Part 3

Previous posts in this brief series have mentioned six of the top ten stories of 2010 as identified by the editors of Christianity Today. In each of the six there was a direct link between Christian beliefs and legal statute. Today I will look at two more of the top ten, specifically #8 and #9, which have to do with Christian or, at least, evangelical Christian identity. They come from different quarters of the evangelical landscape, one academic and one popular; but each has implications for all Christians.

In story #8, CT calls attention to the pressured resignation of Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke from his position at Reformed Theological Seminary. His transgression was to question the historicity of the creation of Adam as the first human being, an actual person, first of his (and our) kind, directly created by God. Waltke concluded that the scientific evidence for human evolution from earlier life forms is so overwhelming that to believe otherwise is tantamount to making Christian faith a cult. Cult status is accorded due to an unwillingness to consider any evidence which would call the prevailing beliefs into question. For members of any cult, no amount of evidence or reasoning therefrom counts against what one has decided purely by one’s will to believe as true. That will may or may not be under the influence of another, depending on the nature of a given cult. (I should note that these are my descriptors of a cult, not Waltke’s; I suspect they are similar, but I have not yet read his thoughts directly.)

Christians have long debated the old earth versus young earth question. But even most old earth advocates have held in some way to the historicity of the man Adam described in the second and third chapters of Genesis. One of the reasons this has been considered non-negotiable is that it provides a link to the doctrine of universal human depravity, without which the evangelical interpretation of God’s provision in Christ arguably loses its coherence. Some have resolved this by positing a point in the evolutionary chain at which Adam as described appears, thus beginning the biblical record of truly human descent.

The other story, #9 on the list, is the announcement by Christian singer Jennifer Knapp that she has been involved in a same-sex relationship. The question here, of course, is what one does with claims of such persons to have a relationship with Christ while conducting life in a style which is directly condemned by the Scripture. I am quite aware of the hermeneutical gymnastics which have been employed to avoid this conclusion; simply stated, they do not work. But what Christian leaders and Christian communities do in response to open and willful violations of God’s design is not as easy a matter to settle as we might like to think. Perhaps an open discussion would be in order, one which addresses the near certainty that such persons have always been in most congregations, but have not been open about their relationships.

What we conclude intellectually and how we handle what are very strong physical and psychological urges. Two matters which I expect we shall continue to deal with. I am concerned as much, personally, with the manner in which we do the discussing as I am in the conclusions resulting therefrom. We don’t have a really good track record on such things, often displaying anything but love for those we deem to be offenders. Even if our conclusion is that certain positions lie outside of our limits of tolerance and need to result in separation for the good of the body, it should be done with tears, fears, and trembling. And we can count on occasions to test ourselves.