More slicing-and-dicing the church

Every Friday my pastor and I meet up for a chat. We talk about theology, sociology, Japan, the Japanese church, how things are going, on so on. And we study theology together. When we first got together, we read through my dissertation on leadership together, in English, and I took the teacher role. Then after that, we read Mitsuo Fukuda’s book on contextualised church together, in Japanese, and he took the teacher role. Now we’re studying one of my favourite books, Bosch’s “Transforming Mission.” Since the Japanese translation has just come out, I’m going through it in English and he’s going through it in Japanese, but since I’ve already read it, like, a million times, I’m taking the teacher role again.

Bosch is very influenced by the liberation movement, and I’m very influenced by Bosch, so one of the things I had to do was to try to explain why liberationism is not scary. To someone steeped in the evangelical tradition, and trained at Bible college to have a sharpened hatred of liberals, this can be pretty tricky to do. This is how I went about it.

I explained that Jesus’ ministry had three main parts: (1) he preached the coming Kingdom of God; (evangelistic proclamation) (2) he taught sermons about ethics and how we should behave; (ethical teaching) (3) he healed the sick and welcomed the oppressed and challenged the corrupt structures of society. (social action)

This is quite a handy analysis in lots of ways. For instance, the evangelical Japanese church focuses on part 1. (Massive stereotypes will abound throughout this post, but that’s par for the course.) But when it comes to discipleship, the focus is one part 2: now you’re a Christian, these are the rules you have to follow. Part 3 is sadly absent. The liberal Japanese church focuses on part 3, but its discipleship is equally based on part 2. Part 1 is sadly absent.

For the past hundred years, the church has been running a pitched battle between Evangelicals and Liberals. The church where I come from in Oxford is very good at part 1. It tends to leave ethics, part 2, to individual conscience and the witness of the Holy Spirit, although there is some light ethical teaching. It is just about waking up to part 3. We expect Evangelicals to work in areas 1 and 2, and Liberals to work in areas 2 and 3.

The ironic thing is that the 19th and early 20th century evangelicals worked primarily in areas 1 and 3. The Clapham Sect had both a fervent belief in the power of the Kingdom of God and a consuming desire to eradicate the evil and injustice of slavery.

Digression: At Bible college, one of the things I most enjoyed was giving a tour of the college to visitors during the college’s Open Day. We started in the lobby, where the windows were frosted with the crest of the Buxton family who originally owned the house. The Buxtons were classical evangelicals in the mould I have just described. Part of their coat of arms is a beer barrel. Why, I used to ask my visitors, would good Evangelical Christians have a beer barrel on their crest? The answer is this: Thomas Buxton saw that, at the time, one of the more common temptations for the poor and destitute in London was gin, and gin really rots your insides. Wanting to stop the rot, he brewed and popularised beer, which at least is not per se dangerously unhealthy. He and his friends the Guinnesses had compassion on the poor of London and in doing so changed the way Britain drinks. Next time you have a beer in the UK, raise your glass to the Buxtons and the Guinnesses, without whose Evangelical faith and Christian compassion you would probably not be drinking. End of digression.

Back to our analysis. I thought it interesting, as a back-of-an-envelope thing, to place various Christian leaders within this matrix of proclamation, teaching and action. Now I’d be the first to admit that this isn’t a good way to slice and dice Christian thought. If anyone ever gives me a schema based on three axes, I’d be the first to say “Why three? Why not four? Why not seventeen?” Of course there are many more dimensions that can, and should be, added. So I am not claiming that this is the be-all-and-end-all. I’m just claiming that it opened my eyes a little.

Oh, and the other thing I should say is that most, if not all, of the leaders I placed on this diagram, I know very little about. I’ve never actually read a single damned thing of Luther. Most of the people on there are there due to reputation rather than due to intimate understanding of their writings and thought. We can argue about the exact placings later, if you like, but I still think it’s a useful matrix for understanding people:

This exercise has given me a new respect for Wesley. And it’s reminded me that I really need to do more about the Sentamu-for-Pope campaign. And of course, I am reminded that my liberationist tendencies - and my liberal tendencies - and my evangelical tendencies - all need to be brought together, and brought into the service of the One. As with all things, balance.