Two years ago in a sermon at the PCA General Assembly, I noted that Pastors need to wake up in America as ‘Missionary Pastors’. This is not simply because the prevailing culture is supposedly more hostile to the Gospel, or because growing communities of Islamic, Hindu, and Buddhist immigrants are becoming our neighbors, or even because so many people who once counted themselves among the Faithful have now opted out. All of those reasons are valid for cultivating a ‘mission posture’ as a Pastor, but my burden for the phrase extends to the Church itself. Why? Simply put, the Church has grown more complicit in idolatry and needs to be evangelized away from this capitulation to the present age. In the time that has passed since that message, the need has only grown more urgent.
Christians might object to the notion that idolatry is prevalent in our hearts and churches, but even a cursory reading of Scripture affords ample warning to us that they are a great danger to us. In the Old Testament we find Israel frequently crossing over into idol worship; indeed, from the very outset of their Exodus journey to the Land of Promise, we read that they began to worship the golden calf at Sinai. The New Testament is likewise filled with exhortations to people who are already Christians to flee from idols.
We might dismiss these concerns with a shrug thinking that since we don’t bow down to stone and metal images or pray and sacrifice to them, that we are not going to be in danger from their influence. But the ancient world was simply making a visible image of what we invisibly do in our hearts and minds. They had gods for war, fertility, sex, beauty, prosperity, knowledge, and state power, among others. Do we really think we are free from the worship of sex, power, violence, and knowledge? In fact, we ascribe ultimate meaning to many of these very things, and that’s what makes them idols.
What is an idol? God has given many gifts to us in creation and life and these are meant to lead us to him and his beauty. They were given so that we’d be more aware that only in Him can we find life. When we take these gifts that are meant to point us to the life-giver and pervert them into life sources, when we take lesser loves and make them our supreme loves, we fashion an idol. We do it with finance, relationships, possessions, prestige and position, fame, power, and politics. We expect our spouse or money or academic achievement or political leaders to fulfill or satisfy us; we make gods of them, but they cannot save us. When they fail us, as they inevitably do – when our beauty fades or our social clout is lost, when the prestigious position is no longer ours or the spouse can’t fulfill us – we turn on them with anger, or upon ourselves in shame and despair.
The Rage of Gods
Ironically, the gods that are supposed to save humans end up needing humans to save them. Diana worship in Ephesus was under threat due to the remarkable growth of the Christian Faith under Paul’s ministry there in the mid-first century. This threatened the economic power of the guild in that city and they rioted to ‘rescue’ their god from dishonor and crush the despised fledgling Christian movement (see Acts 19). “Great is Diana of the Ephesians” the mob chanted, creating a massive civil disturbance that included significant violence as well.
Idols, when threatened, usually respond with heavy duty push-back. That was true then and it is still true today. When the idols in our heart are threatened, we can respond in repentance or rage. The same is true in the Church. Is our power god threatened? The god of affluence or prestige? The god of political power? Those are not impotent powers and principalities with which to contend.
Some US Evangelicals appear to have more in common with the silversmiths of Ephesus rioting over the threats to their prosperity and primacy than they do with those receiving and rejoicing in the good news of the Savior-Lord. ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians!’ has its contemporary equivalents in our socio-political-economic world and the relationship of the visible Church to the same. We should lead with repentance but I can’t help observing the rage.
The Church on earth is not called to be a defender of the cultural status quo, but is rather the often-uncomfortable presence of a colony from another realm, witnessing to the greater Kingdom. We have been & will remain exile people, pilgrims who seek the good of the city of our earthly address, loving our neighbors & one another. This is so not only because we have no King but Jesus and Caesar must ‘take a number’, but because we are commanded to love our neighbor, including Caesar. Christians mustn’t hold the state in contempt – far from it! It’s simply that the supremacy of love for Jesus relativizes all other competing loyalties.
Recovering Our Good Name
To once again be called ‘Christian’ by the pagans (the name is not one we gave ourselves), will require of us a new posture of service and sacrifice, of humble boldness, that frames our loving fidelity to truth. Make no mistake about it: to once again turn the world upside down, the Church will have to be turned inside out. We must be humble missionaries to all, starting with the broken, discarded, and ignored. We are not defenders of the powerful and elite, or even orthodoxies when these are employed to batter people down into submission rather than build them up in faith, hope, and love.
The idols are so popular in the Church that some members are more moved by politics than by the plight of those who’ve never heard of Christ, keener to know a Pastor’s position on tax policies than tota Scriptura, and sometimes define the boundaries of their fellowship not by water, wine, bread & confessional fidelity but by voter registration & party affiliation.
This is a case of cultural capitulation to the 10th power. This is as much conformity to the age as any amount of greed, envy, or licentiousness could ever be. Worse, within the Churches of the Reformation, it is a repudiation of the sacredness of personal conscience. When Luther said, “Here I Stand!” it was, he said, because it was not safe to go against Scripture or conscience. The latter point is frequently forgotten. It is now just plain trampled down by some Christian leaders who denounce religious liberty as a great danger that leads people to hell. History suggests the lack of freedom of conscience leads to hell on earth.
The Spirit’s Work and the Savior’s Love
The Holy Spirit opens hearts to believe in Jesus. Only he can do that and I trust him to do so. That same Spirit inspired Paul to write that we should pray for those in authority (I’ve written on this in previous post), and that’s the primary way we seek to relate to those in civil government. If we entrust them to God in prayer we will be less likely to treat them as gods designed to save us and who need, ironically enough, us to defend and save them.
Yet Christ, the true and living God, can save us from the idols. His perfect life and sacrificial death free us from slavery to material, relational, and personal gods we have made for our own fulfillment. We don’t have to settle for rage or despair. If we turn to God from idols, we can find life in the giver of all good gifts. The anger and fear get up and leave in the presence of love so great that it would give its life away.
So ‘missionary pastors’ recognize the remarkable and growing opportunity to bring the Gospel to a much more greatly diversifying North American society than existed fifty years ago. We humbly approach our surrounding world in those terms, looking to offer Christ in word, deed, and sign, trusting the Spirit to open hearts. We will also help church members to see this new situation not as a threat but as an opportunity, one to be embraced creatively and joyfully.
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