Following and Leading

September 11, 2013

San Francisco Presbytery passed two of three overtures related to Israel/Palestine last night. Its decisions (by fairly close margins) reflected a particular view of the PCUSA’s place in the world and the realms in which it is called to lead. That whole Middle East issue is incendiary and difficult and not my area of expertise, so I defer to friends Viola Larson and Alan Wisdom for any detailed discussion. But the question of whether the PCUSA has standing to insert its political solutions into the international mix is a real one, and germane to my current topic: the church and its relationship to the world and its culture.

The PCUSA would do well, I think, to review its true position and to take the opportunity for a mid-course correction in its trajectory toward the world. In these posts of late we have been reflecting on the term “counter-cultural” in reference to our calling, after John Stott’s book title Christian Counter-Culture on the Sermon on the Mount. But before we can discern where we are to lead in the world without being of the world, it is imperative that we understand, as a prerequisite, whom we are to follow and which culture is ours.

When Jesus invited his new disciples to follow him (Mark 1:17, 2:14, 8:34, 10:21), he was committing himself to apprentice them, equip them, empower them, and direct them to “the fields white unto harvest” (John 4:35; Matthew 9:36ff). In the course of his ministry, Jesus described to them the environment in which they would find abundant life, the Kingdom of God. The realm in which they would flourish and the vision of God for all humanity was described and demonstrated throughout the gospels through parables, Q & A sessions, healings, and preaching. Even Jesus’ tussles with the Pharisees were intended to clarify what is God’s way and what was the world’s way of relating to God and the world.

Our first task is to learn how to follow Jesus Christ, savior of the world, Lord of all, and shepherd of our souls. It is vitally important for us to be aware of those ideas, worldviews, and gods that continuously woo us into thinking we are following a good cause for a good reason to empower good people. What we must be very clear about is that we are bid to follow Christ, to believe God and align ourselves with God’s purposes for us, to breathe the air of the Kingdom of God, and to live within its life-giving parameters. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey my commandments” (John 14:15). This requires of us a deep trust that what Jesus has said and claimed is true and a life-changing conviction that if we align ourselves to Christ we will be in a solid position to do God’s will in the world.

Faithful followers of Jesus Christ are the ones qualified then to lead God’s people into the corridors of culture and society, to make God’s Kingdom visible in genuine, humble witness to Jesus’ salvation. We are not in a position to force the world to conform to a biblical way of life but to invite people to “come and see” (John 1:39). Our first power of persuasion, in the direction of true and lasting change, is to live the life that Jesus empowers and invite people to watch and learn. How can we expect any element of the world to adopt the Way of Jesus unless people can see what the Kingdom of God looks like, recognize its goodness, and be taught its meaning?

In its decision-making, the PCUSA would do well to reaffirm the Lordship of Christ, which gets us knee-deep into the discussion of Jesus Christ, his person, his work, his power, and his goals. The debates within our denomination are derivative of incomplete or inaccurate views of our Savior and the faulty theologies that emerge as a result. What would it look like if we were to stop out for a time, away from debates about how to pressure government and business into a particular policy and aside from word-smithing to redefine social norms, and instead abide in the One without whom we can do nothing (John 15:5). This is a basic response to our calling to follow Jesus. Who is Jesus and what does it look like to follow him? My experience in my own presbytery is that there is not a true consensus on Jesus’ person and work, and I know we differ greatly on what it looks like to follow him. It all gets back to the meaning of Lordship, about which the PCUSA has claimed to: “ . . . desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life” (BOO, G-2.0104b).


6 Responses to “Following and Leading”

  1. Viola Larson Says:

    “In its decision-making, the PCUSA would do well to reaffirm the Lordship of Christ, which gets us knee-deep into the discussion of Jesus Christ, his person, his work, his power, and his goals. The debates within our denomination are derivative of incomplete or inaccurate views of our Savior and the faulty theologies that emerge as a result.” Amen, amen, Amen!

  2. Randy McGrady-Beach Says:

    I would say that having Jesus as Savior and Lord means we are willing to partner with God in the redemption of this world. This also means serving those who are in need and oppressed even to the point of seeking creative ways to stop a systemic problem with measures which will lead to alleviating those needs and the oppression.
    It is time for us to be willing to sacrifice our own prejudices and superstitions for the well being of those who suffer affliction because of our myopic view of the world.
    We are called to assist those in need, see Matthew 25, just as Jesus did, in every facet of our life, including political and religious.

  3. William Goff Says:

    I suggest that you read The General’s Son by Miko Peled who is an Israeli-American, born in Jerusalem, who makes a strong case against Zionism.

  4. Jodie Says:

    Hi Mary,

    Among the varied definitions of “culture”, one of the most common themes is that it is the set of rules by which we behave, the values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or society. Sociologists also tell us that these rules are also unconscious but are highly encoded in the vocabulary we use. Culture therefore relates not so much to “what” we believe (people of a common culture may reasonably disagree), but “how” we believe.

    We live in a might-is-right militaristic culture where the “good guys” always win. Our vocabulary is permeated by military terms. Our overriding form of entertainment is violence. From the cartoons our kids watch, to blockbuster movies, to computer games, to what “the news” considers news, to sports, to business, it is everywhere. It’s a culture that is shared by both the liberals and the conservatives in our midst, and we use its rules to govern big and small business and even to govern our churches.

    An excellent example for us was the name of the committee that sought a common theological position regarding gay ordination: They called it the “Peace, Unity, and Purity Task Force”. The term “Task Force” is a naval term from WW2 that refers to a military armada created for the task of imposing its will on the enemy by force, bringing to it in the process death and destruction. Think of the irony in naming a church committee that was seeking peace, unity, and purity, a “task force”. But it came naturally out of our shared cultural matrix. Confessing disciples of Jesus labeled as “war” their own response to the denominational decisions that followed.

    “Culture” trumps value and intention. Or better, culture informs and provides the tools by which we live out our values. Visit the Mall – our own Forum – in Washington DC and you will see, we are the 21st Century Roman Empire. The “god” in whom we trust is not the Holy Trinity of whom Jesus Christ is the Prince of Peace. Mars, the god of War, would be a much better description the god we worship. The blood in which we have bathed for our salvation is not the blood of the Lamb, but the blood of our defeated enemies. In politics, in business, and in church, the peace both liberals and conservatives strive for is the Pax Romana.

    We know no other way.

    Or do we? The Word does provide us an alternate culture and an alternate vocabulary. I agree with you wholeheartedly that the Church is about cultural leadership and cultural transformation, but unless we actually carry our crosses, walk the path of the suffering servant, give our second coats when our first ones are taken from us by force, and follow the Way of Love, we will be nothing more than clanging gongs and noisy whiners.

    So my question to you is whether you really mean it? Do we want to change our own culture to its core, or do we just want to talk about it when it serves our own tactical advantage to win our own little skirmishes? Do you and your readers really want to step out of the matrix of our culture and BE the cultural transformation you seek?

    Because that really would unveil the Life in the Word.

  5. Bruce Pope Says:

    This is the last blog I received. Bruce

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