Quite a number of years ago, I was attending a denominational meeting in Minnesota, when during one of our discussions a friend and fellow pastor said we must move beyond protecting our theology and get on with the mission of the church. I took public issue with his statement for fear that we would progress down the same road toward a less than biblical theology that many other churches and denominations have done before us. I and several others there had previously served in churches where this had been the case; churches where there was little appreciation for the Bible as the Word of God and little commitment to Christ or the gospel. Yet over the past twelve or fifteen years since that meeting I have found myself reflecting on that conversation and have come to the conclusion that protecting our theology and getting on with the mission are not mutually exclusive.
At first glance it might seem that the Apostle Paul had jettisoned his core theology and adopted a pragmatic approach to evangelism. (Pragmatism is the notion that whatever works is true.) But when we evaluate what Paul writes in I Corinthians against what he writes elsewhere in the rest of his epistles, not to mention in other parts of this same letter, we realize this is not the case at all. For Paul, without his core theology we have no impetus for mission. It is the gospel that provides the motive for our mission and the Bible that provides the definition of the mission of the church.
So what is the real issue at stake? I think in the long run it has to do with how much we really trust God, and this can cut both ways.
Every time the church has moved toward liberalism, it is due to an underlying mistrust of the veracity and authority of the Bible as the Word of God. By making the harder teachings of the Bible more palatable we assume we can be more effective at accomplishing God’s work. For example, we might assign miracles to the category of myth because modern people might find it unreasonable to believe such a thing, or perhaps we avoid talking about sin because others might find such talk offensive. After all, we reason, people will be more attracted to a positive message of a God who wants to affirm us than to a God who has chosen to save us from our sin through the death of his Son. If such a message draws a crowd, then it must be true (i.e. pragmatism). I’m convinced that the real danger for the church always comes from within, and it begins with the notion that human ingenuity is more valuable than divine revelation, because we believe we can do it better.
So what is the problem on the flip side? I think it has to do with defining the mission of the church by what is familiar to us culturally. Numerous times in the Bible we see God challenging his people to lengthen their tent pegs. All we have to do is think about Jonah’s call to go to Nineveh, or Peter’s visions leading up to the conversion of Cornelius. Make no bones about it, these were calls to reach beyond their own comfort zones. One of the things I appreciate about our conference is that we now have two congregations in the CCCC that are made up almost entirely of immigrants from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (in Maine of all places!), and another Somali church plant in Minnesota. Of course, we are familiar with Bob Hall’s work in the Bronx. What do we do with the alien at our gates? Or, for that matter, those asking for asylum from Honduras or Syria? Cultural self-protection is not our calling. Making disciples of all nations is. It might be helpful to remember that were it not for the faithfulness of the early Christians to the Great Commission, the American church would not be here at all, nor, I would dare say, America itself.
Several times I have made reference to Dick Keyes’ book, Chameleon Christianity. In it he talks about Jesus’ call for us the be “salt” and “light”. The dual dangers we face are accommodation (losing our saltiness), and self-protection (hiding our light under a basket). Both are motivated by the fear of engaging those outside the gospel. I don’t believe Paul was guilty of either. How about us?
Pastor Tom Bridgman