Bringing the pet peeve home

For those just joining us, my pet peeve is the question "Can I leave my church?", and what we have covered so far to answer that question (from Titus) are the points that [a] the church should have leaders with authority, implying more than an informal structure, and [b] the point of having leaders like this is not to have a docile flock but to have a flock which, internally, demonstrates how beautiful God's promises are.

In and of themselves, those are pretty robust. But there is a third part of Paul's letter to Titus, whether or not the verse numbers are inspired. Now, before we get to that, let me recommend a book (it's about 10 years old) to you which speaks indirectly to why we think about this subject (and a few others) the way we do today -- which is, I would argue, in an incomplete or truncated way. The book is The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind By Mark A. Noll. In this book, Noll talks seriously and compellingly about what has happened to the way Evangelicals think, and even what we are willing to think about, in the last 200 years. So if you want to find out something about American evangelical (bad) presuppositions, buy that book and give it one or two readers to make sure his point sinks in with you.

And I bring it up because one of the threads in his book is that we have stopped thinking about the church as a vital entity. In fact, the foundation for the consumerism obvious in our aggregate body of believers comes from the assumption that we're in the last days anyway, so the church is both apostate and becoming irrelevant.

But here's what Paul told Titus:
    Remind [the believers] to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people.
The more-alert among you will notice I didn't finish the paragraph here, but we'll get to that in a minute. Paul is here telling Titus that the church ought to be different from the world in a way which can be observed in a clear way.

Think about that: For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. That is, before we received Christ, that's how we were all the time. That's the old way of doing things -- and in case anyone missed it, Paul says that the old way is to be contrasted with the new way of being submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. See: the elders and leaders of the church aren't just figureheads. Certainly – as the London Baptist Confession of Faith says – there is only one head of the church, who is Christ Jesus, but there are those who have authority to teach and to disciple in the body, and we have some obligation to be in submission to them.

That submission should not make us docile monastics who pad around softly as if we were afraid of stirring up some human person's wrath: it should make us into courteous, gentle people who are doing things which can be seen as good work – work which represents to the world the difference between what we were and what we are today.

And Paul says that this is excellent and profitable for people – that is, the people to whom he is talking.

"But cent," says the person who really, really wants to leave his church, "dude, Paul didn’t write that to me. My pastor at my SBC church rules the place with an iron fist, and there's no room for dissention. All I want him to do is to listen to me for a minute in order to stop him from railing against a straw man he's calling 'Calvinism', and he's dead set against even listening to me. I can't keep my family here if he keeps this up."

For you, my friend, I have some sympathy – because you’re right: Paul wrote this letter to his faithful disciple and fellow worker Titus, and my guess is that Titus wasn't blacking out large sections of the Psalms, and Job, and Genesis, and Exodus, and Isaiah, etc., in order to toe the Conventional line that Calvinism makes God a bad guy. But listen: what is the solution to a church culture which is self-immolating for political reasons? Is it "let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains"? Many people think so – and it's an easy choice to make because it gets made all the time. Listen – this is why I bring up Noll's book. The urge to run away is strong, and given the plethora of good spiritual food you could choose to take instead – via podcasts and books and videos from reputable churches and pastors – you could easily continue to mature on your own ...

... except that Paul doesn’t say that believers are called to mature on their own. He says that they are called to live together to be a testimony to the beauty of God's promises, always doing good works. And maybe you get to suffer for the sake of the Gospel.

The reality check is this: eventually, one of these 21st century Medieval bishops and their cadre of lackies is going to do what my hypothetical reader here says they are doing if you attend his church, and if you bring it up to him that he's wrong (Mt 18 and all that; truth in love; gentleness and reverence), he's going to tell you that you're not qualified to correct him, and your attitude is divisive. It's going to happen in spite of prayer and good will. But the question, then, is what to do in the face of what is truly persecution for the sake of God's truth. I'm not talking about drama here: I'm talking about actually submitting to persecution for the sake of being all things to all people in order that some may be saved and share with you in the riches of the Gospel.

It seems to me that running away from a persecutor of the church who is posing as an elder or pastor is forgetting the Gospel completely. If we think in worldly terms, we think only the Islamists and secularists are persecuting the church: but truth be told, when a false teacher lampoons the Gospel and tries to drive those who know God's truth, or want to seek God's truth, out of God's church and into dispersion and seclusion, just because there's no physical lynching or rape doesn’t mean there isn't spiritual violence going on.

My suggestion to you who are reading this blog is that you love God's church more than you love a comfortable spiritual life. It's hard to love your enemies, and hard to suppress our natural love of soap opera, and to do good to those who do evil to you – but it seems to me that this is what the Gospel says we should do. And I don't see anyplace where it says, "yeah – to the liars and fornicators and atheists and idolators do that, but to screwed up pastors or self-important deacon/elders? Dude: run away from them – they can't be saved. There's no work to be done there." Paul certainly commands the elders to refute false teachers, and to have nothing to do with them is they will not be reconciled to truth – but that's to elders and not to Joe Baptist who, providentially, read the book of Romans as if Paul was actually trying to say something there.

Paul says to Titus here that inside the church is where this stuff starts. And when the church is doing this, it becomes a giant neon sign to God's glory and God's promises.

Peter had the guts to say this:

    Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And

    If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner? [Prov 11:31]

    Therefore let those who suffer according to God's will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.
The church ought to be beautiful – by example if it works the way God has intended and commanded, and by the suffering of the saints if not. Starting a new "fellowship" because you're not able to keep the old one is utterly antithetical and self-refuting.

That's a good place to stop today – but I'm sure the question of the Reformation (or those who think they are about to start a new reformation) will come up. That's what the meta is for, and I'm sure I'll have a few more words on this as time permits.