Justin made a comment about this statement here that has lead me to believe that perhaps I ought to clarify what exactly I mean by my offhanded comments about how the theology I was taught conflicts with my own experience of God in His word and as lived out in community. I will respond to Cindy's comment next, but first I want to lay this foundation.
"Clint and I have been on a journey in the past few years to put together intellectually the theology we have learned in the school of hard knocks and compare it with the theology we were (and sometimes still are) explicitly taught, which was not wrong, but seemed strangely out of focus. A lot about Justification and such."
Once upon a time, in the late 1990's, a teenage girl lived in the small suburban town just outside Indianapolis, Indiana. When her family moved to Indiana a few years before they began attending the First Baptist Church in town, just like they had where she lived before, although this one was an Independent Baptist church, while she had grown up on the sweet hymns of the Southern Baptist church. She was a quiet and shy girl, but she was very passionate about everything she did. More than anything else she was passionate about learning, and especially learning about God. If she had been a boy, her pastor probably would have marked her for The Ministry. But she was not a boy and she wasn't all that interested in The Ministry, she was just a girl who wanted to know God.
First Baptist Church was a conservative church with a really solid foundation--the Word of God. Sermons on Sunday were usually a simple explanation of a Biblical text with an application for the life of the believer and a gospel presentation with an altar call. Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday night, the teaching was solid, based on a literal interpretation of the Bible. The gospel was simply taught, "Do you struggle with guilt? Are you lonely? Do you feel incomplete and insufficient? Come to God and he will heal you." Nearly every sermon ended with a simple presentation of the gospel: God loves us very much, but we sin and this separates us from God. Jesus died to make things right between us and God. If we accept his sacrifice we can have access to God.
Now, beyond this, the church was dedicated to theological education. They encouraged young people to consider attending the Christian college that both the pastors had attended. They taught the scriptures faithfully in the Sunday Schools and were excited when the girls parents started an AWANA Bible memory club, although they did miss their old King's Kids children's ministry a little. They taught church members how to Do Devotions, reading the Bible and praying daily, then journaling about it to keep record of prayers answered. They encouraged missions, put on Christmas and Easter plays, Vacation Bible Schools and a basketball league, and once a year encouraged church members to give a Thanksgiving offering worth a whole week's salary.
The girl learned a lot of God's Word by heart. She learned some helpful methods for studying the Bible on her own. But as she read and learned to walk with God, she was puzzled when she looked around her at the church. Everyone seemed so surprised by her diligence, and sometimes offended, as though they felt threatened by it. In fact, the church itself seemed pretty isolated from the community. Although the gospel presentation was delivered weekly, there seemed to very seldom be anyone but the regular church members to hear it. The ministries of the church were not really based in building relationships with the surrounding community but preaching this gospel to it from an arm's length. The church was so zealous about a literal reading of the scriptures that they were suspicious of other churches in the community. Teenagers in the church, while very busy and successful, often felt dissatisfied with the church and some left it when they left home or got in trouble at public school. Adult leaders in the church fell into some pretty serious sexual sins, even a pastor was caught stealing money from the church "to make ends meet." For some reason, the girl was convinced that while churches are always made up of sinful and broken people, this church was lacking the power of God because of some misfocus in their theology.
She went to the college that the pastors had graduated from, because she felt that God called her to go there. It was a wonderfully safe and joyful environment to learn about God and his world, but the longer she was there, the more she felt that something was still missing in their theology, it was too comfortable and it wasn't translating to life, even inside the bubble. Too many students were experiencing genuine pain that was being swept under the rug. Too many questions went unanswered and there seemed to be a genuine fear of answering them. Too many students who genuinely loved God were burning out, falling into shame, and being rejected.
So, as she went out from school, first to study abroad, then through academic study, and finally as a graduate in the Real World of work, she was looking high and low for this missing theological wisdom. She stopped reading her Bible as much, it seemed to become encoded only with this depressing limited theology, and she couldn't break through to really see it as it was. She didn't feel like she was abandoning the Faith, she felt that as she was growing up and following God into different places and experiences, the Faith no longer had any room for her questions. She began to look at other churches that did have room for her. Some of them were intriguing, but ultimately seemed too far a leap. In her travels she found a few churches that seemed to accept her as she was and help answer her questions, they happened to be Anglican. Though she couldn't read the Bible much, she read a lot of books by Christians outside her school's "cannon".
Her first calling in the Real World was as an inner city teacher. She was light years away from the Christian environment she had grown up in. The students were dealing with crap she had never had to deal with, abuse, violence, death, injustice, sexual immorality. Her leaders were anything but godly in the way they dealt with things. She discovered in herself Anger and all kinds of other vices that she never knew she had. She began to feel the weight of the real spiritual warfare in the world. In some ways it was still just Life, but a distilled version of all the Life that her original church had never really seemed able to deal with--pain, suffering, injustice, racial prejudice, the real consequences of sin and guilt.
But one day she opened the Word again and, not really knowing where to start, she turned to all the verses that meant the most to her back as a teenager, the ones they didn't really emphasize at church or college, mostly passages from the gospels about the Kingdom of God. "Repent," Jesus had said, "for the Kingdom of God is at hand." A lightbulb went off in her mind. There was nothing wrong with the theology of Justification, the gospel her church had preached, only maybe it had been more appropriate for a previous generation for whom dealing with guilt was the main issue (see here). It was just that telling it that way in our generation gave the prayer to accept Christ's sacrifice a kind of finality. Everyone had low expectations for what happened after that. She had sort of settled for the world's definition that being a Christian meant praying The Prayer, then going to church and telling other people the Gospel and living a generally good life according to the guidelines set out in God's Word--being involved in church, not doing Bad things like smoking, drinking, having extramarital sex. But she don't know how many in her church had seriously considered that repenting meant taking up the process of handing over every Good thing in life that could become an idol (wealth, comfort, family, independence, education, success, career, romantic love), and following God no matter what it cost, no matter how uncomfortable it made them, and living for His Kingdom alone. This had always come across more like an add on a bit like a bait and switch sales tactic (God will heal your hurts... but now he wants you to be his slave). But the Gospel Jesus told involved a rich young ruler giving everything away to the poor and a man who sold everything to buy the pearl of great price, no room for mere intellectual assent to the doctrine of justification there. She knew that some at church and school had really gotten it, but it was missing from the most common gospel story.
After she thought about it a while, it didn't seem like such an earth-shattering revelation, it was embarassingly simple and had been right in front of her face all along. She had read it in a variety of books like Mere Christianity quite a while ago.
But, perhaps, she thought, this is a lesson we relearn every single day.
***As a note, I want to say that I owe so much to the church and schools I've grown up in, I wouldn't be who I am today without them. The purpose of this blog is not to blame anyone for their shortcomings, but to explain how I got to where I am now. In fact, I think that American protestantism is full of these kinds of ideas in various arrangements, and I don't want anyone to get the idea that I hate my old church or anything. I care for the people very, very much. Perhaps I critique myself more than any other.***