Archives For Discipleship

My last post shared that I recently read Flannery O’Connor’s first novel, Wise Blood, which tells the story of a young man’s attempt to convince others why they don’t need Christ as their Savior. The novel is rich in many ways, not the least of which is how O’Connor presciently exposes the modern-day consumer approach to Christianity we find today in America.[ref]Wise Blood was published more than 60 years ago (1952).[/ref] In the story a man named Hoover Shoats, a huckster peddling himself as Onnie Jay Holy, preaches to the public about a brand new kind of Christianity he believes people will want to buy into…literally.[ref]$1 according to Shoats. “Not too much to pay to unlock that little rose of sweetness inside you!” (O’Connor, Wise Blood, 86-87)[/ref] Shoats, in his homespun Southern drawl, gives three reasons why the masses “can trust this [new kind of] church“:

#1: It’s a church where there’s no mystery
and you have everything figured out.

 “…you don’t have to believe nothing you don’t understand and approve of. If you don’t understand it, it ain’t true, and that’s all there is to it. No jokers in the deck, friends.”[ref]Flannery O’Connor, Collected Works, ‘Wise Blood’, 86.[/ref]

#2: It’s a church where you get to interpret
the Bible however you feel.

“…It’s based on your own personal interpritation of the Bible, friends. You can sit at home and interprit your own Bible however you feel in your heart it ought to be interprited. That’s right, just the way Jesus would have done it.”[ref]Ibid, 86-87.[/ref]

#3: It’s a church where you are the expert
and no one knows better than you.

“…This church is up-to-date! When you’re in this church you can know that there’s nothing or nobody ahead of you, nobody knows nothing you don’t know, all that cards are on the table, friends, and that’s a fack!”[ref]Ibid, 87.[/ref]

The desire for Shoats’ new brand of Christianity is alive and well today. I hear it from people every so often, if not with their words, at least in spirit:

  • I want a Christianity where I can figure it all out and nothing troubles me about following Jesus.
  • I want a Christianity that agrees with my moral sensibilities and endorses the things I endorse.
  • I want a Christianity that keeps me where I am spiritually and protects me from others telling me what I should believe or practice.

Fortunately, Shoats has just the church for them. He calls it “the Holy Church of Christ Without Christ.”

Did you catch that? It’s pretty straight-forward.

O’Connor wants readers to understand that not only is this type of Christianity one which finds great appeal to our modern, consumerist, Western sensibilities but, more importantly, that it isn’t Christianity. In other words, if this is the kind of Christianity you want, then you don’t really want Christianity. Why? Because Shoats’ brand of faith appeals to people who, ultimately, want what Jesus offers but don’t want Jesus…really. They like the Savior part of who Jesus is but pass on the whole “Lord” thing because it would demand they submit to Christ, link arms with his community (the local church), and willing be led by others (e.g., pastors/shepherds/elders/etc.). But to do this one would have to choose Jesus over his love for individualism, consumerism, and isolationism. He would have to choose the way of repentance and obedience. He would have to embrace Jesus as Savior and Lord. Simply put, he would have to embrace Jesus as Jesus.

If he doesn’t want to do that.

  • If he wants to never struggle with the demands of following Jesus…
  • If he wants to embrace certain parts of the Bible because it reinforces his worldview while rejecting (or reinterpreting) the parts of the Scripture that contradict it…
  • If he wants to be free from a community where people can speak into his life, character, and conduct for the sake of personal holiness; or the idea of anyone telling him what to do, period…

…he can go to church, it just won’t be the one where Jesus is.

It will be the church of Christ without Christ.

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching,
for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,

that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
– 2 Timothy 3:16-17

It was a moment indelibly imprinted in my memory. I was an undergrad student at Baylor and speaking with one of my religion professors about the exclusivity of salvation in Christ. The professor was kind to entertain the dialogue, and it was a friendly, good-spirited encounter. But what stood out in our conversation was a comment he made. In our discussion I referenced a Pauline passage in support of the idea that God saves people solely through the Person and Work of Christ and asked what he thought about that specific biblical text. He simply responded, “Well Yancey, I hope Paul was wrong.” It wasn’t a debate on whether the text in question was genuinely scriptural of whether I might have misinterpreted the passage, my professor simply believed that the apostle was wrong. I was taken back by his frankness but appreciated his honesty.

As an evangelical Christian, I believe the entire corpus of the Bible is inspired by God. The technical definition is verbal-plenary inspiration. In essence, I believe the original writings of the Scriptures (known as the original manuscripts) contain all the words God wanted for them, and none that he didn’t. In short, it’s all the Word of God. My job as a follower of Jesus is to read it faithfully, interpret it soundly, and apply it sincerely. There is no question in our studying the Bible we will encounter difficult to understand passages (cf., 2 Pt. 3:16) or sections which push against our worldview, yet our call is to know what the Bible says as God’s Word and apply it as such. The option followers of Jesus don’t have is to dismiss any Scripture simply because we disagree with it.

That’s why when I hear professing Christians today offer explanations for their rejection of positions or beliefs God’s people have held for literally millennia from reading their Bibles (e.g. sexuality, gender roles, marriage), I hear the echo of my old professor’s voice belying his trust in the total inspiration of Scripture. But culture is a mean mistress, for in order to be embraced by her, she calls followers of Jesus to separate from biblical authority by either deluding them to conjure fantastical if not bizarre exegetical claims of fairly straightforward passages or, as in the case of my professor, to simply deny their inspiration altogether. Consequently, the Bible is treated like the drunk uncle at the family reunion. You have to keep him around because he’s family, but you’re embarrassed by him every now and then for what he says and does. Thus, you’re always either having to tell your friends “what he really means” or just ignore him altogether.

This exposes not the weakness of Scripture, but the one who, in trying to be embraced by the world, seeks to tweak it, silence it, or apologize for it. In their attempt to “dress up” the drunk uncle of Scripture with new interpretations and understandings that no believer in two millennia would ever conclude, they merely display their embarrassment of the Bible. It says things that now might make us persona non grata in the public square, marginalize us in national conversations, or just keep us from being the cool kids anymore. That’s why if we can’t make certain biblical passages disappear, we invent ways to make them more socially palatable, hoping the culture doesn’t shift any further lest our drunk uncle embarrass us even more.

Others take the route of my old professor. Instead of looking silly trying to convince everyone that the Bible doesn’t say what it clearly says, they advocate biblical authors were simply wrong. Recently Rob Bell, the former pastor and current self-help guru for Oprah, when asked what he thought of the church’s refusal to embrace same-sex marriage, replied, “I think culture is already there [with same-sex marriage] and the Church will continue to be even more irrelevant when it quotes letters from 2,000 years ago as their best defense.” [ref]http://www.relevantmagazine.com/slices/rob-bell-church-moments-away-accepting-gay-marriage[/ref] The Bible? Listen, the Scriptures are wrong on this. Christians need not look to it as an authority on this issue and follow the culture. At least Bell is honest, the rest give off the idea they’re simply embarrassed.

Neither of these approaches to Scripture cut it. The Bible doesn’t give an easy way out for those who claim to follow Jesus. Passages like 2 Tim. 3:16-17 affirm the totality of the Bible’s inspiration, not to mention Jesus’ own endorsement of Scripture (cf., Mt. 5:18) and its authority. I’m mindful of John 6 where, after Jesus taught some “hard sayings,” verses 66-68 record, “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, ‘Do you want to go away as well?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.'” Wrestling with what God’s Word says is part-and-parcel of following Jesus, but rewriting or rejecting what it says, isn’t.

It’s only embarrassing.

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship,
to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
– Acts 2:42

Just Jesus and me.

It sounds correct, even noble, on the surface. At least that’s what I thought when I first heard it in my initial years of spiritual formation. The idea is that followers of Jesus should be disicpled to such a degree they can be independent in their growth. In other words, when they are trained in areas like interpreting the Bible, praying, and having a “Quiet Time,” then, like a kid turning 18, they can fly the spiritual coop. They don’t have to have others’ help to grow spiritually. With a Bible in hand and knowing how to feed themselves, they have all they need. They’re independent.

Now, don’t misunderstand. I believe young (and old) Christians should learn to individually use their Bibles in order to grow spiritually. What I’m against is leading budding Christians to think independence equates to spiritual maturity. It doesn’t. There is no picture in the New Testament showing mature Christians living independently from the local church. Not one. On the contrary, it seems mature (and immature) Christians are not only connected by fellowship within the community found in the local church but growing spiritually with them as well. Put another way, the aim of maturity isn’t independence but interdependence.

Believers should be trained not only to use the Bible individually but communally as a part of, and in fellowship with, the local church. In other words, we read, interpret, and apply the Bible not only in community but as a community. Far too often Christians read the New Testament’s “you’s” as individual appeals when many of those “you’s” are plural. As we would say in Texas, the “you’s” are “y’all’s.” That’s why the goal of helping people grow spiritually isn’t independence but interdependence. It’s to fly the coop knowing that the “y’all” will always be a part of spiritual growth.

Please note this isn’t a call for abandoning individual reading of the Bible, prayer, etc. Conversely, if spiritual disciplines can only be done in community then one has moved from biblical independence to ungodly co-dependence. The call to interdependence isn’t a mandate to abdicate the personal but to embrace the communal. It’s to live as you were redeemed – not merely as a person but as a people (cf. Dt. 7:6, Jer. 24:7, Rev. 21:3). Thus, while I want to train converts how to feed themselves, I don’t want them merely to eat by themselves.[ref]I think it worth noting Peter’s call by Christ was not to teach people to feed themselves but to feed them (Jn. 21:15-17). I don’t think it too much a stretch to deduce that church leadership likely has some role with using the Bible in the spiritual formation of God’s people.[/ref]

The goal in discipling is interdependence not independence, because the truth is, it isn’t just Jesus and me but Jesus and us.