The Church’s Call to “thermostat” Discipleship

Thoughts on Martin Luther King’s call to what we ought to view as “normal” Christian discipleship…


“In deep disappointment, I have wept over the laxity of the Church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the Church; I love her sacred walls. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson, and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the Church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and fear of being nonconformists.

There was a time when the Church was very powerful. It was during that period when the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the Church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But they went on with the conviction that they were a “colony of heaven” and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” They brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest.

Things are different now. The contemporary Church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the archsupporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the Church, the power structure of the average community is   consoled by the Church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the Church as never before. If the Church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early Church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I am meeting young people every day whose disappointment with the Church has risen to outright disgust.

Maybe again I have been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?”

-excerpt from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, April 16, 1963

Jesus’s call to “repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14) is not a mere invitation to join a social club called “church”. Jesus’s call is a call to actual discipleship in a body of self-giving and grace-dependence, a spiritual union with one another and with the Holy Trinity, initiated by the Father’s will, accomplished through the cross and resurrection of the Son, and sealed by the Spirit of God himself. This is what the normative Christian life is to be. There’s nothing radical about it.

This call to apprentice with Jesus, is a call to personal and communal transformation, a call to suffering and dying to self, and a call to hope in and live for a Messiah who brings renewal to the world through his simultaneous judgment for sin, and grace for broken, desperate, and contrite sinners.

And, it is through this gathered body of apprenticing sinners-renewed-by-Jesus’s-grace-alone that we see the advance of the Kingdom of God breaking in to challenge and transform the distorted mores and practices of what the Apostle Peter calls “this corrupt generation,” (Acts 2:40). This was true for Christians in the 1st Century advancing the gospel under Jewish and Roman opposition; for those in the 2nd-4th Century facing Roman persecution, the corruptions of Roman decadence, and the threat from heretical movements; for Christians in the era of the Reformation facing the threat of violent suppression of the gospel through the Roman Catholic establishment; for Christians in the era of the First Great Awakening facing the messianic allure of revolutionary political movements, the decadence of that era, and the ever-present gravitational pull of the slave trade on all aspects of society. And, this certainly remains the case for Christians today in a culture that has become habituated to sin, where the “empire of personal desire” is the primary ruler and driving force in the lives of most of us, and where the Church is once again caught in the tension of functioning as either a “thermometer” or a “thermostat” for our culture.

This call to discipleship under Jesus is beyond the politics of the Left or the Right. The call to Christ supercedes political dispositions, cultural affiliations, and racial identifications. The call to discipleship with Jesus is a call to Jesus himself as he comes to us through the gospel and received by faith as the incarnate, crucified, risen, and ascended Son of God himself. This is a call to Jesus’s Body itself as instituted through the gift of the Holy Spirit built on the Word of God given to the apostles and prophets. This call to discipleship with Jesus, by the Spirit, through the Church centered on the gospel, for the glory of God– this is the only way in which the Church can actually be who she was instituted to be, and the way in which God’s Kingdom renewal might once again spill over through the lives of ordinary disciples and into all the spheres of culture, bringing about both social transformation and personal conversion to Christ.

The impact of the gospel through the preaching of grace, affirmed in the sacraments, and witnessed through disciples’ own lifestyles of humble faith and repentance is just the sort of influence our world is desperate for, that the Church was instituted to effect, and the way in which the Church regains her faithfulness with the power Jesus has delegated to her.  This is the Church as “thermostat”, the Church normal, the Church living a lifestyle of repentance and faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ.


Freedom and the Will and the Church

Once each month a group of friends– people from our church, and other friends not involved in church– get together at the sweetest brewery in town (Function Brewing: revived brick building, maple floors, great beer) and haggle through an issue of the day. We’ve discussed topics like Suffering, Race Relations, Power & Authority, Homosexuality, Trinitarian Theology, Ghosts, Anger, you name it.

This morning I got a text from one of the new guys who just had a big discussion with his friends on the topic of freedom of the will. I texted him back. A rather long response to be typing with my thumbs on an iPhone. My “shoot from the hip” thoughts on freedom of the will are below. Perhaps these will stir up your own considerations, or rekindle your sense of community desire and commitment…

A discussion on “Freewill” all hinges on your understanding of the notion of “free”. What is “freedom” ultimately?— Is it the ability to do whatever you want whenever you want? If this is the case, then our freedom is then contingent on both our “wanting” and our ability to actually get/do what we “want”. If this then is the case, then the conversation about free will must necessitate a conversation about human desire, and even whether our desires themselves, or our ability to desire ultimate good, are in line with what “goodness” actually is.

If freedom is the ability to choose that which we desire, then I must admit that we do have a certain amount of freedom, yet even that is boundaried and shaped by our circumstances as well as our capacities to gain what we desire. If freedom is the ability to choose that which is good, then I must confess that when I honestly examine my own heart (aka “desires”), if I were left to my self, without the extra nos (“outside of me”) intervention of an ultimately good and powerful being who has the power, desire, and will to reshape my ability to desire, I would never choose that which is good. Even when I seemingly chose the “good” (eg helping others, caring for the environment, etc), self-oriented fixation on the pleasing of my own desire, propping up of my own deficiency, exercise of power over others, would always weasel in. Thus, left to myself, any good that I choose would become corrupted by Self. In which case, I must then ask, “what kind of freedom is it that is enslaved to the pleasing or justification of one’s own desire?”

Further, this question also brings up another dynamic of freedom, one that is fairly recent to western thought since introduced by Kant, and this is one of the idea of “autonomy.” Is “freedom” the same thing as “autonomy”? And is “autonomy” even a good thing, something that is inherent in human design? I would argue that it is indeed not good; however, it has become one of the primary drivers of our current culture- both inside and outside of the church.

“I decide what is best for me.” “I am my own authority.” “Just me and Jesus.” “I think, therefore I am, therefore I can be utterly independent of any one, any institution, and community, any tradition, all of those are suspect and come under submission to the autonomous self.”

Although perhaps not inherent within the idea of “freedom,” the above mindset has become the paradigm that many approach the notion of “freedom” with. And, this also is why “church” has become for many a “food court” for the autonomous self, who is under no authority, to consume and get their feet wet with no reciprocal obligation or commitment to a real church organism AND organization.

Certainly, human community should not be some huge complex co-dependent community, people should be appropriately “differentiated,” but this is far from the notion of “autonomy” or “freedom” that has become the ideal in our present generation. But, healthy “personal differentiation” (or boundaries of knowing where your Self ends and another person’s Self begins) has become overtaken and exaggerated by our hyper-individualistic tendencies further exacerbated by a tech age that facilitates and encourages solipsism. This is so because “autonomy”/”freedom” fundamentally has come to connote Self over and against commitment and submission to the common good, which leads to lack of commitment, lack of unity, and a bunch of lonely people wanting relationship yet medicating themselves with the “aura” of community.

And, this is where I see our obsession with autonomy leaving this current generation. I meet person after person, couple after couple (some whose relationships are falling apart), who say they want “community,” “relationship,” “vulnerability,” etc. yet when these things actually require something of them… “peace out,” they’re gone. The reason why is that true “community,” real “relationship,” intimate “vulnerability,” is not something that we can merely consume or splash around in the shallows with. Our generation has created cliches out of these concepts in order to suit their desires (not for true transformation which ultimately requires the pushing in to conflict and pain under Christ’s leadership), but for an easy, emotional therapy, a soothing of their anxiety so they can continue functioning as autonomous Selves, with no attachments holding them back, no commitments restraining their options, no boundaries restricting their attempts at immediate gratification of desire, and no obligations to an institution bigger than themselves requiring them to sacrifice personal preference for the sake of the “community” they so long to have surrounding them.

And, this also is another key to the “aura of community.” No longer do people in our culture see the necessity to become a part of a community, for them to enter in to belong; instead, this has been exchanged for the expectation that the community is meant to curve in around them, their desires, their schedules, their needs, their tastes become the all important priority for the community of faith. And, so churches have learned to strategize and create program after program, make change after change to suit the constantly fluid desires of the consumeristic American mindset. And, so we see a schizophrenic theological and ecclesiological landscape, of churches creating their own individualistic confessions and practices to appeal to the masses who expect a food court filled with options, each courting them, personally.

There no longer remains the calling of the community to the person, requiring something of the person to become a part of the community. This smells of heavy-handed authority because it obligates and limits personal autonomy for the sake of the church community’s mission and priorities qua Jesus’ missional church.

Give over, submit, our individualistic autonomies for the real freedom that comes with will and desire renewed by the God who calls us into the true and good community of Jesus’ church? No way. This is not what our generation wants. I’ll stick with the aura of community, thank you very much. Give me the cliche, give me the shallows.