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"It can be exalting to belong to a church that is five hundred years behind the times and sublimely indifferent to fashion; it is mortifying to belong to a church that is five minutes behind the times, huffing and puffing to catch up."--Joseph Sobran

Not to be done alone

One of the notable phenomena of our day in the church is the reality of Christians who won’t be part of a church. For a variety of reasons, they choose to walk it alone. They may be put off by the people in the pews or by the ways churches (mal)function or by something else. This might be the result of direct experience, or it might come from reading the many criticisms of the church by Christians (or both), not to mention by non-Christians. Given all the critical analyses by blog writers (who may or may not have a good understanding of the matters of which they speak), it’s hard not to view local churches as places to avoid. They are apparently doing an awful job. One writer starts it and then a bunch of other people jump on the bandwagon and take their own shots. Or wanting to stand out, a writer will discover, much to his/her shock and dismay, some new foible that simply must be brought to the light. Sometimes I browse through blogs, wondering what the church’s failure du jour will be.

I’m reading through Ephesians now, and I read in chapter 4 a theme Paul comes back to on a few occasions; namely, the unity of the church. This isn’t just a matter of the importance of people who choose to be there being unified in purpose; it is also a call to be united with other believers, and not just in casual ways. Paul talks about the one body of which we are part and the one Spirit given to all, about the one hope we have–one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all. This isn’t just an abstract unity. He points outs how God has given the church apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” He envisions “the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part of working properly, [making] the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” We have to actually be together, over time, for this to be accomplished. (See also 1 Cor. 12 about this.)

The call to unite with other Christians isn’t just a formality. We need each other for growth, for ministry, for encouragement, for the stuff of real Christian life. The writer of Hebrews puts the command very bluntly:

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near (Heb. 10:24-25).

Christ has called, not just individuals to salvation, but the church to be his ministering arm on earth. We are to join with other imperfect Christians to accomplish his mission.

So you are put off by churches or by the people in them. Is there a loving, Christian way of saying, “get over yourself”? Yes, there are sinners in churches, and churches don’t do things perfectly. Who does? Maybe the people there are beneath you. In that case you are called to be patient and bear with them in love. Or maybe you’ll find that they are just like you, doing their best (most of the time) to “work out [their] salvation” in the midst of difficult life circumstances. Lest any of us get to feeling too good about ourselves when we’re doing well, Paul says that we still have to acknowledge that we can’t be praised even for simply wanting to do God’s will, much less for pulling it off. God gets the credit for all of it (Phil. 2:12-13).

So if you’ve been staying away, come on back! The rest of us will try not to be too annoying.

On proclaiming the gospel and doing good

James K. A. Smith points out that the liberal vision of life in the West was grounded in Christianity (so, as an aside, in trying to remove religion from the public sphere, it cuts off the branch on which it sits). Moral values don’t stand alone. They need a framework, a story, a metanarrative to give them meaning. It is within such a framework that they make sense. Although people deep down know that certain things are right and wrong, it can be hard to understand and defend them apart from a worldview which explains them and gives them a foundation in the way the world is. Once a person “settles into” a religion or philosophy that includes moral valuations, those moral beliefs become more coherent. (Or, conversely, the incoherence of a set of moral values–inconsistency among them and between those values and the realities claimed to undergird them–is a good reason to doubt the worldview itself.)

Thus, when we knock heads with our neighbors in America over moral issues, if we don’t quit first we will beat ourselves unconscious unless we dig deeper and consider the larger frameworks that are believed to make sense of them. The saying attributed to Francis of Assisi, that we should preach the gospel at all times and use words if necessary, should be discarded as unhelpful and even misleading, whether he said it or not. Certainly no one is going to know what the gospel message is–that the Messiah has come and his reign has (quietly) begun, and that we can participate in it through faith in Jesus–unless it is put into words. And by telling this message, our moral beliefs and claims–why we live as we do (or ought to) and why we think this way is best for society–are given a meaningful, coherent structure.

For a long time, what I heard about our Christian responsibility to our society was that we were to proclaim the gospel. Of course we should be good, godly people. But good behavior was, as I understood it, a matter of not being worldly and of protecting one’s own testimony. It wasn’t fleshed out as being part of the gospel message itself, as evidence that it was true, and simply as our responsibility as Christians to contribute to the common good. For some, it functioned more as a rebuke to the worldliness of society than as an winsome invitation to come and see. Much talk about living out our beliefs in a public context was suspect, as it might reflect that rascally social gospel that left out the matter of sin and the need for redemption in Christ. The proclamation of the gospel must come first, although it would be nice if we did good things, too.

The St. Francis quote, by contrast, swings the issue far in the other direction. We are off the hook for engaging in the sometimes uncomfortable task of talking about the gospel, which means talking about sin and forgiveness; we just have to do good, and, if someone asks why, we can tell them why we live the way we do.

It is good to do good whether we have the chance to present the gospel or not. But the latter needs to be done as well. This is a kind of “match made in heaven.” As John Frye notes, Jesus went about doing good (Acts 10:38). But he also proclaimed the good news of forgiveness and new life (Mk. 1:14,15; Jn. 3:16; 8:24). The apostle Paul asks, “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher ?” (Rom. 10:14).

So the church–that is, Christians individually and collectively–needs to speak and live out the gospel. In doing so, we contribute to the common good, and, as N.T. Wright is fond of saying, we show what the world would be like if God were in charge. And we bring a message of hope to people who need to hear it.

It can’t be just talk

People have been bemoaning the state of the church in the US for some time. The web is overcrowded with diagnoses and an occasional good prescription. After I finally got a Twitter account and started observing conversations there a couple years ago, I found myself wondering occasionally what the new crisis du jour would be, what new insights and ideas would be presented to the church today (I think the book Slow Church was the hot topic then). The quality is mixed. It ranges from the truly insightful to the awful. But flags are raised and people salute them for a little while, and then we’re off to something new. It’s rather like the two men near the end of The Truman Show who cheer Truman as he realizes his true situation and makes his escape, only to then look to see what else is on TV as though nothing important had just taken place. What difference has all the writing and discussion made?

On March 10, the Washington Post ran James K. A. Smith’s article, “The new alarmism: How some Christians are stoking fear rather than hope,” a commentary on new books by Charles Chaput, Anthony Esolen, and Rod Dreher, all three of which raise an alarm over the state of the church in America and its loss of influence in society. They have generated a lot of conversation. Smith’s assessment was that they are all alarmist. I was disappointed with the article because it contained so little in way of supporting arguments. It came across as simple (and unhelpful) name-calling.

On the 14th, First Things ran a response by Mark Bauerlein titled “A Cheap Shot On Chaput, Esolen, Dreher.” He took Smith to task for his tone and lack of substantial arguments (it’s always gratifying to see someone else agree with me; although, of course, that’s no guarantee that we are correct!). Comments on the article came fast and furious, including a few by yours truly. (I suspect that a comment by “Tony” came from Anthony Esolen himself.)

I’m not going to provide any analysis here of either article or of the books in question. Too many people comment on books without reading them (and sometimes only on the basis of others’ comments because the books aren’t available for purchase). I am just starting Chaput’s Strangers in a Strange Land. The other two I’ll read later. I just want to comment briefly here on these discussions in general.

What counts first about these books (and others like them) is, are these three writers on track in their diagnoses and suggested prescriptions? Do they get it right about the church and the wider society, or are they building straw men to level with a blow? Do their prescriptions for the church make sense? We all know there are things to be concerned about on both levels (church and culture/society). Jamie Smith certainly sees problems in the church, I would think, given the number of books he’s written offering instruction. Since I haven’t read the books he critiques, the verdict is still out for me on them. But there will always be disagreement on certain points in such important matters no matter how insightful the writers are.

What I’m concerned about here is what comes after determining whether the writers got it right. It is whether the thought, energy, and time put into thinking and writing and the reading and discussing that follow will result in something good for the church. In so far as these writers are correct, we need to get up from our computers and get busy and act on it, and encourage fellow believers to think and act on it, too. These matters can’t be confined to people whose first love is to bat around ideas. We can’t, like cheering Truman’s escape and then looking to see what else is on TV, read these books and draw conclusions–whether on our own or in discussion–and then move on to the next issue of interest. There is work to be done to build up, to strengthen the church, whether it will give us a better reputation in secular culture or not. There is no promise that our country will widely reflect Christian beliefs and virtues, but there is the promise that the gates of hell won’t prevail against the church. However, the church’s prevailing in its mission will require hard work on our part, always in dependence upon the work of the Holy Spirit.

So let’s read and debate Chaput and Esolen and Dreher and others, take what is good and leave what is bad (as we do with our own thinking), and get busy. When a car starts running off the asphalt toward the ditch, the driver has to jerk the wheel back hard to get back on the road. This, I think, is a time for hard corrections thoughtfully made.

Reclaiming the past

In this blog post on the American Conservative website, Rod Dreher ruminates on Paul Connerton’s 1989 book, How Societies Remember, regarding how Connerton’s ideas about memory apply to Dreher’s Benedict Option. Quite apart from its significance for the Option, I found Connerton’s comments to be a helpful summary of the nature of modernity and its significance for the meaning of the past and for traditions and rituals that help us to remember. Here is a short section from Connerton’s book:
 
For the essence of modernity is economic development, the vast transformation of society precipitated by the emergence of the capitalist world market. And capital accumulation, the ceaseless expansion of the commodity form through the market, requires the constant revolutionising of production, the ceaseless transformation of the innovative into the obsolescent. The clothes people wear, the machines they operate, the workers who service the machines, the neighborhoods they live in — all are constructed today to be dismantled tomorrow, so that they can be replaced or recycled. Integral to the accumulation of capital is the repeated intentional destruction of the built environment. Integral too is the transformation of all signs of cohesion into rapidly changing fashions of costume, language and practice. This temporality of the market and of the commodities that circulate through it generates an experience of time as quantitative and as flowing in a single direction, an experience in which each moment is different from the other by virtue of coming next, situated in a chronological succession of old and new, earlier and later.
 
Our market system requires constant change. What would happen if people used their computers and printers and cars and clothes and home decorations and appliances, and the other stuff of life, for years on end without replacing them? No, we need to keep up with changing products. But this mindset of change has affected much more than our buying habits. Like the ideas of Darwin that were extended beyond the biological to purportedly explain and govern a wide swath of human life, the market mentality extends beyond merely selling and buying goods and services. It affects our way of seeing life and the world. It not only fuels consumerism (living to consume rather than consuming to live), but maybe more critically it detaches us in general from the past and its valuable contributions to the human experience even today, most obviously with regard to religious and moral beliefs. To be old is wrong; to be new is right. We are rebuked for not keeping up, for being “on the wrong side of history” (as if history itself has a mind). “Progress,” it is called, but by what measure do we judge whether life is truly progressing? If newness is the standard, then simply to be new is to progress. Just a moment’s thought reveals the weakness of that conclusion.
 
Whether Dreher’s ideas are the prescription the church needs to reclaim the past and let it instruct and anchor us, I don’t know (I’m trying to avoid reading reviews before the book is even available to buy). But think and act we must if we are going to regain a stable footing and weather secularizing changes in our society rather than being swept up in them or destroyed by them. Sometimes change has to be drastic, like over-steering a car in the other direction after running off the road. Whatever the church does, it cannot be just a new fad, just another hip idea for Christians to promote and debate ad nauseam. If the failings of the church today can be blamed to an extent on the infusion of a modern mentality, then maybe the past can provide needed correctives.

If they do listen, do we have anything to say?

How are Christians to live in an era which is so far removed from Christian theological and moral values (which from the beginning had held sway in America, more or less) that now prominent people like Chris Cuomo (and many others) simply dismiss our moral concerns as intolerant without making the slightest attempt to interact with them? Cuomo responded to a father’s concerns about his daughter encountering a male in a high school lockeroom. Here is Cuomo’s tweet as reported by Rod Dreher:

i wonder if she is the problem or her overprotective and intolerant dad? teach tolerance. https://t.co/DbxAkrrH7n

— Christopher C. Cuomo (@ChrisCuomo) February 23, 2017

There you have it. Teach tolerance. End of discussion. There’s no room even for debate anymore.

More and more is being written by Christians about how to think about how to live in a society racing headlong into total secularization where the rules of life are chosen by us with no transcendent input. Not only are Christian beliefs rejected; there is little or no attempt to even understand them. Rod Dreher has gotten a lot of attention for his “Benedict Option.” I won’t describe it here; descriptions are easy to find online. In his (very long) article on The American Conservative linked above, Dreher challenges the lack of thoughtful opposition to his (and most any other Christian) views. He has several links to other blogs and articles worth reading.

I encourage–no, urge–Christians to start thinking seriously about this, first by stepping out of the typical political liberal vs. conservative vs. libertarian framework. Politics has to do with action, with how we live in society. More fundamental issues have to be addressed before action can be considered. We must first have a good foundation in Christian doctrine, especially today in the areas of divine authority and human nature. Then we have to engage in some serious self-analysis. Have evangelicals capitulated to our secular culture? Having focused our thinking, we can then consider more clearly how to think and live as faithful Christians in today’s culture. A good place to start with that is to read or at least skim through articles like Dreher’s to become familiar with the issues involved (this article or any of his many others online). I still recommend James Davison Hunter’s book How to Change the World which reviews several perspectives on the Christians-in-culture issue and offers his own ideas. There is much more available as well.

 

A side note here: In Dreher’s discussion of what stands behind conservative Christian views, things opponents and critics ought to understand before dismissing them (and us), he gives some space to the significance of metaphysics, a subject Christian apologists should give more attention to. We have been made male and female; to alter that is to go against the way we are designed. He quotes Michael Martin:

“Our current, postmodern moment — materialistic, technological, technocratic, atheistic — exemplifies a nominalism writ large. Here there are no universals. There are no ideas, no archetypes. Only names. ‘Marriage,’ for instance, no longer embeds universal cultural archetypes of ‘husband’ and ‘wife.’ . . . Marriage, previously assumed as the union of a man and woman into organic whole, has been relativized beyond the point of recognition. A collateral ontological shift has also occurred in the postmodern understanding of the word ‘family.’ Perhaps most emblematic of this shift is the new conceptualization of the term ‘gender,’ which, tellingly, has proved the most plastic of all. Does not the notion of elective gender reassignment surgery, like nominalism, assert in the clearest terms that universals do not exist?”

And this from Russell Moore:

“Ultimately, the transgender question is about more than just sex. It’s about what it means to be human. Poet Wendell Berry responded to techno-utopian scientism with the observation that civilization must decide whether we see persons as creatures or as machines. If we are creatures, he argued, then we have purpose and meaning, but also limits. If we see ourselves, and the world around us, as a machine, then we believe the Faustian myth of our own limitless power to recreate ourselves.

“This is, it seems to me, the question at the heart of the transgender controversy. Are we created, as both the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus put it, ‘male and female,’ from the beginning or are these categories arbitrary and self-willed? Do our bodies, and our sexes, represent something of who we were designed to be, and thus impose limits on our ability to recreate ourselves?”

If it is so that we are designed for a purpose (teleology), then this would be more than a simple philosophical notion, but should be visible in nature. If transgenderism is an alteration of an built-in design, then our bodies should show damage or at least some kind of diminishment when “re-purposed.” I would also expect that, since we are wholistic beings, changes would also be seen in non-physical aspects of our beings. Time will tell if this is so as more and more people become transgenders.

 

Churches as models of real love and forgiveness

I am feeling quite subdued and flat today after last night’s shooting of police officers and civilians at the Black Lives Matter march next door in Dallas, a feeling enhanced by having been involved in a lengthy conversation on racism and racist charges on Facebook with friends just before the assault happened. This is how I respond emotionally when my thinking is that all is lost. Before we can get a good start on dealing with one problem another arises. What can we make of all this? There is sin on all sides, and distinguishing between the justifiable and non-justifiable (and the non-justifiable that is still somewhat understandable) can be difficult to do. There are no simple explanations and solutions. All of us, of all colors, must look to ourselves and our own sins and failings. Mere finger-pointing isn’t getting us anywhere.

Short of us appropriating a transcendent morality which unseats our own (usually selfish) standards, and being or becoming grounded in the love of the One who is in Himself love, I see no other direction America can go apart from the increasing application of power, whether legal or illegal, to force us to do what the ones in power deem to be right. I do think John Adams was correct when he said, “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion . . . Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” The extensive freedoms we’ve enjoyed require self-control, and that self-control needs to be rooted in a moral strength that exceeds our own.

I’ve been increasingly convicted, having been in the business of arguing for the truth of the faith on an intellectual level for a long time, that we will only convince people of it by demonstrating it in how we live (along with giving voice to it). If it isn’t just a set of ideas but rather a complete way of life, then it should be observable in action. And since racism isn’t merely a matter of the heart, an individual matter, but shows its face in society, we have to show the truth of God’s love and goodness in society as a desirable and truly possible alternative; first of all, though, in the church, amongst ourselves in the small societies of our local churches. How those of us who attend churches far from our homes will do that, I don’t know. But it has to happen. This, of course, doesn’t preclude the necessity of displaying the love of Christ on an individual level with our neighbors. But I don’t think that will have as much impact as seeing it lived out amongst believers. In itself it will be good, and it will also be a witness to the truth of what we confess.

As an aside, I would urge Christians who aren’t part of churches to become part of one (if possible), for this and other reasons. Yes, I know the people in churches are still sinners who don’t always behave the way we ought. But that’s true for Christians who don’t go to church, too. Jesus came to establish the church, not just to provide individual salvation. It is there, in local congregations, that his image is better seen and his purposes worked out. Perhaps the presence of these living witnesses to love and forgiveness will help turn the tide in our country and, even better, lead people to believe the good news we proclaim, a process in which all of us should play a part.

We can know God’s word

There is a mood among more than a few younger (in age) evangelicals which is somewhat reminiscent of neo-orthdoxy in its diminishing of Scripture. Several months ago I read a blog in which Christians were chided for being more “Biblian” than “Christian.” Christians who hold to a high view of Scripture are scolded for worshiping the Bible rather than Christ.  The attitude seems to be that holding a high view of Scripture requires a diminishing of Christ, that the two can’t go together. In all my years in churches that held to a high view–even that the Bible is inerrant–I never detected that (although, of course, I cannot see people’s hearts). In fact, I’d say that the higher a view of Scripture I saw, the higher the view of Christ I saw as well.

This way of thinking is fed of late by postmodern angst about being able to properly interpret written texts. But not wanting to let the Bible go entirely, some Christians will pull out a few attractive parts that somehow can be understood (almost always including the verse that says that God is love) and decide on their own how those truths should be applied. This way of using Scripture leaves us free to speculate on matters that have been clearly addressed. Amazingly enough, God is coming down more and more on the side of secular progressivism. 

In his book Words of Life, Timothy Ward argues for a close relation of God to His words, and further claims (I think correctly) that there is no need to fear that people can’t know God’s words because of the distance between us (either ontological or as a result of sin). Writes Ward: “Our language can be made by God to speak truthfully of him because our language has its origin in him and in some way is like his own. The fall makes this much more problematic, of course, but sin does not erase humanity as the image of God, and thus does not destroy the capacity of human language to speak truly of God.” (34-35)

We needn’t choose between either Jesus or the Bible. The Bible is about him, and he, as our creator, is fully capable of getting his word to us, even using fallen people to do it. To honor Christ includes honoring his word. To say we can’t truly know God’s word is more a declaration of limitations on his side than on ours.

Why I am engaged this time

In a recent Facebook exchange, a friend noted that it was clear that I don’t like Donald Trump. Here is my slightly edited reply. (I should note for people who don’t know me that I have always voted Republican.)

This isn’t simply a matter of disliking Trump. I’ll say it plainly: I’m afraid of a Trump presidency. I don’t like politics; I try to avoid the subject. I’ve never been engaged as I have this election season. And I am now because, while the thought of a Clinton presidency is depressing, the thought of a Trump one is scary.

 
Short of some radical conversion on her part, I could never in good conscience vote for Hilary Clinton. But at least I think people know what they’d get from her as president: four more Obama years. With Trump, no one knows for sure. Why don’t his voters notice his flip-flopping on policies? Why do they believe what he says now?
 
But while we don’t know for sure what he’ll do, we do know his authoritarian attitude (military leaders will commit war crimes if he tells them to; Mexico will pay for the wall). We know that he believes he is superior to everyone else in America, maybe everyone who walks the earth. People who think that way and think they are above the law are loose cannons. He’s going to change the way things are by negotiating, as long as things go his way, or on his own, if they don’t. Apparently, Trump thinks of everyone else as his future employees who will do what the boss says.
 
Things come up during a presidency that can’t be foreseen. We have to trust in the character of the president, that he or she will deal responsibly with such eventualities. How can anyone trust a man who believes everything he does is great, despite the evidence against that, and that everyone loves him, which obviously is untrue? I’ll say it again, Donald Trump a delusional egomaniac. Can such a person be trusted in such an important position? It scares me, truly. We don’t like bleeding heart liberals meddling in our lives. We wouldn’t like ham-fisted conservatives doing it either. In hard times, people will vote into office strong authoritarian figures to make things right. The history of the twentieth-century shows that that doesn’t always go well, especially when such leaders believe themselves above the law.
 
I’ve tried to figure out why people support Trump despite all the evidence against his suitability. The only thing I’ve come up with is his supreme self-confidence. It isn’t his conservatism; Cruz beats him on that. It isn’t his record; that’s a muddle. It isn’t that he’s an “outsider” (Cruz; Carson). It’s his demeanor. We’ve seen how he manages the stage at debates. He shushes other candidates and talks down to them like a parent talking to children and says repeatedly how stupid and incompetent everyone is. I don’t think this is an act to help win debates; he really does think he is superior to everyone. And if this were an act, in keeping with his business strategies in “The Art of the Deal,” how could we ever know whether he’s saying what he really thinks or is just engaging in manipulative marketing? No, he is supremely confident, and that confidence gives voters themselves confidence (40% of them or so, anyway). They can’t be confident that he’s going to do certain things, because no one knows. He could turn out to be the Democrat that Clinton has said he is. But that’s okay. He is supremely confident, and he makes people feel confident.
 
Honestly, I don’t know which is scarier: Trump as president, or the fact that so many people want him to be president. I still think he won’t be, even if he wins the Republican nomination. His 40% of Republicans (or thereabouts) won’t be enough to win over a significant number of Democrats (and I’m being generous there) or the moderates of whichever party. Which way the other 60% of Republicans would vote is uncertain (I think a Trump/Clinton election could result in the lowest voters turnout ever). As I’ve pointed out before, President Obama won not just one but two elections. Trump is not going to win over the nation. If he does, things are even worse than I think they are.

SSM: Focus on the practical ramifications

A Kentucky clerk is in hot water for refusing to grant marriage licenses for same-sex marriage. Her reason is that it goes against the law of God (you can find the story here). I agree with that, but that kind of defense isn’t going to accomplish anything. Besides issues related to the formal separation of church and state, there’s also the fact that this sounds like simply a religious reason, and people who don’t share her religious views won’t care what she believes.

Christians need to stop pointing to God’s law first of all as their reason, not because that is insignificant, but because it won’t be heard. It’s a fine answer if one only wants to explain one’s actions, but it won’t work to effect change. People have to be shown the practical problems resulting from SSM, and there are some (which shouldn’t be a surprise; if God created marriage to work a certain way, any other way can’t be successful). It isn’t wrong simply because of these things, but these things are realities because it is wrong.

I may have mentioned here before the book What Is Marriage?: Man and Woman: A Defense, by Robert George, Sherif Girgis, and Ryan T. Anderson, which discusses these problems at length. A journal article by that title is available online. Even better, for those who want the argument quick and dirty, is the abstract of their amicus brief presented to the Supreme Court that can be found here.

Problems created by SSM have to do with real marital fulfillment, child and spousal well-being, and religious liberty. Christians should make these kinds of matters their main talking points if they want to be heard.

The church for the world?

I remember reading years ago that Christians have things turned around when we say that the church exists for the world, that rather the world exists for the church. Jesus came to build his church, and it is his church that will abide with him forever, not the fallen world. I was intrigued by the idea but also felt cautious. Won’t that make us self-centered? Might it condition us to be puffed up and think too highly of ourselves?

According to Simon Chan, that idea is correct, says Dennis Okholm in his review of Chan’s Liturgical Theology (2009; Okholm’s review can be found here). I haven’t read Chan’s book, but it’s now on my reading list.

Okholm’s review is brief, so I’ll just try to whet your appetite with a few quotes. He writes:

I usually think of the church existing to serve the world, and there is truth to that sentiment. But Chan is right to say that it is more biblically and theologically correct to say this: “creation exists to realize the church.”

I should have known this. My favorite New Testament letter is Ephesians, and Paul makes it very clear in the first chapter (v. 4) that God had his covenant community in mind before the world was even created. And the Swiss theologian Karl Barth taught that the covenant is the “internal basis” of creation while creation is the “external basis” of the covenant, which, to put it in simpler language, means that creation is simply the stage on which God’s plan to be in a covenant relationship with his people gets played out. . . .

This has important implications for the way we think about us—about church. . . .

It . . . means that the church is not to exist as a counter-culture, but that the church is a culture (an alternative culture if you’d like). And as long as ACNA—or any other church, for that matter—sets its agenda as a counter to something else (even a “liberal” denomination from which it broke), that “something else” will be determining ACNA’s identity.

It is right to want to avoid becoming puffed up and self-centered. But such concerns can be allayed by reminding ourselves that we participate in the church by grace alone, and that it is our call and duty to be active participants in building Christ’s church to his glory by reaching out to the world around us as Jesus did and by discipling all who join us. We don’t decide our doctrine in pragmatic terms, by worrying about what might possibly come of it. If it’s true, it’s true, and if anything needs to be adjusted, it should be our attitudes. We can be reminded every week in the liturgy (or by some other means in non-liturgical churches) that it’s ultimately about Jesus and the church he died to create. The church isn’t simply a means to the end of reaching the world, but is rather the place where people in the world should want to find themselves. It’s our job to help them get there.

Okholm’s caution about the church not existing as a counter-culture is also important. This attitude sets us up to watch what “they’re” doing and do otherwise, to restrict the engagement of our minds, hearts, spirits, and energies to reacting rather than to proactively carrying the light and showing the way forward.

I’ll be interested to see how Chan fleshes all this out.