Many Churches, but Still One Body?
(For Part 1, click here)
Now, before you think I’m being too pious - or liberal - the reason I’m asking these questions is because these are issues I’m struggling with myself. This isn’t just some random theoretical mind-bender. Is the reason why evangelical Christianity has become so tedious, duplicitous, and oftentimes hollow at least partly because we really don't care about each other? We really don't want to live in unity? We have contrived reasons for getting around Paul's admonition for treating others better than ourselves, and consider conceit and envy only undesirable instead of intolerable?
I suspect that if this is the case, it helps to explain why believers have become so ineffective in our North American culture.
For instance, is the reason evangelical voters in the United States are so quick to assail universal healthcare not because we really fear big government's control of healthcare, but because we've lost genuine compassion for people facing huge medical costs? Has our individual wealth become our own property to the extent where the thought of sharing another person's financial burdens for their physical care seems blasphemous?
I'm not saying that Obamacare represents fiscally-responsible legislation. Personally, I think the Obama/Pelosi/Reid plan is a travesty of belligerent political hubris which does nothing to address the real crisis in healthcare these days: out-of-control costs. To oppose this current iteration of healthcare "reform" isn't unBiblical. But many conservative opponents want nothing to do with paying for the needs of other people whatsoever, calling any such attempts wealth redistribution for unearned entitlements. It's to those people - many of them self-proclaimed pew-warmers - I direct my questions of whether the Bible gives us the luxury of deciding unilaterally what we can do with the money entrusted to us.
Let's step away from politics and look at an even more universally-accepted phenomenon in Christianity: the continuous niche-carving of churches in North America.
I’ve attended the same Presbyterian church for almost 11 years now, but I'm not officially a member. One of the reasons I’ve never become a member of this church involves their practice of infant baptism. I don’t think it’s wrong, but neither do I consider infant baptism to be the best expression of the baptismal sacrament. So for myself, I’ve set up some strictures which distinguish how I view one of the two sacraments of the church universal. Indeed, I’d make an ideal Reformed Baptist, if we had one here in the Dallas-Fort Worth area that also met my stringent criteria for corporate worship.
My point is that most of us believers have already developed some sophisticated rationales for why we worship where we worship. And we feel justified in doing so for a number of reasons, including the basic religious freedoms readily available in the United States, the plethora of seminary grads who all seem destined to plant their own churches regardless of community need, and the good ol’ individualistic American mindset which affirms multiplicity of values and expression. We also have, as the church has evolved, developed some sophisticated rationales for not following basic Biblical commands and precepts, which has led to the existence of denominations which do not preach the Gospel, which do not seek to honor God, and from which many believers have been led in their search for genuine doctrine.
With all of this, however, unity becomes ever more fractured, and while we all know this intellectually, we have a hard time overcoming it in practice. Which makes me wonder the extent to which we’re doing ourselves a disservice – and more importantly, dishonoring God – by actually being champions of social, political, economic, and even doctrinal policies which create divisions in our churches and secular communities. I'll come back to this thought later.
Church Saturation in North America
Regarding our multiplicity of denominations and churches, however, I understand why we have the major divisions that have developed in Christianity; why Calvinist Presbyterians and Armenian Baptists worship separately, for example. But even within our present-day stratification of evangelicalism, seminary graduates - and even people without seminary degrees - continue to insist on setting up their own personal churches.
Within the past month, I've learned of two people here in Arlington, Texas, who have either started or are about to start new churches. They have come up with come funky names and identified target audiences which they hope to attract. I've seen this sort of thing for so long, that I know these pastors justify their niche marketing by saying that they've got to take the Gospel to where the people are. And on an intellectual level, I can see that. After all, we send cross-cultural missionaries half-way around the world because that's where lost people live.
But with the hundreds of churches here in our city of 350,000, representing every denomination known to mankind, I do not believe the Gospel has yet to penetrate every single neighborhood. No, 100% of Arlington's population does not attend religious services, but in terms of every person having an opportunity to hear the Gospel (if everybody who did attend church would minister to their spheres of influence), there are dozens of nations around the planet with millions of people who have yet to meet a born-again evangelical. Isn't planting more churches and creating more stratification within Arlington' s evangelical community simply a waste of resources, initiative, and seminary training?
Reclaiming Well-Care from the Main-Liners
It's no secret that in North America, several "main-line" denominations have abdicated basic Gospel theology for liberal interpretations of how the church should interact with the world. Some have actually developed a pattern of being far less conceited when it comes to material things than more evangelical churches. They look out for the welfare of others far better than conventional Gospel-preaching churches. Those of us who attend theologically conservative churches, instead of pitching in to help, often sneer and say that all these social welfare programs are doing are creating an entire sub-class of lazy people who drain resources from taxpayers.
And when we do help, such as building homes for Habitat for Humanity, we do it in groups to make it more fun. When donating clothing to a shelter, we give away mostly faded fashions, and when we buy stuff for those Christmas shoe boxes, we buy plastic junk at dollar stores instead of the same quality of things we'd buy for loved ones.
We figure "it's the thought that counts," and that "it's better than nothing," even though deep down, we know better. How do I know? Because I've done it myself.
But, as usual, I digress.
To the extent that yes, some policies have been proven to support phenomena like institutionalized poverty, I realize that some welfare programs should be completely gutted and re-worked to make people more responsible for their own well-being. To the extent that conservatives can help make this happen for the good of the needy, then we should act accordingly.
But in other cases, such as unemployment assistance, some forms of health insurance, and Social Security, Christians have yet to prove Biblically why looking after the interests of others is such a vile concept. True, the basic audience and benefactors of Paul’s mandate are believers in Christ, but since the Christian community is more vast than most of us can identify, and since church folk like to say America is a Christian nation, and since there is no efficient way to survey the American populace to determine who really is saved and who isn’t, how much more effective would it be to simply extend charity to all citizens? Instead of "welfare," we could call it "well-care."
I’m not saying evangelicals should make sure the government provides blank checks with no follow-up to anybody who wants free money. That's neither prudent nor moral. But instead of saying “my money is mine,” maybe evangelicals should be saying “the money we pay in taxes should be spent as wisely as possible,” and we should work towards strict government rules on immigration, welfare, and other well-vetted programs as long as churches aren’t going to step up to the plate and aggressively care for their own people themselves.
Because if we believe our money has been entrusted to us by God, then doesn't what Paul encourages us to do in Philippians have greater weight than our desires to bankroll our American lifestyles?