A Church Split Apart

Paul Windsor

On August 14 1973 I was in shock. Barely into my teen age years, a mate and I had been baptised in a high voltage Sunday evening service. We had nailed down a commitment to Christ. Not for long, it seemed! The very next day at school my friend seemed to return to a life bordering on blasphemy. I could not figure it out. Monday seemed so unrelated to Sunday. In the wake of the countless conversations about Toronto and then Pensacola that have marked the 90s, a friend once related to me how his pastor had told him to stop being such a head-controlled academic and go with the flow of the Spirit at work in the heart because that is where renewal from God happens. Is that so? Must the head be so unrelated to the heart?

What about those young enquirers into cross-cultural mission the other day who asserted that they would never allow their professional work to become more important than their spiritual ministry. Is that really how the secular and the spiritual works?

Description

Eavesdrop on Christian conversations in New Zealand today and further evidence of this inclination towards imbalance is easily gathered. It reminds me of Solzhenitsyn, who - when he arrived in the West after years of confinement in that gulag - took one look at society and wrote a book entitled A World Split Apart.

We are a church split apart - not so much because of denominations. No! The most alarming divisions are those that penetrate the hidden depths of individual lives. See the box for some examples:

Monday vs Sunday
head vs heart
secular vs sacred
work vs worship
public vs private
old vs new
theory vs practice
academic vs devotional
doing vs being
objective vs subjective
material vs spiritual

There are many more such divisions. The problem is that each pair easily generates priorities. One side becomes more important then the other side. A hierarchy develops. Too easily and too often God becomes exclusively identified with the right hand column.

So, when we wonder how it is that extensive strategies to reach the world before AD 2000 have been matched only by an extensive failure to do that, the instinct should not be to simply intensify activity in the right hand column but to investigate what is happening in the left hand column. If we do not, AD 3000 may arrive too quickly for us.

Head vs Heart

Returning to the head vs heart split, we find that it can assail us in the contemporary worship scene. Rhythmic mantras eclipse any reflective message, noise eclipses silence, 'feel good' praise eclipses 'feel bad' lament, and spontaneous thanksgiving eclipses prepared intercession.

Too easily and too often, we take out our minds and put them under the chair as we prepare for worship each Sunday morning. It is as if a theology of the Spirit's filling is at work whereby that filling fills to the level of the lips and goes no further. And so we find nothing more for the PhDs in the congregation to do than to take up the offering.

Sacred vs Secular

The sacred vs secular split can lead to vocational hierarchies in which to be a full time Christian worker is cultivated as a higher aspiration than to remain in the secular workforce. Some years ago, as I listened to the testimonies of my cell group members at college, I was a little disturbed to note that every single one was viewing their training days as the transitional time for moving from 'secular' to 'sacred' employment.

More disturbing still, however, are the numbers of Christians who remain in the workforce ill-equipped to integrate the 'sacred' and 'secular' components of their lives. As Walsh and Middleton express it in their book The Transforming Vision, "most of us are Christians and something else . . . adding faith to [our] vocation rather than letting faith transform our vocation".1

Public vs Private

The public vs private split is a similar reality. So comfy has our Jesus become in the safe privacy of our triumphant Sundays (on the right hand side), that when we come to network in the risky 'public' areas - our stressed Mondays - where Jesus needs to be seen (down the left hand column), he is nowhere to be found. We've left him at home and at church.

As Lesslie Newbigin says in his discussion about the Western church's retreat into the private arena "[the Church] has secured for itself a continuing place, at the cost of surrendering the crucial field".2 Too easily and too often we succeed in the right hand side, but if we overlook the left hand side we will fail overall.

How else can the fact be explained that there are a massive 40% of Americans in church on a given Sunday and yet America remains the Western country that is leading the drift into neo-paganism? Whether it be that 40%, or closer to New Zealand's 10%, it is a lot of savourless salt!

Theory vs Practice

One of the deepest chasms in the church in New Zealand today gathers around the theory vs practice split. Amidst all the deserved euphoria of that historic occasion which was the first Vision New Zealand conference, there lingers on in my memory a sadness. On one side there were the theoreticians affirming that ours is an era in which "the most practical thing that the church can do is to think" while, on the other side, the practitioners were exulting in the fact that they were getting on and doing it while others sat and thought.

The sadness comes with the recognition that 'ideas do have legs' and that without the strongest theoretical foundation, what is deemed to be practical inevitably becomes impractical as our ministries lurch from one inspiring 'how-to' seminar to another in need of constant revision. And yet, if the answers to the theoretical 'why?' are clearer and fuller, then the answers to the more practical 'how?' will prove more enduring. Thankfully, later Vision New Zealand congresses sought to redress this balance.

 

The hierarchies live on. Too easily and too often there is an imbalance, a split. These are not new phenomena. The ancestry is ancient. It goes back to people like Plato with his body vs soul, Augustine with his temporal vs eternal, and Aquinas with his nature vs grace. These men split reality into two non-overlapping realms which could not be reduced to each other, two distinct circles between which there is no flow.

This dualism spawns an either/or mentality and a dis-integrating worldview. It has gripped Western culture for centuries. For Plato and the others, there was a good 'bit' in which God was at work and a bad 'bit' from which God was absent.

The soul and the heavens, for example, were elevated above the body and the earth as the locale of God's activity. The latter were realms in which God took no interest. So well did these splits root themselves in Western culture that centuries down the track they have hamstrung the church's attack, for example, on pornography, as well as its rationale for any involvement in ecological issues.

Prescription

We are sailing in the 'bad air' of our ancestors' dualism and we must tack away. How do we bring the world back together again? Furthermore, how do we integrate the right and left hand columns?

The distinctively Christian worldview cannot sustain these hierarchies. "Our service to God is not something we do alongside our ordinary human life. The Bible knows no such dichotomy. In the biblical world view all of life, in all of its dimensions, is constituted as religion.

"From our economic choices to our recreation, from our prayer life to the way in which we bathe our babies, in every cultural action and deed, we live only in response to the cosmic, creation law of God. This is God's universe throughout . . . all we do is to be done from a heart filled with love for God."3 So, we must not capitulate to these splits. Instead we need to do some work in the following five areas.

Christ is Lord of All

We must recover what it means to submit to the lordship of Christ in every area of life. "There is not an inch in any sphere of life about which Christ the Lord does not say 'mine'." The left hand column must be as much under his lordship as the right hand column.

Too easily and too often Christians serve the Lord in one area of life and follow other gods in other areas of life, thereby serving two masters. And we know what Jesus thought of that!

Wasn't the impact of Joseph and Esther and Daniel directly linked to their loyalty to one master? Our splits would horrify them! If he is not Lord of all, he is not Lord at all.

Unity Not Duality

We must recognise that there is a 'oneness' to truth. All truth is God's truth. Regardless of the location in which it can be found, if it is true, it is God's. There is a unity here which resists being split.

There is not one 'right' circle in which God can be found and another 'left' circle from which he is absent. How else can it be explained that Jesus condemned the epitome of 'sacred' spirituality, the Pharisee, while endorsing the longings and 'secular' stumblings of the prostitute?

Maybe the ellipse with two poles will serve us better than the two distinct circles. Yes, God and the world are to be separate. But they must not be split apart. God can be wherever he wants to be - and he is!

And so, in rejecting the 'twoness' of dualism, we need to take care that the dualities, or polarities, remain. Worldliness is terminal. After all, "either we serve the Lord or we follow idols. Dualism blurs the valid duality between obedience and disobedience because dualism identifies obedience, redemption and the kingdom of God with only one area of life. It sees the rest of life as either unrelated to redemption (or the sacred), or worse - under the power of disobedience, sin and the kingdom of darkness."4 This dualism may be the way Peretti5 views the world, but it is not God's worldview.

Recent surveys of the emerging Christian generation show that the integration brought by this lordship and this oneness holds little attraction to them. As Arthur Holmes noted in a Wheaton Alumni magazine "Compartmentalised thinking is particularly prevalent in young adults . . . [they are] typically at a dualistic stage, their values in one area of life unrelated to those in another. Their personal identity is often 'diffused' and their behaviour lacks consistency."

People in postmodern times are accustomed to inconsistency and dis-integration. It does not jar and jolt as it once did. "[People] adopt alternate worldviews as they move from one context to another."6 Oftentimes today's departmentalised educational processes then take them on towards specialisation and away from the integration that marks this lordship and oneness which is so essential to the effective Christian pilgrimage.

And so the teacher, social worker, doctor, homemaker, or management consultant should not head for biblical training simply to add a few specialty 'ministry' skills to their professional ones. That is not worth the immense financial investment. Rather, it should be with a view to complete this integration by becoming a truly Christian teacher, or Christian social worker, or Christian doctor - with a biblical worldview in place. And, in so doing, understanding the ramifications of the oneness of truth and the lordship of Christ in their chosen professions.

Practising the Presence of God

We must delight in practising the presence of God throughout all of life. If a 'quiet time' does not spark a daylong practising of the presence of God, thereby splitting the day into sacred and secular components, then it is a counterproductive activity in the life of the Christian.

The challenge for the Christian in today's world lies not so much with celebrating God's presence at church, but knowing that presence amidst the ties and tattoos at Eden Park, or while being captured by the ethically confusing plotlines of Ally McBeal, or while glimpsing the glossy gossip pages in the Women's Weekly at the doctor's office. Our delight in the living God must infuse all of life's pursuits as well as eclipse all of life's passions, thereby extending equally to both sides of the 'left hand-right hand' splits.

The Kingdom of God

We must embrace the relevance of Jesus' announcement of the kingdom of God as already among us. As one of those 'umbrella' phrases, the kingdom speaks of wherever it is that God reigns - a 'wherever' that is not confined to the right hand column listed above! Indeed, the mystery of the kingdom is that it transcends all those splits.

As the principle means for communicating the message of the kingdom, we must take inspiration from Jesus' parables. Into these eminently secular - only one has clear religious overtones - and fictional (the action within the stories probably never happened) stories, Jesus embedded punchlines of such spiritual impact that they divided listeners into followers and enemies. So emphatic was this division that it led to his crucifixion by his enemies and the spreading of the gospel throughout the world by his followers.

Would not Jesus want to work creatively with the secular and fictional media in order to bring the gospel of the kingdom to all people in all walks of life? What about some clever advertising next to Steinlager and Adidas? What about some 'Truth in a Minute' alongside Allyson Gofton's 'Food in a Minute'?

A Public Christian Counterculture

Finally, we must mount a mission based on a public Christian counterculture, rather than the retreat into a private Christian subculture that too easily, and too often, marks those most concerned about evangelism.

New Zealand's 'Christian country' status is long gone, if indeed it was ever there at all! We are back on the map of the early church.

The inspiration for mission in the West comes from the ongoing preparation of missionaries from the West that has been such a feature of the church in New Zealand for so long. There is still a call to hear, a compassion to experience, a language to learn, a truth to know, a culture to understand, an orientation to undergo, a church from which to be supported, a witness to fulfil, and relationships to initiate - without leaving home.

The way to win the world is by engaging it, not escaping from it and withdrawing to the right hand side. Dualism, as the forgotten 'ism' today, is "the fundamental world view problem which has plagued the history of the church and still plagues us".7

While there is a place for them, the effectiveness of Christian radio, Christian schooling, Christian political parties must be constantly re-evaluated in light of the damaging dualism they may be unwittingly sponsoring. Are they counter-cultural or are they sub-cultural activities?

 

In their book The Transforming Vision, Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton ask "if the biblical worldview is so unique why do we Christians fit so well into our culture?"8 Why are we not interrogated more often regarding the hope that is within us? Why are our evangelistic strategies not more successful? Maybe it is because we have acquiesced to a dualism, to a dis-integrated life of two columns and two non-overlapping circles. We need to replace the 'vs' in the columns with an 'and' - and then rediscover the adventure of the integrated life in the ellipse.

 

NOTES

1 The Transforming Vision, Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton, IVP, 1984, pp 97-98.

2 Foolishness to the Greeks, Lesslie Newbigin, Eerdmans, 1986, p19.

3 Walsh and Middleton, pp67-69.

4 Walsh and Middleton, p95.

5 Frank Peretti author of the 2 million best seller This Present Darkness and its sequels.

6 David Wells, God in the Wasteland, Eerdmans, 1994, p 211.

7 Walsh and Middleton, p96.

8 Walsh and Middleton, p94.


Paul is in his second year as Principal of Carey Baptist College in Auckland. He tries not to become split apart - but did someone say something about being frayed?! His sanity is preserved by Barby and five children.


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