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!


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.