The Church is Not Just Another Social Service Agency

What we call the “church” is too often a gathering of strangers who see the church as yet another “helping institution” to gratify further their individual desires. – Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon, Resident Aliens, pg 138

100114residentaliensThis line from the excellent book Resident Aliens really shows where my head has been at in the last few months in my theological thinking and writing. In fact, I’ve lapsed into a serious form of theological grumpiness recently, probably thanks for reading a lot of Hauerwas (a noted theological grump) this summer and fall. And it all comes back to what this line is saying: the Church should not just be another social service agency.

I say this because, this seems to be where a lot of progressive Christians want to go with their church. Oftentimes, the worshiping is downplayed, the focus on God and Christ is downplayed, the spiritual and theological formation of congregants is downplayed, and instead, progressive churches highlight their social justice and service initiatives first and foremost.

And don’t get me wrong: those social services are vitally important. A lived faith involves working for justice in the world. Churches are important gatherings of like-minded people, and should put that collective effort to work in pursuing the Kingdom of God.

But, that last point is the key one: the work churches do is in service to God, at the behest of Christ, in pursuit of the Kingdom of God. Our first order priority as the church is not justice, but worship. It is following Christ in service to God. Justice necessarily arises from this, because our God is a God of justice. But, everything the church does should stem from its identification as a specifically Christian institution.

This means that members of individual church should avoid desperately being the “strangers” Hauerwas and Willimon mention, and instead, should be intent on cultivating real, authentic relation with other members of the church. This should extend to feelings of accountability, in our public and private lives, to one another.

It also means that our personal pet projects – our “individual desires” – should not override the stated mission of the church. What I mean is, any service or work the church undertakes should eventually occur because of the desire to make disciples, and of being the Living Body of Christ in and for the world.

I’ve gotten grumpy because I don’t want my attendance at church to feel like I’m attending a local meeting of MoveOn or the United Way, and it’s so dang hard to find a good, progressive church that still centers the Gospel in a way that doesn’t make you feel like they are ashamed to say the words “God” or “Christ,” or that still acknowledge the important spiritual aspect of communion or the confessions. I know there are churches like this, but they are increasingly harder to find. And I think this is because so many progressives, mirroring conservative evangelicals, are seeing their churches as extensions of their political parties and priorities.

The church is meant to be the church. In other words, the church is tasked with the Great Commission first, and all other work arises from that. The first order of business in that is being a place where disciples of Christ are reoriented towards God, admitting guilt for our sins and seeking forgiveness, embracing our joy of membership in the body of Christ, and reaffirming our place in the great traditions of the church. Then, our faith, edified through the weekly practice of worship, compels us to our works in the world, which does mean social justice work, but also sometimes means just loving our neighbors and our enemies, forgiving those who sin against us, and being a living example of Christi n the world. This is the church I want to be a part of.

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Playing Revolutionary

Of course, we may “play” revolutionary and delude ourselves that we can do battle against the atomic bomb. Usually when the reality of the political situation dawns upon the oppressed, those who have no vision from another world tend to give up in despair. But those who have heard about the coming of the Lord Jesus and have a vision of crossing on the other side of Jordan are not terribly disturbed about what happens in Washington D.C., at least not to the extent that their true humanity is dependent on the political perspective of government officials. To be sure, they know that they must struggle to realize justice in this world. But their struggle for justice is directly related to the coming judgment of Jesus. His coming presence requires that we not make any historical struggle an end in itself. We struggle because it is a sign of Jesus’ presence with us and of his coming presence to redeem all humanity. His future coming therefore is the key to the power of our struggle.

-Dr. James Cone, God of the Oppressed, pg. 132

These words of Dr. Cone really showcase where my head is at recently politically and theologically. Things seem really, really bad, because they are. We are in a political moment unlike any other in our history, one that is dangerous and destabilizing. The future feels immensely less certain than it did two years ago.

But despair is not the attitude of the Church and those of us in it, those of us defined as Christians. The vagaries of politics and world affairs do not define our hope, nor do they determine the future we know is guaranteed. And, crucially, they do not set the terms of engagement. Christ does. As Dr. Cone says, we struggle because we know God, not because of anything less.

Things are bad. God is bigger than it anyways. Keep up the fight, but remember, the end is already written in our favor, in humanity’s favor, despite our best attempts to fuck it up (and we are certainly doing our best at that recently.)

And remember: we aren’t called to play revolutionary. We are called to be disciples. In all your work in the world, don’t forget that, and don’t forget the potential of the Church to craft disciples.

“The earthly city glories in itself”

In yesterday’s post about Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, I ended with a short discourse on the nature of sin as pride, drawing on Neibuhr, and relating to this moment in American political history. I just want to expand a bit on pride, by drawing on Augustine a bit, in the hopes of illuminating the point I was making a bit.

In Book XIV, near the very end, Augustine writes,

“We see then that the two cities were created by two kinds of love: the earthly city was created by self-love reaching the point of contempt for God, the Heavenly City by the love of God carried as far as contempt of self. In fact, the earthly city glories in itself, the Heavenly City glories in the Lord. The former looks for glory from men, the latter find its highest glory in God, the witness of a good conscience…The one city loves its own strength show in its powerful leaders; the other says to its God, ‘I will love you, my Lord, my strength.’

Consequently, in the earthly city its wise men who live by men’s standards have pursued the goods of the body or of their mind, or both. Or those of them who were able to know God ‘did not honor him as God, nor did they give thanks to him, but they dwindled into futility in their thoughts, and their senseless hear was darkened: in asserting their wisdom’ – that is, exalting themselves in their wisdom, under the domination of pride – ‘they became foolish…”

When Augustine writes here of the earthly city, we can think of the powers that be, in Washington DC and beyond, in order to gain some understanding. And when we make that move, it becomes clear that Augustine might either have had a glimpse into the future, or knew the tendencies of humanity all to well!

The political moment exemplified right now by Donal Trump, Brett Kavanaugh, and this whole sordid political regime can be discerned in words like “glories in itself,” “loves its own strength shown in its powerful leaders,” and “self-love reaching the point of contempt for God.” I don’t speak in this comparison of Trump’s overwhelming narcissism, lack of intellectual curiosity, or idolization of strength over weakness. I also am speaking of the rush by political leaders in the White House, Congress, and the media to ignore the cries of the oppressed, deny the claims of truth and right, and blindly confirm Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, despite what he may or may not have done.

It is pure, unblinking pride that compels these men to ignore the pursuit of justice and truth and push forward so blindly for a political victory. They believe so deeply in their own wisdom, they have such deep wells of self-love, that they can no longer perceive the presence of God in the world. Pride has blinded them; through pride, “they became foolish.”

This isn’t to associate the demands of God with the goals of the Democrat Party in the nomination of Kavanaugh. Rather, this is pure critique of an entire system that is so fixated on a temporal political win in this moment. Augustine, and Neibuhr after him, identified the chief sin of humanity as pride, which masquerades as selfishness and self-love so often. Pride is the motive from which our leaders consistently work – and why identification of God with any political leader, party or nation is idolatrous and dangerous.