A former parishioner who now lives in another state sent me an interview from his local newspaper with the pastor of the
largest and most influential church in the community. After emphasizing that he didn’t want anyone to “have to dig to deep” to find the message of Christianity this pastor summed up the message of his congregation like this: “The substance [of our mes- sage] is this radical acceptance of the self as we are, rather than as we should be.”
On one level that sounds very nice, warm, welcoming, and affirming. But is this the message of the Gospel? Really?—that Christ Jesus died to show His “radical acceptance” of us just as we are, rather than as we should be (as He is!)? Having read the Bible a little bit, it seems clear from my reading that the answer to that question would be a definite “No!”. St. Paul sums up his message (one which he expects you will need to dig quite deep in order to discover, fully) with this: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the chief”. So Paul, does that mean Jesus loves us just the way we are so that we should sin boldly and make Him really happy? No! Paul says that we who died to sin in Christ simply cannot live in it any longer. This is a constant battle, a life-long struggle between the old and the new Adam in us all. The message of the orthodox Christian church has always been “God hates sin and sinners (like you!), but in Christ Jesus has died to make us as He is.”
When the church no longer sees anything wrong with the world or with the sinful beings (like me!) who inhabit it, she has lost her way and has simply become part of the problem rather than any part of the cure. It often strikes me that this is the major fail- ing of the church in our time: we accommodate our message to fit with how the world is and how we are naturally. Liberal or con- servative, it doesn’t really matter—each have their forms of accommodation to the way we are rather than proclaiming the change God wills to work in us through faith in Christ Jesus and Him Crucified.
I recently re-read an essay by T.S. Eliot: “The Idea of a Christian Society”. Especially his little postscript at the end of the essay is powerful. He notes that the distinction between Church and State is pretty easily drawn. If the Church and State having nothing to do with each other, it goes ill for the commonwealth. If the Church and State get on too well together, Eliot says “there is something wrong with the Church”. But the distinction between Church and World is more difficult to draw. It’s tough, because, as Eliot notes: “The antithesis is not between two opposed groups of individuals: every individual is himself a field in which the forces of the Church and the world struggle.” Luther and Augustine could hardly put it any better!
While I recommend you read the entire essay, the conclusion Eliot reaches is that it is always the church’s calling to inter- fere with the world, to make it uncomfortable for the world to go its way and get what it wants. Rather than giving prescriptions for what is right (the only sort of advice the world will even grudgingly tolerate from us these days) Eliot says the church must always and everywhere say what is wrong! Because the world will always confuse the right with the expedient. Only by stating clearly what God’s Word tells us is wrong with us and the world we live in, can the Church be leaven and light in the dark places.
And it is precisely this aspect of our calling which nearly all Christian bodies have surrendered in our age. For fear of becom- ing unpopular, or offending potential members, we’ve grown silent on speaking out on what is wrong with us and our world, and offer (at best) weak prescriptions for how to make the world a little bit better (in which tolerance for sinful beings usually factors prominently).
More “liberal” churches no longer seem to see any sin in our sexual conduct – anything goes as long as everyone is a con- senting adult. But more “conservative” churches no longer have anything to say about our economic lives – the only rule is that any rules restraining the “free market” are bad. Eliot was firmly on the side of traditional morality, and in that sense “conservative”. But, interestingly enough, at the end of his essay, Eliot, a banker for 10 years with Lloyd’s of London says, writing in 1937, “Perhaps the dominant vice of our time, from the point of the view of the Church, will be proved to be Avarice. Surely there is something wrong in our attitude toward money…” He notes that money is always forthcoming for making more money but very difficult to obtain for purposes of exchange (the purpose for which it is supposedly serving!). He expresses grave doubt “whether it is right for me to improve my income by investing in shares of a company, making I know not what, operating perhaps thousands of miles away, and in the control of which I have no effective voice – but which is recommended as a sound invest- ment…” he struggles to see where the line between speculation and investment is drawn exactly. Then he confesses: “I seem to be a petty usurer in a world manipulated largely by big usurers. And I know the Church once condemned these things. And I believe that modern war is chiefly caused by some immorality of competition which is always with us in times of “peace”; and that until this evil is cured, no leagues or disarmaments or collective security or conferences or conventions or treaties will suffice to prevent it.”
If the Church takes to speaking out on what is wrong, as Eliot does briefly in his essay, and as our Lord Himself did at length in the Sermon on the Mount, it’s unlikely to make us popular with large swaths of society. But then again, Jesus never said it was important to be popular with anyone but Him. And He does not accept us as we are, but as we shall be, as His Word and Sacra- ments, by faith in Him alone will make us at Last—which strikes me as a more radical (certainly a more exciting and hopeful) form of acceptance, by far!
T.S. Eliot has one other observation in his brief essay that strikes me as brilliant. He said that the secular reformer or revolu- tionary denounces the evils that he sees in other people. The Christian, by contrast, is always opposed to the evil that he or she sees rising chiefly from our own heart. Perhaps this is the key to the Church recovering her voice? When we take a firm stand against the sins that we see most clearly in ourselves, and yearn, ourselves, to be more like Christ our Savior, we have a credi- bility and a winsomeness in our message that can be surprisingly effective. While it is uncomfortable and humiliating to face our own faults so forthrightly, I think Jesus said something (somewhere?) about “taking the lowest place”, about that being the spot we should always aim for—a place we’re most likely to find real friends—who encourage and inspire us not to settle for being who we are, but to aim higher; at being what Christ calls us to be, what He promises, by His grace and mercy, to make us, one day.