Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Spiritual Anorexia

The triumph of style over content is one of the defining features of contemporary British society. “Cool Britannia,” the inane “sound bite” of current political culture, represents the dominating influence in society of an infantile world-view that prioritises outward appearance and the superficial and denigrates the deeper, more fundamental spiritual questions about life for which the condition of our society, and indeed the world, demands an answer. This triumph of the ephemeral and the superficial prioritising of the unimportant over the vital questions facing mankind has led modern society to cast aside much of the valuable spiritual, intellectual, moral and cultural heritage that previous generations have put at our disposal.

This deleterious trend has been as evident in the life of the Church as it has been in the rest of society. The result has been that the mission of the Church has been vitiated by the dominating influence of the trivial. What the preacher is wearing, his acceptance in the right clique, i.e. whether he can drop the right names, his ability to speak without notes and amuse his audience (histrionics) all take precedence over the content of the message, with the result that the ministry is no longer focused on the training and equipment of the members of the congregation for service in the world when they leave the church building but rather on giving the right impression, and often this amounts to no more than a game of “spiritual” one-upmanship or keeping up with the Church down the road. The consequence is that the Church becomes irrelevant in society because she is no longer being properly equipped to fulfil her true mission, indeed she no longer recognises her true mission. The cult of personality replaces the preacher’s calling under God to equip those under his care for service and outward appearance dominates the life of the Church instead of the pursuit of the cultural mandate.

If we look to the Bible, however, we see, both in the Old Testament and the New, that this attitude is a worldly infatuation, an attitude that is contrary to the teaching of Scripture and that should have no part in the life of the Church. The Old Testament prophets were almost to a man outsiders, people who did not fit in with the prevailing old-boy network and whose uncompromising stance against the apostate fashions of the times puts them in stark contrast to the men of the ministry who overwhelmingly dominate modern Church life, yet whose leadership has taken the Church in Britain to utter ruin. As Jesus said of John the Baptist, the last of the Old Testament prophets, “What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with wind? But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. But what went ye out to see? A prophet? yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet” (Mt.11:7–9). The prophets were not great orators who entertained the political leaders or the people of Israel with fine appearances, men-pleasing social connections, charismatic personalities and inspiring preaching. Not a few of them found the whole business of speaking for God difficult precisely because they were not great orators. One did not invite a prophet in to give a politically correct after dinner speech or deliver a congenial homily—which is what most preaching amounts to today. The same applies in the New Testament. Christ did not choose for his disciples respectable pillars of society who fitted in well with the religious authorities of the day so that they would give a good impression. He chose for the work of his kingdom those who were without the necessary credentials for leadership in the eyes of the scribes and Pharisees. Even the apostle Paul, who was, before his conversion to the Christian faith, an accepted member of the Jewish religious establishment, was not regarded as a charismatic speaker and natural leader by many in the Church, even among those who had been converted by his ministry. He had to defend his apostleship not only against the Jewish leaders of the Church in Jerusalem, who had promulgated as dogma a criterion for apostleship, i.e. a “qualification,” that Paul did not have and could never have had (namely to have been one of the disciples from the beginning—Acts 1:21–22), but also against those in the Gentile Church who complained that his letters were “weighty and powerful; but his bodily presence is weak and his speech contemptible” (2 Cor. 10:10). And he rebuked the Corinthians in this very context for looking at the outward appearance, the style if you like, rather than at the substance, the content, of the message (2 Cor. 10:7).

The Bible rejects the prioritising of style over content that so dominates the modern world (Jn 7:24). The Church’s acquiescence in this worldly trend is a departure from the straight and narrow path of the Christian faith. The loss of substance and content in the proclamation and practice of the Church, indeed the deliberate rejection of the content of the faith in much of modern British Church life,—one might justifiably characterise this as an obsession with ignorance, which is often perversely seen as a superior spiritual condition—has created a Church that is emaciated and weak to the point of being virtually useless. The Church is sick. She suffers from malnutrition as a result of her infatuation with the outward appearance, the ephemeral, which cannot provide the spiritual sustenance that she needs in order to grow and mature into a healthy body. Spiritual anorexia is the only fitting description of this condition.

The answer to the dilemma that this situation poses is, of course, that the Church must abandon her obsession with the outward, with mere style, and return to the Bible. The content of the Christian faith as a biblical world-view, a way of thinking and living in the light of biblical revelation, must be embraced. This way of life must be intellectual as well as emotional, theoretical as well as practical. It must embrace the whole man in the whole course of his life, in his thoughts, emotions, will and actions, and it must embrace his social life no less than his individual devotional life. Only by living in this way can the Church, i.e. the community of the faithful, provide an alternative culture to the culture of sin and death that presently surrounds her and thereby fulfil her role as the conduit through which God’s salvation in Jesus Christ is manifested to the world. Without this antithesis, however, the Church is no use, has no role to play, and has become worthless to the world, fit only to be trodden under foot by men. Men-pleasing, following the fads and fashions of the world, the constant infatuation with style over content, is death for the Christian Church, and therefore death for the world, which is the Church’s mission field. The Church must repent of her abandonment of the vigorous spiritual, moral and intellectual content of the Christian message, and by embracing this content in her thoughts and actions once again provide light to a fallen world. The discipling of the nation to Christ cannot take place without this change of mind by the Church, without repentance.

Yet we face a problem at this point. Many Christians do not know what repentance is nor what they need to repent of. And this condition is only made worse by a ministry that is unable to provide spiritual guidance for the Church and that has substituted infantile entertainment for spiritual edification. Let me give an example. I recently went to hear someone speak in a church about the problems confronting Christians living under Muslim rule. His talk raised some important questions that Christians in Britain, and indeed most other Western countries, need to face. There was a brief time after his talk for questions and some discussion. After about 15 minutes of this the speaker was asked what he thought was the way ahead for the Church in Britain. His answer was “repentance.” However, immediately after this and before we had opportunity to discuss what this meant, the leaders of the Church brought the meeting to an abrupt end by announcing the final chorus. The opportunity to think through the issue facing us was snatched from under our noses and the meeting ended with the singing of a banal chorus that totally destroyed the atmosphere of serious contemplation that had up until that point characterised the meeting. The serious issues that had been raised in the meeting and that needed further discussion were effortlessly dispelled by the dominating triviality of the final chorus. Before leaving the church I asked two of the Church leaders what they thought about what the speaker had said at the end. They both agreed that what the Church needs to do is repent. When I said that the word repentance (metanoia) in the New Testament means a change of mind and asked what we needed to change our minds about I was faced with a look of total blankness.

The point is simply this: it is impossible to change one’s mind if there is nothing going on in one’s mind in the first place. And this is sadly the condition of much of the Church today. The only thing vaguely related to the Christian faith that occupies the minds of many Christians is banal choruses, the superficial and the ephemeral, which has little relevance to the daily life of faith and how this should be different from the way the world lives. There is virtually no content to the life of faith for the Church much of the time and therefore the superficial and the ephemeral take on an importance out of all proportion to what they should have. And what little content there is often amounts to an infantile infatuation with choruses and “doing the actions” like little children. The content of most Church services in Britain today is moronic, i.e. adults behaving like little children. The Oxford Concise Dictionary defines a moron as “an adult with a mental age of about 8–12.” This adequately defines the condition of spiritual life for much of the Church in Britain today—adults with the spiritual maturity, and often the intellectual immaturity, of children.

How does the Church expect to win the world for Christ, to constitute a new, alternative society that will grow and overtake the culture of secular humanism in our land, with an attitude like this? How can such moronic spiritual behaviour generate a mature Christian culture capable of leading the world rather than being led by it? Does the Church expect to win the world, to lead the nation culturally? Probably the question has ceased to have any relevance or meaning in the lives of most Christians. Christianity is not perceived as a life- and culture-transforming religion anyway, not even by most Christians, but rather as a free ticket to the afterlife. Instead of being a religion it has become a mere mystery cult practised in a ghetto.

This is not the Christian faith (biblical religion). The Bible teaches that the Church is to disciple the nations to Christ, i.e. bring the nations under the discipline of Jesus Christ so that they will serve God by submitting to his authority and rule. The Church has not fulfilled her mission until the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ (Rev. 11:15 cf. Ps. 2). Our calling is to subdue the world for the glory of God (the cultural mandate—Gen. 1:27–28; 2:15; 9:1–7) by discipling the nations to Christ (the Great Commission—Mt. 28:19–20; Mk 16:15; 2 Cor. 10:5). If we are to fulfil this mission we must understand the content of the Christian faith and we must be prepared to live accordingly. And this means we must be prepared to make the sacrifices that the fulfilment of this mission involves, since there can be no progress in the kingdom of God without the Church being prepared to take up her cross for Christ’s sake. All progress in the work of the Kingdom involves tribulation (Acts 14:22) i.e. the living sacrifice of obedience to the covenant.

A Church suffering from spiritual anorexia does not have the strength to fulfil the Great Commission. This condition is the result of the Church’s neglect and abandonment of the content, the substance, of biblical faith for the fads and fashions of the modern secular world in which we live. Without a return to the vigorous spiritual, moral and intellectual tradition of the Church the nation will not be won for Christ. Without this the world has no reason to listen, and the Church has nothing to offer. Non-believers do not need to get their secular lifestyles second hand from the Church, mediated through an irrelevant and stifling Christian sub-culture. They can get it direct from the source. Christianity is a religion, i.e. an overarching structure to human life that anchors both the individual and the society to which he belongs in God’s will for man in Christ, not a mystery cult centred on mere devotion to Jesus. The Bible has a world-view of its own, and it is our duty to think and live in terms of this world-view. This is a totally different way of life from that of the world. Christendom is a kingdom in its own right that must conquer all other kingdoms. It is our calling to live as subjects of this kingdom. This means that we must abandon the idolatry that characterises the life of the world and commit ourselves to the covenant life of faith that the Bible sets before us as the only way of obedience. This way stands in stark contrast to the way that the unbelieving world lives. If the antithesis between the Church and the world is not obvious in an age of apostasy such as our own the Church has failed. The only obedient course of action is repentance, a change of mind that will work itself out in every sphere of life.

Anorexia is a behavioural problem not a disease. The state of spiritual anorexia in which the Church finds herself today is also a behavioural problem, a result of her unwillingness to feed the mind with the word of God and an infatuation with the world that is sapping her bones. What an anorexic person needs is nourishment that will build up the body so that it can function properly. What the spiritually anorexic Church needs is the word of life, the spiritual, moral and intellectual nourishment that can only come from understanding God’s word. But just as the anorexic person cannot get better if she is unwilling to eat, so too the anorexic Church cannot grow and mature into her God-given role unless she is prepared to repent of her refusal to feed her mind with the word of God. The Church must abandon the worldly prioritising of style over content and subject her mind to the word of God. “Be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Rom. 12:2).

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