“What is wrong with the American Christian Church, and how can its life and ministry be renewed?” That question, recently asked by Dr. Tim Keller, is bold. Something indeed seems wrong in many churches. We do need renewal. But our Lord has not forsaken us. If we will stay open, he will help us.
But we sure won’t make progress merely by doubling down on doctrinal orthodoxy, as if our only problem were theological erosion. That problem is real. My hunch, however, is that if you’re visiting this website, you already care about solid theology. So do I. And I sure hope we never stab our Lord in the back by betraying the truth of his gospel. But we need more than glorious concepts. Even if every Christian from sea to shining sea suddenly had accurate doctrine, there could still be something wrong with us, and we might still need renewal.
We Christians in America today are walking through pressures, temptations, strife, and exhaustion — for starters — such as I have never seen before. We have only one way forward. Our Lord above is calling us to a deeper place with himself and with one another. Our times demand shared resilience — steadfastness and solidarity together. The worst thing to do right now is drift apart. The best thing to do is strengthen our relationships, for Jesus’s sake. Then, together, we’ll be able to face any future, by God’s grace.
Beauty Amid Brutality
Here’s a good objection to what I’m proposing: we’re lousy at staying friends. Our love just doesn’t last. We fragment too easily, walk away too quickly, stand aloof too stubbornly. And how can we face the opposition of an adversarial world when we can’t even get along together as Christians? It’s time to turn a corner and love one another more deeply than we ever have before, more deeply than we ever dreamed we could.
The early church did not go viral in the Roman Empire by winning arguments. Make no mistake, they were serious thinkers. But they captivated people’s hearts by the beauty of their character and their relationships — especially their relationships. The truth of the gospel became visible in the profound community the Christians experienced in their churches.
Tertullian famously quoted the amazement of that cynical world: “Look how those Christians love one another (for they themselves hate one another), and how they are ready to die for each other (for they themselves are readier to kill each other).” In a world of brutality, it was the Christians who created a new world of beauty. The gospel always creates beauty, whenever we yield to its obvious implications. For example, if nothing will ever separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:31–39), why do too many of us Christians separate from one another? How crazy is that? And how does that weakness prepare us for the trials of tomorrow?
Doctrine Creates Culture
This article is a protest, a confession, a lament, and a plea — all rolled into one. And here’s the point. Our broken relationships really are saying something. They reveal that we do not believe the gospel as deeply as we need to. And our only remedy is to flat out believe it — for all that it’s worth.
“Our broken relationships reveal that we do not believe the gospel as deeply as we need to.”
Take Romans 15:7 as one illustration of what I mean: “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” Embedded in that magnificent verse is this simple insight: gospel doctrine creates gospel culture. You can see it in the text: “Welcome one another [gospel culture] as Christ has welcomed you [gospel doctrine], for the glory of God.” That is the cheering truth and the beautiful community that can prevail over all this world.
Let’s think it through, starting with the phrase “for the glory of God.” Nothing less than the display of God’s glory in the world today is at stake here. And where can his glory be seen? The Grand Canyon, the Swiss Alps, the beaches of Hawaii, for sure. But an easier way to see his glory is to drive down to a healthy church on Sunday morning, walk in, take a look around, and notice how the people welcome one another with the welcome of Christ himself. That church is translating its doctrine into its culture, and the glory of God is so obvious you might be moved to tears.
Christ Has Welcomed You
But what if a church’s gospel doctrine does not set the tone of its culture? If perceptive people come in and experience a theologically strong but relationally weak church, and then reverse engineer the situation, surmising from the relationships what the theology must be, what might they think?
They might assume that our Bible says, “Say hi to one another, as Christ has said hi to you.” But no! The actual message declares, “Christ has welcomed you.” He has moved toward us all and reached out and said, “I want you in my reality. I welcome you. I will never stop welcoming you.” Those four words, “Christ has welcomed you,” bring to a practical focal point all of Paul’s doctrine in Romans thus far. Those four words flow out of profound theology. And they have the power to transform our churches into cultures of welcome, where friends can stick together long term, the way Christ sticks with us.
“Something greater than human niceness is energizing a truly orthodox church.”
Something greater than human niceness is energizing a truly orthodox church. Christ is there, setting a new tone through his gospel. How dare we who agree on the biblical gospel settle for less than his wholehearted welcome as the felt relational culture of our churches?
Way Out of the Swamp
So many of us have been recovering gospel doctrine wonderfully over the past twenty years or so. Now it’s time for us to allow our doctrine to exert its full and intended authority — through the beauty of our relationships. We’ll get nowhere by watering the gospel down! But I believe we will gain great strength for the future if we will follow our Lord into regions of glory we have not yet deeply visited. Why not admit our failures and fall into each other’s arms with tears and apologies and new beginnings? Our new solidarity will strengthen us for any future!
I believe we have come to a fork in the road. We must choose which way we will go. In his Lectures on Romans, Martin Luther showed us the alternatives:
Who then can pride himself over against someone else and claim to be better than he? Especially in view of the fact that he is always capable of doing exactly the same as the other does and, indeed, that he does secretly in his heart before God what the other does openly before men. And so we must never despise anyone who sins but must generously bear with him as a companion in a common misery. We must help one another, just as two people caught in the same swamp assist each other. . . . But if we despise the other, we shall both perish in the same swamp. (115)
We will either believe the gospel as never before and come together, or we will die in this wretched swamp we’re all slogging through. I don’t see a third option. Do you?
Credit: Ray Ortlund