Monthly Archives: August 2010

Being Unnatural: Others, and Our Own Nothingness

If one ever begins to doubt if Christianity is strange and countercultural and unnatural, you need look no further than this passage to remember that indeed, Christianity calls us to a very different way of being in the world: 

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.  Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.  Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing.” (Phillipians 2:3-6)

If there is anything that we are naturally, it is selfish.  We generally think ‘all natural’ is good, but in this case, its not.  Whats natural for us is to think of our own interests, and neglect the interests of others.   I see that in my own life daily.  Whats normal is to not be committed to others, to not take time to fit others into our lives unless its convenient, to let relationships lapse as my own concerns fill my heart, mind and time so that there is no time left for others

Consider others better than yourselves— Hobbes, the great English philosopher wrote that all are created equal– equally sure that they are superior to everyone else.  We may have our humble exterior, our self-defacing caveats so that others don’t expect too much of us, but often we are secretly sure of our own superiority, of the lack of value of the other persons perspective or project.  And we demonstrate this by generally not investing in the concerns or lives of others.  Individualism and a Christian life of concern and sacrafice do not fit together very well.  

In humility, consider others better than yourselves.  This isn’t a command to have a  poor self image, and some people do struggle to realize their own worth.  Sometimes we feel so behind the curve– like we have so much less than others– that we feel like we have nothing to offer.  So it is important to realize that we do have something worth offering– and then offer it, not because we think we are worthless, but because, in humility we consider others better than ourselves.  One of my greatest fears personally is that I will give myself to others who will not care for me: that I will invest in friendships (or even a marriage!) which will be one-way.  With all the selfishness that we see and practice ourselves, these fears aren’t unfounded…but we are not here asked to act selfishly because it seems sensible or like the wisest idea.  We are asked to do this because of Christ.

Perhaps one of the greatest reasons we don’t live selflessly for others is that we are not in a spiritual state to do so.  Each of you should look not only to your own interests: just like on the airplanes they tell you to put the oxygen mask on your own face first, we need to be making sure that we are spiritually strong.  Ironically, the reason that we are often not spiritually strong enough to help others and die to self for others is that we haven’t been dying to self to submit to Christ and take time to be built up.  If we don’t look to our own spiritual life, and spend time having something to offer, we will be like the person who loved giving away tomatoes and onions and watermelon to others, but didn’t ever take time to grow their own garden to do so.  We sometimes find ourselves wanting to be generous, and even attempting to do so, but we have squandered away whatever we had so that we have nothing.  Its fun to be a philanthropist, but hard to be at a place to do it.  Its fun to give to others at one level, but it takes hard preparation work sometimes to be at a place to be able to do it.  We want the joy of giving without the hard work of having something worth giving. 

So as if our task was not already hard enough, Paul adds: your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus…(thanks a lot, Paul).  This is where it gets interesting: the model of Jesus is this: He was God (Trinity), but he did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing.  When we begin to consider our own projects to important to lay down for others, when we consider our own life projects and apparently world-historically-important personal issues to be of utmost importance, we need to step back, step down, remember the example of Christ, and make ourself nothing

Paul is commanding us here, and so this is about an act of the will.  Some tend to think that to be truly of God it needs to happen apart from our will, but this is clearly a command which we have options to obey or disobey.  At the same time, this is such an unnatural way of being, that it is not sustainable without a real transformative relationship with Christ– meaning– that we are daily submitting ourself to God in prayer and giving our heart and strength to Him asking that He use us as He wills.  But the submission can not be merely ethereal and theoretical or ‘spiritual’– it has to be embodied as well in our getting out of bed to take time to pray or read– in going to fellowship to be with others and to encourage and be encouraged– and to be in real relationship with others where we are counted on, serve others, and provide for the needs of others through encouragement, mutual edificiation and service.  Loving others is hard, because it involves giving up our own selves not theoretically or when convenient, but consistently, conscientiously, and when its not part of our plan.

In the verse just prior to this passage (verse 2) Paul says having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.  Real Christian unity is found in this other-centered love.  When a Christian meets a Christian, one should have some sense that here is a fellow deadman– someone who has died to themself.   There is freedom– a reckless abandon sort of freedom– in deciding to lay down your life for others.  To finally accept the call to stop making your concern yourself, and to make it the concern of Christ for others.  The call of Christ on our lives is a call to reckless abandon– a call to spend our lives, to pour them out, for others, knowing full well that others are as sinful, selfish, likely to fail us and prone to disaster as we ourselves are.  We aren’t called to give ourselves to others because they are worth it, or because they will respond in kind or be faithful in return.  We are called to pour ourselves out for others because this is what Christ did and we want to participate fully in his death and resurrection-life and to more and more identify with Christ and know his sufferings and power in our own body and life. 

We are lucky to have gotten such a call.  Because its our way of escape from a life of pointless selfishness.  Thank God that we have something better than our own lives to live for– and its not that other people’s lives are any more important– what we have to live for is a life of sacrifice identifying with Christ: for me to live is Christ and to die is gain…  If we act like Christians, we will not be normal.  And if we are acting normal, we proabably are not acting like Christians.

May God have mercy on us all.

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Why Evangelicals Convert to be Catholic, and Why Evangelicals should Care

Many of my friends are drawn to the Catholic Church.  This may seem strange to many as the Catholic church presently seems to be perpetually rocked and beaten by church scandal worldwide.  Many of my friends and former students converting were raised evangelical low-church protestant, some converted to become evangelical at some point.    This phenomenon of evangelicals converting to Catholicism is not unusual, and has been written about.  One good thinker who has written on it is Scot McKnight, who in 2002 published an article in the Evangelical Theological Journal about it entitled “From Wheaton to Rome”.  (Wheaton College is a prominent evangelical college in the chicago suburbs, and this is a reference to the many Wheaton students who convert from evangelical low-church to anglican, and then in many cases on to Catholic)

Michael Vlach, in a nice summary article on why evangelicals become Catholic summarizes McNight well. (see the link to his and mcknights articles at the end)  McKnight says there is one of four reasons which are usually behind an evangelical’s conversion to Catholicism.  Here I simply am quoting in its entireity about 9 paragraphs of Vlach summarizing McKnight:

(1) Certainty
First, the desire for certainty and a full knowledge of truth spurs many ERC’s (Evangelicals who convert to Roman Catholic) to reject what they consider to be the “doctrinal mayhem” and “choose-your-own-church syndrome” of Protestantism. ERC’s often have a desire for certain knowledge, something they believe is possible within Catholicism but not within Protestantism.

For example, on The Journey Home program, former Episcopalian, David Mills, told of an encounter he had with eleven evangelical scholars concerning the issue of marriage and divorce. According to Mills, these eleven evangelical scholars came up with nine different views on this important topic. Mills contrasted this uncertainty of the evangelical scholars with the alleged certainty that can be found within Roman Catholicism. For Mills and ERC’s, when Rome speaks on an issue, that’s it. There is absolute certainty.

(2) History
Second, McKnight observes that ERC’s often feel a “historical disenfranchisement” with Protestantism. They have a desire to be connected to the entire history of the Christian church and not just the period since the Reformation. In addition, ERC’s often see the early church Fathers as “the aristocrats of the Church, the elite thinkers, and the inner circle who knew best.” This desire to be connected with church history leads many ERC’s to Rome.

(3) Unity
Third, ERC’s emphasize unity and are disturbed by the divisions and countless denominations within Protestantism. McKnight quotes Peter Cram who describes Protestantism as “one long, continuous line of protesters protesting against their fellow protesters, generating thousands of denominations, para-churches, and ‘free churches,’ which are simply one-church denominations.” ERC’s try to transcend this disunity by seeking refuge in the perceived unity of the Roman Catholic Church.

(4) Authority
Fourth, McKnight points out that many ERC’s reject the “interpretive diversity” found within Protestantism, opting for the authority of the Catholic Church. Instead of trying to sort through the numerous interpretations of Protestant pastors and theologians, ERC’s believe they have found their authority in the Catholic Church’s Magisterium. For them, as McKnight puts it, “The [doctrinal] issues are now settled: the Church can tell us what to believe. And it does so infallibly.”

Becoming Catholic
According to McKnight, the road from ‘Wheaton to Rome’ is usually “long” and “tortuous.” It often involves painful separations in relationships and “massive shifts in theology.” He also notes that most ERC’s end up in Catholicism as a result of “massive amounts of reading and research.” Reading pro-Catholic books and coming under the guidance of influential Catholic leaders or mentors are also important factors in the conversion of many ERC’s.

Upon conversion to the Roman Catholic Church, ERC’s often assume the rhetoric of the Church. This takes two directions: (1) they positively argue for Catholic doctrines such as papal infallibility, the Eucharist, and Marian dogmas; and (2) they negatively denounce evangelical Protestantism.

In conclusion, this article has been mostly observational, thus a full discussion and evaluation of the issues raised here are topics for another article. Yet, those who are Evangelicals must take the issues raised by ERC conversions seriously. The topics of certainty, history, unity, and authority are causing some from the evangelical camp to convert to Roman Catholicism. As such, these are issues that Evangelicals must address.”  

(all the italicized was quoted directly from Vlach)

An interesting evangelical-turned-Catholic example is that of Tom Howard, whose book “Evangelical is Not Enough” explains why he went from evangelical to Catholic: http://books.google.com/books?id=ELECURWBxRMC&printsec=frontcover&dq=tom+howard+wheaton&source=bl&ots=1CMKY12UTf&sig=lSL2CQVGB0Ce6RUOaJSzPX51kPs&hl=en&ei=vGxrTK3eAoH58Aati5XAAw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4&ved=0CB4Q6AEwAw#v=onepage&q&f=false

Howard explains that when he went into a Catholic church as a child, he could see the meaning of all the symbols of the Catholic church.  In other words, he had been given the Christian background to rightly understand and see the material expression of spiritual truths and his own Christian spirituality in and through the Catholic church and its practices.  Howard came to find the lack of meaningful symbolism in his own evangelical church to be a result of an unnecessary reaction against all things spiritually symbolic– a result of the protestant reformation against what was then seen to be the excesses of the high-church (Catholic) establishment.  In speaking of his own evangelical church upbringing, he says, “My own church encouraged a nonsymbolistic line of thought.  We distrusted the symbolism of colors and shapes and gestures, at least when they were applied to worship, since this seemed to bring things very near to idolatry.  We invoked the commandment forbidding graven images.” (p23 of “Evangelical is not Enough”)  Ultimately, Howard sees the evangelical pietism he grew up with to be obsessed with an anti-physicalism which denies the bodily, and focuses only on the spritual.  The problem with this, as I understand Howard, is that it tends to lead us to live lives which do not unite our physicalness in the world with our spirituality.  In some sense, our physical activities and doings in the world are seen by definition to be non-spiritual, and that keeps us from living a fully integrated spiritual life, or, to put it another way, this leads us to not allow full sanctification of our lives in all aspects of our living in the world as physical beings. 

Howard knows Christians can worship in storefront churches with no symbols and still encounter Christ– he has no issue with that.  His point though is that a Christianity like what he grew up with in his evangelical church as a child left him devoid of a real healthy way to integrate his life with his spirituality, and he sees the Christianity of his adopted Catholic faith to be able to help him connect his life as a physical being with his Christian spirituality. 

I think this is a point evangelicals must deal with.   As evangelicals we often see the symbolism and ritual of Catholicism or Anglicanism or any high church as devoid of meaning, empty, rote, and mindless.  Of course there have been cases or even tendencies at times for people to lose track of the meanings of their religious practices, and to do them without thinking about why they do them– but protestants do this too– sometimes even with their prayers, devotions, church-going, etc.  To say that all symbolic ritual in the Catholic church is rote and thoughtless ritualism is as uncharitable as someone saying that evangelicalism is legalistic unthoughtful literalism which practices bibliolatry with no concern for making a concrete difference in this world.

Evangelical churches do have a tradition of engaging and changing the world.  Their work to fight slavery and fight for womens rights and civil rights are legendary.  Their work to fight for the unborn child and other justice-causes has been powerful.  Yet today evangelicals are more likely to be categorized as part of the ‘religious right’ (which is strangely lumped in with Glen Beckism) in their opposition to immigrants, their opposition to welfare, and their unwillingness to charitably listen to viewpoints other than their own.  That is not an entirely fair characterization of we evangelicals, but it has caused many young evangelicals to not be willing to speak of ‘we’ evangelicals, but to more and more think of evangelicals as ‘other’.  In other words, more and more young evangelicals feel somewhat disenfranchised and disconnected from the churches of their parents because they simultaneously are coming to feel that their church lacks a historical grounding, a mature understanding of the power and meaning of historical symbols and practices of the church, an over-focus on ‘getting all the details straight’ in ones theology without trying to understand other points of view, a tendency to use scripture in a haphazard manner without paying enough attention to context or background,  and a general lack of concern for doing things to transform culture and society for the sake of Christ.  They feel like any concerns raised about the environment or the earth for the sake of Christ are dismissed with a slash-and-burn-theology which expects that “it will all be burned up anyway, so why waste our time ‘worshipping’ the earth?” 

This is the situation of many young evangelicals who feel homeless.  And when one feels homeless, and sees a lot of satisfying answers in a longstanding tradition of the Catholic Church, it may seem easier to charitably interpret some doctrines which were at one point real sticking points– papal authority, immaculate conception  of Mary, Mary as Queen of heaven,  an apparent lack of focus on the personal work of the spirit as evangelicals are familiar with, priest scandals,or previous egregious acts of the Church in other eras, etc. 

No one can know for sure what God has in store, and to predict is presumptuous, but I do not see a road ‘home to rome’ in my own future.  I don’t see myself ever becoming Catholic.  But I do see myself adopting certain practices and lifestyles from the historical tradition of the church (many of which are misunderstood or not practiced by a lot of Catholics themselves).  I find liturgy meaningful and refreshing, I appreciate the book of hours (full of prayers and responsive readings for devotions), I appreciate the teachings of some Catholic thinkers, and I like the integration of the physical practices into spirituality (I’ve become a fan of fasting, and contemplation, and observing lent).  But all this to my mind doesn’t make me more Catholic, it just makes me more aware of the historical practices of the church.  Many Catholics learn a lot from Chuck Swindol, focus on the family, and like Billy Graham.  They often enjoy participating in Intervarsity Christian fellowship, and they like evangelical worship songs sometimes.  They are often challenged by the enthusiasm they see among evangelicals who really seem to ‘know Jesus’.  In these ways they draw on evangelicalism.  I am finding that this can go both ways, and I can draw fr0m aspects of Catholic practice or thought, as well as other high church forms, which make my walk with Christ and my life for Christ more meaningful, powerful, and rooted.  In this sense I thank God for the Catholic church. 

It is a difficult era for evangelicalism as it asks questions of itself and as young evangelicals try to figure out how to maintain a vibrant faith.  I sympathize with my former-evangelical friends who are now Catholic, although I will not follow them.  I pray that God will continue to direct them towards Himself, and continue to give us who stay low church evangelicals wisdom and insight to know how to better bring about the kingdom of God in this world– in word and deed. 

McKnight’s four ‘reasons’ why evangelicals become Catholic are very important for us to reflect on: Certainty, history, unity and authority.  They present to us a challenge to have a more thoughtful view of our own history, a tendency to take unity seriously, an explanation of where the authority of our own beliefs comes from, and a reason for our certainty.  Hiding our head in the sand is no answer, but it also doesn’t require that we leap into the open arms of Rome as a solution to these questions, although I definitely love and respect my friends who feel convicted to go in that direction.  These are difficult questions for most of us to answer, but good challenges as we go deeper into a more thoughtful and meaningful Christian commitment. 

May God have mercy on us all.   

Andy Gustafson   

PS: I don’t mention this enough in the posts, but anyone is welcome to come join us for our service on Tuesdays at 7 at our place (3126 Chicago), which is about 50 minutes of study of the Bible together, then doing liturgy together, then getting prayer requests.  The guys and women split up after just to talk, and people have accountability partners for the week.  The guys also are doing prayer breakfast on Saturday mornings, and the women are reading through a book together on discipline.  Finally, we are just about to start up a new book for the fall in our book study group, so let us know if you are interested.

Bibliography: Scot McKnight: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3817/is_200209/ai_n9129514/

Michael Vlach: http://www.theologicalstudies.org/page/page/1572353.htm

Unity of Believers

“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things Charity”

What does it mean for the church to be unified?  This last week in our book club study on church history we were reading about developments in the early 1900s.  The world council of churches was one of many attempts to unify Christians together cross-denomenationally.  One thing that bothers many people (christians and non-christians) is that there are so many different denomenations. Christian scripture certainly calls Christians to unity, and the lack of unity due to denomenonational divisions seems to some to be a failure on the part of Christians to live up to this call. 

There are a lot of things to consider when thinking about unity of the church, but a basic question is: are we called to structural/organizational unity, or unity of spirit and focus?  I am pretty skeptical about the benefits or importance of structural unity– in other words, I don’t think there is any need for there to be one worldwide denomenation for example that all people would join.  There have been a lot of conference and councils in the last half a century (a lot more as of late) to reconcile old rifts– Lutherans and Catholics together, Evangelicals and Catholics together, etc.  And these are great in that they have helped people understand each other better and acknowledge important insights on the ‘other side of the fence’.  Evangelicals sometimes focus so much on salvation by faith and praying a prayer that we underemphasize the fact that Christ redeems us to redeem the world, and part of how he makes our salvation complete and transforms us spiritually is by us obeying his call on our life and doing what he asks of us.  At the same time, Catholics have at times focused so much on the importance of doing certain things that it has appeared that they don’t believe in grace by faith.  So understanding each other and learning from each other is really helpful.  But the real significant differences between denomenations is not all a matter of misunderstandings and trivial differences.  There are heartfelt honest convictions at stake, which bring people to different conclusions about significant matters.  But to expect that after 500-1500 years of differences of conviction that today we will suddenly realize that all of those apparent differences were merely misunderstandings and exagerations which can be overcome by ‘thoughtfully coming together’ today seems to me to overestimate our current understanding of things and to trivialize the centuries past. 

I have dear friends who submit to a 5 point Calvinism, something I am not prepared to do, and for which reason I am not allowed to fully participate in their church.  I have dear friends who submit to the authority of the pope and the Holy Catholic Church of Rome, something I do not do as a non-catholic.  Its hard for me to imagine an organizational unity of the church which wouldn’t ultimately end up with everyone becoming Catholic, because of the hardline stance that the Catholic church has on many things (including the authority of the Pope, closed communion (only Catholics can partake) etc).  I respect and honor those limits and those beliefs.  But I do not hold those beliefs.    There are many denomenations who have certain restrictions– Wisconsin Synod Lutherans have a lot of restrictions, Missouri Synod Lutherans won’t allow you to take communion with them unless you are one of them (the same is true of the Catholic church and many other denomenations).  Many Calvinist denomenations wouldn’t allow you to be a member unless you are a 5 point Calvinist, and many others would let you be a member but not be in leadership unless you were a member.    I think there are good reasons for these restrictions, coming from each of their own particular denomenations.  But these restrictions are the reason why the denomenational walls will remain.  It can just as easily be seen from the other side.  The Free Church, for example, allows anyone who has asked Christ to be their savior and currently is submitting their life to Christ to participate in communion.  The ELCA and others also have open communion like this.  But this is unacceptable to other denomenations, because it seems to not protect the sanctity of the bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ (some denomenations think the bread actually becomes the body of Christ (Catholic transsubtantiation); some think Christs body joins with the bread (Lutheran consubstantiation), some think Christ is uniquely present at communion (Calvinist); and others think the bread and wine are just a symbol to remember what Christ did (remembrance view of Zwingli and a lot of evangelical churches).   Each of these denomenations have their reasons for holding their own viewpoints.  To expect unity of agreement on this doctrinal point, much less all the other doctrinal points, is to my mind, expectation frustrated. 

3Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called— 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:3-6)

Fortunately, there is another way of unity though, and that is the unity which comes from being commonly committed to Jesus Christ.  To me this is the more important kind of unity (more important than organizational unity– ie, being part of the same denomenation).    Each tradition might think of this slightly differently, but if you asked me who is a Christian, I would say, “anyone who has acknowledged their broken state to Christ, asked forgiveness, and begun to live their life for Christ”– a shorthand version of this might be, “whoever loves Jesus”.    If the important thing is not whether you belong to this or that denomenation, but rather, whether you are a Christ follower, then we suddenly find that people spanning across all kinds of denomenational boundaries have unity– in Christ.  Should we seek after mutual understanding that helps us overcome certain barriers?  Of course.  Many denomenations have for centuries tried to cross denomenational boundaries to partner with other churches to work on joint projects for their communities. 

The important thing is respecting the differences of conviction and conscience regarding various niceities of Christian doctrine.  As it was often said to me as a young boy, “in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things Charity”  This happens at two levels– at the level of denomenations, and then at the level of Christianity.  At the level of denomenations, a church expects you to believe certain things.  If you go to a Church which adheres to 5 point calvinism, then you need to believe those 5 points to be a member of that church.  IF you said, “well, are you saying all Christians have to be 5 point calvinists?” the answer could be, “no, but to be in this church you do, because we have agreed together that that is an essential for us”.  If you wanted to be Catholic, but didn’t want to believe in the authority of Rome or in transubstatiation of the bread and wine, that would be a problem, because those are eseential elements to being a Catholic.  Denomenations have their essentials, and those differ from one denomenation to another.  But there are usually a core of beliefs that most all of the denomenations have in common which make them Christian, and those are the essentials at the level of Christianity itself.  Of course there is debate on these as well, but generally if we look to the historic creeds of the Church some of the basic Christian doctrines would be that Christ was God made flesh, he died on the Cross for the sins of humanity, and grace and mercy are available through belief in him, and transformational power of the spirit of God is available to us through this redemptive work.   Traditionally all Christians would also believe in the virgin birth, the actual resurrection of Christ, the Trinity, and a variety of other things.  Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans and all the rest would generally hold to these doctrines.  And that is where we do have an important source of unity in belief, which leads us to a common practical belief– that Jesus redemptive work is what we are here on earth to do.  We believe these truths of doctrine together, but we also belief together that Christ wants to work through his church (in all of its denomenational forms) to heal and restore the world and redeem it from sin and destruction.   Ironically, one of the few denomenations to reject quite a few of these standard Christian doctrines is the Unitarian Church 🙂 

So, while I’m not a fan of mon0-denomenationalism, and don’t have a lot of hope for organizational unity of the church myself, I certainly believe in the unity of all believers who admittedly come to the table with a wide variety of diversity. 

“May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:23)