A “members only” gospel?

“…the rejection of the gospel’s implications for combating race and class divisions nurtures social niches and fosters a ‘social-club’ gospel.” Consuming Jesus, p. 26.

 

 

 

This leads me to think of a late night of channel surfing at a friend’s house. We came across a billowy yellow-haired TV evangelist in typical gaudy fashion, and his similarly adorned female cohort. My friend isn’t a Christian, and I could only wonder how much of an influence these (in my opinion, blasphemous) programs had on her perception of Christians as a whole. We were disturbed by their “us vs. the big bad world out there of which we are not a part” message, and so my friend changed the channel; but this only led us further down the rabbit hole of TV evangelism.

 

In Chapter 1, at the end of the section, “Rapture and Retreat: Tendencies of Premillennial Eschatology,” Metzger explains that “the reaction against the social gospel movement was most likely the chief cause for the virtual disappearance of concern for social justice among fundamentalists” (p. 23). While Metzger does not espouse the social gospel (here defined as a gospel that is concerned only for material and social well-being to the neglect of spiritual well-being), he has stated elsewhere that he sees the “gospel as social” (Jesus is vitally concerned for the body and soul–the embodied soul).  The only other option would be what he calls an “anti-social gospel,” which can easily lead to the “social club gospel” noted above (“members only”–my kind of people). And in some cases, that is what we find.  Metzger doesn’t talk much about TV evangelists in his book, but I see them as the extreme fringe of this general movement.  This is where we stand today–a place in which televangelists warn against the horrors of this world: financial despair, economic unrest and global tension, all the while adorned in gold and heavy make-up in the safety of their TV studios. No mention of entering into the struggle, no urge to be the hands and feet of Christ to love others. Only an invitation to buy their books. That’s real hard and spiritual, right?

 

While there is no logical connection between the rapture doctrine and social retreat, there is a historical-cultural connection between the two.  Many fundamentalists who held to the rapture doctrine also retreated to the cultural fringe, waiting for the great removal.  If God is going to remove the church from tribulation, why bother caring for the world?  It’s all going to burn anyway, right?  So the thinking in some circles goes.

 

This can lead to the mistaken view that salvation is a privilege for certain souls–members only. Or for those who are actually interested in those outside the camp, it can lead to a quick-fix mentality: just get people “saved,” and all will be well. But all is not well. It’s not easy or comfortable for us consumers to reach out and enmesh our lives with others, and to understand that how we live drastically affects the ways others live, both locally and across the world.  For us to understand, it would take great intentionality to enter into their situation and patience to stay the course, just like Jesus.  After all, he lived on earth–in the midst of the people’s pain and suffereing–for thirty plus years.  And he longs to live in the same world today through his hands and his feet–his body, the church.

 

Instead, we often see churches sprouting where the money is abundant at the expense of isolating and excluding minorities. We find affluence and power in direct association with the spreading of “white man’s Christianity” (which not only includes white people, but also minorities with “white man’s” syndrome–the “power at all cost” mentality). Meanwhile, those whom Christ is calling to himself outside these privileged gates–whites and minorities alike–are dying, because they are not easy to engage with; their lifestyles are not attractive and appealing. This lack of concern for the lost, the last, and the least is–to put it mildlynot biblical. Jesus was a friend of tax collectors and sinners. He touched lepers. Like his father, he cared for orphans and widows in their distress.  I believe that our great challenge is to re-visit and inhabit the picture the gospel paints. Such revisiting and inhabiting must occur in small but intentional actions–actions leading to big-time change (and such momentous change may take decades to come to fruition). But what a picture our community will eventually be! It is worth it, because Christ’s kingdom is not built in a hurried moment before the ship sinks, with only the fastest swimmers on board and the ablest bodies manning the lifeboats. That’s not how Christ works, thank God. He calls us to live now in light of what will be, and to stop settling for so little when God calls us to so much more, as Metzger often says.  With this in mind, Metzger has also said to me that we need to raise the following question: “How then shall we live–as escapists and elitists, or as cultural engagers?”

 

Do you see Christianity as predominantly calling for separation from culture (rather than desiring to transform it from the inside-out)?  Do you see some relation between this division in the body of Christ and the espousal of a gospel “for the privileged few”? What small steps do you think we could take in our respective communities to bring reconciliation to the body of Christ, where we become the church that engages everyone meaningfully, and where we break down divisions based on race and class?  We all need one another to move forward together. Please share your thoughts with me.

 

8 Responses to “A “members only” gospel?”

  1. Michael Norman Says:

    Thank you for the post. Growing up in the South, where fundamentalism reigns supreme, I can definitely attest that the implications of such behavior are devastating and damning. The gospel is viewed merely as the message of salvation and evangelism (also known as “visitation”) is delegated to a select few members who are willing to tract bomb anyone who crosses their path. Rather than taking the time to get to know individuals, we can just hand them a piece of paper as if this will solve all of their problems. Honestly, I think its just a cheap cop out and excuse not to truly engage those who are different. I remember serving on Sundays at a local restaurant during my undergrad and no one ever wanted to work the afternoon shift. Why? Because the “Christians” came in after church and were always the rudest customers and the worst tippers. No worries, they always left a tract to go along with the loose change they threw down on the table to go along with their $50+ dollar checks. There’s something drastically wrong with this picture. No wonder everyone’s concept of Christ is so warped. The very people who have been called to represent him and his kingdom as ambassadors are some of the most ego-centric, arrogant, individuals I’ve ever met. Why is it that Sunday is the most segregated day of the week in several cities throughout this country? This division is not only racial, but a division of class as well. I can’t help but think of church at Philipi as recorded in Acts 16. The difference between the three conversions could not be more different–Lydia, a wealthy Asian business woman; a poor slave girl, probably native Greek; and a working class Roman jailer. There is a clear distinction in class and race in these three conversions, but yet, they all worshiped in the same church. Tim Keller sums it up as follows: “The gospel leads them to embrace one another–they are ‘brethren’ (v.40). The ancient prayer was: “God, I thank you that I am not a woman, a slave, or a Gentile”–but that is the three groups that God shows his grace to!” So, in conclusion, yes there is a huge divide between race and class in our churches, but that is not the picture we see in the Acts. I hope and pray that the true Gospel is embraced as we each seek to flesh out the life of Christ to “everyone” that we are privileged to brush arms with every day, regardless of race, class, or gender.

  2. Ronaldo A. Sison Says:

    There is a huge difference between “separating” from the culture and “isolating” from it. Jesus had a “radical identification” with the societal outcasts of his day (i.e., tax collectors and prostitutes, etc.) but He had a “radical difference”. I would rather be a separatist than an isolationist; i’d rather be “radically identified” though “radically different” from those the elitist Church-ians (an “exclusive group” to which i belong, by the way) consider beggars, parasites and eyesores.
    Biblically, we are called to “separate” from the world because “friendship with the world is enmity with God” (James 4:4). But biblically also, Jesus prayed for His followers then and now not that they be taken “out of the world” but that the Father “should keep them from the evil one”, because “they are not of the world” just as Jesus is not of this world.
    I am strongly convicted that unless I am always captivated, enamoured and intoxicated by the love of the Triune God who invited me and invites me to His bedroom (as a lover who judges), not into the courtroom (as a judge who loves), in that intimate perichoretic communion, i will always feel and live out the confusion of being separate from being isolated from the world that God so loved (John 3:16) that he gave His only-begotten Son.
    Finally, the preceding comment of Michael highlights a very problematic issue amongst Christians: why is it that those who realize and understand that they are simply recepients of grace, are so unwilling to share that grace to the “inarticulate, the downtrodden who are now speaking in their own accents”? Why are we so unwilling to spread the aroma of life to those who are lost and perishing? Unlike the woman who broke the alabaster jar to anoint Jesus in a lavish act of love, we dare not break our own so that the fragrance of a life lived for Christ shall spread throughout our own spaces.
    Maybe because we are too preoccupied with the fact that we will be raptured anyway and “too bad” for those who will be “left behind”.
    LEX ORANDI LEX CREDENDI!

  3. Kelsi Johns Says:

    Thank you, Michael, for sharing your experiences with some of the issues that further separate “us” from “them”. That breaks my heart. It is so painful to see firsthand how people view Christians, and even more painful to realize that they have good reason to see us this way. I find myself so often wanting to use any word but “Christian” to non-believers because if I cringe from what that word conjures, I can only imagine what their experience may be as well (and usually, it is a very painful, negative experience that they have had). The “Christian tipping” example that you gave is quintessential of some of the barriers that we must break down: the disengaged, compartmentalized (they weren’t doing “ministry work”, they were relaxing at a restaurant–no need to bear witness to Christ there!) sort of Christianity. And leaving a tract is quick and easy, and comes at no cost or sacrifice to them. This harmful mindset starts in the “small areas” (eating at a restaurant) but ends in the segregation of communities, churches, cities.

  4. Bryan Dormaier Says:

    RE: Ronaldo’s Comment,

    I always want to be careful when speaking about the world and how the church relates to the world, as that passage in James is one that I hear tossed around for anybody who wants to isolate from the world.

    The same John who writes about Christ’s prayer that His disciples would be kept in the world, though they are not of it, is the John who also wrote that God loved the world to the point that He gave His only begotten Son so that whoever believes in Him might be saved.

    It seems that the world we are to not be friends with is not people, but rather the system of the world: the fallen system influenced by the powers and principalities. It is the very system which finds the cross foolishness because Christ chooses to pour out instead of to grasp. It is this system that we are to not be friends with. It is not the people of the world, as this would create a huge problem as Jesus would Himself violate a definition that includes not-yet-Christians.

    RE: Kelsi’s Post
    As a church planter, I feel a tremendous challenge in terms of working towards a church that is not just a social club or a niche group. It costs me a lot to constantly work against the flow of myself. Just being myself and my leadership style is going to attract a specific type of person. I realize that my leadership style will do so and my speaking style, as well as how the Anchor does worship will always be attractive to a certain type, namely those who have similar tastes as me and others in the Anchor. Working towards a church that really embodies the Gospel is costly, because it means that many times the crowds will not want to come because they aren’t getting exactly what they want. It also means that I have to kill some of my own tendencies and likes for the sake of having a unified church. Outside of being compelled by Christ I really feel like this sort of approach to church is crazy and very costly, so I am not surprised that there are not more people who are trying hard to move towards being a more diverse church. It means putting an end to my comfort and to my laziness, constantly being challenged and constantly feeling a loss. In essence it means to live and do church in light of baptism as a way of life: putting off our old self which is concerned primarily for ourselves, and because we are united with Christ living in light of that, even when it feels costly and like it is slowly killing ourselves.

  5. Rachel O'Brien Says:

    “to die is gain”. There is a sense that the pain of life makes the joy sweeter. For believer or non this is true. How do we engage… we remember, that’s how. Remember where you have come from, what you have done, who you are, who you are not. Most of what I know of God was learned through being reminded. I look back over my not very long life and see intense pain, wreckage, poetry and beauty, miracles and healing. I can engage others because those things happened to me and I remember them, how it felt, how it still feels. We are not so far off, we are not so perfected that we can’t identify with others. Connecting with the world is identifying with it, knowing that we were once there, still struggle with it and need a savior more today than ever. As a body we take communion to remember, what He has done and our role and place in that act. I take communion every week and every week my pastor says, do this in rememberance of me. I am reminded keenly of who I once was, who I still have to fight to become, I am reminded of who is transforming me, who gave themself to me and for me. We can’t pull away from that moment when we were changed, our whole existence hinges on it. In the remembering we can engage others, we can cross lines, because we know we are broken and restored over and over.

  6. Kelsi Johns Says:

    Rachel, that is so true. Remembering is humbling for me because it is God’s way of calling me back, of showing me the way it really is, who I really am, what this life is really about. I think remembering and forgetting are the two crucial points of either healing and progress or pain and regress. How do we become transformed if we can’t even remember why it is that we need to be–and want to be–transformed? Christ is always faithful to remind us.
    As far as BD’s response, I appreciate your honesty about the struggles you face with planting a church. You are right–it is no mystery why we want to stick with our kind–it’s comfortable. But I think that ultimately, if our concern is diversity for diversity’s sake, then we are doing just as much harm because the gospel is distorted into a “gospel of diversity”. However, intentionally striving to love out of impartiality, inclusion and humility is necessary to love as Christ loved. Reconciliation is the product of such a perfect love–but it doesn’t just happen on its own.

  7. Ronaldo A. Sison Says:

    B.D.,
    You got me confused so help me unpack how to distinguish people from the systems of the world. At the outset, let me say that my Marxist background has always hammered in me the cliche, “The system is rotten and so let’s tear it down, let’s revolutionize it and let’s build another one.”
    When John the Baptist preached a Gospel of repentance, he called the Pharisees a brood of vipers who were fleeing from the coming wrath. He did not tell them that their system is so rotten and people need to turn away from their system, not from them. System? Or people?
    On the other hand, Jesus told the people to “do what the Pharisees tell you to do, do not do what they do” because they have the Law. Again, system? Or people. And when Jesus told the disciples to shake off he dust from their feet when they enter towns where the message is not welcomed, Jesus said it would be more terrible for that town than for Sodom and Gomorrah. System? or people?
    In the Book of James, he categorically said, “So, you believe in God. Good! Even the devil trembles…” Is this system or is this people? Either? Both?
    One point: our battle is not against flesh and blood but against principalities, against rulers of this world. And yet, we are to be “meek as doves, wise as serpents”, “redeeming the time, because the days are evil”.
    True, this is not a Members Only Gospel because, paraphrasing Prof. Metzger, referring to a skeptic of the faith in a forum, “What is that i’ve said that makes you feel you are excluded? Of course, we want you, your friends, everyone to be with us, to belong to us.” We hope to be able to say, “we’re all in this together.”
    I think of what Jesus’ message might be: not an exclusive VIP-type club but an all-inclusive Gospel that reaches out to the “least of these” as unto Him.
    One poster that always remind me about this was a picture of a bum lying on gutter, disoriented, disheveled, drunk and with an empty bottle by his side, with a comment like this, “You love Jesus only as much as you love the least of these.”
    No, the transcendent and immanent Message is still one that tells me to cross the street, greet my neighbor and tell him about the love of Christ- notwithstanding that i am a short, heavily-accented, colored foreigner and he maybe a tall, blonde blue-eyed executive in a downtown advertising office, or as alien (Asian, Hispanic, European or African) as me learning to speak the English language to pursue the American dream. (After all, this America is not a land flowing with milk and honey but the Gospel message will lead us all there, hopefully, by grace throgh faith, working-hand-in-sweating-hand together.)
    No, the Gospel is an all-embracing, loving call going out to all the nations, across the street or around the world but as John the Baptist succintly said of Jesus, “He must increase, and i must decrease.”

  8. Bryan Dormaier Says:

    What I am implying is this Ronaldo. If not loving the world, means not loving people, then we are going to at best constantly be having a crisis in figuring things out, since Christ goes to those that are of the world. Christ speaks to a Samaritan(SAMARITAN!) woman, who is known for shacking up with guys around her town. That is a person that is worldly right?

    In 1st Corinthians, Paul talks about how he wrote in a former letter not to be associated with people who are constantly committing sins, and gives a list to make the point. Paul clarifies however that what he means are to not associate with Christ followers who are doing those things. To disassociate with those people in general would be impossible, because that would mean leaving this life.

    The reason that I speak of the way of the world as a system is because it is a system that says “you are what matters most. you as an individual are what’s most important, you can be like God.” It is this system that we are born in, that we are a part of through our depraved will. Baptism, joining us in Christ’s death and resurrection splits us from this system, and unites us with Christ, the only way that we can be saved.

    My point is not bout whether the world is a system or people though, and I wasn’t clear on this. I am just always careful about how I go about defining it, since one way of defining it, gives me excuse to stay away from those who are not Christians. This is my point, a definition of the world that encourages me to stay away from “sinners” makes me no better than the pharisees who didn’t get it.

    As you said, I agree. The Gospel is an all-embracing, loving call going out to all the nations, because the Gospel is the good news that Christ has and is reconciling all Creation to Himself.

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