Thursday, July 26, 2018

Recommendation with Caveats

Several months ago, during a meeting of our denomination's Life to Life Discipleship Team of which I'm a part, a colleague mentioned that he and his congregation had read and considered a book together: I Am a Church Member: Discovering the Attitude That Makes a Difference by Thom S. Rainer.

Our congregation had read and retreated over a book Rainer co-authored several years ago, Simple Church: Returning to God's Process for Making Disciples, which had a huge impact on our mission, thinking, and ministries. We're still living out the implications of Simple Church nearly four years later and I'm sure that it will continue to help frame our thinking on what the Bible teaches the Church is to be about: being and making disciples.

So, when my colleague mentioned I Am a Church Member, I was intrigued. I immediately picked up my smartphone and ordered the Kindle version and read it before wheels touched down back home from the meeting.

I'm sold on what this little volume--only six chapters, 79-pages long--can do to Biblically charge our thinking about what it means to be part of Christ's Church.

In fact, starting in August, a neighboring congregation, Christ the King Lutheran Church, will be joining our congregation, Living Water Lutheran Church, in a six-week consideration of the teachings in I Am a Church Member. On Sunday mornings, Pastor Dona Johnson will preach to her flock and I will preach at Living Water on Biblical themes raised by the chapter of Rainer's book for that week. (We'll ask our folks to read the featured chapter in the preceding week.) Then, on Tuesdays during this period, we'll all get together to discuss the chapters. It should be fun.

But, having said all of that, I need to warn the people who read Rainer's little classic of a few quibbles I have with him.

First, Rainer assumes throughout his little book that pastors are men, usually with spouses and families. That may be true in his tradition. But I believe, on Biblical grounds, that God calls men and women into pastoral ministry.

When Jesus ushered God's kingdom and His new covenant (or new testament) into the world, one of its features was (and is) how women and men have an equal place in God's eyes. This isn't a modern sociological statement; it's Biblical.

Unlike all the other teachers of His day--male teachers, Jesus did something completely different: He talked with women to whom He was unrelated in public. It was scandalous. There are many instances of this in the gospels. It's indicative of the fact that Jesus trusted women to hear His message and be changed and shaped by it, just like men.

And in a culture that insisted that the testimony of women on any subject was invalid, Jesus chose women to be the first to proclaim (to preach!) His resurrection Easter Sunday morning.

The apostle Paul knew and appreciated this about Jesus and His Kingdom. While Paul sometimes bowed to the social conventions of communities and regions in which he founded new churches, a strategic concession, he was also known to relate to church communities in which women were leaders (think Lydia). And it was a husband and wife team that gave Paul his Christian "seminary training." No wonder that Paul wrote:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)
Even Paul's understanding of marriage, as expressed in Ephesians 5, often maligned as placing women in positions of inferiority, really, as you consider what he says, conveys the idea that marriage between husband and wife is to be a relationship of mutual submission and surrender.

Second, Rainer sometimes seems to have an inflated sense of the human capacity for living righteously in our own power.  The New Testament teaches that none of us is righteous in our inborn impulses. We're born in sin and our desire is to do what we want to do without regard to God's will for us. We are incapable of being righteous; God makes those who believe in Christ righteous. It's the only way human beings can be righteous. I am saved (and I am sanctified or made holy) entirely by God's grace through faith in Christ--a faith only made possible by the Holy Spirit, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:3.

God gifts Christ's righteousness to those who, at the prompting of the Spirit, are able to repent and believe in Jesus. Ephesians puts it this way:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork...(Ephesians 2:8-10a)
So, a few things I find in I Am a Church Member make me twitch a bit.

For example, in a little affirmation or pledge he asks readers to make near the end of one chapter, Rainer writes: "Because my pastor cannot do all things in his [sic] own power..."

But Jesus teaches something more radical than that: "I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing." (John 15:5)

One of the hard lessons I have learned as a Christian and as a pastor is that all my good intentions and efforts are meaningless, are inevitably darkened by my own sinful nature unless the God I know in Jesus is the power behind it. Believe me: Your pastor can do nothing righteous, good, or godly in his or her own power. (Neither can you.)

Another example: In a chapter in which Rainer calls on church members to commit themselves to live out a belief that the life of a church community is not about our own personal preferences (rightly, I might add), he writes: "...these commitments are not easy. In fact, without God's power they may prove impossible." (Italics mine.)

Once again, I turn to the more radical phrasing of Jesus in John 15. I am able to do all things in Christ only in the power of Jesus Christ. That's why I scrawled out "may prove" from Rainer's text and amended the sentence to read: "In fact, without God's power they ARE impossible."

Quibbles. But important ones I think.

But even with these caveats, I recommend I Am a Church Member.

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

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