Some modest proposals

At many moments in church history, believers have looked back even as they moved forward “to run with perseverance the race marked out” for them (Heb 12:1). But before I offer my three modest proposals, a word about the early church from which I find my inspiration.

There is one school of thought that views the New Testament church like a brand-new, right-out-of-the-showroom car, with its pristine lustrous finish, perfectly tuned engine and (don’t forget) that “new car smell.”

But then the church in subsequent centuries is likened to the workaday family sedan, replete with parking lot dings, french fries squished beneath the floor mats and the dull, dust- and pollen-coated exterior with its tree sap blemishes and scores of fine scratches.

Obviously, the onset and accumulation of traditions which set aside the word of God (Mk 7:9) can only come later. And so men and women who have wanted to recapture the spirit of the early church have turned to the New Testament narratives and letters that are windows to that era.

Which is fine, up to a point, if you’re thinking earlier is better, purer.

But ponder this: When Jesus asked his apostles who they thought he was, it was Peter who confessed he was the Christ. “On this rock,” Jesus said, “I will build my church.”

At this moment we are witnessing the conception of the church, if you will. On the ‘rock’ of this knowledge, which was revealed by the Father, I will build.

And yet, moments later, this same man rebuked Jesus for predicting his suffering, earning him the mother of all rebukes in return (Get behind me, Satan!) (Mt 16:16-23).

And this, in a nutshell, is church history. There are the mountaintops of revelation and life-changing faith. And then there are the seasons of gross darkness and ignominious failure and humiliation. Right from the beginning.

A significant part of the letters to the churches (and the messages to the churches in Revelation) is correction, some of it pretty stern. Something or things have gone wrong and need to be set right. “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (Gal 1:6) (probably one of the earliest letters, incidentally).

And now for the proposals:

  1. It is still an honorable thing to be spiritually gifted. “I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way—in all your speaking and in all your knowledge—because our testimony about Christ was confirmed in you. Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed” (1 Cor 1:4-7).

For years I skipped right over those verses to get to the “meat” of the letter, much of which is addressing all sorts of problems. (The church in Corinth, in the two canonical letters and a third that didn’t make the cut, gets more attention than any other church in the NT.)

But unless you’re willing to entertain the fiction that Paul is a shameless flatterer or adept at psychological manipulation, those verses are a remarkable testimony to the range and breadth of the apostle’s character and ministry.

Because two chapters later he calls these gifted believers “mere infants” and “worldly” (3:1-3). Two more chapters after that he is rebuking them for condoning (and even being proud of) immorality (5:1-2). And later, as everyone knows pro and con, there is a long discussion of what used to be called “charismania,” what happens when use of the gifts becomes uncoupled from order and propriety.

And yet despite all that, between his discourse on spiritual gifts (ch. 12) and practical advice for their use (ch. 14), is the masterpiece often called the “love chapter” (“Love is patient,” etc.).

Think for a moment of some of the criticism you’ve heard about “Spirit-filled churches” (formerly known as “charismatic”): its emotionalism; its word of faith and prosperity teaching mutations; its wolves-in-sheep’s-clothing, crash-and-burn celebrities; its insipid, lukewarm, repetitive choruses.

Surely we passed “seventy times seven” a long time ago, right? It’s beyond forgiveness, they’ve failed “just too many times” (an actual comment from one watchdog blogger).

Not if you apply New Testament standards. Could it be that “the grace given you in Christ Jesus” covers even these embarrassments? That perhaps “grace to you” means more than the doctrine of grace over against salvation by works?

There are limits, of course, to even the “riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience” (Rom 2:4), because they “lead you towards repentance.” That’s their purpose. Not to be soaked up like a summer shower on hot sand.

But shouldn’t we let God draw that line, and on his terms, not ours?

Quite a few years ago, I read a blog post by a minister who went on a kind of reconnaissance mission to a nearby Vineyard fellowship. At the time, congregants were into fits of laughter, barking and braying like animals, etc. Apparently with a perfectly straight face, he reported back on his findings with his biblical glosses. Which amounted to this is not of God. No kidding. (Some people think they’re behind a podium even when they’re not.)

Around the same time, about two weeks before a local high school’s graduation, the county sheriff and local chapter of MADD where I lived at the time parked a wreck right at the entrance to the student parking lot. The glass was gone, the front end crumpled; clearly it was the product of the mistaken assumption that you could drink and drive.

My point is simply this: God is parking the wrecks where we can see them every day. He’s dealing with the excesses, the frauds and the heretical.

But he is not pleased to hear us muttering, “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger [in contrast to Jonah] and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jon 4:2-3).

When the grace of God is a matter for complaint rather than compassion, it’s time to ask ourselves which way we are headed. For Jonah complained, “That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish,” because he knew how gracious God was and, if you’ll excuse the expression, God forbid those Ninevites should be forgiven.

“Therefore, my brothers, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (14:39-40).

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