American Christianity: Right Thing, Wrong Way (Part One)

In the Bible there are numerous examples of doing the right thing in the wrong way, and in each case the response of God is the same:  He doesn’t like it.

Now God is a God of grace. Longsuffering and patient; gentle and merciful; kind and gracious.  As someone has said, in terms we would today consider insensitive, “God looks out for fools and children.”  So when I speak of doing the right thing in the wrong way, I’m not talking about children—either literal children or new Christians who have not matured in the faith.  Nor do I mean those who, for some reason, are mentally incapable of grasping truth and integrating it into life.

I’m talking about people who should know better.  In their case, God’s grace is trumped, as it were, by His sense of indignation and justice.

Why?  Because doing the right thing in the wrong way is not just a personal shortcoming or inadequacy.  In virtually every case it reflects an insensitivity to the guidance and instruction of the Holy Spirit—which is clear and readily accessible—and that insensitivity yields negative consequences, not only for the individual, but also for the Kingdom of God and the cause of Christ in the world.

Consider the case of Israel in the Old Testament. Upon their deliverance from bondage in Egypt, they are encamped at the foot of Mt. Sinai while Moses has gone up on the mountain to receive the Law from God.  In his absence, the people don’t know how to make contact with God.  Moses had been their “point man,” so to speak.  With him gone, the people have no physical point of contact.  They need something they can see to remind them of the God they cannot see.  Moses had served that purpose, but Moses is not around.  So they need to come up with a replacement.  (You can read the story in Exodus 32.)

The Israelites were not worshiping a false god.  They knew that the true God had brought them out of Egypt.  They had simply relied too much on Moses to represent God before them.  In his absence, they had nothing to serve that purpose, so they made something.  They were worshiping the true God, but in a decidedly wrong way.

Then, from the New Testament, consider the example of the Pharisees. This group had developed during the period between the Old and New Testaments for the purpose of encouraging the people of Israel to take seriously the Law of God and work diligently at integrating its provisions into every aspect of their lives.

The Pharisees respected God’s law—more than that, they loved it.  They believed that it reflected the holy character of God, and they knew that the Israelites could only be truly satisfied in their relationship with God when they gave the Law of God its rightful place in their daily experience.

But by Jesus’ day, their once honorable love for God’s Law had degenerated into a lifeless legalism more intent on imposing limitations than showing how sensitivity to the Law could be liberating and life-transforming.

So Jesus said to them, “You hypocrites. You gag at the gnat of hairstyles, apparel, and jewelry, and you swallow the camel of gossip, greed, and self- righteousness.”  They had started out with the right motives, but they had lost their way. And by the time Jesus encountered them, they had become a prime example of doing the right thing in the wrong way.

Near the end of His public ministry, Jesus told a parable which, I believe, speaks to this very condition of doing the right thing in the wrong way. Here is the way Luke records it in Luke 19:11-27.

11 While they were listening to this, he went on to tell them a parable, because he was near Jerusalem and the people thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once. 12 He said: “A man of noble birth went to a distant country to have himself appointed king and then to return. 13 So he called ten of his servants and gave them ten minas.  [A mina was an amount of money worth three months’ wages]. ‘Put this money to work,’ he said, ‘until I come back.’

14 “But his subjects hated him and sent a delegation after him to say, ‘We don’t want this man to be our king.’

15 “He was made king, however, and returned home. Then he sent for the servants to whom he had given the money, in order to find out what they had gained with it.

16 “The first one came and said, ‘Sir, your mina has earned ten more.’

17 “‘Well done, my good servant!’ his master replied. ‘Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.’

18 “The second came and said, ‘Sir, your mina has earned five more.’

19 “His master answered, ‘You take charge of five cities.’

20 “Then another servant came and said, ‘Sir, here is your mina; I have kept it laid away in a piece of cloth. 21 I was afraid of you, because you are a hard man. You take out what you did not put in and reap what you did not sow.’

22 “His master replied, ‘I will judge you by your own words, you wicked servant! You knew, did you, that I am a hard man, taking out what I did not put in, and reaping what I did not sow? 23 Why then didn’t you put my money on deposit, so that when I came back, I could have collected it with interest?’

24 “Then he said to those standing by, ‘Take his mina away from him and give it to the one who has ten minas.’

25 “‘Sir,’ they said, ‘he already has ten!’

26 “He replied, ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 27 But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and kill them in front of me.’”

Consider the third servant. He thought he knew what was the right thing.  His master would expect him to return something of what he had been given.  So he took the course of least resistance. If he invested the money, he risked losing it, and how would that look when he was called before his master to give account for his stewardship? So he took the money he had been given and hid it, buried it. At least that way he was sure to have something to return, so he wouldn’t be embarrassed. He didn’t waste it or misuse it. His intention was good. He just did the right thing in the wrong way. And his master was not pleased.

Here’s the way that parable speaks to the 21st century American evangelical church.

The church is the agent of the Kingdom of God in the world.  The church is where the distinctives of the Kingdom are supposed to be cultivated, where we learn how to live by the Kingdom values in the face of pressures—from the world, the flesh, and the devil—to succumb to the influence of the prevailing culture.  The place where we encourage one another to “hang tough, be consistent, don’t surrender, don’t lose heart.”

The church is the place where we embrace and comfort and bandage and console those who are battered and bruised from confrontation with a culture under the control of a power opposed to God and hell-bent on frustrating every attempt on the part of the citizens of the Kingdom to live according to the values and priorities and directives of the King.

The church is supposed to be a living example of the gospel of the Kingdom.  As Lesslie Newbigin has written:

The church is not an end in itself.  ‘Church growth’ is not an end in itself.  The church is only true to its calling when it is a sign, an instrument, and a foretaste of the Kingdom.

The reality is, however, that instead of being a counter-cultural community, we are taking our cues from the prevailing culture.  And as we do, we are always a step behind the culture so we look like we are hurrying to catch up.

I have only begun to explore this subject, and I shall return to it in my next blog post. Thanks for reading.

1 thought on “American Christianity: Right Thing, Wrong Way (Part One)

  1. Good stuff, Eric! Never thought of it in exactly that way before, but most of the church is definitely guilty of “burying our talent”. We form our wonderful bless-me clubs and find ways to keep out everyone who doesn’t look just like us. (Ways like the arrogance of “everyone should be able to follow/understand our prayer book….we’ve been doing it for years!” or “You’ll never catch our church using power point slides for music even if it is easier than balancing a book, a hymnal, and a bulletin”…or “What? Talk to my next-door neighbor about what Jesus has done for me? He’d think I’m nuts.” etc, etc. ad nauseum.) Sorry, guess your blog has pushed some buttons!

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