9. Private Morality/Public Virtue

One persistent area of controversy in political theology is the extent to which private moral decisions can and should be enacted into law. A strictly Utilitarian view of law holds that the purposes of law are purely secular, and that personal morality should not be publicly enforced. This is an invention of the modern world, for in the ancient and medieval world, law was seen as the enforcing agent of community norms. In some respects, Christianity is the reason the modern secular position evolved, for it was among the early Christians that it was first perceive that the law, in this case Roman law, could be used to persecute the truth in the guise of enforcing a pagan morality and the legitimate rights of the state. [1]

In recent years in America, we have seen a change in the views of many people concerning the state and the enforcement of morality. The emergence of a purely secular society and the sexual revolution brought about a vast change in public morality and in the actions of the state related to moral issues. In 1965 in the case of case Griswold v. Connecticut the Supreme Court struck down a law that prohibited the sale of birth control products. [2] The Supreme Court found that the law violated the right to marital privacy. Seven years later, in 1972 in the Case of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court struck down a law prohibiting abortion as the taking of a human life. [3] While the nation accepted the Griswold decision, Catholics, Evangelical Christians and others found Roe an intolerable decision. As one author put it: “Prior to the Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, in 1972, however, no one had supposed that even marriage would also entitle one to destroy third-party life that one’s own acts albeit acts of marital intimacy-had brought about.” [4] This decision appeared to be a secular state enforcing a pagan morality upon the nation. Christians who had almost unquestioningly supported the United States Government and its policies found themselves at one with the writer of Revelation for the first time since the founding of the nation.

In The Naked Public Square, Richard John Neuhaus squarely faces this new social reality and tries to build a middle ground between those who feel that Christianity has moved into the situation of persecution in America and those who support the general direction of our society.  [5] In addition, he helpfully notes the limitations on moral enforcement inherent in a free society. Most particularly, Neuhaus analyzes the restraint required when there is no consensus on what aspects of common morality are most vital to the society’s proper functioning. The fact of religious pluralism means that there is not even a clear consensus among religious leaders as to what might be the fundamental moral requirements for the society. This does not, however mean that there should be no public dialogue, discussion and debate about this important issue.

A “bottom up social thinker” is almost required to have two somewhat different guiding principles in mind as respects this matter. First, the family, as the fundamental social unit, is that part of society that most needs both freedom and protection to function. Second, because of this first commitment, so far is possible families ought to be free to follow their own notions so far as is possible. Buddhists, Christians, Hindu’s, Muslims, Secular Humanists, Taoists, and the like need to remain free to raise their children and conduct their family affairs so far as is possible as they see fit.

There are, of course, limitations. No one is entitled to engage in domestic violence, child abuse, or the like. Not even the freest society can allow any and everything. Violence is never permissible. These limitations are not the rule; they are the exceptions to the rule. One of the likely aspects of a truly postmodern polity is a deep pragmatism as opposed to an ideological orientation. This leads to the base notion that freedom and a free society are to be maintained precisely because such a society is the best way to promote human flourishing.  The difference may seem subtle, but it is important: the first commitment of a free. society is to freedom itself, and especially to the freedom of fundamehtal social units to develop healthily without unnecessary interference from the state.

Along the way, we may find that we have more in common with those with which we disagree than we think. I know very few secular people who believe that the alienation and atomization of modern American society is healthy. Very few believe that their children do not need some moral education—and while we may not completely agree with what that entails, we do agree that children need to be raised to respect others, to make sacrifices for the common good, to reject violent solutions to complicated and divisive problems, and the like. Even among those who fear moral discussion in politics, there may be a dawning understanding that to embrace differences and differences of opinion can create a better and more tolerant society, even if in the midst of the public debate we all must hear and ponder opinions with which we fundamentally disagree.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] In Romans Paul could urge Christians to respect the emperor and see the Emperor as a God-ordained enforcers of morality (Romans 13-1-3). However, by the time of Revelation, the Roman government had turned to the persecution of Christians, and so had become the embodiment of evil in the eyes of its writer, and evil that Christ would eventually overcome (Romans 17:14). Christian thinking has, depending upon societal realities historically fluctuated between these two views.

[2] Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U. S. 479 (1965).

[3] Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973).

[4] William Van Alstyne, Closing the Circle of Constitutional Review from Griswold v. Connecticut to Roe v Wade, 1989 Duke University Law Review 1679 (1989).

[5] Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1984), referred to herein as, “The Naked Public Square.” This blog is a discussion of Chapter 9, entitled, “Private Morality; Public Virtue” found on pages 129 to 143 of the book.

 

A Break and a Prayer

I decided to take a break this week from The Naked Public Square and to reflect upon the Covid 19 outbreak and what it reveals about the need for Christians in public life and a Christian response to public life. In addition, though I think that this series of posts will last a long, long time, and involve a look at many approaches, I did not begin this without some idea of where it might end.

I begin with an observation that I have explored in Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ-Followers and in Crisis of Discipleship: The Way of Light and Love for 21st Century Disciple-Makers. [1] The Modern World is dying and something new is emerging. It is my view that what we call “Post-Modernism” is only the beginning of the change and might better be called “Hyper-modernism” or “End-stage Modernism.” The decent of modern thought into “hermeneutics of suspicion” and “deconstruction” is fundamentally critical reason taken to its absurd end. (This does not mean their insights are not valuable.)

Under the influence of a mechanical vision of the universe, modern thinkers were predisposed to see the world as composed of small units of matter held together or acted upon by forces. In politics that resulted in an extreme individualism and a materialism that saw the fundamental forces of government as power subject only to natural and economic forces, all of which explainable by scientific analysis. Thus, the 20th Centuries most powerful political/economic theories, Capitalism and Marxism.

By the middle of the 20th Century, wise scientists knew that this vision of the universe was false. At a macro-level (the level of Newtonian mechanics) chaos theory and relativity theory reveal a world that is deeply relational. At its most fundamental level (the level of quantum theory), today most scientists believe that the world is composed of disturbances in a universal wave field, with the result that every aspect of reality is deeply connected with every other aspect of reality. [2] Some scientists even believe that the world is fundamentally composed of information. Whichever view turns out to be correct, the fact is that matter and forces are not fundamental. In the area of theology, a powerful analysis has emerged that the world is deeply interconnected, and relationship is more fundamental than matter or energy. [3]

The inevitable result of all this is that reason, relationships, spiritual values, moral imperatives, and the like will reemerge as important factors in a wise polity. The vision of the purely secular, materially driven and scientifically managed state will wither away until it finds its proper place in a more comprehensive and human polity. We are only at the beginning of a vast and important change in the way ordinary people and governments view reality and the presuppositions of everyday life.

Just as the world is made up of an intricately intertwined web of reality, governments will recognize that human politics must begin with smaller units, like the family and move organically in more comprehensive organizational units with important but limited powers. The vision of the all-powerful nation state that controls a territory through legal, administrative and bureaucratic power will be proved inadequate. A more relational view of government will supplant the modern view with which we have all grown up.

Whether this happens as a result of a great crisis and collapse of the current nation-state, world-state visions or organically through the decisions of wise leaders, depends on the decisions we all make. One thing for sure: a wise and truly post-modern political order will value reason, dialogue and compromise as much as debate and decision.

So, how does all this relate to our current crisis? Nothing more clearly demonstrates the relationality of the world’s political economy than the pandemic we are experiencing . It is interesting that, while national and international agencies have performed an important role, at the level or ordinary folks like you and me, it has involved shopping for groceries, helping neighbors, cancelling activities with large numbers of persons, personal hygiene and a host of other small actions. Churches, neighborhood organizations, volunteers groups, non-profit agencies and the like have all responded to the crisis, and mostly in a positive way.

The virus has exposed the fragility of the supply chain and the necessity of governments retaining certain manufacturing facilities related to medicine at the local level so as to eliminate a supply chain vulnerability. Interestingly, the virus emerged from a large socialist economy the political leadership of which was slow to react to the crisis and vastly underestimated risk. Free societies and those with more robust local and regional leadership, public and private, have done better than centralized states. This should give Americans hope for the future.

Both political liberals and conservatives agree that there are fundamental problems in our society. It may be a shared fundamental world view that is at the root of the decay of our public institutions. If the world is fundamentally rational and relational than all solutions that flow from a purely materialistic view of society, a view shared by extreme capitalist and socialistic theories of government, lie at the root of the problems we face. What is needed is a new, more relational and rational ontology of government (theory of the fundamental “being” of government).  I apologize to my readers for using the word “ontology,”, but there is no other word I can use that expresses my meaning more clearly.

Today, I am going to close with a prayer I posted yesterday on Facebook, a prayer for the Covid 19 Crisis and all those who are impacted by it, which means all of us.

Almighty God of Healing and Grace: 

On this National Day of Prayer, I lift up our nation and especially those with the Covid 19 virus and those seeking a vaccine and to contain the spread of the virus. Have mercy upon them and us God of Mercy so that this virus can be contained. 

Please be with the President, Vice President, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, the Head of the Center of Disease Control, the Congress and all national, state, and local officials who have responsibilities with respect to this epidemic. Give them wisdom, energy and love. 

Please be with all doctors, nurses, and other health workers who are ministering your healing grace to those with this disease. Be with our soon to be strained hospitals and clinics and all those who minister healing in these places of healing. 

Have mercy, O God, upon all the businesses and workers impacted by Covid 19, and especially upon the poorest and most vulnerable among us. Protect and restore our economy and the economies of the world impacted by this disease. 

We in America have been far less impacted than many nations, and, therefore, we pray for China, Iran, Italy, the Philippines, and other seriously impacted nations. 

Hear our prayers, O Lord. Hear our prayers, O Lord. Incline Your Ear to Us, and Grant us Your Shalom. 

In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit Amen.

 

God bless you all.

Chris

[1] Crisis of Discipleship is the last of the series of posts found on this blog site. Path of Life was published by Wipf & Stock in 2014, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ-Followers (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014).

[2] See, David Bohm, Wholeness and Implicate Order (London, ENG: Routledge, 1995), 19: “What is implied by this proposal is that what we call empty space contains and immense background of energy, and that matter as we know it is a small, “quantized” wavelike excitation on top of the background, rather like a ripple on a vast sea.” See Also, Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York Free Press, 1953), 129-137, where he refers to the fundamental reality as “vibratory” in nature. Id at 133-4

[3] See for example, John Zizioulas, Being as Communion (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s University Press, 1985) and John Polkinghorne, ed, The Trinity and an Entangled World: Relationality in Physical Science and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2010).

8. The Morality of Compromise

One problem with our overly-partisan politics controlled by the ideological extremes is that it makes compromise difficult if not impossible. It is difficult for zealots of any kind to compromise. This is true of religious zealots, Marxist zealots, National Socialist zealots, and secular humanist zealots. When you know you are right and either God or inevitable historical forces are on your side, it is hard to compromise.

The Meaning of Compromise

The word “compromise comes from a Middle English term connoting a mutual promise to abide by an arbiter’s decision. The Middle English term derives from the Latin compromissum, which means to mutually promise, from com (with) and promittere (to promise). The art of compromise is the art of reaching a middle ground with an adversary and promising to abide for the time being with that proposed solution to the dispute.

The word compromise has at least two different meanings;

  • A set of meanings in which something is exposed or made liable to danger, suspicion or disrepute; and
  • An accommodation in which each party makes concessions.

The problem with compromise in political discourse is the fact that statesmen and stateswomen must have the ability to discern when a fundamental principle is being compromised in such a way that there will be long term hard to the polity and when the compromise is a pragmatic way of moving a problem towards solution. Ideologues of the left and right, by definition, lack this ability.

Political Zealots and Compromise

Humility is a requirement for compromise. Zealots left and right, religious and secular, are without the ability to compromise because they lack a fundamental requirement of wise public decision-making: the humility to recognize that the best of us are sometimes misguided and mistaken in their moral decisions, and the worst of us are sometimes correct and act with moral common sense. Zealots left and right, religious and secular, lack the sense of their own finitude and moral and intellectual weakness, necessary to effective compromise.

The second defect of zealotry in public decision-making is that it refuses to take small intermediate steps towards the solution to large and complex problems. I have already in a prior post reflected on how a kind of ideological perfectionism caused the Affordable Care Act debacle. The problems with the budget deficit are equally a symptom of the left and right refusing to take small steps to resolve (or at least begin resolving) a national problem. Some years ago, a bi-partisan group recommended a path towards a balance budget. President Obama refused to compromise as did the leaders of the opposite party, with the result that nothing was accomplished. The preference for ideologically pure policy solutions to the detriment of effective action is a barrier to wise compromise.

Democracy and Compromise

At the time Richard John Neuhaus wrote, The Naked Public Square, [1]  the religious right was at the peak of its power. At the very beginning of the chapter, he notes that some religious groups have difficulty with the give and take of democratic politics because of the assumption that they are in possession of a revealed truth that makes compromise equivalent to cooperation with evil or falsehood. [2] In what I think is one of his best observations, he puts the case for compromise as follows:

People who compromise know in accordance with the democratic process know that they are compromising. That is, they do not tell themselves or others that it does not matter, that there was no principle at stake, that there was not a reasoning that had been stopped short of its logical end. In a similar way, to forgive someone is not the same thing as saying that it did not matter, that there was no offense, if there was no offence, there can be no forgiveness. Compromise and forgiveness arise from the acknowledgement that we are imperfect creatures in an imperfect world, Democracy is the product not of a vision of perfection but of the knowledge of imperfection. [3]

Neuhaus is absolutely correct in his analysis of the necessity of compromise to a functioning democracy. Compromise is the art of seeking the common good where there is violent disagreement as to what is in the common good and what is the best course of seeking it. The more divergent the policy views of the participants, the more necessary compromise is to a functioning democracy. Hopefully with the passing of the modern world with its “isms” and the preference for large, radical, bureaucratic solutions, the problem of compromise will lessen. But, it will not lessen until and unless the current participants walk away from our currently excessive ideological and combative style of politics.

Complex problems by their very nature have complex and divisive solutions. It is the job of leaders to pick the most viable solution and implement it. One fundamental quality of a leader is the ability to address problems in an organization successfully. By this definition, our political system has been lacking in leadership for a long, long time. Some years ago, I was visiting with a religious leader about a problem that was tearing our organization apart. I was attempting to sell him on taking a small compromising step to keep that problem from damaging our organization. His response was the response of the anti-leader: “Yes, Chris it is probably going to happen, but not until after I retire.” He was correct, but the organization has sustained the loss of thousands of members in the past few years. Unfortunately zealotry triumphed because leaders would not compromise.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1984), hereinafter, “The Naked Public Square.” This week’s blog reflects upon Chapter 7, entitled, “The Morality of Compromise”.

[2] Id, at 114.

[3] Id.

.

7. Losing Who We Are (or At Least Have Been)

Last week, we discussed the importance of a transcendent foundation for liberal democracy. Faith, Neuhaus believes, is an essential foundation for freedom. In a chapter in The Naked Public Square entitled, “Denying Who We Are” Richard John Neuhaus defends the idea that, despite the hostility of the media and elites, America remains a fundamentally religious and overwhelmingly Christian nation and that religious belief has an important place in public life. [1] Perhaps there was a public consensus on this in 1984. It is pretty clearly less so in 2020.

In my view,  the limitations on Neuhaus’ analysis involves not foreseeing the implications of the passing of the “Greatest Generation,” which fought World War II and built many of the business and social organs of Modern America, and the passing of leadership into the hands of the Viet Nam War Generation (or “Boomers”), which is morally, spiritually and emotionally scarred by the upheavals of the 1960’s. In forty short years, what Neuhaus thought unlikely has become a reality: An educational system, media and entertainment industry dominated by persons hostile to American values and traditions, has substantially eroded the cultural foundations of our democracy. We have seen evidence of this every day during the last two or three political seasons.

The Founders Consensus

This situation would have puzzled the Founders of our nation, most of whom, whatever their religious beliefs, thought of religion as fundamental to a well-ordered democracy.[2] Washington, in his Farewell address put it this way,

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. [3]

Thomas Jefferson put it this way:

The practice of morality being necessary for the well-being of society, He [God] has taken care to impress its precepts so indelibly on our hearts that they shall not be effaced by the subtleties of our brain. We all agree in the obligation of the moral principles of Jesus and nowhere will they be found delivered in greater purity than in His discourses.[4]

Perhaps John Adams put it most succinctly when he said, “… [It is] religion and morality alone which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand. The only foundation of a free constitution is pure virtue.”  [5]

The Situation Today

The question remains, “Is Neuhaus correct when he assumes that America is still a religious nation, and if not, what does that mean for our republican form of government?” According to a recent Gallup Poll, In 2019, American religious convictions were something like the following: About 70% of Americans gave their religious preference as Christian. About 1.9 % are Jewish, .9% Muslim, .7% Buddhist, and .7 % Hindu. Other world religious were at .3%, and other faiths, 1.5%. In 2019, about 22% listed themselves as “Unaffiliated,” with about 3% being atheists, 4% agnostic, and 15% of the unaffiliated listing their religion as “nothing in particular”. [6] A Gallup study shows that as recently as 1967, only 2% of Americans listed themselves as religiously unaffiliated. That number has grown consistently in recent years and is now 22%. [7]

The figures indicate that, while America remains a religious nation, and Christianity remains the dominant religious force, the real change has not been to “other religions” but to no religious affiliation at all. This may explain the difficulties in maintaining the public consensus that the Founders felt important. The drift in America has not been away from “Judeo-Christian Values” to some other religious view, such as Hinduism, but from Judeo-Christian values to no definite religious belief whatsoever. It is this trend that Americans should view as most concerning, especially since those who are religiously unaffiliated probably are disproportionately represented in the media, entertainment and higher education, which probably accounts for the trend more than any other single factor.

The Secular Society and Religious Proclamation

In The Naked Public Square Neuhaus makes the following important observation:

As in the media, then, so also in the courts and centers of higher learning it is more or less taken for granted that ours is a secular society. When religion insists on intruding itself into the public square with an aggressive force that cannot be denied it is either grudgingly acknowledged or alarums are raised about the impending return of the Middle Ages. Then the proposition becomes more explicit: if ours is not a secular society, then it ought to be. [8]

The media, entertainment industry and higher education, as well as a number of elites in government and industry take it as an article of faith that religion and public life should be divorced. This is faulty on at least two accounts: First, secularism of the type espoused by these groups is, in fact, a substitute religion, a truth felt by those who hold it to be the ultimate truth about reality. It is my view that the growth of the religiously unaffiliated from 25 to 20% explains the way in which anti-religious voices have come to dominate public life.

Second, religious views should continue to be important in concerning policy alternatives. A very significant number of Americans subscribe to the view that there is a creator God, that the universe displays something of the wisdom of that God, and that compassion (self-giving love) is a kind of ultimate virtue. [9] If religion is necessary for the stability of the society, then hardly anything could be more relevant to policy decisions than the impact of a decision on this crucial element of public life. They key is that all participants remain faithful to their fundamental views while acting with compassion for everyone, even those with whom they disagree.

The danger that secularists are concerned about, and it is a danger, is that of a return to the kind of religious strife that characterized the Thirty Years War. [10] In the Middle East, in Africa and other places we see evidence that there continues to be a danger of religious violence. This is where religious groups can be helpful by assuring everyone that believers do not view force as an appropriate way to achieve either political or religious objectives, but instead view the rational choice of people as the only sound method for making religious decisions. This involves a commitment to the First Amendment and the avoidance of any action that would indicate a purely sectarian interest in a piece of legislation or policy choice.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1984), hereinafter, “The Naked Public Square.” This week’s blog reflects upon Chapter 6.

[2] There are varying views about the depth of religious conviction of the founders. It is apparent, however, that all the major figures, even the deist Jefferson, felt that religion and morality were fundamental to a functioning democracy.

[3] George Washington, Farewell Address 1796, Yale Law School, Lillian Goldmand Law Library: Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp (downloaded February 25, 2020).

[4]  Thomas Jefferson, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Alberty Ellery Bergh, editor (Washington D.C.: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904), Vol. XII, p. 315, to James Fishback, September 27, 1809.

[5]  John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, Charles Francis Adams, editor (Boston: Little, Brown, 1854), Vol. IX, p. 401, to Zabdiel Adams on June 21, 1776.)

[6] Pew Research Center “Pew Research Religious Landscape Study, https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/ (Downloaded February 27, 2020).

[7] Gallup News “Religion” https://news.gallup.com/poll/1690/religion.aspx (Downloaded February 27, 2020).

[8] Naked Public Square, at 103.

[9] I have used the term compassion deliberately. Christians and Jews share with Buddhists, Hindu’s, Taoists and others that the compassion is a virtue. For Christians, that compassion is revealed as an ultimate attribute of God in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. In this common view, I think that we have a ground for political and social action and harmony among groups that differ on the ultimate nature of God and of reality.

[10] The Thirty Years’ War engulfed Central Europe between 1618 and 1648. Although initially a war between Protestant and Catholic states in the fragmented Holy Roman Empire, it ultimately involved most of the great European powers and resulted in millions of causalities. It was ended by the Peace of Westphalia. This conflict is credited with alienating many intellectuals from both religion and the interconnection of religious institutions and the state.

 

6. The Danger of the Empty Public Square

There is no question but that certain powerful forces would like to see the voice of religion, and especially the voice of Christians, eliminated from the American public square. When Richard Neuhaus initially wrote The Naked Public Square, the so-called Christian Right was in ascendance. [1]There was a great deal of liberal concern, culminating with Hilary Rodham Clinton making her famous “vast right-wing conspiracy” comment, alleging that the election of conservatives was the result of some kind of conspiracy. (One interesting aspect of contemporary American politics is the constant allegation that,  for example if the Koch brothers make political contributions, it is part of a right-wing conspiracy. If George Soros does, it is a result of a vast left-wing conspiracy. The paranoia of contemporary politics is, perhaps, a reflection of the absence of religious faith in the public square. If there is no God, then we are responsible for everything that happens or does not happen. This alone is enough to drive a person mad.) Today, as I mentioned last week, there is little to be worried about from the Religious Right. This does not seem to prevent the media, and left-wing politicians from alleging that there is and from attempting to expunge religion from American public life. It is Neuhaus’ view that this is a gigantic mistake.

For the past 300 years, intellectuals impacted by the Enlightenment and the revolutionary spirit of the French Revolution, have attempted to create a purely secular state. The goal was and is a “Naked Public Square,” that is the exclusion of religious views from public debate. Because the Enlightenment began in Christian France, the initial and consistent focus of this effort has been Christianity, but it can be easily seen that eventually the logic demands that all merely religious convictions and expressions should be removed from public discourse. Sometimes this demand implies that, since religious views are “private,” and not scientifically verifiable, they should not guide public debate or policy.

This notion is at least partially based on an outdated materialistic world view that sees the world, and therefore human society, as nothing more than matter and material forces. The genesis of Marxism in all of its various forms is the notion that all there is are material forces, and in the realm of political economy, all that exist are economic forces. The result is a kind of “economic determinism.” [2] This same idea also infects Radical Capitalism, with its notion that blind economic forces can lead to the optimal distribution of wealth. Those captured by a materialistic world view are inevitably hostile to spiritual values.

In the Naked Public Square Neuhaus develops an attack on this view that has three main observations: (i) such a truncated view of the world ignores much of what ordinary people value; and (ii) the observation that wherever this has been tried in the past, a totalitarians state has resulted with untold human suffering resulting; and (iii) finally, the naked public square is an impossibility. Where religion is excluded either “eratz religion” by another name will enter the square or a kind of secular religion will be developed to provide a basis for society. [3]

While much of the media focuses attention on the danger of a Nazi-like dictatorship, Neuhaus rightly observes that the 20th century shows that left wing, socialistic dictatorships are both more probable and more dangerous. One need only look to the suffering and slaughter of Communist China, Soviet Russia, and other communist states and the current situation in Venezuela to see that the siren song of “free stuff” and economic equality spun by current proponents of a socialized economy are either misguided or worse. In an American election year in which we hear about the virtues of a socialized economy, perhaps Americans should take not of this danger. there has been but one Nazi Germany. There have been several Marxist disasters, creating totalitarianism and human suffering.

More importantly, at one point in his analysis, Neuhaus makes a comment that has a continuing relevance for thinking people concerning the danger to America of the naked public square: In all likelihood the naked public square in America will look somewhat different than in Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia. It would be a distinctly American, probably technologically driven,totalitarian monism that attempts to create a society without religious foundation, and therefore without meaning. [4] Those who think it cannot happen here might read the daily papers.

It turns out that a liberal democracy can only be sustained if all voices, and especially the voices of churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and other religious mediating institutions, can be heard. When these voices are excluded, then some elite will create its own moral and spiritual basis for society, and one in which religious voices are silenced. In contemporary America we see the danger of this happening.

This does not mean that religious people, and Christians in particular, should expect to control or dominate the public square. While religious voices are one voice in a pluralistic public square, they are not the only voice. Tolerance is a public virtue necessary to sustain a liberal democracy. We all have to listen to points of view we dislike or even regard as dangerous. More importantly for

Christians must remember that we are not called to dominate the public square but to serve it in self-giving love, emulating the One who gave himself for us. When his own leaders argued about who should be the greatest and in control, he gave this teaching:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28).

Next week, I am going to continue the analysis of this idea that all mediating institutions are necessary for a proper functioning liberal democracy.

God bless,

Chris

Copyright 2020, G Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] [1] Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1984), hereinafter, “The Naked Public Square.” This week’s blog is taken from Chapter 5, entitled “The Vulnerability of the Naked Public Square.”

[2] Id, at 79.

[3] Id, at 81.

[4] Id, at 85.

5. Critical Patriotism and Civil Community

Last week, we discussed the need for greater reliance on dialogue as opposed to political debate in the public arena. This week, this discussion continues. In The Naked Public Square, Neuhaus has a chapter on “Critical Patriotism and the Civil Community.” [1] The major point of the chapter is that, while civility is a virtue in public life, civility cannot exist without some notion of the worth of the civil community of which we are a part. If our civil community is hopelessly corrupt, as extremists left and right imagine, then there can be no warrant for civility, what is needed is a revolution. [2] It is with wisdom that Neuhaus begins the chapter with its best quote: “Civility is highly valued by the uncertain. It needs most to be exercised by the certain.” [3] We live in a time when this observation is important.

Political Certainty and the Problem of Radical Solutions

One most discouraging aspect of contemporary politics is the certainty with which the political extremes, left and right, are certain of the correctness of their policy preferences. This aspect of American politics is made more troublesome by the fact that identity politics, of which we spoke last week, has made rational compromise difficult to obtain. If, for example, decisions about how to best manage our health care system are caught between the extremes of “there can be no single public funding system” and “there must be a single payer system,” compromise becomes impossible. In a variety of areas, this lack of ability to compromise harms our nation.

Secondly, where extremes control the debate, moderate, smaller, and less disruptive policy prescriptions become impossible. The recent debate over “The Affordable Care Act” (ACA), known as “Obamacare” is illustrative.  President Obama, Speaker Pelosi, and their advisors were determined to make a complete, radical change in the American healthcare system. Opponents were determined to prevent this. Many experts doubted that the public and private exchanges ACA exchanges could work, since they would attract the worst and most expensive risk and charge the lowest rates—something everyone in the insurance business knows is financial suicide. One party, did not mind this, since they saw the ACA as a step on the road to nationalized health care. The other party did not care because they believed (it turned out correctly) that the inevitable collapse of Obama Care would return them to power. Lost in all this was the need for America to have a more efficient and cost-effective medical care system. Because the extremes controlled the debate, a bad policy result obtained and billions of dollars and years of time were and are still being lost. Only recently has a more incremental revision been possible, perhaps because both parties feared the consequences of a complete collapse of the system.

The Virtues of Dialogue and Compromise

A rational government trusts that, over time, the public will embrace rational decisions if they are given time, information, and results. Even if one considers that the current policy in some area is not functional and dramatic change needs to be made, small changes in the right direction over time will lead everyone to recognize that fact. On the other hand, if the proposed polity solution turns out to be incorrect, then small changes will be easier to undo than dramatic ones.

In order for small changes to be made, the parties must set aside their ultimate polity preferences, enter a real dialogue, and compromise. This cannot be done in the setting of irrational charges, personal attacks, and public anger. Compromise requires the quiet moment of reflection on what is possible and necessary under the circumstances obtaining. In other words, it requires that wisdom and restraint be public virtues.

The term “civility” derives from the term “civil” and relates to public life. Civility is that public virtue that allows courteous, rational public debate, the absence of violence, physical, moral, or mental violence, all of which are counter-productive in the search for rational public policy. As America moves into a new era, restoration of (or at least an increase in) civility to public life is important. Without this, we are trapped into a series of policy missteps that ultimately damage our “civilization,” which is the end product of a civil public arena.

Civil Patriotism

Many on the left of America fear what they believe is a “jingoistic” irrational Patriotism. To the extent love of country, support common institutions, and care about the fundamental institutions (like the Constitution) are unreflective, there is a real danger in this fear. However, there is also a danger in jingoistic, irrational rejection of our social institutions, institutions that have served our nation well and allowed the social and economic progress we have made since our founding. True Civil Patriotism, and a love for our civil society, does not mean a lack of concern for its shortcomings and failures. It means a willingness to display respect for those who disagree with us and to listen with respect and openness to the critique they offer in the search for a better society for all.

As a Christian, I believe that it is only by injecting that most Christian of virtues, self-giving love into the public life of our nation that this is possible. Today is President’s Day. At the beginning of our nation, the wealthiest and most powerful figure of its birth, George Washington put everything at risk to create, form, and sustain our public institutions. He resisted every temptation to gain permanent power as he served our nation. At the moment when our nation was most fractured, Abraham Lincoln served our nation to maintain our union and fundamental institutions, and in the process eliminated the greatest evil present in the formation of our nation.  Perhaps it is to their example we should return as we face the problems of today.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1984), hereinafter, “The Naked Public Square.”

[2] Id, at 69; “…civility assumes, if not a consensus about, at least a search for a reconstituted vision of the civitas.”

[3] Id, at 55.

4. Religious Pluralism, Identity Politics, and the Public Square

In this week’s post, I want to focus on an aspect of The Naked Public Square that has long troubled my thinking. [1] Neuhaus, writing in the 1980’s, was concerned to fashion a position in over and against both to secular liberalism and the resurgence of highly conservative thinking represented in his writing by the Moral Majority. The position he was staking out was eventually given the name of “Neo-Conservatism” or New Conservatism. [2] Neuhaus, as a mainline Lutheran and then Roman Catholic thinker was concerned to show how his views were different from those of, say, Jerry Falwell, the founder of the Moral Majority. Naturally, in so doing, he has critical things to say about the fundamentalist reentry into American politics.

The Reality of Religious and Moral Diversity

The Moral Majority that Neuhaus was so concerned about is no more, however, the problem he recognized is still with us: One difficulty in outlining a Christian political philosophy is the great divergence within Christian groups on matters of faith, morals, and their implications for government. For example, when St. Augustine wrote City of God, there was no diversity of opinion among Christian leaders concerning the ethics of infanticide or abortion. They were universally condemned. Today, this happy situation no longer exists.

More importantly, if America was a diverse society in the 1980’s, it is immeasurably more religiously diverse today. Christianity has declined as the primary religious faith of Americans. Other religious traditions and people of no particular religious tradition have increased. There is no consensus among these traditions about many aspects of public life, and very little hope that a consensus will ever emerge.

Finally, in the 1980’s, Neuhaus did not fear that secular forces might drive Christianity out of the public square entirely. Today, we cannot be so sure. Recently one political candidate for President implied that Christians should not run for public office. Routinely candidates for confirmation to public office are attached for their Christian convictions. The danger of “anti-Christianism” has joined anti-Semitism as a real threat to our free polity.

The challenge to Christian people is to speak into this diversity with faithfulness to their particular tradition, but with wisdom and some level of respect for other competing traditions. Abortion is a case in point. For nearly half a century, different Christian groups have been speaking their views into the public arena, sometimes virulently. The public has become accustomed to conservative Christian groups opposing abortion and mainline denominations supporting it. As a result, both groups are ignored by the great majority of people. There is some evidence that the public believes that the legalization of abortion late in the term of pregnancy has little public support, but efforts to change this law spark heated debate, with charges and counter-charges being levied among the parties. Often these charges and counter-charges are levied in emotional language cut off from rational argument. It is hard to see how the bitterness of the debate helps the witness of Christians to the greater society at large. Thus far, it has also been ineffective.

Identity Politics and Its Consequences

As in so many areas of American politics, there needs to be a step beyond debate to dialogue and reasoned argument. One of the many things that the left and right hold in common is a completely modern view that politics can be reduced to political combat between variousinterest groups. The idea is to motivate various groups to support your bid for power by appealing to their opinions and prejudices, and especially those that give them their identity:  race, religion, economic class, sexual orientation, and similar characteristics. This is given the name “identity politics” and explains so much of what is deeply wrong with American politics today.

A major problems with identity politics is that it enables candidates and parties to focus on a small, emotionally laden group of issues to the exclusion of other important issues. If I can get votes by emphasizing sexual orientation or the evils of carbon based energy and promising some simple, if impossible action, I can avoid complex issues with complicated solutions that will involve compromise between various options.

For example, the national debt is only considered from the viewpoints of “they are trying to take away this or that public benefit” or “they are irresponsibly bankrupting the nation.” This allows the parties to ignore the fact that too much debt will impoverish all of us and our children and we have to compromise to bring about rational spending. The solution, if there is one, is not in the agenda of either party, but in some kind of compromise.

In another recent case, a candidate proposed eliminating the internal combustion engine and fossil fuels in a very short period of time. Lost in this proposal was the fact that such a policy would involve building something like 250 nuclear reactors in five or so years, covering large areas of the nation with solar panels that could not even be built in such a time frame, and other impossible alternatives. Perhaps a more realistic proposal would be better for the nation. This candidate did not have to deal with the reality of the situation. He just wanted to get votes from the environmental lobby.

This leads to the final problem with the political atmosphere identity politics creates: It makes compromise impossible. Once the parties have radicalized and polarized their voting base, they can never compromise on any rational solution to a problem. In the areas of the budget, medical care, entitlements, and the like we have seen the paralyzing results of identity politics at work.

Christians and Identity Politics

In the face of this, it is perhaps the best and most important witness that Christians can give is to be especially careful in how we express our internal disagreements in public. I have always felt that there was a demeaning tone to some of Neuhaus’ argument in The Naked Public Square regarding the new evangelical emergence, a kind of “snarkyness” that is both off putting and demeaning. It is as if he were trying to purchase the respect of the intellectual elite at the price of belittling fellow Christians. This is a strategy that cannot work and needs to be avoided at all costs.

I am pretty sure that a true Christian public theology for the 21st Century will attempt to transcend the polarization of 20th Century public theology. It will attempt to be dialogical as opposed to debate oriented. It is hard to conceive how this might occur, but it is an endeavor that is worth the effort.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1984), hereinafter, “The Naked Public Square.” The critique Neuhaus gives is so pervasive that I have not given citations.

[2] One problem with this name has to do with the fact that it is also used for a branch of the Republican Party and the defense polities it promotes. This means that religious Neo-conservatives are often mistaken with political Neo-conservatives. While they have certain similarities, they are very different. one can be a religious Neo-conservative and not support the “Neo-con” ideas on what is the best middle Eastern military posture.

3. Why Government Should Not Be “The Primary Thing that Gives Us Unity”

I thought that I might continue the line of thought that I began last week. One of the most discouraging things about the state of our national polity is the extent to which our national government has become both dominant over other levels of government and intrusive into the life of persons, families, communities and other social organizations.

In The Naked Public Square, Richard Neuhaus makes the following important statement:  “The things that matter most happen in the Mediating Structures of our personal and communal existence. These structures, family, neighborhood, church, Voluntary association—are the people sized” institutions where we work day by day at our felicities and fears. The public square is not limited to the Government Square. At the same time—and for reasons that unavoidable—government impinges on all public squares.” [1]

There is a lot to ponder in this little quote. Neuhaus begins with an observation that we too easily dismiss: even in the most intrusive of dictatorships, the family, friendships, neighborhood, community, church, and other societies have not only great influence, but they are the source of the day-to-day meaningfulness of life for most people. This past week, my wife and I have visited two of our children, entertained guests from out of town, attended an historic preservation community meeting, and been to two different church activities. We also listened to the State of the Union Address and wrote a check to a political group we support. Guess which of those activities were most meaningful and important to our happiness and to the fullness of our lives? It was family and friends. Then it was helping our local neighborhood and church. Finally, it was those activities that impinge upon our national politics.

The Tao Te Ching has a passage that I find important in thinking about politics and persons:

If the Way is carefully cultivated in a person,

virtue grows and becomes genuine.

If the Way is carefully cultivated in a family,

virtue grows by loving transmission.

If the Way is carefully cultivated in a community,

virtue grows through careful schooling.

If the Way is carefully cultivated in a nation,

virtue grows by wise leadership.

If the Way is carefully cultivated in the world,

virtue grows as the Way is followed. [2]

One does not have to ponder this quotation for very long before what is deeply wrong with our political culture becomes obvious: We pay too little attention to the smaller, more intimate and personal aspects of our society. In so doing, we weaken our national polity, which inevitably relies upon the health of other institutions.

The modern world has created a kind of schizophrenia as “self-actualizing individuals” seeking their own happiness paradoxically diminish the very institutions that give the most meaning, purpose and wholeness to life. The rampant incidence of divorce in our society is but one example.

As a result of the interconnectedness of society, social institutions, and personal happiness, it is one of the roles of government to respect the limitations in its potential reach. The power of the sword is an important power. It inevitably creates the potential for governments of all kinds to emasculate and diminish other institutions. The temptation to do so in the search of some public good is ever present, but the temptation must be resisted, or the society as a whole will suffer.

In the United States, the national government has intruded itself into almost every aspect of life, personal and communal. It tells farmers what they can grow, small business persons what they can sell and to whom they may sell, businesses how they can manufacture, community schools what they can teach, doctors and hospitals what care they can deliver—the list could go on and on. The point is not that what they government is doing is necessarily wrong or that the motives of the national government are suspect. It is that we would all be better off if local communities decided for themselves what to do as much as possible.

One of the primary goals of any Christian public philosophy should be to give a general kind of guidance to policy makers concerning how much power they should exercise and how much restraint they should exercise in the public good. The principle I gather from all this is quite simple: Every public decision should be made at the lowest possible level and when there is a question, the lower body should remain free to do as it believes best.

[1] Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1984), hereinafter, “The Naked Public Square.”

[2] See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Centered Living/ Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love an Adaptation of the Tao Te Ching for Christ-Followers (Cordova, TN: Permissio Por Favor (Booksurge), 2014). This quote is found in Chapter 54 on page 108.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

2. Mediating Institutions and Politics as War

In Chapter Two of The Naked Public Square, Neuhaus confronts the need for churches, public and private charities, and other ‘mediating institutions” to participate in public affairs. As to religious institutions, secular thinkers worry about the potential for religious warfare, reminiscent of the religious wars of Europe that followed the Reformation. It turns out, however, that the kind of secular religion created by, for example, radical communism, can also create such a situation—and has in the 20th Century. Neuhaus quotes the philosopher Alasdair McIntyre for the proposition that politics without a moral ground can become “civil war carried on by other means.” [1] We see many symptoms of this problem in contemporary America.

The solution to the propensity of politics to degenerate into “war by other means” is not the exclusion of groups from the public square, but a strong public ethic that provides a peaceful and rational way of conducting politics involving differing groups. Michael Polanyi points out a paradoxical feature of modern society: it combines a cynical disregard for truth and for justice with kind fanatical devotion to certain moral ideals of an ideology, right or left. The Russian Communists and German Nazi’s were inspired to violence by an ideological moral fervor cut off from any moral grounding in a history or tradition. The search for a just society, cut off from a deep public philosophy of justice can generate in the practitioners of modern ideological politics a fanaticism that permits gross immorality in the search for a better or perfect society. [2]

Western democracies, most of which have some basic cultural history in the Judeo-Christian tradition, need to recover a connection with historic moral traditions in the conduct of its political affairs. In particular, the West must recover its faith in justice as real quality progressively uncovered though a disciplined search for fairness in the political arena. In his book Logic of Liberty, Polanyi puts the matter in this way:

The general foundations of coherence and freedom in society may be regarded as secure to the extent to which men uphold their belief in the reality of truth, justice, charity, and tolerance, and accept dedication to the service of these realities; while society may be expected to fall into servitude when men deny, explain away or simply disregard these realities and transcendent obligations.

We may be faced with the fact that only by resuming the great tradition which embodies faith in these realities can the continuance of the human race on earth, equipped with the powers of modern science be made both possible and desirable. [3]

If there are no transcendental values, if politicians are not constrained in their political behavior by a transcendent obligation to seek truth and justice in political life with tolerance for other views, then the state can and must dictate these matters—and society will have entered a road to tyranny. If, however, a society and its politicians believe in the transcendent, moral and ethical realities of truth, justice, tolerance, charity, and serve them, not just when they find it convenient, and if citizens and their representatives believe that society will eventually discern these realities and be guided by them, then the foundation of a free society can be maintained in the fact of conflict and uncertainty.

The frenetic dishonesty of contemporary politics results from an underlying assumption of both the right and left that there nothing involved in debate but the contention of special interest groups for advantage. In the absence of a moral foundation for the political process, and upon what means may be used to seek a political result, a free and just society cannot endure. We see evidence of decline in American politics, as the recent Kavanaugh hearings clearly revealed.

If, however, citizens and their public representatives believe in something called the “Public Interest” as an invisible reality which can and will be disclosed to us as we seek a progressively attainable more just society, then a free society can be maintained in the face of the differences of opinion and the trials and tests of history. In such a society, the voice of religious leaders can and should be heard in the public arena.

Modern advocates of a purely secular state suspect that any attempt to subject government to religious opinions and moral rules involves an attempt to set up a theocracy or “moralocracy”. In fact, any attempt by religious or moral leaders to acquire political power as such would be contrary to the vision of Polanyi and others. A society in which moral values guide leaders is a society in which leaders have been trained in wisdom and in the principles of moral leadership and instinctively bring them to bear upon the problems of the day. The fundamental role of morality and religion is to create a kind of character in leaders, not to mandate a particular moral or political position. This is not to say that religious groups will not have specific policy preferences. They will and should.

Churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and other sorts of other mediating institutions are important participants in the public arena. The views of religious people are not determinative of matters of public policy—but they are certainly relevant. Each participant in public life must be able to peacefully assert their views without fear of legal restraint. In contemporary America, there has developed a tendency to restrain political and moral speech on the basis of the “hearer’s feelings.” This cannot be the test. We all have to hear and evaluate positions and views we find troubling, held together by confidence that the best policy will in the end prevail.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

 

[1] Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1984), 21, hereinafter, “The Naked Public Square.”

[2] Michael Polanyi, Science, Faith and Society (Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 1946). This section of this blog is taken from my book, G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers (Eugene, OR: Wift & Stock Press, 2014), 159-162.

[3] Michael Polanyi, The Logic of Liberty: Reflections and Rejoinders (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1951), 57.

The Naked Public Square Revisited

In 1984, the author and social commentator, Richard John Neuhaus wrote a book that had a profound impact on American public life, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America. [1] This book, and Neuhaus’ work editing First Things, widely regarded as on the most influential journals on religion and public life had a great impact during the years that followed. [2] I remember reading the book in the 1990’s, and admiring its scholarship. However, even then, I was not comfortable with all of its conclusions or the tone of the work in many places.

The book was written during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, to some people a kind of golden age of evangelical witness in the political arena. During the presidency of Jimmy Carter, evangelical Christians emerged as a force in American politics. The emerging alliance of evangelicals with a Democratic administration was ultimately not successful. The deep feelings of many evangelicals on the subject of abortion, and the perceived ineptitude of the administration in handling the Iranian Crisis, resulted in a massive shift of evangelical support to the Republican Party in the 1980 election, where, until most recently, it has since resided. It is too early to tell whether the Trump Administration and the reaction of some evangelical leaders to his personal style and perceived immorality will result in a change of this alliance in the future.

In any case, one of the weaknesses of Evangelical witness in public life is that it has too often focused on “hot button” issues, such as abortion or more recently President Trump’s moral character. While this kind of focus certainly has a place in Christian discussion of public life, such a focus inhibits the development of discussion and reason concerning Christian faith and its fundamental message to Christians and others in the area of our national political life.

For the next few weeks, I am going to take a leisurely blogging journey through The Naked Public Square highlighting ways in which the book continues to have something to say to Christians as they consider how to impact the public culture of our nation. This is an important undertaking because our public culture is without question experiencing an unprecedented decay into a kind of nihilistic “winner take all” game in which the Christian virtues of reason, compassion, justice and love are inevitably lost. The propensity impacts Christians and non-Christians alike. The result is an impoverishment of our public discourse on important issues.

Neuhaus was very aware that Christian engagement with political life includes the danger that Christian thinking about matters of public life will degenerate into a “Church of What Is Happening Now” response. [3] One of the blessings of religious faith is that it involves internalizing an eternal perspective on current events that allows a kind of disengagement with the pressure of the currently urgent and allows focus on important things. Hopefully, the result is that Christians can engage others in the public arena with the wisdom and love that God has asked all his disciples to demonstrate.

Neuhaus believed that the emergence of the Evangelical Right was an event that required examination. He was concerned to illuminate the errors of the Moral Majority and similar movements. From the perspective on 2020, it would seem to me that his concern was overdone. The Moral Majority has disappeared from public life. The serial elections of Barack Obama without more than a small smattering of evangelical and Catholic support showed that, while religious faith is important to Americans, people remain more than willing to punish politicians who allow financial mismanagement and foreign misadventure to characterize their party and leadership.

More importantly, the cultural changes of the 1960’s were perhaps slowed by the Reagan Presidency but they were not by any means without continuing impact. In the Clinton and Obama administrations they were dominant. On college campuses and in the media and other cultural settings, the power forces of late modernity continued to impact public life in powerful ways. Although Republican candidates continued to speak about abortion, once in office they normally did very little to see that Roe vs. Wade was overturned. [4]

There is a lesson to be learned in all this. While religious faith is an important factor for people of faith in their making of public decisions, faith is not an important factor for non-religious people. In addition, while religion is important to people of faith, it is by no means the only or often primary consideration in their political views. About many matters of public life, it may not even be arguably the most important matter. For example, I am a member of a local neighborhood association that deals with issues like, where should boundary signs be located and what height of wall should be permitted in a particular lot. Hopefully, my religious faith causes me to be loving, kind, concerned with the people involved and just, but Christian faith does not determine my vote on the height of privacy fences. Finally, religious and other factors will impact a Christian response to any public policy issue, and as to some issues, Christians may well have to weigh their faith with other factors.

Furthermore, cultural forces are not easily changed, as the massive change in sexual morals among religious and non-religious people in early 2st century America clearly shows. Cultural change involves creating cultural artifacts (art, literature, movies, music, and institutions) that capture the imagination of people and hold their loyalty beyond the passing emotion of a political movement or reaction. Christians, and especially more conservative Christians have not been particularly good at the creation of a cultural response to late modernity that is both compelling and energizing to contemporary Americans. A deep and deeply rational public policy is one of those artifacts that it is important for Christians to develop.

More on the Naked Public Square next week!

Chris

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1984), hereinafter, “The Naked Public Square”

[2] First Things: A Journal of Religion and Public Life, published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life, a bipartisan non-profit corporation headquartered in New York, NY. On its cover on the internet it describes itself as “América’s Most Influential Journal of Religion and Public Life.” See https://www.firstthings.com/current-edition.

[3] The Naked Public Square, 3ff.

[4] Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973). Roe v. Wade is the initial case in a series of abortion cases and it initiated a continuing debate about the legality and morality of abortion in American public life.

18. Discipleship in an Age of Fragmentation

While held prisoner by the Nazi’s, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a series of letters published after his death as “Letter and Papers from Prison.” In these writings, Bonhoeffer spoke of “Humanity Come of Age” and the need for a “Religionless Christianity.” [1] As with all posthumous writings, and especially those of someone who died without the opportunity to expound upon ideas formed under the pressure of trying circumstances, Bonhoeffer’s concepts of “Humanity Come of Age” and “Religionless Christianity” should be handled with care. It is uncertain exactly what Bonhoeffer meant by the terms, and it is unclear whether he might have abandoned or modified his ideas had he lived. We will never know. Nevertheless, modern Christians struggle with many of the same issues with which Bonhoeffer struggled in order to face our own crisis of discipleship. His ideas remain relevant for this process.

Humanity “Come of Age”

The Humanity Come of Age of which Bonhoeffer writes is the fruition of the Western Enlightenment Project and the end of the Modern World, about which we spoke near the beginning of these essays. In the Middle Ages, the church was a kind of parent or tutor of European society. The church spoke into the lives of people from a position of power and authority. Beginning with the Renaissance, and increasing with the Enlightenment and the emergence of the Modern World, humanity entered a period of disengagement from religious authority, as modern ideas, science, and technology provided a non-religious foundation for life. So far as Bonhoeffer could see writing from prison in the mid-1940’s, the Enlightenment Project had succeeded. [2] Humanity had come of age, and Christians needed to learn to live and witness in Western society as if there were no God, because the societies in which Christians live largely function as if there were no God. This issue is more pronounced today than when Bonhoeffer wrote.

Until recently, the perceived success of the Modern World pushed God out of the consciousness of many, if not most, people. [3] This feeling was expressed by the mathematician Laplace when, speaking of God’s relationship with the universe, he said, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” Many modern people feel no need to seek or have a relationship with God or to consider God in making day-to-day decisions. They feel they have “come of age” and can handle life and its problems without God. The result for Bonhoeffer was a need for “Religionless Christianity” that can speak into the lives of secular people. [4]

Today, thinking people are much less certain about the successes of the Modern World. The societies most impacted by the Enlightenment are experiencing rapid cultural and institutional decay. To many, it seems as if Western culture is in an irreparable moral, intellectual, aesthetic, and cultural decline, and Modernity does not appear to have intellectual or functional answers to this cultural decline. In fact, remedies that previously seemed so obvious to the problems of the human race: governmental social engineering, large bureaucracies, technological progress, increased affluence, and the like, now seem part of the problem, not the solution. The increasing violence and alienation of many in Western societies indicates that the Modern World was perhaps not “Humanity come of Age” but instead, “Humanity in its Adolescence.” [5]

While no serious thinker recommends a retreat to the pre-modern world, there is ample evidence that the modern world needs to rediscover and reincorporate the wisdom of the pre-modern world into its cultural reality. Increasing analytical thinking, scientific understanding, technological progress, and material affluence have proven inadequate to the deepest needs of the human soul. There is little likelihood that any additional amount of analysis, scientific discovery, technological progress, or affluence can halt the decline of the modern world. In this situation it is important to rediscover the kind of values and transcendental concerns that modernity denigrated or ignored.

A “Religionless Christianity”

The concept of “Religionless Christianity” is even more difficult to understand than is the notion of “Humanity Come of Age.” What is certain is that Bonhoeffer did not mean that there was no God, that Christ was not the Son of God, that the Spirit of God was absent from the world, or that there would be no church—no body of those called out of the darkness of a perceived absence of God into the light of God’s presence. Instead, what Bonhoeffer wishes others to see is that the human race in the West is in a kind of “Dark Night of the Soul,” as God purifies the world, Christians, and the church from false notions of God, of discipleship, and of the nature and role of the church.

God is not absent, but cultural realities make it seem as if God is absent. Bonhoeffer puts it this way:

The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us…. Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering. [6]

Bonhoeffer ends noting that the God of the Bible, who rules the creative universe, rules in weakness. In other words, there is a God of self-giving love, Christ is the revelation of that God, and the Spirit is still at work in the world with the power of cruciform love. However, under the conditions of modernity with its fascination with human intelligence and power, these realities cannot be seen by a majority of people. In such a situation, the role of disciples is to live in the light and presence of God in a world that cannot see that light or experience that presence. Just as in the early church, the gospel was “foolishness to the Greeks” (I Corinthians 1:23), so also the gospel will often seem foolish to hypermodern secular people. In time, the difference faith makes in the lives of people will be obvious, and the light of God will be rediscovered.

Bonhoeffer saw the grim reality that the modern world embraced a worldview and values that increasingly exclude God from politics, government, business, social structure, and the practical actions of everyday life. The kind of Christianity, and the kind of church that developed from the time of Constantine through the Reformation to the present day, was (and is) inadequate for the new culture of the West, now a world-wide culture corroding traditional values and societies wherever it spreads. In response to this new reality, God is radically purifying the church so that the church can meet the challenges of contemporary life. The church will for some time no longer be an honored institution at the core of society, visibly powerful and influential. Instead, the influence of the people of God will be seen in prayer and action for the good of others.

If this insight was true in 1944, it is even more true today. The world desperately needs a new church, purified from its “corporatization” over the past century and more, a church that has rediscovered its roots in Christ and in the deep and abiding relationships among its members, each of which is serving and sharing the gifts of God with other Christians and the world. A Culture of Death needs to see the victory of Life experienced by those who follow the crucified and risen Messiah. For the foreseeable future, the best witness of the church will be to maintain a focus on authentic discipleship and serve the world in wisdom and love.

Mission Beyond Self Preservation

In 1944, just before the Normandy invasion, Bonhoeffer wrote an essay to the child of his friends Eberhard and Renate Bethge. In the essay, he spoke as follows:

Our church, which has been fighting in these years only for self-preservation, as though it were an end to itself, is incapable of taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to mankind and the world. Our earlier words are therefore bound to lose their force and cease, and our being Christians today will be limited to two things: prayer and righteous action among men. All Christian thinking, speaking, and organizing must be born anew out of this prayer and action. By the time you have grown up, the church’s form will have changed greatly. We are not yet out of the melting pot, and any attempt to help the church prematurely to a new expansion of its organization will merely delay its conversion and purification. It is not for us to prophesy the day (though the day will come) when men will once more be called to utter the word of God that the world will be changed and renewed by it. It will be a new language, perhaps quite non-religious, but liberating and redeeming-as was Jesus’s language; it will shock some people and yet overcome them by its power; it will be the language of a new righteousness and truth, proclaiming God’s peace with men and the coming of his kingdom. [7]

These are challenging words. In Bonhoeffer’s day, they were an indication that the church in Europe, at the time, could do no more than pray and act for the good of the human race. We live in a different time, but these words are important for us as well. Too much modern evangelism and discipleship is little more than an attempt to shore up institutions in their current forms. While God loves our institutions as we seek to be children of God in our societies, God is not in the business of shoring them up so that we can avoid necessary change. God wishes Christians to reach out to a lost world with ideas and solutions to the needs of the cultures in which they live.

What Bonhoeffer could not see from his prison cell was that the two great wars of the 20th Century, the development of a style of warfare that is absolute and terrifying, the loss of meaning and purpose in the lives of many people, and the lack of cogent intellectual alternatives to the dominant thought forms of the modern world, had created, and would continue to create, an intellectual, moral, and spiritual crisis in the West. The self-assured pride of the modern world masked its deep inconsistency with human nature and what the deepest understanding of science was revealing about the universe, the human race, and human society. Western society, at its moment of victory, was about to enter a period of self-doubt and decline.

Dicispleship beyond Christendom

God is in the business of bringing his Kingdom into the world, not propping up our little kingdoms. A great deal of modern evangelism and discipleship amounts to shifting church members from one congregation to another, usually larger. Once again, God is not in the business of shifting existing members from one existing church to another by cleverly devised programing and preaching. God is in the business of expanding his Kingdom. God is in the business of sharing his wisdom and love with all people so that all people might receive the benefits of his wisdom and love. The choice for the church is to join God or decline.

God is in control of history and guiding in love the emergence of the new era we face. God intends to reach out into the darkness and decay of modern society in order to reach and heal human beings, their families, and ultimately their culture. As Bonhoeffer realized, we are at a time in which the churches of West are required to concentrate less on institutional survival and more on sharing the Gospel and making disciples in a life-changing, Spirit-empowered encounter with the postmodern world. [8]

For those of us who minister in the Protestant tradition, and especially for those who take their tradition seriously, it is hard accept that the Reformation is over and that churches must adapt to a new time. The Reformation was part of the birth of the modern world, which is itself passing away. We live 500 years beyond the days of Luther, Calvin, and the other reformers. The success of Protestant churches was a part of the success of the modern world, and partly a result of its success in challenging the thought patterns and institutions of the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, it is a stark reality that the theological controversies of the Reformation no longer move most people. The reason they no longer move most people is that the circumstances that gave rise to the Reformation no longer obtain.

We live at the end of the modern era and the beginning of a new era an emerging postmodern world, in which there will be new controversies and adjustments of Christian faith in a new culture. This does not mean that the achievements of the Reformation or modern world are unimportant or without value, any more than the Reformation meant that the achievements of the Apostolic Age, or Age of Church Fathers and Mothers, or Medieval Age were unimportant. [9] In fact, the best insights of the Reformation and modern world must not be lost. One of the least attractive and most destructive characteristics of the modern world is its foolish distain for tradition. A new era, if it is wise, builds upon all that went before it, but it also goes beyond the achievements of the past. [10] There is a need for Christians to model to the new age its ability to adapt and change as well as be faithful to the past.

It is clear is that there will be new theological and liturgical language and forms, and a new appropriation of the Biblical text with his revelation of Christ, in light of the challenges of a new culture and new thought patterns. In particular, we have only begun to understand the dangers and opportunities of a visual and oral, media-based culture. Balancing faithfulness and willingness to adapt is a special challenge in this area. There will be new forms of “doing church” in this new era, just as the Reformation and the Modern world created new ways of doing church.

When, in Letters and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer says the West is “not out of the melting pot yet,” he means to say that we are not yet out of a period of time in which is difficult, if not impossible, to see clearly the contours of the future. I’ve mentioned that what we call “postmodernism” may not be truly postmodern. It may simply be the final, decadent form of modernity. The exact contours of the postmodern age, and what would be the best and most faithful adaptation of the church, are yet to be revealed. We, like Bonhoeffer in prison, cannot see exactly where society is headed. We are not yet out of the melting pot.

The Gospel in the New Era

As Bonhoeffer recognized, Western Christians today live in societies built upon an ideology that excludes the possibility of God from public discourse. [11] Instead of living in denial, or attempting to gloss over the situation, Christians are called to share the suffering of God for the world in the world. Showing the world the love of God means living out the life of faith in a world that often considers Christian faith foolish. In many ways, this world is no different than the world that the apostle Paul entered. It is a world inclined to see the cross as foolishness and followers of the crucified God as fools (I Corinthians 1:22-25).

The world can deny or make fun of our theologies and faith, but it cannot deny the power of wisdom and love in action. One cold winter night just over a year ago, I left my office in Bay Village Ohio to eat pizza with some volunteers. As I walked into the fellowship hall, expecting to see a few people I saw over 200 volunteers in yellow T-shirts eating together and getting some instruction on the ministry of the night. The church I was serving has a ministry called “Respite.” Several times a year, the church keeps special needs children so that their parents may have a break from their caregiving activities. It takes about 200 volunteers to take care of about 80 students for the night. No question but what this particular ministry has been a part of building a reputation of this church in the community as a place of unique love. This service to the “least of these” is an important part of the life of a disciple.

For the time being, Christians will not be honored just for being Christians. Christian values will not be at the center of public life or decision-making. The act of going to church on Sunday will not be a requirement for political, social, or economic advancement. It may even be an impediment. As to Christians, any advancement will depend on the character and capacity of the individual involved. Christians will be called to minister to society by living and sharing a faith the world rejects and embodying a lifestyle the world does not respect or admire. Christians will advance in spite of their faith, not because of it. Along the way, there may be a number of failures, martyrs, and false compromises.  This is part of living in a melting pot.

In a book entitled, “The Great Emergence,” the Christian writer, Phyllis Tickle, writes about the church in the emerging postmodern society[12] Tickle observes that Christianity must invent itself about every 500 years at social inflection points, such as the beginning of the Middle Ages and the Reformation. There is truth in this observation. The visible church is a social institution, and like all successful social institutions, must adapt to a changing culture. Despite the need for change, the church has always done best when it returned to its founts: faith in Christ, the importance of the Body of Christ, the normative function of Scripture, and the importance of holiness and spiritual disciplines. This collection of essays is founded on the belief that, whatever shape the future takes, it will involve individual Christians sharing their faith, making disciples, and living together in loving community.

Contemporary discipleship will not be without its challenges and sacrifices. A Spirit-filled people, “enchanted by the Word of God,” will not be easy for the inhabitants of a decaying and often dark civilization to accept or understand. The life of individual Christians will not necessarily be easy in the years ahead.  Life was not easy for the Apostle Paul or Christians in the first centuries after Christ. There will be a rejection, persecution, and many who abandon the faith when it does not “work” as they wish it would work. As a pastor, I have watched many people abandon the Christian faith when the simple God who answers every prayer, especially important prayers, and heals every disease is proven to be a false God. The God who always answers our prayers and heals our diseases is an easy God to follow. It is harder to follow a God who dies on the cross and asks that we pick up our crosses and follow him (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23, 14:27).

Life Among the Fragments

Over and over again during the last period of his life, Bonhoeffer spoke of living a “fragmentary life.” [13] A fragmentary life is a life that cannot achieve the kind of wholeness and integrity for which the human soul yearns because of its circumstances. Bonhoeffer, imprisoned and separated from family, fiancé, and friends, sensed from his prison cell the fragmentariness of his life and the fragmentary life the death of German society entailed for his generation. He was, by circumstances, prevented from enjoying a normal life, a normal career, normal love, a normal family, normal friendships, and the like. His comrades in the Confessing Church faced a similar inability to enjoy the secure wholeness their parents and grandparents had enjoyed. He and his generation were faced with the reality of fragmentary lives. We may also confront such a reality.

The conditions of the decline of the modern world, and the movement now underway towards a postmodern reality, create difficult circumstances for contemporary Christians. Our culture is gradually decaying into a kind of spiritual and moral darkness that involves increasing chaos and violence. We, our parents, children, friends, coworkers, and others we care about and interact with, are profoundly affected by the sickness of our culture, even when its reality is rejected. The wholeness for which we yearn is beyond us and beyond many of those we love. The result is a fragmentary of life in which spiritual, moral and physical wholeness is almost impossible to achieve.

It is uncomfortable to live faithfully among the fragments of a great civilization, but success is not impossible. Interestingly, from his prison cell, during the last years of his life, Dietrich Bonhoeffer found, by all accounts, a kind of wholeness and sainthood. [14] Those who were with him at the end remarked upon the remarkable peacefulness and cheerfulness he exhibited. Perhaps the greatest gift Christians can give to a postmodern world is to simply to joyfully and peacefully continue the process of making disciples, praying for people, sharing the gospel, and helping them as they seek a kind of wholeness for their own lives.

It is at this point that a diversion is from Bonhoeffer’s analysis is important. There will be more than prayer and action involved in adapting the church to the postmodern world. Just as the initial disciples entered a pagan and hostile Roman Empire, sharing the gospel along the way, so contemporary Christian’s cannot give up sharing the gospel in word as well as deed. This sharing will involve some talented apostles like Paul. However, as in the First Century, sharing the gospel will generally involve countless ordinary Christians sharing their faith within the scope of their own particular social networks. This will require boldness and courage in our day, just as it did in the First Century. There will be those who reject, persecute, ignore, and make fun of Christ and Christian testimony. [15] This has been true in every age.

Implications for 21st Century Disciples

If we cannot fully see the implications of the emerging postmodern world for the church, we can see enough to know that the certain practices are likely to be essential in order to witness to the new era:

Community. It is certain that the relentless individualism and self-centeredness of the modern era will disappear. There’s nothing more likely than that the modern notion of the individual as a segregated atom-like monad, seeking its own self-development and satisfaction with only limited regard for others, will disappear. Developments in physics, biology, and psychology underscore the absolute importance of relationships in creation, in human life, and in the human soul. The clearest indication of the end of the modern world is the moral and social chaos generated by its unbridled and excessive individualism in families, sexual relationships, business and politics.

Building small communities of love where people can develop and find wholeness and exercise their spiritual gifts is of the first importance. [16] Just as Jesus created a little redemptive community as he called the first disciples, so disciples in the future will serve society best as they build families and small communities of wisdom and love. Such families and communities will attempt to reflect the character of Jesus in their own personal relationships regardless of the form society takes. In other words, the church will not disappear even if it changes.

More than Words. As Bonhoeffer predicted, Christian families and communities will be characterized by prayer and action. A world that does not believe in truth will not be a world persuaded by words alone. Only prayer, and visible acts of faith seen in concrete human action, will move the hearts and minds of the emerging generation. [17] It is easy to argue with words. It’s hard to argue with the reality of a community of love reaching out to meet the deepest needs of the human heart. It is easy to argue with the idea that God is love. It is hard to argue with a person once one sees he or she is acting from a center of unselfish, self-giving love. It is by self-giving love that the world will be saved not by words. Christians should always have known this, for it was by love shown on the cross that the savior showed the person and power of God and provided for reconciliation with God in the first place.

Worship and Proclamation. Proclamation of the Gospel will not cease. The Word will be preached and worship conducted in witness to the Risen Christ as it has from the first days of the early church. In this respect, Bonhoeffer may have spoken or implied something beyond what Scripture teaches and history validates. From the beginning of Christian faith, groups of people have met together to worship, sing, hear the word read and proclaimed, pray, and exalt the living God. This practice will not pass away in the postmodern or any other era. The form of worship and of the worshiping community may change, but the reality of the worship of God will not pass away.

The Bible tells the story of the first disciples leaving the Upper Room, and then Jerusalem, and then Judea and Samaria to the ends of the earth armed with the news and proclaiming it even in times of persecution, failure, and economic and personal difficulty. As Paul put it on his first missionary journey:

We tell you the good news: What God promised our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus. As it is written in the second Psalm: “You are my son; today I have become your father.”

God raised him from the dead so that he will never be subject to decay. As God has said, “I will give you the holy and sure blessings promised to David.”

So, it is also stated elsewhere: “You will not let your Holy One see decay.”

Now when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep; he was buried with his ancestors and his body decayed. But the one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay.

Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses” (Acts 13:32-39).

Paul was not speaking for himself alone. He was speaking for the entire Christian community, and especially for his traveling companions. At the center of his proclamation was the Good News that God’s promises to Israel were fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. (Acts 13:16-25). Those who spent time in community with him during his earthly life and who were witnesses of the resurrection, had been sent into the world to give witness to what God is doing and has done in Christ. Paul was not one of the original witnesses, nor was Barnabas, but they were also sent. Modern disciples of the Risen Christ will also be sent to proclaim the Good News in our day and time, even if there be scoffers, opposition, and persecution. This is the cost of discipleship.

The Crisis of Discipleship

We are indeed at a time of crisis. The word “crisis” comes from a medieval word used to describe a turning point in a disease, a decisive moment from which things will either get better or worse. When I speak of a “crisis of discipleship” the term is used in exactly this sense. We are at a decisive moment at the end of an age of Christian witness. We live in a diseased culture. A turning point is upon both modern culture and the church. Things will either continue to get worse or get better—and the decision is ours whether to adapt, serve, and go forward or attempt to maintain existing forms until their inevitable collapse. This is the crisis of discipleship we face. By the grace of God, we will face that crisis, and the next era of human history will emerge with the people of God at its center, seeking “the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” and serving the world in self-giving love after the example of the One who was and is, “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”

Chris Scruggs

Epiphany 2020

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison: New Greatly Enlarged Edition E. Bethge, ed. Second Printing (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1973).

[2] In a letter dated 16 July 1944, Bonhoeffer traces the emergence of the modern world from the 13th Century forward from Herbert of Canterbury, though Montaigne, Machiavelli, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Fitch, and Hegel as they directed their attention to the autonomy of man and the world. He concludes that “God as a working hypothesis n morals, politics, or science has been surmounted and abolished; and the same thing has happened in philosophy and religion….” Id, at 360.

[3] See, Letters and Papers from Prison, at 341.

[4] One major difference between Bonhoeffer’s day and our own is that we can see that, in fact, the Enlightenment project has reached a dead end It cannot provide an unquestionable position from which truth could be found. It cannot provide a common morality based on reason alone. It cannot provide for stability of social institutions. It cannot bring peace or social order or agreement upon faith or morals. While its technological achievements are impressive, its moral and spiritual achievements are not.

[5] In many respects the modern world was adolescent. The fascination with sex, power, strength, technique, disinterest in inherited wisdom, and the environmental wastefulness of the modern world all seem immature. In this analysis, what Western society is currently experiencing as “postmodernity” is a bit like “one last drunken hangover of modernity” before growing up.

[6] Letters and papers from Prison at 361.

[7] Letters and Papers from Prison, at 300.

[8] I’ve been a pastor and congregational leader of one kind or another for close to forty years. I do not say give this critique out of any lack of love for the institutional church, and especially for the institutions that I’ve served. In fact, I take this as a point of self-criticism: the fact is I’ve spent a lot of my time and energy in institutional maintenance not always related to the expansion of the kingdom of God. The church in the West does need to repent of its focus on institutional expansion and survival. It’s quite likely that the postmodern church will look different from the modern churches we have created over the last fifty years. This observation does not mean that our efforts were in vain or meaningless. It means that a new era will require a new and purified church.

[9] One of the most important characteristics of a truly mature post-modern world will be the ability to receive, appreciate and accept the contributions of prior periods of human culture without the arrogant belief that the new and different is better.

[10] Just as Luther, Calvin and other Reformers build up on the work of Augustine and the Church Fathers, so also postmodern thinkers will build upon the work of the Reformers and other thinkers of the modern world.

[11] See, Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel as Public Truth (Grand Rapids, MI, 1991. The work of Newbigin has been my constant companion and inspiration since seminary, when I first discovered his work.

[12] Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why (Grand Rapids, MI Baker Books, 2008, 2012), 22.

[13] See for example, Life Together, at 215 and 219.

[14] See, Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer, Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 517ff.

[15] Perhaps the earliest portrayal of Christ is contained in a piece of Roman graffiti showing Jesus as an ass upon a cross, with the inscription, “Alexamenos worships his god.” Pagan Rome made fun of Christians, and the neo-pagan postmodern West will be no different.

[16] As I was writing this, my dear friend Rev. Dr. David A. Schieber, the founding pastor of Advent Presbyterian Church in Cordova, Tennessee, USA sent to me an article from the magazine Presbyterians today about an initiative of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which is seeking to create 1001 new worshiping communities in the United States of America. They are about half-way to their goal. Most of these communities are small communities of faith ministering to people and areas under serviced by traditional congregations. This effort, whether successful or not, is a sign that the PCUSA sees that the structures and solutions of the 20th Century church are not adequate for the 21st Century. See, M. E. Clary, “1001 New Worshiping Communities: New Life, New Energy, New Expressions of Faith” Presbyterians Today (July-August 2019),40-43.

[17] I have experienced this over and over again in the later years of my active, full-time ministry. Young people who grew up in strong local congregations and who are emerging as leaders in the Christian community have a much more wholistic view of faith than their parents and grandparents. People who in past generations might have ended up in the ministry are founding non-profit corporations to solve social problems and share the love of God in practical ways. Not long ago, our congregation in San Antonio sponsored by a young man from Memphis, Tennessee who is livening in a poor, minority neighborhood and whose life experience is deeply embedded in trying to help one of the poorest neighborhoods in Memphis. His experience has led him to a ministry of teaching and action to help Christians minister to the poor. See, Michael Rhodes & Robby Holt, Practicing the King’s Economy: Honoring Jesus in How We Work, Earn, Spend, Save, and Give (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2018).

17. A Heart for the Harvest

In Luke, Jesus says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Luke 10:2). If Christians are going to be outward-looking, loving disciples of Jesus, we must hear Christ’s call and go into God’s field and share his gospel of love in word and deed. We will not leave our personal comfort zones and reach out until and unless we hear God’s voice calling us from our current pattern of life into the world to share God’s wisdom and love. That requires a heart for people.

We won’t share God’s love with others until and unless we have a heart for people who need to hear the gospel and experience the love of Christ. In other words, we must have “hearts for the harvest.” God is not asking us to do anything impossible. God is asking us to order our personal lives in love and wisdom to make the world a better place, and then to share his wisdom and love with others as we go about our day-to-day lives. He wants us to be filled with his love and aware and alert to those times when we can share that love with other people.

Mature disciples remember that the Great Commission is part of being a Christian. It is not reserved for a few extraordinary people. It is not just for missionaries in far off places. It is not just for those called to specialized ministries. It is for all Christians. Furthermore, the Great Commission was not a suggestion; it was a commission. In other words, it was a directive from the Son of God and a public transferal of the ability and authority to carry out that direction. [1] We are all called to go make disciples. This is what we were created in Christ to do.

We will not do this unless have a heart for those who are searching for meaning and purpose in life, are suffering without the presence of the One who can heal them, and need God’s love and wisdom. We need a love for those who will not achieve the fullness of life they desire, and which God desires for them, if we do not reach out and touch their lives. We need a love that will take us out of our comfort zone to the places where people need good news. Frankly, I don’t always think I have such a heart. I suspect there are many people like me.

God Desires to Grow His Family of Love

John records Jesus entering a room the disciples occupied after his arrest, trial, crucifixion, death and resurrection. You can imagine the fear, uncertainty, and anxiety they felt. He came into this hard situation and shared these words with them:

Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained (John 20:19-23).

Jesus spent three years with his disciples sowing the Kingdom into their hearts. As his time on earth was ending, he would no longer be restricted by time and by space. Now, he could be always present to his disciples by the Holy Spirit. What did he say? He said, “Just like the Father sent me, I am sending you.” Jesus had been sent by the Father to proclaim and enact the good news of God’s love for the world. Now, Jesus is sending his disciples into the world to sow the seed of God’s kingdom exactly as Jesus sowed the kingdom when he was physically present.

The original disciples were sent to disciple people, and those people were sent to disciple people, who were were sent to disciple people, so that God’s kingdom spread throughout the known world. Contemporary Christians are a part of the long line of Christians called to the task of being sent. We have received the love of God in Christ, and now we are sent. The question is, “Will we go?”

Sowers of the Gospel

One of the most important of Jesus’ parables is the Parable of the Sower or Soils (Matthew 13:1-23; Mark 4:1-20, and Luke 8:4-15). It goes like this:

A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear (Matthew 13:3-9).

It’s obvious that any crop requires a sower. Someone has to get up, load up with seed, go out into the field, and sow it with seed. In today’s world, most people never sow seed in the way seed was sowed in the ancient world. Members of our family who are farmers rarely, if ever, sow seed by hand. Instead, they own a piece of machinery called a “planter.” The planter sows the seed. The planter has a computer connected to the Internet, and a satellite guides its every move. The entire field has been electronically mapped. The planter knows exactly where to put the seed. It drills the seed into the soil at just the right depth to maximize the crop for the farmer. It is a very precise process.

In Jesus’s day, the process was not so exact. A sower got a sack of seed. Then, the sower walked up and down the field spreading the seed by hand. I’ve done this with grass in my own yard. It’s a very imprecise process! It’s difficult to spread seed evenly by hand. You end up with a lot of seed in one place, and not much seed in another. You have difficulty controlling exactly where the seed falls. A gust of wind can blow grass seed into a flower bed or a nearby hedge. As you get close to the edge of the front yard near the sidewalk, seed inevitably falls on concrete. Finally, the first time I reseeded, I sowed my front yard with seed only to find out that the birds ate most of the seed before it could take root. I did not water the seed into the soil. This was the situation in Jesus’s day. Sowing was an imprecise process. Under these circumstances, what’s important is sowing as much seed as possible in as good a soil as possible, and putting up with a certain amount of waste. [2]

This has practical implications for Christians today. For all of the modern church’s techniques and programs, nothing can supplement the personal actions of Christians as they share their faith with others and help those they meet grow into mature Christians. After years of pastoral ministry, and time as a Christian layperson, it is clear to me that the most important change that needs to take place in the church today is a commitment among individual Christians to sow the Gospel in love and service to others.

Unless we have a heart for those outside of God’s kingdom, we won’t sow the seed of our faith into the lives of others. When we do sow the seed of the Gospel, it is important to sow as much seed as possible, because discipling people is an imprecise process. The more sowers, the more seed falls into the lives of people. The more seed that falls into the lives of people, the more disciples there will be. It is just that simple.

Jesus never intended building his Kingdom of Love to be the preserve of a few talented and gifted evangelists. God does not want evangelism and discipleship to be accomplished solely by pastors or by specially trained laypeople. He wanted lots of sowers. Perhaps one reason God chose twelve ordinary people to be his first disciples is so that we could understand that he intends for everyone, ordinary and extraordinary, to participate in building his kingdom. He wants us to do so where we live, work, play, and meet people, etc.—everywhere we go. Just as God sent Jesus to us, we are sent by Jesus into our world to share the Good News with others. God does not just work through special people to share his love. He works through every heart captured by his love.

Knowing our Field

In Mark, Jesus tells a parable of the Kingdom of God. He says that his kingdom is like a farmer who goes out into a field that shows seed:

This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk then the head then the full grain in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe he puts the sickle to it for the harvest has come (Mark 4:26-29).

This parable is a story about sharing the Good News of God’s kingdom. God created the heavens and the earth. The whole world, and every person in it, is God’s field. This is why John can say, “For God so loved the world that he sent his Only Begotten Son that whosoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). God loves the entire world and everyone and everything in it. God intends to plant his kingdom of wisdom and love in his beloved field and harvest a great crop of human beings filled with the fruit of the Spirit.

Farmers rent or own fields. That field is the place where a farmer does the work of sowing, fertilizing, weeding, tending, and finally harvesting a crop. Some farms are large. Some are quite small. In the end, it is not the size that matters but what the farmer does with the field under his or her care. [3] When we lived in a rural area, I got pretty good at judging the quality of a farmer not by the size of his holdings, but by how well he or she cultivated the soil under her care. If there were a lot of weeds or a large part of the field that was not properly planted, the farmer was not a good farmer. The same thing is true of sharing the gospel.

Each Christian lives in some small part of God’s field. We may live in a large city or in a small town. We may live in the center of a metropolitan area or in a suburban neighborhood. We may live in a wealthy or poor nation. We may work alone or in a giant corporation. We may be in school or in the workforce. We may be a working spouse or a stay at home spouse. Wherever we are, and whatever we do, that place is our field. [4]

Our Social Network is our Field

A Greek word symbolizes the field into which Christians best sow the gospel. That word is “oikos.” The word “oikos” is the word from which we get our word “economy.” It means “household” in Greek. [5] We think of a household as a small, nuclear family (generally a husband, wife, and children). In the ancient world, people understood their household in a different way. A household in the ancient world included parents, children, grandparents, servants, household laborers, and their families. Most people lived and worked in farms, and so worked in close proximity to their household. Those who lived in cities would live within walking distance of their place of business, assuming their place of business was not attached to their house. As a result, the word “oikos” meant more than just a place to eat and sleep or work. An oikos was an entire household-based social network.

For contemporary Christians, it might be helpful to think of our oikos as a field constituted by our relationships with other people. Like the fields described by nuclear physics, our network of relationships is a constantly changing and evolving set of interactions between us and the many people we come into contact with each and every day. Some of these relationships have permanence and obvious importance: parents, children, relatives, neighbors, fellow employees, and the like. Some relationships are passing: the check-out person at the grocery store, the helper at the building supply store, the teller (if you can find one) at the bank, the repair person who visits our home to repair the refrigerator. The problem with most of us is that are often unaware of the complex network of relationships that makes up our daily life. A great field that needs our love is before our very eyes, but we cannot see what is right before us.

Contemporary Christian’s need to recover an understanding of how important social relationships are in the sharing of the Gospel. [6] My first church was in a small town. There were a limited number of people who might be interested in joining a church like ours. Nevertheless, the church grew. I would like to take responsibility for the growth, but I really can’t. What happened was the people already within the fellowship invited their friends, parents, children, business partners, neighbors, and social friends to become a part of the congregation. We even had divorced spouses in the fellowship of the church! It all happened in a pretty disorganized and totally unexpected way. To me, it was a sign that God was doing something special, touching the lives of people, healing old wounds, and bringing new life.

Since that time, I’ve served in larger churches. Each church has experimented with various forms of evangelism and discipleship programming, with varying degrees of success. In the end, my conviction is that the best, most effective, most biblical, and most Christ-like method of sharing the Good News is to do it exactly how Jesus and the first disciples did it: by sharing the gospel within existing and new relationships with people. When a Christian fellowship does this, it inevitably grows. The more people who participate, more rapidly the fellowship grows. The specific program the congregation uses is less important than is the Spirit-empowered movement of a group of Christians reaching out in love to others.

As we enter a post-Christian era, it’s important for Christians to re-develop the talent of the early church to personally share the gospel within our web of relationships. We are like farmers, and our social relationships are an invisible field though which and in which God intends to share his love, wisdom, and power to heal.

The Right Seed

It is no good for a farmer to have a field and the ability to sow the field, if there is no seed. Every sower needs seed. In fact, good farmers know that it is important to have the right seed for the soil. In the same way, disciples need good seed as we go out into the part of the world that is our particular field. The seed we take with us is the gospel—and the gospel in the right form.

Our family’s years in rural Tennessee allowed me to understand a bit about seeds and sowing: Some fields are so fertile, that they can grow anything. Any seed will do. Other fields are not appropriate for some crops, but are very appropriate for others. We recently moved to Texas, to an area that is much more rocky, dry, and hot than West Tennessee. As a result, there are different flowers in my garden. We had no cactus in Tennessee, but we have a number of cacti in Texas. Finally, for whatever reason, different farmers prefer different seeds. When we were in rural West Tennessee, only a few farmers raised corn. However, there was one farmer who was famous for his corn crops.

This story illustrates a spiritual truth: in different contexts and in different areas of the world, the way we sow the gospel and the precise formula of the seed of the Gospel we sow will be different. Each of us needs to understand who it is we are able to share the Gospel with and how is the best way to share. This does not mean we compromise the Gospel. It means we are smart about how we sow it. My cousin grows hybrid seeds, both corn and soybeans. The seeds are all corn or soybeans. However, he knows that some varieties of the same seeds work better in his soil than others.

Most Christians know of the Gospel, but when asked to put it into words, they do not how to communicate that Good News to those in their own family, community, business and the like. [7] Most of us have never taken time out to think about exactly what is the best way to share the gospel within our unique personal network of relationships. The way I shared the gospel to a congregation rural West Tennessee was not the same as in a suburban area of Memphis or in a town filled with professionals near Cleveland or in San Antonio, Texas. To successfully sow the Gospel, one needs to sow it in the right form—a form in which the hearer can understand and accept what is said. [8]

Jesus was a Jew. Jesus communicated the gospel as the Good News that the long wait of Israel for her Messiah was over. In Luke, the birth of Jesus is announced by angels in such a way that it is clear that the birth of Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, the anointed ruler of God’s special people (Luke 1:1-55). In Jesus, the Kingdom of God for which Israel had longed for generations had arrived (Matthew 4:23; Mark 1:15). Jesus begins his ministry proclaiming the Good News, saying:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:18-20).

The Good News is that the Messiah has come to undo the effects of sin and oppression in the lives of the people of God. This was exactly then way in which Israel needed to hear the gospel.

On the other hand, when Paul was in Athens, he shared the gospel in a way that could appeal to the philosophical climate of Greece. He spoke of the unknown God the Greeks already felt might or did exist. He adopted a creation-oriented mode of communication that fed into the philosophies of his hearers (Acts 17:18-34). Paul’s success as a missionary revolved around his ability to adapt the Gospel to Greco-Roman culture.

If we love people as God loves people, we will learn how to share the Good News of God’s love with them in a way they can understand and accept. To accomplish this, it is important for churches to equip individual people to share the Good News by developing the ability to communicate it to other people with whom they come into contact in a simple, concise, appropriate, and non-threatening way. [9]

Expect a Specific Crop

When a farmer sows a field, he expects a particular kind of crop. If I sow corn, I expect corn. If I sow wheat, I expect wheat. If I sow soybeans, I expect soybeans. You get the idea. Imagine how disappointed a farmer would be if he sowed corn seed and ended up with rye grass! When we sow the seed of the gospel, the crop we expect to get is active disciples of Christ. The Great Commission asks us to go make disciples, and that is what God is looking for as a crop.

As important as it is to know what the gospel is, in the emerging postmodern West it’s also important to know what the gospel is and is not, and exactly what kind of crop God expects. Jesus called Israel to repent (Mark 1:8). This implies that there is a moral law that the coming of the new kingdom and new king has not changed. The crop Jesus is looking for is not unchanged people waiting for heaven or the second coming, even with tense anticipation. Jesus is looking for changed lives and active disciples.

The gospel is not just a verbal presentation calling for an intellectual response. There needs to be verbal communication, but that communication should lead to loving, life-changing repentance, acceptance, faith, and trust. Too often, contemporary people believe that accepting Christ means simply believing as a matter of fact that Jesus is the Son of God, forgives our sins, and permits believers to behave exactly as they want for the time being. (After all, we are saved by grace, aren’t we?) This is not discipleship. When we grow a passive, self-centered immature fan of Jesus, we are not growing the crop Jesus wants. As the Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard put it, “God wants imitators, not admirers.” [10]

In Second Corinthians, Paul says that if anyone is in Christ, they are literally a new creation (5:17).  When a person accepts Christ, new person comes into being. The gospel is a gospel of transformed lives. The gospel is not a call to believe an abstract truth and then relax and sleep in a bed of grace until heaven comes. Jesus wants disciples who imitate him and reach out to a needy world with their lives changed, so that they can change lives as well. Jesus wants players and not fans. The crop the Great Commission expects is more disciples with changed hearts, reaching out in love to others. [11]

The Sower is Not Responsible for the Response

The bulk of the Parable of the Four Soils concerns the response of people to the Gospel after it is sown into their lives. In farming, once seed has been sown, it is largely up to the seed, soil, weather and farmer what happens next. Any farmer knows that wind, weather and a number of uncontrollable factors influence the results of their labors. The famer does not control the result. You can work all summer on a crop, only to have an early snow or late tornado undue months of work. The same thing is true in gospel farming.

In the Parable of the Sower, some seed falls along a rocky path. This seed is almost immediately eaten by the birds. Some seed falls on shallow soil. This seed germinates, but soon dies. Other seed falls near the edge of the field where there are thorns. This seed is choked out by the thorns after it germinates. Finally, some seed falls on good soil, takes root, grows, and bears a crop.

The disciples did not understand the parable, so they asked Jesus for an explanation. In response, Jesus gave them this teaching:

Hear then the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” (Matthew 13:18-23).

These words of Jesus are as important today as on the first day they were spoken. I never hear these words without thinking about the hardness of my own heart, the shallowness of my faith, how easily worldly concerns choke out spiritual growth, and important it is to bear fruit. The fact is that not everyone with whom we share the gospel responds. They may eventually respond, but not today. Their hearts are closed. Even among those of us who respond, the results are often uncertain at best.

Some people never respond. They don’t even want to listen. Some people initially accept the gospel, but when life gets difficult or prayers are not answered as they wish, they fall away forever or for a time. We do the same thing from time to time. Perhaps most importantly in our materialistic, hedonistic culture, it is easy to get caught up in the business of making a living, acquiring possessions, caring for a family, moving up the ladder of success, and all the other cares and worries of this world. Each of these things, good in themselves, can take us away from a commitment to share the gospel with others. We too can be choked by the cares and worries of life.

Each person, including every Christian, is a strange combination of hardness of heart, shallowness of heart, and a heart separated from its true self by the worries of this world. We all find ourselves someplace in this parable every day, and so do our friends and neighbors. This realization should fill us with compassion for others, whatever their condition. Even those who are far away from God, have a reason for being where they are. It is in a relationship of love and wisdom that we will discover that reasons and be able to effectively share the gospel personally with that person.

Most of us know, but find it hard to accept, that the work of discipleship is the work of the Spirit. In the last analysis, we are only the physical tools, the planters, God uses to sow the seed. This realization should also free us from guilt if our efforts do not end as we wish. Over the years, as a layperson and pastor, I have shared my faith and life with a lot of people. Some of them are mature Christians; some have fallen away. I have learned to accept that fact. This does not mean we ignore new disciples or never correct our own bad disciple-making abilities. It means that we should not take too much on ourselves.

The Time is Now

Mark begins his gospel with Jesus saying, “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15).  Jesus loved people and announced the Good News of the Kingdom of God. He came at a specific time and place in human history with the Good News that God loves all people, sent his Son for all people, wants to forgive all people, and wants all people to receive his Spirit so that they can live holy lives in his power. We live in a different time and place, and we are called to proclaim and enact the gospel in our confused and changing world.

For people to become a part of God’s kingdom, the kingdom of Jesus, someone has to call them to repent, turn around, look at themselves seriously, recognize how far they are from God, and then turn from the kingdoms of this world to his Kingdom of Wisdom and Love. That someone is every follower of Christ. Just as the time came in in ancient Palestine when Jesus came, the time is now for us in our contemporary world.

People will never change until they come to appreciate that there is a better, healthier, more joy-filled, more blessed way of life available in Christ. In other words, people will not find the fulness of joy that God has for them until they come to believe, trust, and live into the gospel Christ proclaimed: God loves everyone, sent his Son for the world, and wants all people to be his children, part of his family, citizens of his kingdom of peace (John 3:16). When Christians are sent into the harvest, we are sent to proclaim in word and deed the gospel in ways that helps those who are open to hear, believe, and enter God’s gracious kingdom of love. The question is, “Do we have such a heart?”

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] When Jesus says to the disciples, “And surely I will be with you even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20), he means that the personal Spirit of Christ will be with all disciples then and now giving them the power to do that which Christ has asked us to do. When in Acts, Jesus promises that the disciples will “receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you” (Acts 1:8), Jesus is promising them and us that nothing will be asked that God will not also give the power to perform by sending the power of Christ upon his followers.

[2] One of the most interesting explanations of this parable is that as Jesus was telling it, he saw a farmer sowing on the rocky fields of Galilee near one of the paths that led up from the Sea of Galilee to the farmland beyond. As the farmer sowed, the crowd could see exactly what Jesus was describing. See, William Barclay, “Mark” in The Daily Bible Study Series Rev. Ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1975), 88ff.

[3] This, of course, is the meaning of the Parable of the Talents. The servants were not judged on how much they were given to invest, but upon what they did with what they were given, large or small.

[4] As a pastor, it’s tempting to judge yourself by the size of your congregation, just as farmers are tempted to judge themselves by the size of their farm. Even church members judge their churches on the basis of size or public recognition. Over many years, I’ve learned that this is a great mistake. The measure of a farmer is how productive he or she is given the size and soil of their farm. There are small churches with great pastors and great missions. There are also large churches with less enthusiasm, less leadership, and less fruitfulness. What matters is not size, but faithfulness.

[5] Kittel & Friedrich, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Abridged Version) (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985),674-675.

[6] Win & Charles Arn, The Master’s Plan for Making Disciples 2nd ed (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1982, 1998), 58-59.

[7] My wife and I have seen this over and over again in leading small groups. In our experience almost all Christians, mature or immature have difficulty verbalizing the Gospel in a short, clear and concise way.

[8] I have been afraid that this adaptation my cause some people to criticize the presentation. I have several advanced degrees, but have often served churches where most people have never graduated from college. The gospel is eternal and unchanging, but how we communicate the gospel has to be crafted for the audience.

[9] See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Salt & Light: Everyday Discipleship (Collierville, TN: Innovo Press, 2017). The approach taken in this book is only one of the many, many fine approaches to teaching people to share their faith with others in the context of their day-to-day lives.

[10] Soren Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity Howard & Edna Hong ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), 233.

[11] After proclaiming God’s love for the world and the saving work of Christ, Jesus warns the people as follows: “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God” (John 3:19-21). The Gospel is not a new lawless Gospel, nor does it absolve those who accept of the consequences of sin and short-comings. It is a new beginning for a new life to be lived in loving, wise fellowship with God and others. The crop Jesus wants is lives changed so obviously that the world will take notice.

 

16. The Way of Wise Living

I want to begin with a Merry Christmas. This week, we celebrate the  birth of the Word or Reason of God made Flesh, who came to share our human limitations and show us the way of love. I will not be publishing a blog next week, but will finish this series after the first of the year. Once again, Merry Christmas!

16. The Way of Wise Living

One discouraging reality of contemporary discipleship has to do with the foolishness demonstrated by a number of Christians and their leaders. It is just a guess, but I think that it traces its roots back to the extreme division between faith and works, gospel and law inherent in the Reformation. Studies show that Christians have affairs, divorce, use recreational drugs, cheat on their taxes and engage in a host of unwise behaviors as often or almost as often as anyone else. Christian leaders, especially youth leaders, sometimes exacerbate the situation by giving advice that appeals to the young but which a bit of life experience indicates is foolish. The prosperity gospel is only the most notorious of these. The result is a generation of Christians who believe in Jesus and then simply fit into the surrounding culture. If we are to overcome the crisis of discipleship in the West, we must do better.

There are questions and decisions people cannot avoid in life. Sooner or later everyone must ask and answer questions such as: “What kind of life will bring me true happiness and fulfillment?” “How will I respond to failure?” “What kind of person should I marry?” “How shall I make a living?” “How will I respond to temptation?” “Of the many opportunities of life, which ones will I take advantage of and which ones will I ignore?” “Why am I suffering?” “Why don’t my achievements bring me happiness?” “What does the future hold?” No one, Christian or secular can ignore these and similar questions. They are part of the human condition. Fortunately, in Christ the wisdom of God was made manifest, so that disciples can find the kind of wise guidance they need for living as a result of their relationship with him.

Each of us has choices to make in life – to commit ourselves to Christ in faith and follow the Way of Christ as a disciple, or to follow some other path. Where we end up depends on the path we chose to take. Wisdom literature divided these choices into following the Path of Life or the Path of Death. The Christian tradition holds that it is by following Christ that we conform ourselves to the deepest reality of the universe, the reality of the God of Light and Love revealed in Holy Scripture. Over time, disciples learn what it is to follow Christ in the many, sometimes difficult decisions we must make in life. In so doing, we follow the Path of Life.

Old Testament Foundation

The wisdom writers of the Old Testament passed on principles of wise living that summarize the life lessons learned by countless generations of people. The later writers of the Old and New Testament knew that life is unfair. Good people suffer. Wise people sometimes make bad decisions and suffer as a result. Success does not provide meaning and purpose for life. In the end, life is a puzzle, but living wisely is the best course whatever the consequences (Ecclesiastes 9:17-18); 12:13-14).

Christians believe that God is the source of all wisdom (Proverbs 1:7; 9:10). In fact, the Bible says that creation constantly reveals the wisdom of God (Proverbs 8:22-35; Romans 1:20). Proverbs teaches us that wisdom is evident to all who will listen:

Does not wisdom call out? Does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights along the way, where the paths meet, she takes her stand; beside the gates leading into the city, at the entrances, she cries aloud: “To you, O men, I call out; I raise my voice to all mankind. You who are simple, gain prudence; you who are foolish, gain understanding. Listen, for I have worthy things to say; I open my lips to speak what is right. My mouth speaks what is true, for my lips detest wickedness. All the words of my mouth are just; none of them is crooked or perverse. To the discerning all of them are right; they are faultless to those who have knowledge. Choose my instruction instead of silver, knowledge rather than choice gold, for wisdom is more precious than rubies, and nothing you desire can compare with her (Proverbs 8:1-11).

This text begins with wisdom crying aloud, pleading with human beings to live wisely. The image is of lady wisdom standing on a high place outside a Jewish village, or sitting where two roads meet, or standing at the gates of the village, crying out, urging human beings, so prone to foolishness, to take the path of wisdom. The part of today’s text that has lady wisdom standing at the cross roads connect with another fundamental insight of the ancient Jewish wise men: each of us has choices to make during the course of our lives. Many people follow paths of foolishness. Wise people follow the path of wisdom.

Wisdom in Human Form

The writers of the New Testament saw in the Crucified and Risen Christ the answer to the quandaries and limitations they saw so clearly in the teachings of the wise men and scholars. This, however, does not mean the writers of the Old Testament were wrong. It just means that there was more to know. The “more to know” was revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

John begins his gospel by identifying Jesus with the very Logos or wisdom and word of God (John1:1). At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells the parable of the wise and foolish builders.  In it, he describes two different ways of life that may be chosen:

Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matthew 7:24-27).

Paul speaks of the Risen Christ as the image of the invisible God, in whom at the wisdom of God dwelt bodily, revealed for all the world to see (Colossians1:19). This revelation was surprising and impossible for the wise of this world to accept because quite unexpectedly God revealed himself in Christ as a God of Love, who is present in the suffering and sin of the world to redeem it through a terrible unexpected death on the Cross (I Corinthians 1:18-29).

Too often, contemporary Christians ignore the fact that our relationship with Christ involves more than forgiveness of sins and a new eternal life. That new eternal life that grows within us is the life of God, the All Wise Creator of the Heavens and the Earth. Part of becoming Christ Followers they are meant to be is learning to make good choices and life wisely in our day-to-day Christian lives.

Our first objective as parents and as church leaders is to help people take the first step of faith in God and a personal commitment to follow the Wisdom of God and listen to the voice of God speaking through Jesus Christ. Once again, the New Testament is full of references to Christ as the very embodiment of the wisdom of God. The author of Hebrews tells us that God once spoke through the prophets and writers of the Old Testament Scriptures, but now God has spoken in the person of Christ (Hebrews 1:1-3). Studying wisdom and learning and growing in our intellectual understanding of Christian faith is important, but of even more importance is our personal trustful following Christ as the wisdom of God (I Cor. 2:23-24).

If Christ reflects God’s character, then our commitment to Christ involves becoming wise as God is wise. Part of a commitment to Christ is a commitment to listen to the voice of Word of God and follow the example and teachings of Christ. This means all of us need to be in some kind of regular Bible Study, however short. Each of us needs to take time daily to listen quietly for the voice of Jesus the Christ as he is rendered in Scripture. We need to listen carefully to the voices of those Christians who have gone before us, the voices of Christians of the past. As we do this, and as our souls are formed by the voice of Christ, we become better able to judge wisely and live well.

A Society that Encourages Foolishness

Some while ago, I heard several news commentators talking about a new program called, “Kid Nation.”  This show features forty children ages 8 to 15 that were taken to the New Mexico desert to a ghost town for forty days, with the goal of creating a new society. Each child was paid $5,000 for their time at Kid Nation. The show first hit the news when a parent complained and an investigation was launched by the New Mexico Attorney General concerning whether or not child labor laws were violated by having these children work such long days without the kind of breaks and protections professional actors, even child actors, enjoy. [1]

Some commentators looked at the kinds of releases the parents signed, and began to ask questions. One critic who has seen previews summed up another criticism when she exclaimed during the private screening, “What kind of parent would let their child participate in this kind of thing?” [2] This was answered on a blog I read, “The kind of stage parent who wants to ride the tail of their child’s stardom.” Michael Medved, a television critic, gave one of the most penetrating comments when he pointed out that the entire premise was flawed because these children were not alone in the desert creating a new society. They were surrounded by producers, directors, cameramen, and all the other adults who make up a television production team. In fact, these children were being used to create a program that the producers hoped would sell and which would reflect the social theories of those adults. [3]

The point is pretty simple. In our society adults and children are subject to pressures to conform to all kinds of foolish expectations. Even when adults say they are letting children develop their own standards and values systems, they are still teaching their children something and trying to get some result. Furthermore, adults and child are often manipulated to adopt value systems which are silly or simply won’t work or, worst of all, are harmful. There is no such thing as a value free education or child-raising. Adults do influence children and should influence children wisely.

We live in a “romantic age,” which is to say that we frequently act as if we believed that we can make good decisions simply by following our feelings. [4] This particular characteristic was exemplified in the movie, “Star Wars,” when Obi Wan Kenobi, tells Luke to “trust his feelings” as he attacks the Death Star. Most young people didn’t question this at all. Those who, for example, flew bombers in World War II, or jets during Viet Nam, have no memory of trainers telling them to trust their feelings. What you were supposed to do is learn to use the targeting mechanism and do it well according to instructions. Trusting instruments is one of the most important parts of flying. The aviator who does not is doomed.

This line from Star Wars exemplifies a huge problem in our culture – the idea that major life-time decisions are to be made on the basis of feelings not reason. This flies in the face of all human experience throughout most of human history, where wise people have urged humans not to follow their feelings but to develop good judgment and become wise.

Throughout most of human history people did not think that children naturally became competent adults or ladies and gentlemen without discipline, knowledge and training. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, from ancient times, it was taken for granted that children would not naturally develop life skills, they would not naturally learn wisdom, and they had to be trained. To become an adult, and especially a virtuous adult, required training in the skill of the virtuous life. [5]

This is why over and over again, Proverbs contains admonitions like, “Train up a child in the way he or she should go and when they are old they will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:5-7).   This is why in Deuteronomy we hear the voice of Moses urging “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.  Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). In order to learn to live wise, Christ-like lives, we need to be discipled into a life of wisdom.

People do not “naturally’ develop life-skills, they have to be trained. Similarly, we Christians do not naturally develop Christ-like habits, the capacity for wise decision-making, and the virtues of Christ by nature. It takes training. This is why Jesus says in the Great Commission, “Go ye therefore into all the world and make disciples, teaching them to obey all I have commanded” (Matthew 28:16, emphasis added). We all need help to learn the things that we need to know to live wisely.

Children and new believers need training to be equipped for life. Teens need to be trained for the challenges of school, college, and early career decisions. Young adults need equipping for the challenges of adulthood. Parents need equipping for the demands of child-raising. New Christians need to spend time learning to be wise and make good decisions in their Christian and day-to-day lives. New Christians need opportunities to explore Christian faith more deeply. Becoming a good disciple of Jesus does not just happen; it requires work, study and self-discipline.

Choices Depend on the Voices to Which We Listen

In Romans 12:1-2, Paul urges the Romans to be transformed by the “renewing of their minds”. The word Paul uses for “mind” is not a word that means simply our brains. When the Greek used this word, “mind” they meant the whole person’s mental intellect as well as our, moral and emotional reasoning, the place inside each of us where decisions are made. [6] We all make decisions based upon the deepest orientation of our personhood. Our personhood is defined over time by the voices we listen to and by the words and images we hear, see and internalize. Over time we become as we think and act. [7] This is why parenting, good parenting and life time learning is so important.

Some time ago, I had a conversation with one of the people who have been helping us put together the new church directory. She was telling me about a ministry she is involved in with her church – helping people overcome the negative self-images many people carry into adulthood. She told me the story of a young man whose father made a hasty, bitter, belittling comment to the effect that he was a “loser” when he was six years old. This comment followed this man for many, many years, until in midlife he finally overcome the memory and the internal voice that memory had created telling him over and over again that he was a loser and would fail at life.

The Goal: Wiser and Better Christians

In 1967, the movie Bonnie and Clyde was released. [8] The movie glorified the career of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, bank robbers who terrorized Texas and parts of the Midwest during the 1930’s. They had a hideout in Joplin, Missouri, near our family’s home in Springfield. Clyde Barrow was a sociopath and a murderer. Eventually, law enforcement officers, led by famous Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, ambushed and killed them. Bonnie Parker was twenty-four when she died; Clyde Barrow was twenty-five. To young moviegoers, the wild life of Bonnie and Clyde seemed exciting. The truth is they lived short, violent, unhappy, unhealthy, unbalanced, and ultimately futile lives. In the end, they were ambushed and killed. In truth, they ambushed themselves by the way they lived. Bonnie and Clyde were both evil and foolish—and so are all those who ignore the voice of wisdom speaking in Creation and Scripture.

One reason for Christians to understand the perspective of the writers of wisdom literature is that our culture desperately needs to recover a sense that there is a moral order to the universe into which our life-stories fit. Contemporary people are often physically, morally, and spiritually rootless. Rootlessness leads to a shallow life lived in a series of unconnected choices based on the impulses of the moment. Without a sustained vision of life, and without the wisdom of past generations, contemporary people are like all those who distain history: condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past and reap the consequences. [9] We need what wisdom literature offers.

As early Christians meditated on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, they came to understand Jesus as God in human form—embodied Divine Love. The eternal, secret wisdom of God—a wisdom we can only imagine—came to us in a way we human beings can see and understand. When we have questions about how we can live the life of wisdom, we have a concrete, historical person we can look to for the answers. Jesus came to us, filled with the wisdom and love of God. Into the darkness of our world and into the darkness of our lives, the light of God shines in the person of Jesus the Christ.

The Most Important Gift

Over the years, my wife and I have given our children a lot of gifts. I don’t know how many pairs of expensive tennis shoes we’ve bought four children, but it involves thousands of dollars. We’ve bought running shoes, basketball shoes, soccer shoes, tennis shoes, and the like. We’ve bought enough “Air Jordan’s” and similar products to support a large number of famous persons in retirement. You know what? Not one pair of those shoes is still in existence.

We’ve bought hundreds, maybe thousands of toys over the years. We’ve bought Transformers, He-Men, She-Woman, Spider Men, Power Rangers, Ken and Barbie, and a host of other famous and not so famous toys. You know what, except for a very few toys and dolls stored in our attic for grandchildren, they have all long since broken and been thrown away.

The fact is that most of the things we buy ourselves and our children wear out, are outgrown, or break within months, days, weeks, even moments after the time we purchase them; then they are gone and forgotten. Advertisers tell us that we and our children cannot live without a host of things that for all of human history children lived without, and we believe them or at least we live as if we believed them. But when they are worn out or superseded by the next big thing, we soon forget them entirely. In the meantime, we can slowly but surely forget to be sure they actually get the things they really need.

One of my friends in the pastoral ministry made a comment that has kept me going through the delays and disappointments that are involved in any attempt to write something. He said, “So often, it seems as if we are telling Christians and potential Christians, ‘Behave this way because the Bible says so, or the church says so, or the denomination says so.’ What you are saying in this book is, ‘Behave this way because it is the way to true happiness and fulfillment.’”

Until my friend said this, I had not focused on that fact, but the truth is that is exactly the point of helping new Christians live wisely. In the end, if there is a creator God, and if the wisdom of that creator God is embedded in creation, then we ignore this wisdom at our peril – and so do our children and loved ones. If Christ is the very image of the invisible God, then by listening to his voice and learning to think and make decisions as Jesus thought and made decisions is the most important thing we can do, for in doing this we become like God and act wisely in accordance with the way God intends. This ability is the most important thing we can give new believers and those we love.

Copyright 20009, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, Maureen Ryan, “How CBS Went Wrong with ‘Kid Nation’” Chicago Tribune.com www. Chicago Tribune.com/Entertainment, (September 5, 2007).

[2] See, Brian Lowrey, “The kids aren’t all right Kids Nation’ the Latest Show to use Tykes for Profit” Variet.com May 25, 2007)

[3] This was a comment made by Medved on Fox News during an interview September 4, 2007.

[4] Romanticism was literary, artistic, and philosophical movement originating in the 18th century involving a reaction against the rationalism of the Enlightenment with a resulting emphasis on the imagination feelings and emotions. One of the features common among Romantic thinkers is a deep respect for nature and a belief that culture often distorts nature. Therefore, Romantics are inclined to dismiss belief in the essential fallenness (original sin) of humans.

[5] Portions of this Chapter are from G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ-Followers (Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014, hereinafter “Path of Life.” This book is a critical realistic introduction to wisdom literature.

[6] See, Bishop of Nafpaktos Hierotheos, Orthodox Psychotherapy: the Science of the Fathers tr. Esther Williams (Levadia, Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 1994). The Greek concept of “nous” is broader than our concept of mind, including the memory, understanding and will, the complete psychosomatic person.

[7] See, James Allen, As a Man Thinketh, (New York: Barnes and Nobel, 1992), for a classic statement of this insight.

[8]  David Newman, Robert Benton, and Robert Towne, wr. Bonnie and Clyde Arthur Penn, dr., starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway (1967).

[9] I have written about his both in Path of Life and in the Introduction to Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love Rv. Ed. (Shiloh, 2016).

15. The Way of Caring for One Another

My parents, who are now both with the Lord, belonged to what was known as the “Builder’s Class” of their church. The Builder’s Class was very close. Of course, they met every Sunday morning upstairs at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Missouri, where we attended. The group often had picnics, holiday celebrations, social gatherings, and the like. One of my best memories is of a picnic in a park near the church, where I met my best friend in Jr. High and High School for the first time. We are still friends today.

The class began somewhere around 1960 or about sixty years ago. At some point during my childhood, one of the members left his wife and family. My Dad, who was an FBI agent, found out where the man was, took a day off work, drove 250 miles, and talked the man into returning to his family. Without their close community and fellowship, it would not have been possible. However, because of the close fellowship of the group, the man knew Dad cared enough to take a day off, drive 250 miles, and sit down to talk. He went home, and a marriage was saved. This is one example of the power of Christian community—and I have remembered the importance of my father’s action for more than a half century.

Made for Community

In our culture, most people suppose that human beings are fundamentally self-interested, isolated, individuals. Society, in this view, is made up of autonomous individuals seeking their own self-interest bound together by laws and passing agreements. The Christian worldview is vastly different. We see the world as fundamentally related and relational. Christians suppose that individuals emerge from families into larger communities and remain fundamentally relational creatures as long as they live. As God exists, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, so also human beings exist and find deep meaning and purpose in life as they are imbedded in social relationships. Caring social relationships inside the body of Christ are basic to the Christian life and discipleship.

This is an area in which modern psychology supports the ancient insight of Christian faith and practice. People who grow up experiencing loving, healthy, sacrificial human relationships most frequently grow up to be healthy individuals. People who are not the product of such relationships, particularly in their youngest years, often struggle. Human beings are not in fact isolated individuals. Human beings emerge from families and other relationships and are profoundly impacted, for good or evil, by what happens in them. This is why strong, healthy families and friendships are so important.

In the same way, healthy Christians experience healthy Christian relationships in the family of Christ. Christians who grow in healthy Christian relationships become healthy disciples. Christians who experienced unhealthy Christian relationships often become unhealthy disciples. From the time we become a new disciple and are called into a relationship with God until our last day as a disciple, we need to experience the mutual love and fellowship of a healthy group of Christian people with whom we are caring for one another in a caring relationship.

Consequently, time spent in caring is important for every disciple. One important opportunity of ordinary Christians is to step out in the name of Christ and share the love of God with one another. In larger churches, it is impossible for even the largest staffs to minister to all the needs of a congregation. Only if lay people step out and exercise their spiritual gifts can the needs of the congregation be met. [1] Even in smaller congregations, caring relationships are important to the spiritual and emotional health of the people of the church.

The Importance of Loving Community in Scripture

This idea of Christians helping, loving, and encouraging one another is one of the most common ideas in the entire New Testament. A prominent Church consultant and author published some fifty-nine such texts in the New Testament. [2] Here are just a few:

  • “Be at peace with each other” (Mark 9:50).
  • “Love one another…” (John 13:34; John 13:35; John 15:12; John 15:17; I John 3:11; I John 3: 2; Romans 13:83; I John 4:7; I John 4:11; I John 4:12; II John 5; I Thessalonians 4:9’ I Thessalonians 3:12; I Peter 3:8; I Peter 4:8).
  • “Be devoted to one another” (Romans 12:10).
  • “Honor one another…” (Romans 12:10).
  • “Live in harmony with one another…” (Romans 12:16; I Peter 3:8).
  • “Accept one another…” (Romans 15:7).
  • “Instruct one another…” (Romans 15:14; Colossians 3:16)
  • “Greet one another with a holy kiss…” (Romans 16:16; I Corinthians 16:20; II Corinthians 13:12; I Peter 5:14)
  • “Have equal concern for one another” (I Corinthians 12:25)
  • Serve one another…” (Galatians 5:13).
  • “Carry one another’s burdens…” (Galatians 6:2).
  • “Be patient and bear with one another…” (Ephesians 4:2; Colossians 3:13).
  • “Be kind and compassionate to one another…” (Ephesians 4:32).
  • “Forgive one another…” (Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13).
  • “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).
  • “In humility consider others better than yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3)
  • “Admonish one another” (Colossians 3:16).
  • “Encourage one another…” (I Thessalonians 4:18; I Thessalonians 5:11; Hebrews 10:25; Hebrews 3:13).
  • “Build up one another…” (I Thessalonians 5:11).
  • “Spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24).
  • “Do not slander one another.” (James 4:11).
  • “Don’t grumble against one another…” (James 5:9).
  • “Confess your sins to one another…” (James 5:16).
  • “Pray for one another.” (James 5:16)
  • “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling” (I Peter 4:9).
  • “Use whatever gift you have received to serve one another…” (I Peter 4:10).
  • “…Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another…” (I Peter 5:5).

It is clear that God wants us to live in a community of love with each other, not jumping around looking for the perfect church or small group, but sticking with a group and learning the hard lessons of loving people who are fundamentally different.

Reasons for Caring

There are many reasons why Christians should care for one another in every church and in every small discipleship group:

  • First, Christ commanded us to love one another. The Apostle John records Jesus as saying, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34). We show love for one another as we care for one another in deep and profound ways. We should love and care for one another because God has asked us to do so.
  • Second, Christians are committed to experiencing the transformation of our character to that of Jesus Christ. Paul urges the Ephesians to be “imitators of Christ,” when he says: “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:12). As we care for others, we experience growth in achieving the character of the Lord Jesus Christ.
  • Finally, we only experience the fullness of the Christian life as we employ our spiritual gifts for others. In I Corinthians, Paul puts it this way: “To each is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (I Cor. 12:7). If someone else does the visiting and the caring in the congregation, then they experience the blessing of using their gift. If we have the gift of caring for others, and we use that gift, then we experience the blessing and so does each person we meet. As we use our spiritual gifts to bless others, we are formed into the image of God—and become the person God intended us to be.

Jesus spoke of himself as the “Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep” (John 10:11). Christians become more like the Good Shepherd as we lay down our lives, just a little, taking time to love others in the name of Jesus Christ when they might be doing something else.

When I was a young Christian I became suddenly ill at a time when I lived all alone in a new city, and there was no one to care for me. One of the men in my discipleship group came and visited me. It meant the world to me then, and it has encouraged me to visit others. We are still friends, forty years later.

The best senior pastor I ever knew, though he was the pastor of a large congregation, still often visited people in the hospital and was part of a small group. When we receive care from others, we learn to care, just as a child who is properly cared for as a child learns to care for their children when the proper time comes. More than that, when we care for others as Christ has cared for us, we are slowly transformed into the people Christ wants us to be.

The Attitudes We Need

In order to grow to be more like Christ, Christians develop certain attitudes that characterize our relations with others:

  • Peace and Harmony With One Another: The Apostle Paul wrote the Romans saying, “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. …If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:16-18). Avoiding endless arguments maintaining peaceful relations, and avoiding pride are some most important ways we love one another. This is hard to accomplish, but with the help of God we can.
  • Respect and Accept One Another: Paul goes on to say, “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Romans 15:7). We give care to one another as we accept the abilities and limitations that each person brings to the group. Each member of a group brings unique strengths and weaknesses to the community. We need to respect the strengths and the weaknesses of one another. No one member of a small group has all the answers—and people who think they do are often trouble. Humbly respecting others is essential if we are to develop the character of Christ. We don’t have to agree with or admire all the characteristics of our fellow Christians to love, serve, and befriend them.
  • Concern About One Another. In First Corinthians, Paul says “God has combined the members of the body and has given great honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each of you is part of it” (I Cor. 12:24-27). Those of us who are emotionally, mentally or physically stronger than others need to put out care to those who are As we develop these attitudes of Christian love, we are transformed into the very image of Jesus Christ and become more like him. This means that we should not seek to be with only those who are as mentally, emotionally, spiritually or otherwise as mature as we are.

There are many, many other qualities that Christians need to develop. These are just a few of the caring characteristics we need to grow in Christ.

The Need for Loving One Another

We live in a society in which there is an enormous need for Christians to reach out to others with the unconditional love of God. Many societal developments of the 20th and 21st centuries have left people with deep spiritual and emotional needs. These developments are familiar to many of us and include:

  • The Decline of the Extended Family. Children no longer live in proximity to their parents with the result that older people often are lonely with no one to share their final years. Younger people are deprived of the wisdom of older people, and the aged are deprived of the love and respect they Everyone loses.
  • The Single Parent Family. Divorce has increased to the point that a great many children in our nation will grow up for at least a part of their childhood in families where there is only one parent. In the single parent family, the parent who is raising the children is put under increased pressure, and the children lack a role model from the parent of the opposite sex. This can result in a family where exhaustion and uncertainty are a constant factor in the family system. This has an emotional impact on children and parents alike.
  • The Two-Income Household. In America today, both parents work in many households. Unlike prior generations, much of the time parents work all or part of the time away from home where they cannot have constant contact with children or each other. Such families often face time pressures and little time for relaxation and family activities. The church can help by providing wholesome opportunities for family fellowship.
  • Economic Uncertainty. The rapidly changing nature of our economy has resulted in increased economic uncertainty for many people who formerly had relatively secure careers. Layoffs, downsizing, mergers, and divestitures have resulted in many middle-aged managers having to find new positions—or even new careers in midlife. The rise of global competition means that managers work longer and longer hours with less and less security for the future. All these factors create uncertainty and instability in relationships.
  • Decline of Institutions. Many people in our culture have a sense of self that is extremely dependent upon their participation in just a few institutions, primarily work. Family, church, neighborhood, clubs, ethnic associations and other groups that fostered identity and supported families and individuals are not present in the lives of many people. The modern subdivision normally consists of isolated and fenced homes with people who have little or no relationship with one another living side by side.
  • Unclear Role Expectations. In the past, our society had stable expectations for men, women, parents, children, leaders, etc. The increasing fragmentation and individualism of our culture has resulted in a loss of a consensus concerning the behavior appropriate to certain roles. People are forced to make choices under circumstances that, in prior generations, the appropriate role behavior would have been obvious. People feel lost, anxious and alone.
  • Churches in which there is Dysfunctional Care. There is one other factor that must be mentioned—perhaps the saddest of all. Some people have experienced dysfunctional care within the Christian community. Where a pastor or leader uses his or her position to create dependency, dominate, gain power, or otherwise control disciples, there is dysfunctional care. It can result in injury or a failure to mature as disciples.

These and other factors make creating community both challenging and more important in our society. One of the most important things that churches, small groups and other Christian organizations do is establish, nurture, and maintain healthy small and larger communities in which people can grow in Christ and flourish personally and as families.

Actions of Christian Love

Many years ago, my wife and I were teaching a long Bible study for a group of adults. One of the members of our group was a young couple experiencing problems with a pregnancy. The couple was overwhelmed, as they already had small children. The group started bringing them meals a few times a week. This couple were an active part of our church until the husband was transferred and remain strong Christ-Followers to this day. The love they experienced has been passed along many times by now.

In our former church, we had a number of single parent families. Some of the leadership would, from time to time, “adopt” children from our children and youth ministries and show them special attention as they navigated difficult times. Some of these young people still reach out to their mentors in hard times, although they are now self-sufficient adults.

Years ago, we went on a mission trip with a couple in our small group and their daughters. We went as couples and brought along our children. Each day for five days we ate and worked together building a home in Mexico. It was an important time in the discipleship of our children and theirs, and we remained friends until career changes took us apart. The wife became a leader of our church in a hard time. The love shared over almost a decade was important to both couples, and we still communicate from time to time.

When I practiced law, I almost always had a Bible study either in the firm or at a restaurant at least one day a week. This was an important time of growth for me as well as the other participants. One of these groups had no other Christians involved for the entire time we met.

Our former congregation sponsored a small group for displaced workers beginning during the Great Recession of 2008. This ministry helped many of the people of our community find work and survive a stressful period. Men and women were able to share their grief at career displacement, help one another, and celebrate new careers. Some of the members later on became leaders.

Christians always need to remember that the attitudes we have toward one another are reflected in the actions we take toward one another. Here are some other kinds of actions we can take as we show God’s love to others:

  • We can pray for one another and confess our sins to one another: In James we read, “Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (James 5:14-16). One way that we show concern for one another is as we pray with and for one another.
  • We can serve one another: As Jesus was training leaders, he called the Twelve together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:24-28; see also Gal. 5:13). If we desire to show proper Christian care for one another we must be willing to serve the needs of one another.
  • We can encourage one another: In Thessalonians, Paul says, “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing” (I Thess. 5:11). Sometimes the best care we can give one another is the care of encouraging one another in difficult times.

Self-Giving Love: The Vital Element in Witness

This “one-anothering” ministry of the church is vitally important to making disciples and sharing faith. The Early Church Father, Tertullian spoke of the amazement that non-Christians felt because of the love of early Christians towards one another. He put it this way “See, they say, how they love one another.” [3] Just as the love of Christians made an impression on First Century Rome, the love shown by contemporary Christians will touch even our society. Where people deeply care for one another, share life’s burdens, help one another in difficult times, and show selfless regard even for the weak and difficult, the world will always take notice.

The world can ignore our theology, our morals, our worship, and our public witness. It cannot ignore the love it sees worked out in the Christian community and towards the world. The greatest witness we can make to unbelievers and new believers is the unconditional love of Christ.

There is a great truth embedded in the Christian praise tune, “They Will Know We Are Christians by our Love”:

We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord 
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord 
And we pray that all unity may one day be restored 
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love 
They will know we are Christians by our love

We will work with each other, we will work side by side 
We will work with each other, we will work side by side 
And we’ll guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride 
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love 
They will know we are Christians by our love

By our love, by our love

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love 
They will know we are Christians by our love

We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand 
We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand 
And together we’ll spread the news that God is in our land 
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love 
They will know we are Christians by our love

By our love, by our love

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love 
They will know we are Christians by our love [4]

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved 

[1] See, Gareth W. Icenogle, Biblical Foundations for Small Group Ministry: An Integrational Approach (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Press, 1994).

[2] Carl F. George, Prepare Your Church for the Future (Tarrytown, NY: Revell, 1991), 129-131. I have not included the entire list here, but eliminated similar and negative “one-another’s”. Others have made similar lists of varying sizes. I have shortened George’s for this essay.

[3] Tertullian, Apology Chapter 39 in Volume 3 The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325. Edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. 10 vols. 1885–1887. (Repr., Peabody, MA, MI: Hendrickson, 1994), 46.

[4] Peter Scholtes (1938–2009) “The Will Know We Are Christians by our Love” (© 1966, F.E.L. Publications, assigned to The Lorenz Corp., 1991).

14. God’s Discipleship Community

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote the Cost of Discipleship the world was a very different place from what it is today. In the West, Christianity was generally either the dominant or the state religion. Particularly in Europe, there were state churches. Most congregations were small. Both in Europe and in the United States, the years before and around World War II marked the beginning of the end of an era of Christianity that began with the Roman Empire. The late 20thand early 21st centuries also marked the emergence of formerly colonial nations into freedom and increased economic opportunity. The West was no longer culturally and economically dominant. [1] By the end of the Second World War, Europe was well into its march towards secularism, while in America the march did not reach the same level of intensity until the 1960’s.

In Bonhoeffer’s day, the late modern phenomenon of mega-churches in large metropolitan areas and large secular populations was unknown. There was religious and cultural diversity, but that diversity was different and much smaller than today. Some parishes were large, but nothing like the large churches experienced in America. The so-called Mainline denominations: Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregational, American Baptist and the like were in broad decline by the close of the 20th Century, and evangelicalism had emerged as the most quickly growing segment. Nevertheless, by the end of the 20th Century even these churches had begun to gradually decline.

Called to Community

In the cultural situation of the early 20th Century, Christian community could almost be taken for granted. Life was simpler. Cities were smaller. More people lived in rural areas. Most Christian congregations were small, and community was a natural result of living and worshiping together. Today, things are very different, and we actually have to intentionally create Christian community.

God’s intention has always been and always will be to create a special people, his family, through which God blesses the entire world. God called Abraham for just this purpose (Genesis 12:1-4). In Genesis, God calls Abraham to bless not just himself, but his family, and even the entire world (Genesis 12:1-3). The history of Israel is the history of God’s dealings with this one family. [2] He wanted Israel to be a kind of prototype for what all families and all nations should be like.

Even once Israel became a nation, one of the most common images the Bible uses for them is “The Sons of Israel”—a family. God’s family, however, was called to be different than the other families around them. They were to be holy just as God is holy (Leviticus 19:2). The word “holy” means “separated” or “different.” The way in which God’s people were to be different is that they were to show forth the wisdom, goodness, and love of God in a special way, so that the entire world might come into fellowship with the God of Love.

For Christians, the Apostle Peter put it this way:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (I Peter 2:9-10).

Those of us who have been called to be disciples have become part of God’s family, and are called to be a special, set apart people, created by Christ through the Spirit to declare to the world the mercy and love of God. The church is God’s chosen vehicle to make disciples, drawing people into a deep, life-transforming relationship with God. The primary purpose of the church is to “go into the world and make disciples” (Matthew 28:16).

The New Testament Community

The book of Acts begins with Jesus saying goodbye to his disciples. The first discipleship group was disbanded when Jesus ascended into heaven. No longer would they be meeting together daily, physically in the presence of the Word Made Flesh. Instead, Jesus was going to be with the disciples as they shared the Good News throughout the world by the invisible, personal presence of the Holy Spirit. He asked his disciples to return to the city and await the coming of the Spirit (Acts 1:8).  They went back into the city, met together in the Upper Room as a group, prayed together, and planned for the future until the day of Pentecost (Acts 1:12-25).

On the day of Pentecost, the promised Holy Spirit came upon the little band of Jesus followers, and the disciples were filled with the powerful presence of God (Acts 2:1-4). They began to share the Good News with all those gathered in Jerusalem that day, and by the end of the day, about 3,000 people were saved (Acts 2:5-41).

What did they do next? They met as a family! The apostles discipled a new group of believers in Jesus just as Jesus discipled them! Here is how Acts describes it:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved (Acts 2:42-47).

The early church was like a family, intimately sharing their life together. They shared meals. They kept a common purse for expenses of the group. They contributed to the needs of the group. They worshiped, learned, and prayed together. The experienced the power and presence of God together as a family. The surrounding society recognized that these people were different and, in the end, saw the beauty of their way of life. We are called to the same way of life.

God calls Christians to be a part of a set-apart community, not removed from the surrounding society, but a different sort of people showing a better way to live in the midst of every culture. This is hard in our society. We are so individualistic and driven that we have difficulty maintaining physical families, much less a church family. We are so busy that it is hard to find time to share our lives with others. We are so consumed emotionally by the needs of our biological family, career, social life, and the like, that making time for deep spiritually-based relationships is not natural or easy. Nevertheless, this is exactly what God has asked us to do. [3]  We won’t grow in Christ unless we devote ourselves to learning about God, fellowshipping with God’s people, praying with other Christians, and experiencing the power of God in our lives.

Often, as we have seen, contemporary people lack community, and tend to find an inadequate community in the workplaces and in political or avocational associations. One signal of the decay of our culture loss of where sometimes called “mediating institutions,” that provide meaning and purpose to life. [4] At the most basic level, the frequency of divorce in our society means that most people do not grow up in stable homes. The most basic unit of society is terribly unstable in our culture.

In the past, schools, preschools, swimming pools, and other public goods were often managed at the level of the neighborhood. Today, for most Americans these are managed at the level of a vast city. State and national governments are by their nature, distant. In larger metropolitan areas, the same things is true: governments are far removed from the day to day lives of people. Often leaders have little or no idea of the needs of local neighborhoods. The vast majority of people do not belong to churches and other institutions that give meaning and purpose to life at a basic level. The result is a pervasive loneliness and alienation.

Discipleship Groups

the Book of Acts provides us with a description of what a Spirit-filled community is like. We need to think about that description, because it tells us what contemporary churches are to be like in order to disciple people in ways that mirror the way Jesus discipled people. In the conditions of today’s Western society, and especially in America, this cannot be accomplished without intentionality. One way of accomplishing the goal of creating life transforming community is forming “Discipleship Groups.” A discipleship group is an intentional, personal, face-to-face, regular gathering of men and women who are committed to grow as disciples of Jesus Chris together in community. [5]

Each aspect of this definition is important considering the scriptural model given to us in Acts 2:42-47:

  • A discipleship group is Intentional: The early disciples “devoted themselves to the apostles teaching.” The apostles and the new believers intentionally committed themselves to grow as disciples by listening to the apostles teach. We will not grow as disciples unless we are willing to be intentional about it.
  • A discipleship group is Personal: We are told “all the believers were together.” Personal, face-to-face fellowship is not an optional part of the Christian life. It is central. God desires us to become part of a community of believers who are sharing their lives and their faith together. God wants us to be in close relationship with others as we grow in faith.
  • A discipleship group is Regular: The early church met “daily.” A discipleship group meets once a week, every other week, twice a month, or on some other regular basis. Frankly, for most of us in our culture, a daily meeting is impossible, except perhaps in our family or with one or two other people we normally see in our daily lives. Groups that meet monthly are normally unable to produce lasting personal change. For most Christians, a weekly group is what is needed.
  • A discipleship group meets to be Taught: When they met, the first disciples listened “to the apostles teaching.” A discipleship group desires to grow in the knowledge of Christ and the Christian life. Discipling groups are not primarily social gatherings. Although the Christian faith is more than learning information, it is impossible to grow as a Christian disciple and be transformed into the image of Christ without learning truths about God and Christian living.
  • A discipleship group experiences Exciting Fellowship: When the early church met, “everyone was filled with awe.” Christian fellowship should be life-giving, exciting and life-changing. If people in our culture are to be filled with awe, then we must show the wisdom and love of God by the lives we lead and by the community of love we create. We must share the day-to-day miracles of life with one another and the world around us.
  • A discipleship group Intends to Grow: “the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” The purpose of a discipleship group is to grow the kingdom of God by growing disciples. This means intentionally inviting new people into the group. Many small groups in our culture exist primarily for group members. A true discipleship group exists not only for current members but for future disciples of Christ. [6]

In contemporary Western society, Christians must intentionally create discipling communities like the fellowship of the early church. Any social institution emerges from a community of people whose purpose is the maintenance and transmission of the knowledge and skills the group was formed to advance. [7] One of the most important developments in modern philosophy of science is an increased understanding of the communal nature of science. Any scientist becomes and remains a scientist by becoming a part of the community of scientists. It probably begins early in life with a special teacher, who makes a deep impression on the student. Then, as the years go by the student goes on to take more classes, then begins specializing in the particular science in which he or she has an interest. During this period, the young scientist will have many mentors, teachers, role models, and will learn many skills. Over many years of apprenticeship and learning, the novice becomes an accomplished scientist his or her self. It does not happen easily or over-night. The church is God’s community of change.

Large worship services, media teachers, etc. cannot possibly form Christian character in the deep way discipleship groups can. Deep discipleship takes an intentional group of people led by experienced leaders, like the apostles, to take people from a secular-orientation and mold them into fully-equipped disciples as they model the life of Christ and share their own lives in a deep and meaningful way. There is no other way out of the crisis of discipleship in which our society finds itself

Spirit-Filled Community

Discipleship groups are more than a program. These groups, large or small, are a God-given opportunity for disciples to live the kind of life God intended for all human beings. Once we understand this, we understand human ingenuity is not sufficient for true discipling community. Only the Holy Spirit can create a community that models God’s wisdom and love in the midst of a fallen, broken, and diseased world. Only the Holy Spirit can help us live out lives of true agape love toward others. The Holy Spirit transmits to us the love of God in several ways:

  • Knowledge. It is the Holy Spirit that allows disciples to understand who God is and what God is like.
  • It is the Holy Spirit that draws disciples into fellowship with God by faith in Christ.
  • Church. It is the Holy Spirit who creates the church and draws disciples into relationship with others.
  • Worship, Witness, and Service. It is the Holy Spirit that sustains that relationship and empowers the Body of Christ for worship, community, growth and mission.

Over the years, the churches we have served have had many small discipleship groups. Frankly, some were life-changing and some were not. The difference was in the presence of the Holy Spirit. Years ago, a member of the congregation stopped me in the hall. His group was struggling. I asked him what they were doing in their meetings. It turned out that their group had become a dinner club. They met, had a glass of wine, ate dinner, and visited. There is nothing wrong with any of this—but it is not the characteristic of a discipleship group. There was no intentional attempt to grow in Christ. As a result of our conversation, they incorporated Bible Study, prayer, sharing, and service into the life of the group. They invited a few new people. Almost over-night, the group was providing a place for Christian growth for its members.

Discipleship Groups as a Means of Grace

In some Christian traditions, there’s much talk about the “ordinary means of grace.” Ordinarily, Bible study, prayer, and other activities are means by which God allows us to grow in grace. In contemporary society I would argue that participation in discipling groups, is one of the most important if not the most important means of grace. It has certainly been true in my own life and in the life of many people I know. Jesus said, “For where two or more are gathered in my name, I am there with them” (Matthew 18:20). The spirit this is basically present in those small groups of Christians together in the name of Jesus.

In his little book, Life Together, Bonhoeffer puts it this way:

It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed. Therefore, let him who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart. Let him thank God on his knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.” [8]

No Christian and no Christian fellowship should underestimate the importance of intentional Christian community.

Leadership and Discipling Groups

Discipling groups do not occur automatically. Jesus had to call his disciples to come and be with him. Peter had to preach. The apostles had to reach out and form the small Christian discipling communities that constituted the early church. Over centuries, people have call other people into a relationship with Jesus. In contemporary society, this requires getting out of our comfort zone and asking people to gather with us to learn about Jesus and follow him.

This involves leadership. Someone must call the people into the group. Someone has to provide overall guidance for the group. Someone has to teach a small Bible study. Someone has to lead the prayers. Someone has to organize the refreshments, if any. Every discipleship group is a miniature church requiring as many of the spiritual gifts as possible to function. Discipleship Groups do not need a single leader, they need many leaders with as many different spiritual gifts as is possible.

Today, most larger churches have some kind of small group program. Most of the time these programs have three basic problems:

First, the groups tend to become ingrown and not want to multiply and grow. People get accustomed to the deep fellowship of the group and they don’t want to leave that the fellowship and grow the kingdom of God. This is a tremendous leadership challenge. It is important that the leadership of the groups constantly mention the Great Commission, so that people develop a heart to share their faith and invite their friends.

Second, often groups do not intentionally develop new leadership. Most of the time, the existing leaders lead the group until the group no longer exists. Sometimes existing leaders are so invested in leading that they resist turning over leadership to others. While this is normal and human, it’s not the best thing for the kingdom of God. In the early church, Antioch was a wonderful church with great teaching, preaching, prophesying, and worship. Paul and Barnabas were essential and important parts of that fellowship. In Acts, we read that they were sent out on what became the first missionary journey (Acts 13:1-3). If they had not been willing to go, if the church of Antioch of been satisfied to be what it is where it was, we would not be here today. Instead they sent out their two best leaders and developed new leadership.

Third, there is the problem of equipping teachers to share the gospel without distortion. In a church that has a large number of small groups there is always the challenge of creating a teaching consistency faithful to the doctrine and morals of that particular church. This is an ongoing problem that senior leadership must take seriously. If a congregation has enough small groups, someday there will be at least one leader who in doctrine or morals betrays the confidence of leadership. This requires training and fellowship among the leaders of the groups and a structure of accountability.

This means that this discipleship group leaders must meet regularly with senior leadership in the church and be accountable to them. There must be times of sharing what is going on in the small groups, what the basic studies are going to be for the ongoing period of time, and some of the doctrinal challenges that may be faced as lay people talk about the passages and topics. It is also true that discipleship leaders must be mentored and monitored so that their teachings and life continue to grow in grace. [9] Finally, the fact is that some people will have to be removed from leadership. In my experience, this is rarely necessary, but it does happen.

Diversity and Unity in Discipleship Groups

There is not a “one size fits all” way of developing discipleship groups in a local congregation. Discipleship groups will be formed in different ways and for different purposes. People cannot be in ten different groups. It’s inevitable that people are going to attend groups that meet a particular spiritual need they have and the giftedness they sensed God has given them. This means that groups must have different foci, but some common features as they disciple people. [10]

Some groups will concentrate on studying the Bible, but that doesn’t mean that they should not be in mission sharing the gospel with others. Some groups will be involved in prayer, but this does not mean that they do not need to and base their prayers on the Bible and be in mission, sharing their faith with others. Some groups (such as a praise band) will be primarily involved in supporting the ministry and mission of the local church, but this does not mean that they don’t need to study the Bible and be prayerful in what they plan and do.

The key is to create a leadership team that is both focused and flexible. The focus needs to be upon making more and better disciples for Christ and the development of loving fellowship among believers. At the same time, the leadership needs to be flexible in allowing groups to accomplish this discipling task in a variety of different ways based upon the specific talents and vision of that group.

The Future of the Church

After forty years as a disciple of Jesus, and about the same number of years as a Christian leader, including twenty-eight years as a pastor, I’m convinced that the future of American Christianity lies in our ability to recover the ability to love people into the kingdom of God through personal relationships in life-changing community. Western civilization is in a period of decay. Much of the surrounding culture is not only non-Christian but hostile to the Christian faith. In such a cultural situation, we cannot rely upon a mass audience, mass worship, or mass ministry to do the job of sharing God’s love with others as we have experienced it because of our faith in Jesus Christ. This can only be accomplished by individual Christians joining together in small communities of faith within the larger body of Christ and sharing their faith day in and day out.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Although the United States emerged both victorious and economically intact from the Second World War, no other European nation did. As the 20th Century concluded, however, Western Europe, and especially Germany emerged from the devastation of the war. Japan was a major economic power having emerged from the post-war period as an economic powerhouse. China had also recovered from the war and from the economic setback of the cultural revolution. India emerged as an economic powerhouse. The economic dependence of the West on oil as a source of energy enriched and empowered the Muslim world of the Middle East and Asia. Culturally, the religions of the Far East were evident and attractive to many in the formerly Christian West. All of this meant that Western culture and values were no longer dominant. In America there were few major cities not characterized by a fair amount of religious diversity.

[2] One of the easy miss-readings of the Old Testament is a failure to understand that while we think of Israel as a kind of ancient version of the modern nation state, this notion is far from the reality. One of the most common names for the Jewish people and nation is “the sons of Israel.” Their identity was that of members of related tribes who came from a common ancestor and were therefore a family as much as a political body.

[3] This aspect of Bonhoeffer’s thought is often ignored. For example, “Everything the disciple does is a part of the common life of the church of which he is a member. That is why the law, which governs the life of the Body of Christ, is where one is the whole body is also. There is no department of life in which the member may withdraw from the Body, nor should he desire to so withdraw.” Cost of Discipleship, at 286.

[4] See, Path of Life, at 162.

[5] Individual congregations have many names for what I call discipleship groups. The term “small group” tells us only one characteristic of what we want these groups to be like. They should be small, but that is not the most important characteristic. They should disciple people. They are and can be called “Life Groups,” “Community Groups,” “Koinonia Groups,” “Circles” and any one of a number of names in different churches. What is important is to remember the purpose: to disciple people.

[6] See, G. Christopher Scruggs, A Leadership Training Guide for Discipling People: Discipleship Groups at Advent Presbyterian Church(Unpublished Manuscript, 2000), 6.

[7] Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. 1958. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1962. I am reliant on Polanyi and Lesslie Newbigin’s analysis of his work and application to discipleship for this insight. See, Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission. Rev. ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995) and Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt & Certainty in Christian Discipleship. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995).

[8] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, previously cited, at 20.

[9] This regular accountability of small group leaders has always been hard to achieve. It requires both administrative and interpersonal ability. In the best example I have experienced, group leaders huddled with the person in charge of small group ministry and one of the pastoral staff several times a year. In addition, the person charged with administering small groups was constantly on the phone with group leaders. The Senior Pastor was an enthusiastic proponent of small groups. These “huddles” were an essential part of the success of the program.

[10] This was the intention of the A Leadership Training Guide for Discipling People, cited at note 6. While groups may differ in focus (Bible Study, Prayer, Ministries and Missions, etc.) there are common features that group leaders within a larger congregation need to understand and implement.

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