Toxic Worship (The Imposters of God, Chapter 1: The Mystery of Idolatry, Part 2)

Sculpture of a Family

Photo by J. Lord, Creative Commons

This is part three of my series on William Stringfellow’s The Imposters of God. You can read my first post on Chapter One and my introduction to the series.

As you recall, Stringfellow pointed out that an idol is anything we use to define ourselves, to give significance to our lives, other than God (of course). All such things – money, family, church, reputation, country – are doomed to fail us, of course.

But did you know that so long as we put them in the place of worship, that we are doomed to fail them?

As Stringfellow put it, “Where idolatrous patriotism is practiced, the vocation of the nation so idolized is destroyed.”

How far from the lofty ideals of civil rights and democracy have the super-patriots (with their super PATRIOT Acts) taken us?

I’m old enough to remember when torture and indefinite detention were things the bad guys did, not things two successive openly Christian Presidents would undertake, to the applause of their mostly openly Christian supporters.

“When the family is idolized, the members of the family are enslaved.” (Stringfellow). How many times have we seen parents living vicariously through their children? Whether Tiger Moms pushing their kids into depression  or washed-up high school quarterbacks and homecoming queens reliving their youth, it never ends well.

I’m reminded of the controlling mother from C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, who’d rather have her son with her in hell than leave him in heaven.

Even within our churches, the extreme focus on the family has left the unmarried feeling unwanted. It’s made us political animals, white-flighting our way into the “best” schools.

It’s led us to forget that the Apostles who spread the Gospel to the known world were themselves single, and that they focused not on their families, but on the Gospel.

“Every idol, therefore, represents a thing or being existing in a state of profound disorientation” (Stringfellow).

Idolatry ultimately brings death.

Sometimes literally, as in our persistent worship of war.

Sometimes figuratively, in the dehumanization of a culture that views everything and everyone as a commodity.

And sometimes both, as in the dysfunctional relationships and vicious social structures that drive the young to depression and sometimes suicide.

Perhaps Idolatry is at the heart of the decline of America’s churches. We’ve grown so entangled with the idols of respectability, growth, and politics that we find ourselves reduced to merely a social function. A social function that offers precious little to the constantly-connected Facebook generation.

What is the answer? I’m not certain. But I know this. We fail, again and again, to keep the very first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3).

And to even detect our idols means turning the rusty knife of self-examination on the things we hold dearest. The pain may be akin to amputating a gangrenous limb without anesthetic, but it must be done if we are serious about serving Christ.

 

 

 

 

 

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Does ‘Treasures in Heaven’ mean a Church Savings Account?

As good Christians, we praise thrift and hard work, earning and saving. Do we sometimes go so far?

Jesus told a parable that may apply.

16 And He told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man was very productive.

 17 And he began reasoning to himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops?’ 

18 Then he said, ‘This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 

19 And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.”’ 

20 But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?’ 

21 So is the man who stores up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”

– Luke 12:16-21 (NASB)

I know we have to take care of our families, that is clear. And it logically follows that as churches, we should handle our finances carefully, too.

But do we go too far sometimes?

I especially wonder why some churches have a year’s worth of expenses (or more) squirreled back, and give only a pittance to poor relief each month. Granted, this is probably better than being mortgaged to the hilt, and unable to afford to help people, but is it really Jesus’ ideal?

I’m not advocating consumerism, borrowing money to build huge, super-modern Church buildings, paying celebrity pastors six figures, and generally reveling in our American bling. I can’t see any justification for that, honestly.

But might our focus be just a little bit off? Might our thrift be impeding our generosity?

I guess I shouldn’t raise these sorts of questions without at least trying to give some kind of answer.

And my answer is: a church’s finances should be guided by their situation and by prayerful consideration of how to address that situation, always keeping in mind that doing good is more important than looking good, and that true security comes from God, not a fat bank account.

Growing churches sometimes have to borrow money to expand. I don’t think it’s ever good for a church to be in debt (see Proverbs 22:7), but sometimes a church might have to do it. Sometimes borrowing money might even be a leap of faith.

However, I’ve personally been a part of two churches that experienced splits/mass defections (before I got there) over building big new buildings on credit. In both cases, many of the most vocal proponents of the expansions ended up leaving, even though the expansions happened.

I wasn’t there, so I won’t pretend to know anybody’s motives, but it wasn’t an ideal situation. Honestly, it was more of a minefield. It certainly soured me on churches borrowing money.

As for the other extreme, I see nothing wrong with a church saving up large sums for major expansions or needed renovations. It’s better than borrowing, if the church can do it.

And as for general savings, I think a church should have enough money saved back to weather an emergency (whether that’s unexpected repairs or an economic downturn that reduces giving), but not a death spiral.

If a church enters a period where its incoming offerings are consistently falling behind its costs, there’s a deeper problem. Maybe membership is declining. Maybe the church became too dependent on a few large donors, and one of them has gone. Maybe there’s major inefficiencies in how the church spends its money.

In any case, something needs to be addressed. And the real problem will get addressed faster if the church doesn’t have a year’s operating expenses sitting in the bank waiting to be drained.

Ultimately, a church that doesn’t interact with the community, that hoards its resources while ignoring the needs just outside its well-manicured lawn … that church is missing a great opportunity, like the rich man and his barns.

Does Welcoming Homosexuals Mean Accepting Homosexuality?

Shaking hands

As Christians, we like to think that we’re unpopular because we take a principled, Biblical stand against homosexual sexual relations.  But the things that stain our reputation most are not at all theological.  They’re not about the belief that same-sex sexual contact is sinful.  They’re about the way we so often treat homosexual people.

There are plenty of churches that actively seek to welcome lesbians and homosexuals into to their midst, while still holding to the theology that homosexual sexual relations are sinful in god’s eyes.

They believe that those who are completely homosexual (and not at all bisexual or attracted to the opposite sex at all) should be celibate, and those who are bisexual should focus their romantic and sexual attention on members of the opposite sex, effectively living as if heterosexual.

These churches are occasionally called intolerant or anti-homosexual, but they actually have homosexual people in their congregations.  They love and worship with and share communion with people who are sexually attracted to the same sex.  They do not hold themselves sinless or blameless or better than their homosexual neighbors.  And so they are able to witness and minister to people who are so often excluded from the Church.

People act like the alternatives are the Family Research Council (which spreads horrible, often false, ‘information’ about homosexuals and works against all their civil rights) or the Episcopal Church (which ordained its first homosexual priest in the seventies, and has created an official blessing for same-sex marriages).

That is a false dichotomy.  You do not need to change your theology to change the way you treat your least popular neighbors (Don’t get me wrong: I believe you can be a faithful, prayerful Christian and not believe homosexual sexual relations are sinful.  But those Christians aren’t the ones I’m writing this post to).

In other words, the evangelical churches of the United States do not have to start blessing same-sex marriages and ordaining homosexual ministers.  But we do need to stop actively working to use the government to attack homosexuals.

In many states, homosexuals can be fired because of their sexual orientation for no reason.  In many states, they cannot adopt.  In many states, they are excluded from hospital visitation for their partners.  Until 2003, having homosexual relations was felony on par with forcible rape in many states.  That’s oppression: “if you’re gay, we treat you like a rapist.”

In other words, homosexual people are treated like second-class citizens, and it’s mostly because of political pressure from conservative Christians.

As Christians, we are called to love all sinners, not just sinners who sin like we do.  As Christians, we are not called to use the empire’s hammer to beat down people we don’t like.  That is antithetical to Christ’s behavior when He was on earth, and I believe antithetical to Christ’s message.

Jesus ate with the outcasts of Jewish society – Samaritans, tax collectors, and more – and He loved them.  He loves them still, just like he loves the outcasts of our American society.  If we love Him, we need to suck it up, step up, and start feeding His sheep.

Toxic Legalism (Jeremiad #1: Sexism, Lies, and Ecclesiastical Bling)

Lazarus and Dives by Fedor Bronnikov, 1886

Lazarus and Dives by Fedor Bronnikov, 1886

A new, toxic legalism, based on a shallow, piecemeal, combative reading of the scriptures, is choking the Evangelical faith like a clinging vine.  Our churches are shrinking, and our reputation is mud with the wider world – they think we are immoral in our vitriol and our intolerance.  They see us as less moral than non-Christians, as moralistic and manipulative and controlling.

And they’re right.  Our churches are segregated, even today.  Our divorce rate is no better than the non-religious.  Spousal abuse still lingers, and in some cases is even tolerated.  And our advice to abused women is often dangerously, even fatally wrongheaded.

You can proof-text me all you want, but homosexuals are not the ones degrading our nation’s culture.  We are, with our arrogance, our lingering racism, our commercialism and consumerism.

We build multi-million dollar churches, yet leave the poorest of the world (who often need things like $18 mosquito nets and $25 vaccinations) and the poor and homeless in our own cities to fend for themselves.

We keep spending money to prop up dying churches that exist only because a few elderly people don’t want to find a new church, but which are doing nothing for the community, spiritually or materially. We spend ungodly sums on “faith-based extravaganzas” on Easter, Christmas, and Halloween (“scare them to salvation with Hell House!”).  And all the while, like Dives, we watch the poor man starving at our gate.

We degrade our name, and our nation, when we let our political leanings dictate our theology.  Case in point: it’s no secret that the Southern Baptists are going whole-hog for Mitt Romney.

But when I was growing up, Southern Baptists considered Mormonism a “cult.”  Some still do.  Oops, never mind.  He’s backing Romney now.   So, which is it?  The answer no one will give you is this:  “it doesn’t matter, as long as he dislodges that black pro-death, pro-gay, liberal socialist we’ve got now.”

We bring shame on our name and Christ’s through our sexism and incredible insensitivity to the realities of women’s lives.  You can proof-text me all you want, but the truth remains:  when you pre-determine a woman’s role in life based on her gender, you take away her right to follow the Holy Spirit’s guidance, you take away her Imago Dei, and you make her less than human.

Who should we obey, God or Men?  The reality of complementarianism, as it is often preached, is this: Only men get to obey God.  Women obey men, and access God through the male spiritual heads – first their fathers, and then their husbands.  But I think we all know the right answer to the question, both for men and for women I think the answer is clear [Acts 5:29].  We obey God, not men.

Blessed Are The…

Sermon on the Mount painted by Ivan Makarov 1889

Sermon on the Mount painted by Ivan Makarov 1889

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Jesus, “The Sermon on the Mount,” Matthew 5:1-12, NRSV

But, as Kenton pointed out on Kurt Willem’s blog, without the resurrected Jesus, these are just words, and words that mean nothing.  If Jesus stayed dead, then the human nature that reverses the beatitudes, that worships wealth and power, has the last word.

The worst thing is, even as Christians, we sometimes let that human nature get the last word in our lives and churches.  I’m guilty of this myself, sometimes.  I’ve struggled with every one of these, mostly as the offender.  To be honest, I still struggle with some of them.

Too often, we have our “Church-attitudes”

Blessed are the rich, for their tithes support the church programs.

Blessed are those who put on a positive face, who acknowledge no public pain or weakness, for they are attractive to others.

Blessed are the popular and charismatic, for their celebrity builds the church.

Blessed are those who appear righteous and respectable, well-dressed and presentable, for they bring no scandal to the church.

Blessed are the moral gatekeepers, for their criticism, condemnation, and gossip truly bring their brethren closer to God.

Blessed are the safely conforming, for they bring no challenge to their Evangelical conservatism or Mainline liberalism, but allow their fellow-congregants to believe they are right, and their counterparts are barely even Christians.

Blessed are the right, for the arguments they win will surely bring the lost to Christ.

Blessed are those who complain about persecution in America, for media criticism and fast food boycotts are clearly equivalent to the prison and martyrdom so many Christians still face.

Blessed are you when the right people revile you, when you hold yourself above the sold-out liberals/small-minded fundamentalists, for they will know we are Christians by our enemies.

Kenton is right: without a resurrected Christ, the beatitudes are reversed.  And that’s true even in the church.  If we lose sight of the resurrected Jesus, our human nature takes over, and we sanctify our own pain-avoidance and power-seeking.  And sometimes, I am the worst offender.