Follow me on Twitter @revbrock

Sunday, October 13, 2013

On Welfare

On Welfare
Delivered at Madison Chapel, Madison, MS
The 21st Sunday of Pentecost

In his 2011 book The Triumph of Christianity, Rodney Stark explains how the great story of Christianity is one of progressive consolidation, reformation, and differentiation.[1] He concludes that Christianity’s triumph is history is a function of its adaptability and portability: the Gospel has been communicated in so many places, languages, and societies that it has been able to survive persecution, progress, and patronage.

Triumph as a result of Christianity’s need for survival has become a now-fading ethos of triumphalism. There can be little doubt that the world we created in America has either crumbled or never was real to begin with. We are left in an unfamiliar position: the church in America is not accustomed to holding a position of declining cultural influence.

But are we actually in a period of decline? The Gospel and its ecclesial expressions are more prevalent than ever, but these expressions are not “our” type of church, so we perceive that it is the Church, and therefore the Gospel that is failing.[2] Although the discussion and sensationalism of the “marginalization of Christianity” is false, we do find ourselves in a new place, a no-man’s land between what we thought was important and what is next. This “margin” is where we find Jesus in his encounter with the ten lepers.

As we have no doubt heard, leprosy was as much a social disease as it was a physical ailment in the ancient world. Contracting any number of skin diseases was cause enough to be separated from one’s community. The experience of losing the functioning community was grotesquely paralleled by the loss of physical functions brought about by the disease. Once these lepers had been excluded from those things they knew, they were forced into a new community somewhere else and with someone else.

In the masterfully-crafted Lukan narrative we encounter Jesus, who is between “merely” preaching, teaching, and healing and the great turmoil that will surround him upon his arrival into Jerusalem, the city to which he has “set his face.”[3] It is this margin, this in-between-ness that serves as a theme for the passage. The lepers are between societies, moving from absolute exclusion toward (we hope) reception and welcome. Jesus is moving from the rural ministry of Galilee toward the cross. For this moment, though, all of these characters are “between Samaria and Galilee.”

Jesus is here acting and moving between culture and religion. He is speaking between both so that both may hear and know that the in-breaking Kingdom of God is something more than either. It is not such a leap to suggest that the Church in our beloved Mississippi is, at this very time, in a place of “margins” and between-ness.

The setting of our Baptist churches in Mississippi is a convergence of the triumph and triumphalism of Evangelical Christianity. We are living out the consequences of the two great forces of these triumphs: mission and dominance.

Baptists have been motivated from the very start by a conviction to share the Gospel to the entire world.[4] We have shed our tendency toward restorationism, that is, the belief that the Baptist way is the only way to be the true Church, but we hold to the idea that we are a faithful representation of the New Testament Church and that evangelism and discipleship are the central tasks of that Church.[5]

Because of our powerful conviction to evangelize we have accomplished great things as Baptists. Our sense of mission (not exactly “missions” or “missional”) has urged us into all the world. We have planted and supported churches and ministries the world over that have helped millions of people confess Christ as Lord. We have worked for the relief of people in need by providing food, shelter, and medical care in the name of Christian charity. We have dug wells, build homes and hospitals, supported businesses, and helped progress where we could, knowing that the work of Kingdom ministry is both spiritual and physical.

Our mission has transformed into dominance, though, especially in our own State. We have looked upon our God-given successes and interpreted them as positions to be defended. We have looked upon the broader culture and have seen something to conquer.

We Baptists have lived into the worst definition of triumphalism, “a sense of pride that renders [us] insensitive to [our] own limitations and unappreciative of the contributions of others…[it] occurs whenever a church identifies the salvific work of God through the Church of Jesus Christ too closely with its own ecclesial life.”[6]

We exhibit “Evangelistic Triumphalism” when we “define the mission of the church almost exclusively in term[s] of evangelism…these churches under-invest in the nurture of new believers into the life-long pilgrimage of Christian discipleship.”[7] This type of triumphalism creates us-versus-them categories: “[it] celebrates its effectiveness and success in communicating the Gospel with American society, but it devalues the summons to continue to break down the walls of alienation that divide people inside and outside the church…it fails to…become the presence of Christ in the world.”[8]

We are also guilty of exhibiting “Counter-Cultural Triumphalism.” This shameful tendency pits one church or denomination against a cultural exponent, trend, or even another denomination. We “fall prey to triumphalism in the celebration of [our] obedience to [our] lofty vision of the Kingdom of God, a vision exercising judgment against all systems of worldly power as well as against those churches adapting their lifestyle according to indigenous cultural forces.”[9]

Evangelical Christianity holds sway in our state, but as it has settled into a de facto dominance of our culture it has shown its own faults. The Christian triumphalism that we have inherited can only end in ways that inhibit the Kingdom of God.

We can dominate the culture. We can exclude, persecute, and boycott. We can plant ourselves so firmly that we cannot move no matter how hard the Spirit blows. We will lose the Gospel of the Cross when we aim to rule.

We can retreat. We can develop the Church into a seceded territory within a condemned culture. We can be isolated in our certainty of truth. We can build a pristine Baptist ghetto where we are right and the world can go to hell. Our triumph, or rather our bitter defeat and withdrawal, means the loss of our God-commissioned witness to the world.

The false reality of Christian triumphalism needs to be replaced with a kingdom-specific perspective on our role in this or any State. If the church finds a true home in the margin, the no-man’s land, then our ideas of either dominion or retreat must be abandoned for the good of that same Church.

Jeremiah’s letter to the Exiles is an essential case study for such a re-evaluation of our more authentic life as a Baptist church. The captives who have been taken to Babylon lived a highly pressurized life on the margin. They were expected to assimilate into the broader Babylonian culture, much as we see demonstrated with Daniel and his friends. They were pulled into a choice between becoming more “hard shell” and preserving their Temple-less religion or losing their identity as a people called by God. Certainly this choice was not one black-and-white decision but was rather the understandable consequence of the innumerable life choices each exiled family made.

Our great fear is that as we accommodate to the broader culture that we will lose whatever distinctiveness we have as Baptists, a long-held and fundamental belief that persists in our denominational psyche. If we hear the words of Jeremiah to “seek the good of the city” we imagine theological liberalism, a loss of distinctive identity, and a Church as transient as the culture around it.[10] The exiles feared the same things that drive our neighbors and us into the hegemony of triumphalism, that is, that the calling of God will be subsumed into a generic, American Christian civil religion.

Christian triumphalism tempts us to pray for “the good old days” rather than for “the good of the city.” “The temptation, all too easy, is to cling to the dream that this is a passing phase, quickly to be reversed; or worse to demonize the wider society and to cut oneself off in a counter-cultural ghetto…The future of the Church, its wellbeing and welfare, will be wrapped up with its ability to work for and to contribute to the welfare of the society in which it is set.”[11]

We can see the shifting cultural tides as a new Babylonian Captivity of the Church, prating for either God’s swift return or God’s punishing justice on our “enemies.” This is certainly the stance of the fundamentalists, who would rather burn it down or shut it down than work, truly work for the good of any city. The lack of compromise seems to be the faithful stance - the Gospel or nothing! - but in fact it is a symptom of the fear and paranoia that we are losing the power we never really had.

Let us be a people about the welfare of the city. We need to re-imagine the church’s role and responsibility in our present setting. Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles stings the hearts of those who see “fighting the good fight” as digging in against the world around us. It is a God-ordained call to give up on the good-old-days and to get on with the holy business of doing life together.

Those who see the exile as a punishment for faithlessness need to re-evaluate their setting; it is better to understand the exile as a consequence and as a further revision to God’s dealings with God’s fickle people. To pray for the welfare of Babylon is to invite danger into our hearts; for certainly as we ourselves invest in the good of our own city we run the risk of interacting with people who disagree with our most precious faith.

What is a Baptist church’s role in the midst of a city and state like ours? Certainly it is to maintain those things that make us Baptists to begin with. We will preserve our conviction that the proclamation of the Gospel, though our lives and words, is foremost in our identity. We will pray for our city, its works and its wants. We will participate in it so far as our consciences will allow. We will hold up the Gospel of Jesus Christ and bear witness to that Gospel in our lives, words and deeds.

We have not been taken into exile, and we are not a persecuted minority; however, we do find ourselves in a season of transition. Will we embrace the city springing up around us or will we pray for our own triumph?

My vision of the church in Mississippi during this time of transition is of a group of disciples who abandon both their ability to dominate and their desire to secede. The church in this way neither leads the culture nor follows it, but rather participates in the wider culture on the church’s own terms.

I wonder about those 10 lepers. At least one of them had no business going up to Jerusalem to the priests - he was a Samaritan. Jesus healed these margin-men, but the joy of that moment goes even beyond that cure. The 9 lepers went on to the priests and were restored to everything they had ever missed and remembered. The one leper eventually went to the city, but he went within the entourage of faith in Jesus, who was going to Jerusalem to show what God was doing in the midst of the Old-Time Religion.

Doing the spiritually difficult work of being a part of the broader community means following some of the forms and patterns we are accustomed to, but it also means holding on to them loosely as we follow our God into the world. Let us seek the welfare of the city, the place where God is at work. In doing so we will find our welfare, for when everything else is gone, we should be a people near to our God.

[1] Stark, Rodney, The Triumph of Christianity, Grand Rapids: Harper Collins, 2011.
[2] One of many examples of this scenario is the proliferation of Assemblies of God congregations. See
[3] Cf. Luke 9:51.
[4] I would focus here on Baptists in Mississippi, although this statement is surely true for all Baptists historically. Leonard, Weaver, and many others have written extensively on Baptist origins and fundamental identifiers. For the purposes of this sermon, see Leavell, Z.T. and T. J. Bailey, A Complete History of Mississippi Baptists from the Earliest Times (2 vols.), Jackson, MS: MS Baptist Publishing Co., 1904.
[5] I would include ministries of relief and mercy in these two broader categories, lest I be accused of short-circuiting my own argument below.
[6] Tupper, Frank E., “Biblicism, Exclusivism, Triumphalism: The Travail of Baptist Identity,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 29 no 4, 411-426.
[7] Ibid, 421.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid, 422.
[10] “Theological Liberalism” is probably a misnomer. See Roger Olson’s article on the subject:
[11] Riches, John, “Sermon on Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7,” The Expository Times 118 no 12, 600-601.

No comments:

Post a Comment