There are a lot of things that can vex me about the modern day church but high on the list in particular is the anti-intellectualism of many Christians today. There was a time when theology was looked upon as the queen of all sciences but all too often the trend today is to sweep theological matters under the carpet. Perhaps, as Christianity comes under increasing attack from secular thinking, the easy path becomes to retreat away from theology and take refuge in "just being about Jesus."
It comes out in many ways. The unwillingness of many Christians simply to put the effort in and form an opinion on any number of theological topics - anything from women in church leadership to worship to biblical evangelism. Or in the fact that many are unaware that there is, indeed, a biblical (and non-biblical) approach to evangelism. Or in holding to scientific views with deep theological consequences that remain cast aside - for example, embracing the evolution of man causes serious problems to holding a consistent view on the historicity of Adam, the integrity of the Genesis narrative and all resulting negative consequences.
This has all been on my mind because I've been reading Engaging with Keller - a critique by half a dozen British pastors of Tim Keller's theology. Expect a review soon but two things have struck in particular. The first is that the book is very gracious towards Mr Keller, it debates theology as Christians should debate theology - with grace and love. The second is that the book illustrates the vital importance of theology.
Not so long ago, in a place not too far away, there lived a boy who would only eat Frubes. In his defence, he was four years old and Frubes are very nice. For those who have never had the delight of eating a Frube, they are long thin packets of yogurt that can be peeled open and sucked out. The particularly adventurous can even try to suck all the yogurt out in one go. Despite these considerations, the Boy's parents were not best impressed with their son's eating habit. "It's a phase; he'll grow out of it." They said to one another, the classic excuse for unusual behaviour in children, an excuse that is generally used until their twentieth birthday.
For six months they did nothing about it and the boy seemed to suffer no ill effects. He asked as many questions as usual, ran about with the same vigour and threw things in the toilet with the same regularity. As his fifth birthday approached his parents decided that enough was enough and they were going to cure him of his attachment to Frubes. Well, they tried everything: chips, cakes, chocolates, waffles, three course dinners, lobster, quail eggs, burgers, in desperation they even tried healthy foods! But it was all to no avail, he shook his young head at it all and went back to happily sucking on Frubes. When they took away his Frubes he stopped eating completely and threw tantrum after tantrum.
With all options exhausted, they took him to the doctors who after much prodding, poking, question answering and no less than three blood tests, pronounced him perfectly able to consume other foodstuffs. His parents shared a horror filled glance and asked what the problem was. Their doctor scratched the back of his head, uncertain whether his conclusion would satisfy them: "Your son is simply too lazy to do anything else. He doesn't want to chew, he doesn't want to lift up a knife and fork, it's all just too much effort."
Given that the internet sensation ‘Gangnam style’ has had over a billion hits on Youtube and spawned more parodies than I would care to mention then it got me thinking: what would a version of the song about Christianity look like? Regrettably, I am no lyricist so my answer will have to be given with ponderous words; lacking, to the relief of us all, any form of dance moves.
By Christian Style I mean a certain way of doing Christianity, a way that has no substance, its light and frothy, comfortable in the wrong sense, a way characterised by show, a pretence at the real thing. It’s when we say we’re Christian but we do not act like Christians, it’s the easy path not the hard path of obedience, and it is often our default setting for the Christian walk.
The following list is by no means exhaustive but I hope it is challenging, I’ve found it hard to write. As we begin this, at every point then I encourage you to ask yourself: do you have Christian style?
In economics there is a concept called ‘diseconomies of scale’ which refers to the fact that as firms get larger then they also can become less efficient because size brings with it problems. It is a shame that this concept is not applied more to churches. We are all apt to assume that a large church equals a successful church forgetting that numbers is nowhere mentioned in the Bible as a sign of a healthy church. What will follow is a challenge to think about your church and whether or not it is too big for you.
A few qualifications must be made first though. I am not going to draw lines in the sand and say “over x amount a church is too big”. Life is never that simple, instead I’m going to give you principles to apply to your church experience and let you do the maths. Secondly, as our local church is very much part of our identity then you will feel likely threatened by this article, I would encourage you to read it anyway and read it prayerfully, I’m challenging myself writing it and its good to ask ourselves the hard questions we don’t want to answer. And lastly, my whole argument is based on the premise that in the Bible when it talks about the body of Christ it means the local church congregation. Many, I’m sure, will disagree but if we do not understand the local church as being a physical manifestation of the body of Christ then how can we understand the lessons Paul teaches from this image?
“Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” 1 Corinthians 12 v 27. In the context of 1 Corinthians 12 Paul is talking about our difference gifts and how they all work together in unity. This only has meaning in a local church context. While as a Christian I am part of the body of Christ universal then this can only work out in practise in a local church.
Show me a Christian who does not pray and I will declare him to be no Christian at all. For we, as Christians, have been given the Spirit of adoption that cries: "Abba, Father!"; we have not been given a Spirit of silence. Yet even though we have this Spirit within us it is still possibly to be lax in the discipline of prayer and we can lose sight of the incredible power of prayer.
"The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops."
James 5 v 16 - 18
Queen Victoria once said that she feared the prayers of John Knox more than all the armies of the world; she was, at least, wise for saying so. For as James writes: the prayer of a Christian is powerful and effective. Notice as well the example James uses to back it up, "Elijah was a human being, even as we are." If we needed encouragement to pray then here we have it! Elijah was just like you and me yet his prayers stopped and started the rain! Likewise, our prayers are powerful and effective.
It's funny reading Christian books which are a hundred plus years old for the type of problems they mention which the church faced are often the very same problem we see today. The type of problems that faced Christians are usually the exact same problems facing Christians today. The outward form may change but the heart of the problem does not. This is really no surprise, "there is nothing new under the sun" the Teacher says in Ecclesiastes and he was right - human nature doesn't change and God doesn't change. The world, the flesh and the Devil still fight the same battles with Christians.
I was reading J.C Ryle's Practical Religion, it's brilliant, as Ryle always is, and in it Ryle talks about how the biggest problem with the church is that too many Christians are Little Christians and it struck me that while over a hundred years have passed since he wrote his book then his analysis is still spot on.
Many, if not most, Christians today are Little Christians. If I am being honest then I must include myself in this category too. We are Little Christians because we have a little faith, a little hope, a little peace, a little love, a little courage, a little knowledge and a little holiness. That is not the problem though - we all start of our Christian life with little of everything. The problem, and as problems go this is huge, is that we are content with being Little Christians.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make as a Christian is assuming that holiness is an automatic process. It is an easy mistake to make; we know that Jesus has saved us and "being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion." (Philippians 1v5) And it fits our natural laziness, our want of the Christian life to be easy, we want holiness to just happen.
Holiness never just happens. The natural route we follow, even as Christians, is decline. If holiness is not our main priority then we will swiftly find that we begin to slip back into old ways and old habits. We have to strive for holiness; we cannot sit and wait for it to find us. I speak from personal experience when I say that holiness is not a progressive linear function - it is entirely possible to become less holy in your Christian walk.
Yet, because of the work of the Lord Jesus and because we have the Holy Spirit within us then it is possible to become more holy. And it should be the aim of every Christian to become increasing holy as the years go by for as Jesus said: "Be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5v48). This deals with the latter part of the title: increasing holiness.
“I slept but my heart was awake.”
Songs of Solomon 5 v 2
In Songs of Solomon we have a glorious story of Christ wooing his bride, the church and as ‘the Love of Christ’ by Richard Sibbes will show you it deals with all aspects of the Christian life in its up and downs. In Chapter 5v2 we have a picture of a Complacent Christian: a Christian who sleeps, a Christian who is lethargic, a Christian who has grown lazy and apathetic in the fight of faith. I have been this Christian before and no doubt, knowing my weakness, I will be this Christian again. It is not a good place to be; in fact, and I don’t say this lightly, the most frustrating and, in hindsight, joyless times of my life where when I was in this sleepy state.
It is a deadly state to be in because you never realize at the time what a deadly state you are in. As the second part of the verse says: your heart is awake, you are still a Christian, you still love God, you still pray, still do Christian stuff, still acknowledge Christ as your Saviour, and you’ve probably fooled a lot of others and yourself that you’re doing fine. But you’re not; you can’t be for you have fallen into a spiritual sleep. The source of this sleep is always in sin, some worldly vanity that has distracted you and dulled your senses to the things of God. You begin to coast in your Christianity, neither giving it up nor putting much effort in. Your earnest desire is not to seek God out but be comfortable in life. Prayer and Bible reading become less important, spending time with God less necessary, church can become more social than spiritual, and you don’t realize it.