The Third Race
Scripture gives a fairly clear picture of what the church should be, even though many will disagree over the exact structure of the church. Perhaps this is not as important as we think. But what we are and how we live is of the utmost importance. I make a few simple biblical assumptions about the Christian life and about the life of the Church. I am a Southern Baptist but there is a baseline of doctrine that all biblically based churches share. We are to be faithful to the commands of Christ to make disciples and to baptize. We are to live moral, holy lives. We build each other up in Christ and in his values. We are to live simple lives and bear witness to the world. This witness is a personal, one-on-one witness, we can’t do it by remote control or pay someone to do it for us. We are to be in the world but not of the world. And, the Church above all, is an eschatological community. We live for the future because we are now aliens and strangers in this world. We belong to the Kingdom of God, our citizenship is in heaven, and we await that day when God brings us home and we sit at the great banquet table with our Lord. And in that moment he lifts the cup for the first time since his betrayal.
With this simple biblical understanding, we compare the reality of today’s church and we discover level upon level of irrational insanity. I happen to be Baptist by conviction. But I don’t have a problem if you are Presbyterian or Methodist or Episcopalian, which encompasses the three major forms of church polity. However we all have drunk from the same poison and we all exhibit the same forms of insanity. We are not comfortable with the simple presentation of the Christian life that we find in Scripture. It seems simplistic and it makes us stand out in society and we don’t like being different. The great modern sin of the western culture is to be different. We do not want to be strangers and aliens. Above all, we don’t think that suffering of any kind should be a part of our enlightened lifestyle. So, we largely ignore our brothers and sisters in Christ who live in non western nations under oppression for their faith. They live their lives as open Christians knowing the consequences of living as strangers and aliens. Weekly, we hear the horrors of the slaughter of Christians in Orissa, India. A friend of mind went on a mission trip to Vietnam and reported the incredible price someone pays for calling Jesus Lord. But we have an emotional meltdown when someone questions our faith, or makes fun of us. Somewhere deep in our hearts we think that God has failed us.
We want to avoid suffering and oppression at all costs. So, we look like the world, and we invite the world to come to our churches with these words, “we are just like you, why don’t you come to our church?” In fact, we live in the age of the non-church church. We are well beyond leaving out the denominational identifier in our church names. Now we are the Orchard, the Vine, the Sojourn, the Well, etc. We have non-church names and non-church buildings. One church prides itself because it looks like a movie theater. Others look like black boxes with no windows and certainly no crosses or other Christian symbols. They have stages with high tech lighting and smoke machines. And the Pastor is a stand up comedian who, along with the professional musicians and singers, deliver first rate entertainment to the masses. But, the church in the United States still declines. Many are predicting that the church will soon be a quaint cultural leftover from our less enlightened days.
How did we get here? It began with the fact that we don’t want to follow the simple plan of the Christian life as laid out in Scripture. We decided we needed new ways of organizing our churches. So the modern church invented the program. I think we all agree that churches need to be organized in some way. Moses organized the Children of Israel at the advice of his father-in-law. The early church shows some organization. It had divinely appointed leaders and servants and rules by with to elect them. Being a Southern Baptist, I can tell you that the genius of Southern Baptists was the adoption of just two programs, Sunday School and Discipleship training. In fact these two programs fulfilled the biblical mandate of teaching the church the Word of God and the doctrines of the Church. These two trained our members to live the Christian life in a world that, at best, is challenging to our faith. In addition, Sunday School the greatest outreach programs ever developed.
Bible study and Discipleship training seems to comport well with the life of the biblical church. But something went terribly wrong as we approached the 21st century. We went program crazy. We started creating programs with catchy names. Programs became substitutes for Bible Study, for teaching doctrine, and for teaching holiness. Denominational leaders promised great things if we follow these programs. And we recycled these same programs after a few years with new exciting catchy names. It became apparent that these programs did not work. But we keep repackaging them and selling them to the churches and they continue to fail. You have to wonder how much of this is motivated by profit.
The programs were designed to make the Christian life easier and to take away the stigma of being aliens and strangers. In the late twentieth century, it became obvious the world does not like Christians, they hate God and we did not the hot breath of hate. We made the excuse that we cannot evangelize in that environment, so we must accommodate society and look more like them. We did this well and now the difference between the average Christian and non Christian is that the Christian will attend a church on occasion.
Along with the proliferation of colorful programs with catchy names, there was a theological shift that took place. In our old doctrine, the problem with humanity, even the problem with us in the church, is sin and alienation from God. The church taught the biblical doctrine of the depravity of humanity. Humanity stands before God with real guilt and is condemned with real condemnation. The result is that we are the object of the real wrath of God. But our modern society has rejected this model and has created a number of cultural and philosophical mechanisms that forbid us to tell the truth about our sinful state before God. If we violate these cultural mores, we will definitely offend everybody, even Christians.
We have a real problem understanding ourselves as sinners. Some years ago, a family left our church and went to another church. They had a son who was approaching that age when children become self aware, particularly when they become aware they are sinners and are in deep need to be redeemed. The mother took her son to see their pastor and he presented the Gospel to him, including that fact that we are sinners and we need to repent of our sin. The mother responded that her son was not a sinner and had no need to repent. My pastor friend is solid in his theology and he refused him membership under those conditions. I knew the boy and I can honestly say he was a sinner like the rest of us, a new messiah had not been born unto us.
Programs had shifted from teaching biblical doctrines to a kind of social psychology. Our problem is not sin, it was the lack of self esteem, a horrible family situation, and the lack of purpose for our lives. Of course, this summary does not really begin to uncover what is being taught. The bottom line is that we are unfulfilled people. Our parents, our spouses, our friends, our society and especially our churches are failing to be positive, uplifting, life affirming institutions. It was about this time that our teenagers in church started talking about how hard life is, they had gone through so much and we adults do not understand. This usually happened when they came back from camp and whatever cool program they had for that year. The most materialistic, most indulged generation in human history was having some problems.
So, the church adds more programs. We now have segregated worship. We have children’s worship, junior high worship, senior high worship, and college age worship. Add to this separate worship for baby boomers and the legacy generation and you have a church divided by political correctness. And we have guaranteed that the elders cannot pass on the faith the younger generation which is the biblical model.
Today, the most popular pastors are the ones that make you feel good. In my home church, a deacon told my mother that their next pastor needed to be someone who told them how good they are and made them feel good. No more of these guys who preach on sin and tell them they are sinners. Joel Osteen is our new model Sin is just missing out on God’s blessing. We are all ok, and God wants us to be happy. And church programs are designed to make a better you.
Sam Rainer, Thom Rainer’s son and the president of Rainer Research, has made several interesting observations concerning today’s church. The article is Squaring Off with the Church Dropout Rate. He was particularly interested in why young adults are leaving the church. The main reason seems to be that 53% don’t agree with their church’s doctrine. Of course this presupposes that their churches were teaching doctrine to start with. And they see hypocrisy in the Church, how shocking! He gives a top ten life changing experiences list that affect young adults and causes them to stop attending church.
1. They simply want a break from church.
2. They move to college.
3. Work responsibilities change.
4. They move too far away from church.
5. They become too busy, though still want to attend.
6. They spend more time with friends outside of church.
7. School responsibilities prevent them from attending church.
8. They want to make life decisions not accepted by the church.
9. Family and/or home responsibilities prevent them from attending.
10. They lose touch with churchgoing friends.
Some of the recommendations that Rainer makes are the same stuff churches have been doing for years. But two of them struck me as important. The first was that the church needs to be moving from complexity to simplicity. He has in mind church structure, including parring down on complicated programs. The second one was moving from shallowness to depth. We need to move from a shallow faith to a depth of understanding. I agree with Rainer.
We could go on citing examples of books and articles telling us why the church is declining. There are a couple of books explaining why men don’t go to church. The evangelical world has become prolific at explaining why they think the church is in decline. And of course, there are a number of secular writers who both explain the decline of the church and wholeheartedly celebrate it. However, the common thread in this little thumb nail history of the contemporary church is the refusal to return to the biblical analysis of the human condition and the biblical model of the Christian life.
I agree with Rainer that we need to simplify our structures. We have way too many programs. Most programs come from our denominational leaders. We pastors and church leaders do not have to do every single thing that denominational leaders want us to do. I believe that the reason we do is a kind of laziness. We don’t have to think or do a lot of work when we use prepackaged, one-size-fits-all programs. I also agree with Rainer that we need to regain depth in our faith and in our teaching and preaching. If our denominational leaders really want to do programs, let them spend more time writing about doctrine and less time making adult literature to look like a comic book. But, it will not happen until we have a fundamental shift in our thinking about the nature of the church. The solution cannot be accommodated in today’s worldly structures. If you read Rainer’s article there is more to agree with than disagree. But, none of it will work if we stay within the current framework of evangelical thinking about church.
The condition of society is not about felt needs or social alienation. It is about sin and divine-human alienation. The church is not modern or post modern. It is supra modern and transcendental. We must recapture, not reinterpret the vital doctrines of Scripture. Man is fallen, he is a sinner, he is guilty and he has no hope without the intervention of God. It is not that he has been deprived of something or that his self esteem has been violated, it is that he is evil in the sight of God and he has been judged and the wrath of God is poured out on him, upon us all. That is the condition, rich or poor, democratic or socialist, east or west, humanity is doomed in its current condition and we cannot save ourselves. It is insane to think that as we enter each new state of human development, we will some how change our human nature.
The latest utopian vision is that we will wed human biology with genetic modifications to technology such as ultra smart computers, enhanced memory chips and global programming that insure that we all think a like and live in harmony. The benefit of this is that we will now live forever either in a replaceable body or a computer which holds our consciousness. Our computers will become sentient beings because we will become the computer. It is another insane vision along with fascism, communism, socialism and a host of other isms. They all contribute to the slavery of sin. Christians, pastors, laymen, national leaders all need to be fearless and proclaim the true nature of humanity. We do not fulfill our calling if we continue to ignore the human condition.
The second component that we must restore is the biblical church. We must return to the idea that the church is our community. It is the place where we should have our most important relationships and social interaction. While ball clubs, Scouts, social organizations, political parties, and advocacy groups are good, they are not the church. If we allow these to take us away from our fellowship, our koinonia, we will live in a weakened state. We become like those whom we hang out with. If we spend our time in the world, we become like the world, then we will want to bring the world into the church. The more we look and act like the world, the less church we become. We do not need be less but more. If we want to look like Christ, if we want to be conformed to his character, then we need to spend more time together in his presence. There is no long ranger Christianity. You cannot exist on your own as solitary Christian without an organic and intimate connection to a local church. In fact, for the church to even exist we must come together. After all we are the Called Out Ones. We are called out of the world and called to gather together as the Body of Christ. I have noticed that many have taken the concept of the universal church and acted as if we do not need to participate in a local church The New Testament Church is always a local congregation. The concept of the universal church is vague and it is spiritual and has no accountability. The local church is the place that God gave us to find strength and life and to which we become accountable to each other. The universal church does not teach doctrine or preach or worship, it does not exercise discipline and it does not wait together for the Second Coming of Christ. If you are not active in a local church, you area being faithful to Christ.
The engine that makes the church run is the promised Holy Spirit who abides with the church. He is the uniting factor of the church. Because of the presence of the Holy Spirit, if we spend time in fellowship in church, as the church, then we help shape each other, forming us as members of God’s society. And it is the Holy Spirit that transcends denominational differences. The unity of the Church is through the Holy Spirit, not in being part of one human institution. Thus we can find fellowship with all who understand the Lordship of Christ and practice a biblical faith.
Scripture calls us the children of God, the sons and daughters of God, the people of God, the body of Christ, and other wonderful metaphors. All of them are indicators that we are different from the rest of the world. Early pagan writers referred to Christians as the Third Race as can be found in the writings of Tertullian. But it was not necessarily a complement. The lives of the early Christians revealed a life that was different from the Greeks, who were civilized, and the barbarian because their fundamental set of values was different from all the others. We remain a third race. If we do not live radically different lives, then we cease to be known as the third race. But our lives are not radical just to be different. Our lives are radical because we are conformed to Christ. Just a sampling of Paul reminds us of how supernatural our lives are supposed to be. Instead of the hate, sensuality, haughty behavior, self centeredness and other sins which are the norms for humans, Paul said:
Colossians 3:12-17 (NASB)
12Â So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience;
13 bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.
14 Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.
15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful.
16 Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
17 Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.
We are a colony of heaven. This is not just an overused quote, it is a faithful description of the church. Because of the great work of Christ on the Cross, we are already seated with Christ in heaven at the right hand of the Father. This is not pie-in-the-sky talk. It means that we are immortal and will live forever with Christ. According to Saint Paul, our dying is the mortal putting on immorality. We are people who will live with Christ forever. The church has lost its excitement and anticipation of that day. We spend our time talking about signs and fulfillment of millennial schemes and what beast does what thing. We have forgotten the everlasting splendor that awaits us. We focus on death and despair. We work and collect and consume as if the world has no end and that consumption is our highest goal. And we forget about that future time promised to us, a time we already can taste in the present, a time that is already reality in the lives of believers. It is a time when we experience the joy and promise of perfection, perfect peace, perfect relationship with God and man, and perfect contentment. When we dwell on this subject, we cannot find the words, our imaginations fail, but like Saint John said, we know we will be like Him because we shall see him as He is. It is our future promise but it is also our present reality. We just ignore the taste of heaven because we are so preoccupied with the trinkets of our present day.
The church does not need to live in the past as if there was a better day somewhere back there. It does not need to live in the present as if our society has something better to offer. The church needs to live in the future. It is the future that defines us, the infallible promises of God define us and inspire us. The glory of God shapes us. And the invitation of Christ is like a beacon drawing us unto himself.
But what about the suffering and the shame imposed on us by the world? How can we stand and face the fierce hatred of the world? Paul offers us biblical guidance:
2 Corinthians 4:7-18 (NASB)
7 But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves;
8Â we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing;
9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;
10 always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body.
11 For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.
12 So death works in us, but life in you.
13Â But having the same spirit of faith, according to what is written, “I BELIEVED, THEREFORE I SPOKE,” we also believe, therefore we also speak,
14 knowing that He who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and will present us with you.
15 For all things are for your sakes, so that the grace which is spreading to more and more people may cause the giving of thanks to abound to the glory of God.
16Â Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.
17 For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison,
18 while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.
Brothers, lets not forget who we are. We are sinners saved by grace. We were no people but now we are the People of God. God took the vilest of sinners and named his name over us and called us his own possession. We are the sons and daughters of God. Eternity flows in our veins. If this is so, then let us live as simple Christians who may very well be mocked by the world. Let us be the true church, the Body of Christ, the People of God. May we be found faithful to the biblical view of the Christian life. And may we be so radical in our commitment to Christ that the world once again calls us the third race.