Friday, March 08, 2013

Who's Serving Who?

A few years back I had a pretty deep discussion with a pastor trying to parse the narrow road between over-acceptance and legalism. He reported great success with the congregation when he told them he knew a lot of them drank alcohol (something our denomination generally doesn't do) and that he didn't want anyone to hide something like that from him because it was more important to have open relationships than to worry too much about alcohol.

This would be big news in our denomination - not exactly the norm - but he found it had a profound impact on the congregation. He had dozens of couples come up to him and thank him for his honesty and reveal that his words gave them the freedom to think through their habits - most of their drinking was inculturated through their extended family and had always been part of their lives. Now, they were noticing for the first time how adversely it had affected their loved ones and felt called to give it up.

This phenomenon is seen in many ways and places. I know Peter Rollins has written about the power of the prohibition. The very fact something is forbidden can give it power over us; when it is permitted, we no longer feel the need to do it.

This pastor was asking my advice, not about how this had worked in his congregation, but in how this was manifesting itself in a very particular situation among the leadership. There was a man in the congregation who had a very powerful encounter with God that had clearly and obviously transformed his life. He had become one of the spiritual giants in the congregation and many leaders wanted to nominate him for the governing board of the congregation. The only problem was that he smoked. Not that he was struggling to quit an unhealthy addiction, but that he'd "talked it over with God" and didn't feel any pull on his conscience to quit. He felt God was fine with it - the board was less fine with it. They wanted to raise up leaders who were wholistic examples.

At the time, it seemed like an easy solution. The guy is clearly and obviously a spiritual leader, his life and actions speak to it, you can let the smoking go. Perhaps it even opens an opportunity to talk to him about conforming not just to his own conscience, but the collective conscience of God's people.

As I look back on the situation now, I'm more troubled by the attitude that "God and me are ok, that's what matters," than the smoking. It certainly does matter, but it belies a problem inherent in contemporary Western Christianity that continues to beat us down and defeat us: namely individualistic faith.

The entirely of evangelicalism came out of the emphasis on a personal savior. One must encounter God in such a way that she recognizes her own sin and the goodness and grace of God and accepts Jesus as personal savior: we must understand that God loves us and wants us to be different and allow God to make us different. I've often heard it said, "if you were the only one on Earth, Jesus would still die for you."

Unfortunately we take this image of a personal savior and prioritize our own interior spiritual life over all else. It makes our faith completely about satisfying ourselves. We don't often do this intentionally, but it dovetails nicely with the culture in which we live, so it happens seamlessly and without notice. We live in a culture obsessed with self-sufficiency. Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. It's all about you making a life for yourself depending on no one, no one telling me what to do.

Evangelicalism countered that with the notion that we all need Jesus. We can't succeed without Jesus, we can't have the life we want without Jesus, we have to depend on Jesus and let Jesus call the shots. For those of us steeped in the American ideal, we simply added Jesus to our individual mix. Now, instead of the lone ranger, we're roaming the range with Jesus - just the two of us. Jesus become the vehicle through which we can achieve the American dream of individual liberty.

The problem is, things really don't work that way. It leads to this hyper-individualized, consumer culture where everything must meet our unique and individual satisfaction. I love the fit, length, and cut of these jeans, but the color is just a shade off - so I'll look in this pile next to them for exactly the right ones. It spills over into our faith life as well. This congregation believes 99% of what I do, but that 1% is important, so I'll go find a better fit - or start a congregation of my own - or, who needs a congregation? Me and Jesus can make it alone.

People separate from the body of Christ over music or preaching styles, over political predilections or some rude remark overheard in the hall. People separate because they've been asked to change their behavior, maybe to quit smoking, even though they've talked to God and God is fine with it. My personal savior has okay-ed this, therefore you have no right to tell me it's wrong.

This emphasis on a personal savior has put us in the center of the world. Even those of us able to muster the humility to actually listen when God speaks (not something I do better than reluctantly), things still revolve around us.

I wonder if it wouldn't be better for us to flip the situation on its head. I am an evangelical after all, I do still think it's important for people to have personal, transformational encounters with God that result in real relationship and a changed life. But I wonder if it wouldn't be better to ditch the personal savior language.

What if we called people not to accept Jesus as a personal savior, but to accept God's invitation to be personal servants?

When we become God's personal servant, the center of the relationship shifts. We are not the one with ownership (Jesus is MY savior) - we belong to God (I am GOD'S servant). God becomes central. We're no longer obsessed with out own goals - happiness, fulfillment, peace in our lives, but we become focused on God's mission: restoring to the world it's creative purpose. We can't help but be focused elsewhere. Our own personal life becomes important only as it serves God's larger mission.

I'm pretty sure Jesus is the kind of guy who, if you were the only person on Earth, would still die for you - that's sort of the heart of the gospel. However, you're not the only person on Earth and you're not the only person for whom Jesus died. I have to recognize that I'm not God's only servant and my relationship with Jesus, though special, is not better or more intense or a higher priority than anyone else's.

It is certainly subservient to the collective wisdom of all God's servants joined together in this thing called the Church. We are God's personal servants, but so is every other person who accepts God's call. God is using each of us, in obedience, to remake and restore the world - therefore, we have to work together. We can't just up and leave at the drop of a hat or the hurt of a feeling. Not least because we're not in control of our lives - God is - but also because our life together, getting those relationships right, is the bedrock of God's plan of redemption. To some extent (and always to a greater extent than we're comfortable with), the Church is also in control of our lives.

This runs directly counter to our cultural understanding of individualism and freedom. We're giving up that freedom, so hard fought and won over the course of history, to indenture ourselves to God. This is exactly what Paul means when he talks about being slaves to Christ. We move from being slaves to sin (where we think we're free because nothing is off-limits) to being slaves of Christ (where we find true freedom, not because all options are open, but because we discover our created purpose in the world, we find the niche into which we fit perfectly).

Of course this still leaves room for us to call the shots. I can still say, "as God's personal servant, God hasn't asked me to do this," why would you ask me to do something God hasn't asked? We can still make it about individualism. This personal relationship with God, whether as your savior or as God's servant, is only part of the equation. God has other servants. God has specifically designed and designated us to work together. God often speaks to different servants in different ways about different things. If we're going to accept our role as servant of God, we also have to accept that we're not always in the center of the action. We have to learn to trust each other and especially the collective gathering of God's servants called the Church.

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