Tuesday, April 2, 2019
Who is the Church for?
The internet, not always a good thing and certainly not neutral, has proliferated the confusion largely on the basis of anecdote. Stories of people who feel that they Church has dishonored them or denied them or failed to appreciate them or ignored them or dismissed their feelings have created a clamor for a more responsive community of faith that will not dishonor the members (or even those outside) by denying them or their feelings or their desires. Such us the case over and over again when one finds a story of the Church's injustice toward someone (note here that I am NOT talking about abuse or commenting upon that scandal).
While we find this in Roman Catholic circles, it is no less a problem in Lutheran ones or in the general sphere of Protestantism, either. The Church is conceived as some mass movement, some democratic institution whose purpose is the happiness or satisfaction of her people and whose truth is adjustable to fit the feelings and movements of people and the times. It is, of course, the idea of the Church as grand therapist, of worship as largely self-help therapy, and of the truth existing to support and give space for the free reign of feelings. Therapeutic deism is not just the rage, it has become the truth so true that the reality has been erased from the memory of many.
Accordingly, the church exists for the sake of the people. Fidelity to the Lord and to His Word is less important than responsiveness to the people, to their felt needs, to the affirmation of their whims and desires, and to the ultimate justification not of the sinner before a righteous God but of feelings and a sense of well-being above all things. More specifically, the Church is to be a stage for us to perform what we want or to display who we are -- all within a perfectly free atmosphere in which judgment is withheld and everyone is as good as gold in their own eyes and in God's -- except of course when we are victims of the hate speech or control mechanisms of others who wish to restrain us and the free reign and dominance of our feelings more important that truth.
Because we believe the constituency of the Church (as opposed to her mission) are the people, who the Church is and for whom she exists is tilted away from God and His purpose to what we think we need. Right now, we think we need affirmation, we need to feel good about ourselves, and we need the freedom to define ourselves without constraint or judgment. In other words, the Church is, at least in the minds of many, a giant therapist whose role and purpose is to listen and encourage us in what us meaningful and true for me. No wonder sin and forgiveness do not enter the vocabulary of such a church and no wonder there is so much talk about our dignity. The Church has become the divine vehicle of self-expression, a super canvas in which we paint ourselves and our reality the way we think it should be. No wonder there is no talk of a constant and unchanging morality or ethical standard (other than to be true to self). The Church is a heavenly arm of the social media in which we daily and even hourly spew forth what is on our mind or what we are thinking or feeling at the moment.
The problem is this. We did not create the Church. The Church exists not for our pleasure or self-expression or even for our happiness. The Church exists because God established her and the Church exists to fulfill His saving purpose in the world. His gift of freedom is not without limit or direction and He has set us free so that we might live in relationship to the God who made us and redeemed us -- a relationship defined by this same God toward a goal and purpose directed by this God. This is the old idea that has become radical and new to a world which has slowly eased the Church from the hands and direction of God and made her into a human institution shaped for distinctly human purposes. Until we get that right, a term like church does not speak clearly but has become a muddle to a world and to those who claim membership in her but who know her as something distinctly different that living organism God created her to be.