What Is the Church?

The church is the joyful company of all those who have been redeemed and brought into right relationship with God. Jesus declared that he was going to build a new community known as the church. Jesus did not use the more common expression of a “congregation” or a “synagogue” to describe his new community, but the word “church.” The word in the Greek is the word for being called to a public assembly. It simultaneously reminds us that we have been called out of a life of sin into a new community, and also that this community is a public assembly designed for men, women, and children alike who have been baptized and brought into this new redeemed life. It is not, like the earlier word, limited to Jews, but is now open to the whole human race, Jew and Gentile. It is a community of prayer, of teaching, of training, of discipline, and it is the place where we dwell in the presence of God and commune with him at the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist. We are not merely saved as individuals but we are saved as a people.

As explored earlier, precisely because sin is fundamentally a broken relationship, it is important that we are brought into new, redeemed relationships so that we can demonstrate to the world what it means to be made right before God. The church is designed to be a little outpost of heaven in the midst of a lost world.

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Toronto Mayor’s “Drunken Stupor” Self

Last week Toronto Mayor Rob Ford finally admitted to smoking crack cocaine.  A video tape had surfaced which made the previous denials difficult to sustain.  When the Major finally spoke publicly about the incident his explanation was, in some ways, more surprising than the original admission.  Mayor Ford said that the incident happened about a year ago, “probably in one of my drunken stupors.”  This statement revealed an important emerging trend in post-modern leadership (Mayor Ford is 44 years old).  Ford is making a distinction between various “selves” which is prominent in post-modern thinking.  He has a “mayoral self” who leads the city of Toronto, and he has a “drunken stupor” self who smokes cocaine, receives a DUI (1999), smokes marijuana (“lots of it”, Ford admitted) and gropes females (e.g candidate Sarah Thomson, March 2013), to name a few.  It has become increasingly common for public figures to say that their ability to govern should be kept separate from these kinds of “indiscretions” or even illegal activity.

As tragic as this story is, this represents an opportunity for Christian witness in today’s world.  For the Christian, integrity means that we have an “integrated” self, i.e. there is complete continuity between our private life and our public life.  The values which govern us as pastors are the same values which govern us as a husband, a father, a man, a woman, a sister, a mother.  We should represent wholeness in a fragmented world.  I still believe that the world is longing to see wholeness.  They are crying out for people of integrity.  There are few places to look today to find such role models.  This is an opportunity for Christians to demonstrate the true power of the gospel in our lives.  All of our “old” selves which were enslaved to sin have been crucified with Christ, and “it is no longer I who live, but  Christ who lives in me, and the life I now live I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).

Bishop Talbert Defies the Discipline

Those who follow United Methodist news will be well aware that on Saturday, October 26th, retired Bishop Melvin Talbert defied the Discipline of the United Methodist Church, the Scriptures, and the pleading of the resident Bishop of Alabama, Debbie Wallace-Padgett, and performed a same sex marriage between Bobby Prince and Joe Openshaw near Birmingham, Alabama. Bishop Talbert has broken covenant not only with the Bishop of the North Alabama Conference, but with all United Methodist ordained clergy who have promised to uphold the Discipline in our ordination vows. I have been asked repeatedly in the last week what my thoughts are about Talbert’s actions and the silence from the Council of Bishops.

First, I think the editorial by Good News President Rob Renfroe entitled “Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett Deserves Better, and So Do We” found in the November/December 2013 issue of Good News magazine sums up my feelings quite well. The silence (as of the posting of this blog) of the Council of Bishops is almost as stunning as the act of defiance by Talbert. There are hundreds of men and women who have been called into the ministry who are contemplating whether or not to give their lives in service to the United Methodist Church who are waiting to hear what the Council says.

Second, this whole ordeal is part of what earlier Christians called “sloth.” Sloth is one of the Seven Deadly Sins in Roman Catholicism and refers to the state of spiritual apathy. It is to confuse our devotion to Christ with devotion to an institution. It is to cry “peace, peace” when there is no peace. It is the inability to distinguish between the searing truth of God’s Word and the bland pabulum of compromised clergy. We all know the routine: Someone defies the Scriptures and shatters the unity of the church. This is followed by the deafening silence of the leadership, followed by seemingly endless institutional deliberations, finally resulting in some lame statement using murky phrases, all in a desperate attempt to find a way to “make everyone happy.” These are the sure hallmarks and signposts of the Kingdom of Sloth. It beckons all of us in a thousand ways.

My favorite summary of this is from Karl Barth who in his chapter on The Sloth of Man (Dogmatics, vol. 4, 2, p. 413) describes the “man of Sloth” this way:

“He is asleep when he should be awake, and awake when he should be asleep. He is silent when he should speak, and he speaks when it is better to be silent. He laughs when he should weep, and he weeps when he should be comforted and laugh. He always makes an exception when the rule should be kept, and subjects himself to a law when he should choose in freedom. He always toils when he should pray, and prays when only work is of any avail. He always devotes himself to historical and psychological investigation when decisions are demanded, and rushes into decisions when historical and psychological investigation is really required. He is always contentious where it is unnecessary and harmful, and he speaks of love and peace where he may confidently attack. He is always speaking of faith and the Gospel where what is needed is a little sound common sense, and he reasons where he can and should commit himself and others quietly into the hands of God.”

Well said, Dr. Barth! The Kingdom of Sloth advances by masquerading as the Kingdom of God. May God grant us wisdom and discernment to know the difference.