Is grace the enemy of excellence?

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I’ve often thought that “Christian music” is by definition bad, in that, last I checked “Christian” wasn’t a genre, and if the music was any good, it would be able to compete with the big boys and wouldn’t need to restrict itself to a particularly easily-pleased subculture.

Moving away from music and thinking about competence in general, Hazel, in a recent comment, went further and suggested that the common attitude was

…it doesn’t matter about the poor quality as long as we’re Christian.

I think I’m now prepared to go one further and say that

The concept of “grace” does not mean that you can do your job badly and I have to forgive you.

Or… does it?

Or is “grace” actually a barrier to excellence? I don’t have any easy answers about this; I’m struggling with it.

Until recently, my first reaction would have been that incompetence in public is bad witness. Christian music ought to be better because most of what’s out there with that label is frankly embarrassing. But obviously Christian-on-Christian incompetence doesn’t fall into that category.

I’m also aware that grace is radically opposed to the priorities of the world, in ways that can seem strange, so I’m not going to be the best judge of when it’s appropriate or not. It’s also profoundly counter-cultural, and I’m still very much a product of my own culture. So I’m very aware that I personally have difficulty with expressing as much grace as other Christians expect. But I also happen to know that a few days ago, some people who had severely messed me about got together and talked about… my character flaws in not sitting back and taking it, and that they dragged into the discussion other experiences that they’d had with or heard of about me - mostly completely irrelevant to the issue at hand - in order to further besmirch the messenger. The problem wasn’t them messing me about; the problem was obviously me.

We are in danger, I think, of making people’s reactions to failure a bigger issue than the failure itself, or indeed shifting the discussion from my failure to the person affected by it and how gracious or otherwise they are - in other words, emphasis on grace over competence has the tendency to generate a blame-the-victim culture in Christianity. (And I know Hazel understands what I’m talking about!) Whether you see this as spiritual abuse or as constructive criticism depends entirely on the priority you place on grace.

Incidentally, for all the talk of bearing with each other’s failures, I find very few Christians who are able to make anything other than black-or-white judgements of another’s character: one cannot be, for instance, “an excellent missionary who struggles sometimes with X” - the grade is either a hundred percent, or it is zero.

I’m sure, also, that there are generational factors in play. “Postmission” talks about the tendency for postmodern missionaries not to take shit from anyone, and the tendency for modern mission leaders to label such people as “troublemakers”. But while I recognise this is a real difference in worldview, I still think it’s mentally lazy and ethically questionable to play the man not the ball.

I think a key text in making sense of this for me is Romans 6, where Paul argues vehemently (I’m told that this is also a dangerous character flaw - or maybe that only applies to me) that we shouldn’t keep sinning just because we’re under grace. Since this chapter has got caught up in the interminable and unhelpful legalism-versus-licence arguments, I think we automatically apply it to the vertical relationship between God and man. But surely it equally applies to the horizontal relationship between Christians: grace does not have a priority over injury, because to take another’s grace for granted demonstrates a lack of love for them.

I’m still thinking this all through. What do you think?

Update: Mat, who shares my pain but got to this article before I’d remembered to turn comments on, graciously (heh, heh) let me share a bit of an email he sent me:

But what am I saying? Is there really no place for professionalism in mission (or any other sphere of Christian life)? Or is it just that some people who place a high value on competence will always be seen as second-rate Christians because they complain or criticise too much? Like you said, failure and incompetence are okay, but having high standards is unforgivable.

I also remembered that I was going to write something about how we handle incompetence in “relational” organisations like churches and mission agencies, but I don’t really know what to say so I’ll make that a question too: Do we have to keep incompetent people on just because we’re “family” and we know it would look bad and disloyal to fire them? Should we bear with one another at all costs?