Some days I feel like I need to duct tape my head so that when it explodes, the doctors can find all the pieces and put me back together again. Today is one of those days but the root cause might surprise you.
Over the last few days fellow church members that I know and love have gotten their knickers in a twist over something our pastor said on Sunday. Or more specifically, they got upset over a term that our pastor used because it often carries political baggage.
The term in question was “social justice.” And the point made was that the church cannot isolate itself from society and pretend that injustice is not happening. We cannot pretend that everyone is treated well. We cannot close our eyes and be willfully blind.
To make sure that we better understood where he was coming from, the pastor made the point that the “social gospel” of the early 20th Century was theologically and morally bankrupt and has nothing to offer. He was certainly not coaxing us to abandon our theologically conservative positions. The pastor was not using “social justice” as a code word for abandoning the Westminster Confession and telling everyone that they go to heaven regardless of belief or practice.
But regardless of the attempts at providing context for the statement, some were offended and are struggling to get past it.
The fact that there was so much tension over this really bothered me over the last few days. It is hard for me to see friends be upset. But it did start me thinking.
The danger, in our individualistic, me centered, world is that I can go to hear a sermon with the primary intent of evaluating how much of it I agree with. Did the pastor get the nuanced meaning of the Greek word right? Did he accurately present the historical context? Did the preacher . . . ?
Certainly there must be agreement on the central tenets of Christianity. There are doctrines on which we cannot compromise. I’m not talking about wiggling on the essentials of Christianity. But there is much room for discussion about the implications of those core beliefs and what it should look like to live out the Christian life in this place, at this time.
I’m not sure how much I would profit from sitting under a preacher with whom I nearly always agree. I don’t need a pastor to reinforce me in my blind spots or build me up where I already have understanding.
As I have gotten older, I find that my greater need is for a preacher to challenge me to go deeper into Scripture. I need the pastor to be used by God to break through my hard head and hard heart. I need a preacher that will say what Scripture says and be willing to call me on my nonsense. And I need a preacher that will challenge me on the bits of my culture that I have accepted which are in conflict with Biblical principles.
The bottom line is that I need a prophetic voice in my life. So, I guess I’m OK with my pastor making me feel uncomfortable. But I acknowledge that in this I may be in a minority.
But this brings out a broader issue. The church is a gathering of a people redeemed by Jesus Christ regardless of ethnic identity, political affiliation or economic stature. A healthy church should have a bunch of people that don’t look or think like me.
If you don’t think this is true, take a look at the early church. One of the disciples was a terrorist against Rome and another a roman collaborator. There were educated Pharisees being instructed by fishermen. Women were given prominence as the first to whom the resurrected Jesus showed himself. There were gentiles worshiping with Jews. The early church was a seriously crazy blending of very different people.
The church broke every social norm by allowing the gospel to speak into all lives and change people’s hearts and minds.
So let’s stop listening to sermons with the focus on finding the bits with which we cannot agree. Let’s not live out the joke about having “roast pastor” for dinner on Sunday.
Let’s listen to sermons with the intent of focusing on Scripture and being willing to hear what God has to say to us.
But while we listen, we must allow Scripture and not our own understanding to be the final judge.
And we need to learn to be OK with a little discomfort. Cleaning a wound is usually painful.