Pastoral Musings from Rain City

it's about 'what is church?' it's about whether 'emergent' is the latest Christian trend or something more substantial. it's musing on what it means to live the city, in America, in community, intergenerationally, at this time in history...

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


This is a long post... pour yourself a beverage, read, pray, and cheers!

My entry from one week ago was about whether we should make our voting decision on a single issue, multiple issues, character and leadership ability, the faith of the candidate, or some other criteria.

I'm both encouraged and troubled by the collective response. To the extent that there has been thoughtful dialog, with the goal of increasing understanding, I'm encouraged. Sadly, though, there has also been some disturbing rhetoric, like, "if you don't think the way I do on this, you're not a Christian, or you're not a mature Christian, or you're..." Can I encourage you to allow your conversations to be, as it were, 'with grace, as though seasoned with salt'.

The reason we need grace in our speech opens the way for a response to the more important thread running through the comments, which is: "how can people who go to the same church have such different beliefs about these things?" (though nobody wrote exactly those words, I paraphrase a common sentiment). Further, we wonder if this is a good thing or a bad thing.

I spoke about this recently when we did a quick overview of the church in Acts. Looking at that book from the telescopic view, one can see that from the very earliest days of the church, healthy churches have had ongoing issues, disagreements, decisions. First it had to do with whether those of Greek origin were receiving as much care as the Jews. Then it had to do with the question of "just how Jewish is Christianity?" The answer created such an uproar that the church was scattered, out from Jerusalem. Then it had to do with whether Jews were relieved from ceremonial law and could eat unclean meat. Next the issue was whether Gentiles with absolutely no ties to Judaism could become Christians? Once that was settled, the question was whether or not they needed to be circumcised, and they decided only to impose an abstinence from meat sacrificed to idols. Later the church changed it's mind on it's own ruling.

Paul had a bitter disagreement with John Mark at one point, and they split. Later, Paul asks for John Mark to come visit him because he's profitable for ministry.

Is this a picture of a church that is always of one mind on everything? I'd suggest that it's a church in process of growing towards the mind of Christ by addressing issues prayerfully, respectfully, as they arise. The beauty of the early church is that when disagreements arose believers had nowhere else to go. They were stuck in a community with people who thought differently than themselves and this led, of course, to inevitable problems. But if you read I Corinthians, you'll find that the problems themselves are the context for our growth and transformation.

Sadly, in our consumerist faith world, we can easily gather only with people who will think exactly the same way we do on every issue. Then, in our self-referential pride, we can decide that we've got it: we've got the truth. Our doctrinal fence determining who's in and who's out is perfect.

Of course, this would be lovely if it were true. But it isn't. Perfection isn't an option this side of heaven, because we don't see with perfect clarity. Even the great Paul, towards the end of his life, didn't consider himself as having yet arrived. So what then, are the signs of a healthy church:

1. A commitment to the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ - The church is nothing less than the visible expression of Christ's life on earth, and because of this there's no room for discussion here, because you can't reject Jesus and be His bride, His fruit bearer, His visible expression. You've seen previous post where I ponder the question of whether or not someone who's never heard the name of Jesus can be saved, and this might be open to misunderstanding, as if there's more than one way to be saved. Far from it, the reality is that it is the work of Christ on the cross, and that work alone, which is the source of all salvation, from Adam to the end of time. The only question is whether or not some who, having never heard the name, still look to the light they have received (and all have received light)with a faith response, rejecting the animism, or polytheism, or atheism, of their own culture, and calling out instead to the One true God. If such a person is saved, they're saved by Christ. But don't miss the main point here: a healthy church will never diminish or compromise the centrality of Christ.

2. A commitment to the historical orthodoxy derived from the centrality of Christ. Church history is our guide here, as the church sought to refine, and further refine just what it means to 'believe'. Our church is presently studying "the apostle's creed' because we believe these to be the non-negotiable elements of our faith, the things that require, not only mental assent, but life commitment. Anyone is welcome to attend a worship service, but to be in a covenant relationship as part of the church, one needs to subscribe to these truths because these are the truths that have defined the essence of the faith for 20 centuries (approximately)

3. A commitment to transformation. We're told in II Corinthians that our transformation is proportional to our fixation on Christ, His life, teachings, kingdom, and invitation. This, of course, is the danger of thinking I've arrived, and must then only 'defend' my doctrinal turf. To only 'defend' is to abort the process of transformation. And of course, from the responses to last week's post about the election, I'm certain nobody wants abortion (LOL)

4. Patience. There's a little passage in Ephesians 4 that speaks of the 'unity of the faith'. Sometimes we take this and run with it, thinking that this unity can be acquired by a decree from the pulpit on every issue. And there are surely times and places for such decrees (see Luther, see Bonhoeffer, see Wesley). But the word that is often forgotten in Ephesians 4 is 'until', which implies that our unity and maturity is a goal towards which we are reaching, as we bring every area of heart, mind, and body under the Lordship of Christ. Until we reach this perfect state, we will continue to have untidy disagreements. That's OK, probably even healthy, if Proverbs has anything to say about it. What's not healthy is to simply walk away from those who don't think exactly like you do, surrounding yourself with the comfort of like minded souls, strong where you're strong, blind where you're blind. Such 'group think' caused a nation to shout "crucify Him", when they encountered the Messiah for whom they longed, and about whom they read in their Bibles. Such presumption has happened countless times in history and should give us pause.

"Until" means we're not of one mind yet. So let's keep talking, praying, reading, challenging one another, because this is what it means to be a church. There's more to say about Obama and McCain, but I've rambled long enough... for now.


At 14/10/08 13:33, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a comprehensive, truth-filled reflection... Very Nice! If it weren't so long, I would stamp it on my forehead (truthfully).

America emphasizes diversity and so often a multitude of programs seek to embrace it "just because". Diversity in the way in which we view the world allows our collective capacity to expand, our light to become vastly brighter. But, if that bright light in the darker tunnel of the world is not tethered to the central truth of Christ, it is instead attached to the more mobile train. And, we all know where that leads. Me against the Train ... always has one, very predictable outcome.

At 15/10/08 10:23, Blogger paul dowlen said...

I'm a fairly new blogger who has been undergoing a bit of spiritual turmoil/upheaval/awakening/renewal.
I stumbled upon your blog by complete accident, but it touches on some things that I have been mulling over in my head for the past few months:

“‘Until’ means we're not of one mind yet. So let's keep talking, praying, reading, challenging one another, because this is what it means to be a church.”

I am ashamed to admit it, but I have been arrogant. Based on my own criteria, I had no problem deciding who was “really” a Christian, and who wasn’t. While I am in the process slowly and painfully divorcing myself from this rather legalistic mindset – one that assumed the “correctness” of my tiny worldview – I feel that I have a lot more “talking, praying, reading, and challenging” to go.

Thanks for the beautiful post, thanks for making me think…

At 18/10/08 06:52, Blogger Jeremy said...

Excellent job, Pastor Dahlstrom!

I've been so focused on the discussion regarding the abortion issue that I didn't get around to reading this one, but I feel you're right: it's all about "until."

But how to take a powerful and effective stance in the humble knowledge that we'll never have it completely right? After all, we MUST takes stands for what we know to be the truth, and we have an obligation to tell others and discuss it with them. When all's said and done, there are eternal consequences to our behaviors, and we've GOT to strive for perfection, even if our ideas aren't perfect.

You know?


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