Arthur Lough is a man in his early sixties. He has been a Christian minister for more than forty years. Over the course of his long career he has served the church in a variety of roles including, among other things, as a pastor and an educator. He is not currently serving a congregation nor, in fact, has he been employed in any aspect of Christian ministry for more than four years.
When I asked him about that, he tried to deflect the question with an attempt at humor. “I am currently in a state of temporary, mandatory retirement,” he joked. “I hope to get my retirement out of the way soon so that I can get back to the task of fulfilling my call to vocational ministry.”
Arthur Lough is a man who is serious about Christian faith and what he calls “radical discipleship,” but his belief system is undergoing great stress at the moment. Arthur is in the middle of a serious crisis of faith.
I met with him at his home yesterday, and when I arrived I found him reading an e-book he had recently downloaded to his Kindle. It was called Why I Believed: Reflections of a Former Missionary. The author is a man called Kenneth Daniels, and, as Arthur explained, “This guy grew up as an evangelical Christian, spent several years in Bible translation work in Africa, began to have some doubts about Christian faith, particularly the reliability of the Bible, and now, in his mid-forties, identifies himself as an agnostic with strong atheistic leanings.”
A mutual friend had told me about Arthur’s own struggles and the challenges he was facing in maintaining the strong and vibrant commitment to Christian faith which had characterized his life and ministry up until the past few years. I asked him if he was experiencing doubts like those of Kenneth Daniels.
“Well, I wouldn’t say that my doubts are the same as his,” Arthur replied. “But I can relate to his situation. I can understand how his faith could undergo such a test. Mine has too, but so far the end results are different. He abandoned faith altogether. I still have faith, but some days the distance between where Kenneth Daniels is and where I am is not that great.”
“The issue for me,” Arthur continued, “is not the inconsistencies and so-called contradictions in the Bible. It’s not the warlike character of the God of the Old Testament. Maybe I’m just not smart enough for those things to be a deal-breaker for me. I can believe that some things about the character of God I will never understand in this life, and I’m OK with that.
“For me, the issue is the church. You see, my commitment to Christianity is based on two pillars, one major and one minor. The major pillar is the historical reliability of the Gospels. If the Gospels are true accounts of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, then Jesus made some statements and did some things that seem to substantiate the church’s claims that He believed Himself to be God incarnate.
“If He did believe that, then I am left with two options. I can accept His claims as the truth or I can reject them as blatant lies or the delusional ramblings of a crazy man. As C. S. Lewis said, Jesus was either a lunatic, a liar, or the Lord of the universe. So far, I’ve based my life and my career on the confidence that Jesus was who He claimed to be.
“It’s the other pillar, the one I have up to now regarded as ‘minor,’ that is giving me grief and posing such a challenge to my faith. I’m talking about the church and the New Testament teaching that the church is the body of Christ on earth, supposedly indwelt and transformed by the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity.
“I’ve been making excuses for the church all my life. Sometimes it has been really hard to explain to serious but skeptical non-Christians how people who claim to be followers of Jesus could act in ways that seem so inconsistent with Jesus’ teachings and the example of His own life.
“Take, for just one recent example, the horrendous tragedy of those twenty young children who were shot and killed in their elementary school classroom in Connecticut. Why is it that so many so-called Christians seem to believe that the answer to that problem is more guns in schools? As though we can somehow combat violence with violence. Is that what Jesus would have done?”
He slumped back into his chair and his Kindle fell off the arm of the chair and onto the floor. When he had been silent for a few minutes, I started to say something. Before I could get a word out, however, he seemed to get his second wind.
“Greed,” he said. “It’s greed. And pride. And insecurity. When I think of the Christian church today, and especially those who are supposedly providing leadership for the church, I see character and behavior marked by greed and pride and insecurity.
“Instead of churches working together to advance the Gospel of the Kingdom, I see churches competing with each other to see who can claim the largest market share. I see churches adopting budgets that are so focused on themselves that there are almost no resources available to extend the Kingdom or take the message of the Gospel to areas where a new church could meet needs and reach people that are so far unreached.”
“What about 1 John 3:16-18?” he asked me. I had to admit I couldn’t recall those verses from memory, so Arthur reached behind him, took a well-worn Bible off the shelf, thumbed through it until he found the portion he wanted, then handed it to me. “Read that,” he said, pointing to a section which he had underlined in red and marked with a star in the margin.
I read, out loud…
16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.
When I looked back at Arthur, tears had welled up in his eyes. Neither of us said anything. We didn’t need to. I knew what he was thinking. He had been out of work since he lost his job as a teacher because he disagreed with the school’s policy on church attendance. He once told me, “That’s like telling a chef, ‘You can’t cook in this restaurant anymore because you wear the wrong color hat.'”
I knew there were other experiences over the past few years which had caused him pain because he simply couldn’t understand how Christians could speak and act in such unkind and intemperate ways toward each other.
As I stood up to leave, Arthur leaned forward in his chair and said, “I sometimes think that people like me have been given to the church to test its integrity, its hospitality, and its generosity. Not just materially. But spiritually and socially and emotionally too.”
“Interesting thought,” I replied. “And if that’s the case, is the church passing the test?”
Arthur Lough inhaled deeply, smiled faintly, and shrugged.