Every week I receive letters and phone calls (mainly from pastors), telling me of discouragement, despair and loneliness. People are weary of the battle for reformation. It’s not just the nonsense that discourages, but the persecution, both subtle and overt. One’s popularity wanes when he or she takes a stand for Christ’s lordship, for Classical Christianity and for orthodoxy and orthopraxis. Mention liturgy and every-week communion and you will be accused of being a closet papist. Strike out at democracy in the church? Well, you are an elitist tyrant and your days are numbered.
What is happening in so many churches today is tragic. The enemy is seeking to devour anyone who dares to say, “The evangelical emperor has no clothes on. He’s walking around naked and in abject poverty, yet thinks he is clothed in the majesty of rightness and endowed with the riches of relevance. The way out of this charade and into the light of His glory and truth demands we cease these games and turn to Him and to His all-powerful and authoritative Word.” If you say any of this you will be called mean-spirited, divisive and arrogant.
I have been in the ministry for 25 years and have waded into and out of my fair share of battles. Yet, I have never ever seen the likes of what is happening today: vile slander, vicious gossip, blatant attempts of extortion (“Do things my way or I withdraw my tithe”), factions posturing and warring with other factions to see who will control the direction of a church. . . and this is just what comes from your friends. The seeds of destruction planted in modern evangelicalism are coming to full flower. Pietism and anti-intellectualism, individualism and escapism, Gnosticism and antinomianism (lawlessness) are not just problems we must address. They are the ruling sentiments controlling our churches.
Lest you think this is simply a description of a few isolated cases, let me assure you it is the majority report. Talk to national leaders who travel across the nation and who speak with spiritual leaders and they will tell you: We are coming apart at the seams. The Ship of Evangelicalism is taking on water faster than anyone can close the holes in her hull.
The personal discouragement and despair of those who so desperately wish to see the Ship sail into the Sea of God’s purposes for the earth seem to be beyond bearing.
“The sheep have turned into piranha and I am raw meat.”
“The lies about me are ripping my family apart. They won’t discuss the real issues, which are theological. They only want to paralyze me with this smear campaign so that I cannot move the church forward. Pray for me. I cannot hold on much longer.”
“These people do not care if the teaching is orthodox or not. All that matters is having their emotions titillated. How patient am I supposed to be?”
“I fight for the necessity of orthodoxy but my members look at me as if I were asking for the return of the Edsel. I am an antique; my faith is antiquated and my ideas of worship are out-dated [“my ideas”: as if these ideas are not found in Scripture!]. No doubt, I am about to be discarded along with my silly notions.”
“My elders love me but were not expecting the reenactment of Vietnam. This is beyond their training and so I stand alone in the midst of a fire fight.”
I could go on and on, quoting the ministers and leaders who have written me this past year. This last one, “. . . so I stand alone” sums up the feelings of isolation and latent depression permeating large portions of the army.
Certainly, it is not only the leaders who suffer. Almost daily I receive mail from church members who are ridiculed from the pulpit for their concerns about orthodoxy and orthopraxis. When they question teachings contrary to Scripture and what the Church has taught for 2,000 years, they are told that God is saying and doing a New Thing and encouraged to seek God for a special revelation. When they appeal to the leaders for worship worthy of the Lord rather than the mindless jingles they are forced to parrot every week, they are told that the granting of their wishes would quench the Spirit. They would gladly leave but they dearly love their churches. They would go but to where? They feel trapped and alone in their anguish.
If these men and women were not serious, if they did not love God’s people and Church with all their hearts, minds and strength, then it would not be so painful. If they were hirelings, they could simply change their message, look around for a more lucrative offer or just abandon the sheep to the wolves.
What do we do? How do we handle the emotional tsunami in which we have found ourselves? No matter how hard we fight, we are always out- numbered. When your friends turn on you, when those to whom you poured out your soul treat you as pariah, where do you turn for strength? As one leader asked, “When you pray and labor with people for years seeking to impart the vision of Reformed Catholicism, Classical Christianity and the Kingdom of God and have so little fruit to show for your labor, where do you find the energy to trudge on?”
The last few years were the most painful and tragic of my ministry. The ridicule from those I love, the betrayals by those with whom I’d planned to grow old, the lies of those who’d sworn covenantal love battered me until I could not get up off the floor of my office. On some visceral level, people understood the critical nature of the issues. If God is sovereign, they are not. If God’s law-word is the Final Word, theirs is not. If the paradigm of Classical Christianity is true, then their concepts of church and worship are wrong. If Paul is a more accurate pastoral paradigm than Mr. Rogers, then their expectations are, at the very least, suspect.
Most people do not come to their beliefs by way of study and prayer.. They come to their convictions through osmosis: it is in the air they breathe, within the church culture in which they have been reared. Somehow, their identities are tied up with these beliefs. If their beliefs are wrong, they then see themselves as being wrong in their very persons. This will not be received without a fight.
You will notice that the arguments against sound doctrine and practices are rarely arguments of logic and even more rarely arguments from the Bible. All that is thrown in your face are emotional outbursts of fear and anger. Moreover, since the average evangelical Christian is theologically illiterate, he will seek to defeat you by means of slander and political machinations. Basically, what these people hear us saying is that their heroes were in error and the church their family has been part of all these years is going in the wrong direction. “All that investment for what? You are saying that I’ve been wrong all these years?” You are calling their mother names and there will be hell to pay.
But this is not about those who have yet to see or understand what it is we are talking about. This is about we who are paying the price for differing with the majority report: rebels in the cause of Tradition. How do we keep on keeping on? How do we handle the pain of the conflict? To what can we hold on that will keep us afloat in this sea of confusion?
What I discovered was that, for me, the battle was a Godsend. The conflicts I faced were blessings to further equip me for service; a trial to help me further evaluate my heart and mind. The good God of grace had not abandoned me. On the contrary. He was working in, around, and through the entire ordeal. Hopefully, some of the lessons I am learning will help to encourage those who are waging their own battles for the cause of Christ and His kingdom.
For Thine is the Kingdom
It so easy to lose sight of reality. God is sovereign. His kingdom has come and will continue to permeate the world until the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our God and Savior. While in my storm I would continually chide myself: “So, Wilson, where’s your Reformed theology now? Do you or do you not believe that God can breathe across this battlefield and bring instant peace and order? If He doesn’t, it is because His purposes are better served by not doing so. Does He or does He not know what is best for us?”
It is one thing to do all that we can do to forward God’s kingdom and cause in the earth. It is something else to seek to make it happen, to will it to be so. Jesus said to speak your peace to the house you visit, “[B]ut if it be not worthy, let your peace return to you.” He did not say to force your peace upon anyone. His message of love and lordship is an offer of blessing and salvation. Our responsibility is to make the offer. The consequences, the fruit and the outcome of this offer, are in His hands.
The conflicts that arise when we stand against the tide of popular evangelical sentiments and beliefs are not about Us. The conflict is about the authority of God’s Word. Those who oppose the message of Scripture are opposing God. However, they will make the conflict personal and shove us to the center of the stage, making the central issue our personalities, character, etc. We reinforce this error when we react and begin defending ourselves. Our reactions say “Amen” to our accusers. We are saying, “This really is about me. I am the center and source of this conflict.” You, thereby, allow them to avoid the real issues: Who is sovereign? And by what standard do we evaluate our doctrine and practices?
We look at the lack of fruit, the resistance to His Kingdom, and shoulder the blame, as if it were up to us to usher in His kingdom. I would look at my weaknesses and failures and just know that, were the right person bringing the message, all would be well. While I do not want to underestimate the importance of character and competence, we really should always remember the immediate outcome of Christ’s ministry on the earth. The omnipotent Lord was abandoned, forsaken and denied. No instant success, as we would define success, and yet He was perfect. Look at all those men and women in the Bible He so powerfully used for His cause in the earth. They were not perfect, were they? So why do we fear that our imperfections will thwart His purposes?
The kingdom is on His shoulders. Whether it springs forth with life-giving water, or turns downward and runs silently and invisibly, is in His hands. This, of course, does not lessen the messenger’s responsibility nor the hearer’s accountability. However, it is one thing to feel ourselves responsible in our charge to be faithful: it is something else to feel that the outcome is our responsibility.
Sometimes our pain is something like that of Christ’s who stood over-looking Jerusalem, weeping over the resistance to His love. But sometimes our weeping is caused by taking too much upon ourselves, pridefully thinking that it was up to us to make something happen. We cry because we wished to be God and failed.
Sometimes we take up the cross. Most of the time, however, we are dragged to it kicking and screaming. What makes it all the more painful is that it is our friends who deliver us up. After all, someone has to nail your hands to the wood.
It is one thing to have the right message, the correct doctrine. It is something else for the message and the Giver of the Message to have you– all of you. It is easy for competing motives to hide behind noble ones. We say, “For You and Your Glory Alone!” but in our hearts, a still small voice whispers, “It would be nice to get a little approval and acceptance, a smattering of applause. Lord, that wouldn’t hurt your cosmic purposes, would it?” The human need for love and approbation is normal and healthy. But some of us are far too “healthy”! We lose the distinction between His approbation (an absolute necessity) and their approbation (of only secondary importance). The pain is not that He is being rejected but that we are.
Some of God’s work is only performed when we are alone in a cave or on a cross. Who are you when you are alone? When all other voices are silent, who does you life, your soul, say that you are? Where does your heart turn when all have abandoned you? When everything all around you begins exploding and it seems the earth will swallow you, what do you do? Stand true? Run? Whine? Compromise? Accuse? When everyone tells you that you are wrong, not just what you say but who you are, what do you believe and what do you do?
Those who serve God must be men and women of character. They must love truth, believe the truth, and live the truth. Furthermore, they must always remember that, ultimately, the truth is Jesus Christ. So many people have convictions about abortion, deficit spending and the intervention of American troops into Bosnia. However, what of convictions about love, honor, loyalty and humility? Our message and gifting can take us further than our character will support us. God in His infinite mercy often allows trials that chase us into caves and on to crosses where He can slay the enemies of our soul, root out the seeds of destruction, wash away the debris of sin and make us more godly.
Unless a kernel of wheat falls into the ground and die, it cannot bear fruit. The only way to experience the power of His resurrection is to die. No one can share that with you. Do not run. Do not whine. Do not try to find a way out. The sooner you surrender to God and the cross, the sooner you experience His resurrection power.
The Service of Your Enemies
Enemies can be quite a blessing, if we allow them to be.
Enemies drive you to your knees in dependent prayer.
Enemies point out gaps in your theology.
Enemies draw attention to flaws in your character.
Enemies point out inconsistencies between your commitments and your actions.
Enemies force you to focus on your motives for serving God.
Enemies cause you to be creative, to consider other avenues to your goals.
Enemies help you to discover who your friends really are.
Enemies humble you.
Enemies who persecute you for righteousness are asking God to bless you.
Some of you should go back and replace the word “enemies,” with the word “conflict.” Merely because someone disagrees with us does not make him or her our enemy.. Conversely, just because someone says he or she agrees with us and is our friend, does not make it so.
Enemies winnow out the chaff of your relationships. What is authentic, what isn’t? Who is going to love you in word and deed; who only loves you in word? Who sees your clay feet and loves you still; who sees your clay feet and impeaches you? Who are those people who are with you as long as you meet their needs; who are with you because they wish to love you and to serve God with you? Who is willing to be identified with the vision and message (and messenger), even when it is unpopular; who runs off when the heat is turned up? Who stands true to the Truth , whatever the cost; who compromises as soon as there is any conflict? And what of you and how you relate to God’s people? Do you walk off, shut down and hide from potential confli
ct or do you press in, seeking more grace, more truth, more wisdom? Do you write people off as “enemies” simply because they differ with you? The blessing of enemies and of conflict is that they help you answer all these questions.
Necessity of Historical Perspective
Ever hear of the saying, “Rome wasn’t built in a day”? Make it your mantra. Evangelicalism did not fall into this tar pit yesterday. What we are being forced to live with is the fruit of over two-hundred years of error and sin. Will we have it all cleared out and cleaned up in a decade? And do we honestly believe we know comprehensively what is to be done way with, what is to be built in its place and with whom we are to build?
One of the more steadying things we can do is read church history. Do not read about the revivals, the reformations and the renewal movements. Read of those seasons–those centuries!–in-between the outpourings. Read of the persecutions and the rejections, the work without any evidence of blessing, the deaths of those who labored for visions never realized.
Sometimes I wonder if we who have successfully thrown off the errors of dispensationalism and the belief in an “any minute rapture of the church,” are still infected with an illegal sense of urgency. Why does everything have to change now? Oh, believe me, that would be wonderful. However, why do we labor as if it were a necessity? as if we have failed if it does not happen? as if we were racing against the clock? Do the purposes of God go with us to our graves? Are we alone the people of truth? Will wisdom die with us?
When we labor with such urgency, the all-too-frequent temptation is not to wait and allow the fruit tree to grow in God’s time. No, we have to have a tree. Now. So, what do we do? We build one. Oh, it looks like a tree, sometimes we can even make it smell like a tree. But, do you know what? It will never produce real fruit.
It is so painful (and so damaging to our pride) to watch people walk by our pathetic little trees that are barely knee high. They laugh, they ridicule, they ignore our work. “Hey, look! It’s Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree!” Everyone is on their way to the “First Big Church of the Bonfire” down the road. One day, however, that bonfire, which is fueled by fruit trees being uprooted and cast into the fire, will flicker and flash no more. After all, there are only so many trees to burn up. As the people walk off, dejected and disillusioned, they will come back by our fruit trees. There will be the comfort of shade and the nourishment of fruit for all who wish to come. That is, if we do not leave our charge, forgetting the rewards of patience, thinking today is all that counts.
Finally, my friends,
Obey God . In the end, this is what matters most. On the final day, the Great God is not going to ask you about what they did but about what you did. Live the vision. Be an example of the sort of Christianity you espouse. Keep the faith. Place your trust in God, not in people, institutions or visible results. Walk in love. Even while we were yet sinners, Jesus died for us. Do the same for the sinners in your world. Embrace the dealings of God. Character matters. Make disciples. The world will be won and the church will be reformed one person at a time. Be faithful to your friends. Do not allow the “task” of the mission to so swallow your life that you lose your community of friends. Enjoy the gift of life. Our chief end is not just to glorify God but to enjoy Him. We are sons and daughters before we are soldiers and will be sons and daughters when the battle is over.
Monte E. Wilson
Classical Christianity, PO Box 22; Atlanta, GA 30239