4.14.2014

After We've Left: Pursuing The Character of Christ

I'm humbled by the conversations that my last post sparked. I expected some comments positive and negative, but I was overwhelmed by the support, open dialogue, and genuine emotion I got from most everybody.


So WHAT did all that mean?

A close friend started a conversation with me about the post with the assumption that a large step had been taken. "So now that you're an exile..." he started. But, I don't think that's quite what is happening here. As I tried to make clear in that post, the way I see it, very little is changing. I'm not leaving a church because I'm not currently part of one. What I'm doing is leaving a label that I think has worn out its welcome. I'm leaving a philosophy.

The way that I see this decision is that I'm stepping out of a closed-minded theological framework, and, perhaps more importantly, I'm refusing to be cowed by those still inside of it scolding me for doing leaving.

And yes, I'm unapologetically disqualifying a huge number of churches from consideration in my future "church shopping" (we'll talk another day about how I hate that term), sight unseen.


So what are you actually QUITTING?

My good friend Rufus challenged me with a Webster's definition of "evangelicalism" on Facebook as a response to the post. He, lovingly and necessarily, wanted to press me on whether I was really willing to quit what I was claiming to quit. The answer turned out to be yes, but I want to share and elaborate on that definition and that exchange. (I acknowledge first that this is not the only, nor necessarily the most important definition of what "evangelical" is, but I found it to be a worthwhile exercise).

Rufus quoted: "Emphasizing salvation by faith in the atoning death of Jesus Christ through personal conversion, the authority of Scripture, and the importance of preaching as contrasted with ritual"

I took that definition point by point:

1. Emphasizing salvation by faith in the atoning death of Jesus Christ through personal conversion
I find myself more and more wanting to flee from a kind of faith that ignores James 2:14-26. I don't think there's much value in a religion that is simple mental assent. I don't think responding to an alter call, repeating after me, sinner's prayer/fire insurance type faith is much more than useless... or depending on your translation, dead. It's important to me that the values of a faith movement don't end on that "personal conversion." I'm far less interested in a person's personal relationship with Jesus Christ these days, and I'm far more interested with their relationship with the Jesus Christ who is dwelling already in the weakest among us.

2. the authority of Scripture
I believe strongly in the Luther-derived concept of "Sola scriptura," though I (perhaps counterintuitively) also believe in the import of church tradition (especially things like the Creeds). What I do not believe in, and what I'm more than happy to walk away from, is a conservative understanding of "Biblical Inerrency" that ignores the text's cultural and historical context. This includes unhealthily clinging to things like anti-homosexuality clobber passages, the refusal to allow for women in leadership (Ruth? Esther? Lydia? No? Seriously?), bizarre Rapture eschatology, and--perhaps most egregiously--young earth creationism.

3. and the importance of preaching as contrasted with ritual
This one's a trickier one for me, because I do love a good sermon. I do love a really well constructed bit of Christian teaching. But in today's world there are a thousand places I can get such things, and I'm not going to stay in a place I find problematic solely because I like (most of, but obviously not all of, or we wouldn't be having this talk) the teaching.
For that matter: how many times have you heard a pastor rationalize us to back away from the severity, the sheer terror, of Christ's message? You know, the "I mean he didn't mean we literally have to sell our things and give them to the poor?"
What's so wrong with simply reading the evocative, engrossing, convicting text itself in the midst of a rich liturgical experience?


So NOW WHAT?

I think this is the big question. And I do not have a clear-cut answer. Just a series of small starting points that I'm hoping to build on.

I acknowledge that trying to step away from this big thing that I'm calling evangelicalism and into something else risks being a "grass is greener" situation. As one friend warned, I could be leaving bad for worse. (After all, one of the groups leading the charge in the World Vision Abandonment Debacle was the Assemblies of God--so jumping out of classic evangelicalism for that particular strain of pentecostalism is a pretty pointless endeavor, no?)

This whole attempt to step away from the things we're unhappy with is a journey that we know is filled with obstacles. Obstacles like Melissa and my conflicting desires for liturgy. But that's okay. We're going to figure it out because we believe strongly that this is a journey towards, not away from, the character of Christ.


WHAT is this NOT?

This is not a judgement of those staying. It really looks like one, and I likely need to repent of the myriad ways in which I've made it resemble one, because it's not meant to be one. That's a big part of why my "I'm leaving" post contained the part of my testimony where my faith was restored by a church very much of the kind that I'm not interested in moving away from. Because I'm not saying there's nothing good there.

For that matter, my blogging hero Zach Hoag is currently working through how to stay, if the label is important to you, "evangelicalism." Read him at Patheos explain how evangelicalism can be a big tent still. He argues that it's a thing that can, and should be redeemed. I'm respectfully disagreeing, I think the PR damage is such that "evangelical" is a word that is now essentially antithetical to evangelism, but, y'know what, I also reserve my right to change my mind.

Melissa and I are still going to visit evangelical churches. Especially the one I've been mentioning repeatedly without mentioning explicitly these last couple posts. We have good friends there who we want to celebrate our new child with. And for that matter, we've got enough faith in those people to know that they won't begrudge us for striking out in a different direction as we attempt to pursue the character of Christ.

But what this is above all else, is just that: a pursuit of the character of Christ. A refusal to continue to be a part of living out a faith in him that prevents us from looking our neighbors in the eye. If that sounds harsh, that's because it's meant to. We don't believe that living like Jesus requires as many caveats, as many "buts" as the more popular, well-known strain of conservative evangelicalism forces us to feel like it does. And so we go.

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