A Church in Turmoil 

by Ephraim Radner

Over the past 50 years, societies around the world have been going through the most wrenching and profound cultural and political changes in the history of the world. They have done so at different rates and in different ways. But the transformations have been massive. And Christians and their churches – or the Church as a whole, if one wishes to speak this way – have not been
able to keep up, or make sense of it all. Many of the debates over sexuality, or biblical authority or ecclesial order and ministry reflect, not simple oppositions of Gospel and culture, but profound confusions about what 
anything means and how to maintain meaning – Christian meaning
especially – in the midst of a world that has never existed like this one, a world in which there is
no such thing any longer as “tradition”. 

It should not surprise us that our churches are drifting this way and that, awash in changes that seem rootless and mystifying, but at the same time seem inevitable because they simply reflect the shifting convictions of a culture in turmoil. The gap between popular and institutional beliefs in the Catholic Church, or the generational gaps within evangelicalism, or the political turmoils and fragmentations within mainline Protestant churches, or the antagonisms among regional Christian cultures – all of these testify to this vortex of social transformation that is simply inescapable, but that is also deeply disturbing of our hopes. I know that many Christian leaders, of all ages, are dispirited in the midst of these times. One can wake up one morning, and find that what one had thought one’s church “stood for” is no longer the case; one can discover in an email that one’s best friend and colleague in the ministry has left the church; one can stand in a classroom at a seminary, and realize that the majority of one’s students simply do not believe in x, that you thought was so fundamental. 

I believe that we cannot face into these enormous transformations as Christians, and as Christian churches, as we have done in past times of radical change. In the first place, the transformations we are talking about, while they have analogues in the past, are unprecedented in their reach, and we need to take this seriously. Second, we can and ought to learn a lot from how we have poorly responded to past challenges of change, and we should consequently not repeat the mistakes of such past responses.

So what might a faithful, fair, and responsible response be to our current intra-church cultural upheavals? 
First: calm down. We need to take a deep breath and realize that these kinds of challenges are both expected, and that we have all the resources we need – by grace! – to deal with them somehow. No need for reactive attitudes. In the West, have been dealing with the currents and tides of this upheaval for several centuries; but imagine what it is like in rural Congo, where cultural, economic, medical, and political change has utterly uprooted the past in the matter of 5 to 10 years! In the midst of this, the Christian Church has been a bit-player, both instrument and victim, but also bystander. There is no simple strategic response to be taken in this case, that will cut the Gordian knot of the Gospel’s 
difficult and slowly engaging demands in the face of complex and confusing human challenges. In Canada we at least have the luxury of a certain space to engage the social and spiritual complexity of our situation. Let’s take advantage of it, and not be breathlessly frantic and anxious. 
Second, we can do this because the Church belongs first and only and ever to Jesus Christ. It is 
HisChurch, not ours, and He will do with it what He wills. Indeed, since the Church is also His “body”, we should expect that what he will do will be sacrificial and miraculously wonderful at once. Be ready to be surprised; but also to go somewhere you didn’t necessarily desire at first! It is important to realize that the Church of Christ belongs to Him and not to its earthly leaders (including us). Remember: “all” the apostles abandoned Jesus at the most crucial moment of his mission; and none were on hand to behold the resurrection. We are part of Jesus’ church by grace, and that membership is on Jesus’ own terms, not our own – like the apostles, he brings us into His ecclesial life not on the basis of whether we are good at it or have proven ourselves or are even “faithful”, but because He plans to use us according to His purposes. This is one reason I see no “need” to go and find the “right” church where everything is in order in terms of teaching or leadership; not only would such a search on my terms by useless, but it would also be untruthful to the basis of my calling as a Christian in the Church, which is “all Jesus” and “nothing of me” (or anyone else!).

Third, and this is only a corollary of the above: we should try not to evaluate our ministries on the basis of the leadership with whom and even under whom we work. This is a tough challenge, because we tend to judge, not only others but ourselves in relation to others. But not only were the apostles themselves inadequate foundations for the Church’s initial life, they proved scandals to believers even after the Church’s ordering. Does anyone really think that the conflicts Paul and Peter had in Antioch were without consequence? Or between Paul and Barnabas? Or between Paul and the Jerusalem church, one that is filled with seeming compromise? The retrospective image of an integral Church that we have is both encouraging but also deceptive in its masking of the difficult times that marked even the central apostolic origins of our life. Only Jesus has maintained the Church, through all of her internal hostilities, sins, and divisions. And this Church is ours to serve
just with its fallible leadership, not in spite of it or over and against it (although not necessarily affirming of it).

Fourth, then: let us practice love for our members, including our leaders – in all our common and distinct errors and confusions. Many Christians mistake love for sinners as compromise with the sins of sinners – and decide, in response, either not to love or to embrace compromise. But the
Church is Jesus’ body, and it is so because Jesus loved the godless, and suffered the godless as a result, and has redeemed the godless in so doing, though He remained “without sin”. While there is a distinction between the Church and the world, it does not lie in this work of Jesus – the
Church and her members are as much the objects of this work as any sinner. One distinction is that the Church 
glories in being such an object. And such glory is given in our praise and engagement of the work of Christ itself in our midst. As we learn to love one another, as the godless who are redeemed by and in Christ, we learn who Christ is and learn more fully the Nature of our commitments to His truth. Love is not the enemy of the truth, but its revealer, and if we would learn how the Church is to navigate this hard time, we must love sinners more, not less.

Fifth, we must engage –engage the challenges, questions, even oppositions within and without the Church and our surrounding and voracious culture. Love leads us outwards, not away. On matters of Scriptural teaching, evangelical truths, material responsibilities, the divine order of the created body (which includes sex) and so on –all of which are part of today’s struggles – we must be willing to talk, listen, argue, testify, learn, persuade - in season and out, in churches and out of them. What is there to fear from such engagement? Many of us can feel fatigued by these ongoing debates, but the Gospel is in contestation until the end of the world: we are not seeking resolution here, but we are living lives of followers of Jesus, and it is such a 
life that is its own reward, its own joy. Basil the Great died with the Trinity’s truth, as he saw it, still subverted by the leadership of his Church; John Chrysostom died in exile, his witness seemingly rejected, and one could go on: at any given moment of the Church’s life, where deep matters are in dispute, historical outcomes remain contingent in the lives of Christ’s followers. But that is why we are followers, not leaders ourselves:God makes history, we receive it and live it in thanks.

Finally, whoever we are in the midst of today’s great struggles over the truth of the Gospel, we can and should pray with one another for the triumphant victory of God. This fits nicely with the season of Advent’s orientation, but it is an orientation that the Church reminds us of each year precisely because we tend to run from it: we live “now in the time of this mortal life”, yet “awaiting” the fullness of Christ’s visibly historical dominion. And thus our lives are deeply marked by 
yearning not by “fulfillment”, and we ought to measure our lives and ministries by such yearning, and not by their accomplishments. The place we yearn is in prayer, and prayer with one another: “thy Kingdom come!”, we exclaim; and with “two or three” gathered in such exclamation, we are given the gift of tasting its fruit. Find someone to pray with, in the Church – find others to yearn with as we say together, “Maranatha!”, Lord come!

There are many other things one can and should do in this era of the Church’s life – things that have to do with mission and congregational formation and teaching and so on. But unless these
more practical and strategic tasks are rightly embedded in an understanding of the Church and ecclesial life that is given over to the Lordship of Christ as the center of the Church, they will all prove disappointments and often even snares and perversions. (There are great parallels to be made between such strategically organized churches and the outcome to the French and Russian Revolutions!) Let us let God save the Church by giving Himself in Christ. We really have no choice in the matter. 

Used with permission. Originally printed in The Morning Star Monday November 28, 2011