Worldwide, Christians are the single most persecuted religious group worldwide. This fact was confirmed by a Pew Center report issued just last week that focused on government restrictions and social hostility against religious groups. What I have noticed about US Christians is that we tend to idealize, or paint an unrealistic picture of the persecuted church in places like China. Why do we persist in idealizing them? Why do painful torture, social ostracism, long imprisonments, and, sometimes, often-cruel death lead to rhetorical exaggerations like those behind this story on the number of Christians executed each year for their faith?
Today, rural America’s problems go much deeper than uncertainty over the price of grain or the latest weather forecast. Rural America is becoming a wasteland for lost souls on drugs. They find cheap old, semi-abandoned farmhouses to rent, and either waste away, cook the meth, or use the opioids that eventually kill them. In either case, their children suffer, sometimes tragically. Can the rural church make a difference?
Last Wednesday, police fatally shot Philando Castile just over three miles, or a leisurely 30-minute jog, from our home. Triggered by that shooting, along with another in Baton Rouge, a black man then killed five Dallas police officers whose families now also ache with emptiness and loss.
As the Lutheran bishop of the Mayo-Belwa Diocese of the Lutheran Church of Christ, Musa explained that setting up camps for refugees, or internally displaced people, was out of the question. So, their church (and churches in other denominations) had all agreed that the refugee crisis would be addressed by having their members open their homes to those who had lost theirs to Islamic radicals.
The storyline, or narrative, of Islamic tolerance is largely false, as is much of the narrative concerning Christians and the Crusades. Boiled down to its essence, the idea that early medieval Christians were hopeless knaves and that Muslims were a scientifically advanced civilization known for its tolerance is a fabrication.
It had been over 50 years since I last entered the doors of Tipton Community Church, a rural Michigan congregation whose building testifies to the influence of its New England Congregationalist roots. Around the time I graduated from elementary to junior high school in 1963, our family had drifted away. The pressures of part-time farming, on top of full-time factory work, were too much for my father. The fact that the church hired a theologically liberal Congregational pastor was incidental to our departure.
© 2015 Robert Osburn
I thought about titling this essay “The Magnificent Church,” but, to some folks, calling the church “magnificent” is like calling a trailer court an “estate.” “Fractious, stumbling, squawking” may seem like better adjectives for an institution in which Americans have declining confidence. One reason for the decline may be that, although only a tiny percentage of church leaders abuse, sexually or otherwise, their flocks, the media widely report about such abuse. But, there is something going on inside of our churches, at least evangelical churches: While in most of the world, especially the Global South, the evangelical church is vibrant and growing, by contrast, a weary, cautious, shrunken spirit has infected North American evangelicalism.
The church muddles along.
But, then, like a diamond that stubbornly glistens on the cloudiest of days, Ephesians 3:10 declares:
[God’s] intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.
Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, precedes this declaration with the stupendous claim (believe me, it was utterly shocking at the time it was written in about AD 60) that Gentiles are now “heirs together with Israel” in a completely new institution, the church. By its presence and practice, the church stuns the world by revealing that God has more wisdom than the gangs of professors that roam the halls of academia. God intends it to be a model nation.
The way God shows He has a much better grasp on reality than Oxford’s dons and Harvard’s robed gods is to craft a Body (v. 6) whose Head bled to death so that He could end the hostility between ethnicities that are now reconciled by His blood (2:14). God’s wisdom is not only multi-faceted (“manifold”), but He intends to make that wisdom known to those who are both spiritual and earthly leaders and authorities. (Please understand that the phrase “in the heavenly realms,” in this passage and Ephesians 1:21, was likely a metaphor for powerful authorities who reigned imperially over their subjects, though it probably also has secondary reference to the spiritual powers that animate much leadership in our world.) Those with imperial authority desperately need a wisdom greater than theirs that is on full exhibition through the church that is envisioned as a model nation. As such, the church has replaced Israel’s previous role as a model nation (Isaiah 60:1-3).
My friend Dr. Bob Moffitt of Harvest Foundation (and a co-founder of Disciple Nations Alliance, of which the Academy is a member) declares around the world that the church is God’s instrument for healing communities and nations. But I think it is not only that the church, whether in its universal or local expressions, is the most effective institution for solving community problems; it ought also be a meaningful institutional example of how leaders should organize public affairs.
When I spoke over a month ago in the troubled northeastern Indian state of Manipur, I told churches there that the leaders of Manipur aren’t finding solutions to the multiple systemic dysfunctions that plague their region. I said that the only way Manipur’s leaders will find lasting, genuine solutions is by learning from the church (which is very pervasive in that part of India). What prevents Manipur’s churches from being effective models to government officials is their disunity.
For too long, the church of Jesus Christ has pictured itself as either a social club or a social agency (mostly liberal denominational churches), or, in the case of 20th century American fundamentalism, a refuge from society. In the former case, theological liberals have made themselves virtual appendages of government (as have many Christian social service agencies, for example); in the latter, fundamentalists made themselves irrelevant to government by solely teaching the personal dimension of Christian faith. The former is the ever-shrinking mainline church, the other a marginal church. I am suggesting that Paul’s vision in Ephesians 3:10 was that the church would be a model to the nations of the world.
Imagine a church whose vision is inspired by this verse in Ephesians: “We exist to demonstrate God’s multifaceted majestic wisdom to the leaders of our community.”
How will they impact the “rulers and authorities” in their communities? Through them, political and other leaders will discover that leadership is best done by serving the community, that the central problem facing the community is spiritual (lack of forgiveness, reconciliation, and regeneration), and that politics is a necessary but insufficient system for solving community problems. As did America’s founders, they will also learn from the church that a federal system of government best balances local, regional, and nationwide concerns and interests. They should learn from the church a vision for public justice that takes account of both individual and collective needs by means of what is often called principled pluralism. And, finally, they must learn that religious freedom, or freedom of conscience undergirds all other human freedoms of speech, assembly, and association. In the final analysis, by proclaiming the Lordship of Jesus Christ, our churches will remind our international, national, regional, and local leaders that there is One Just Ruler after whom they should model their own leadership.
If our churches catch the vision as model nations, the church will increasingly be known as magnificent, not muddling.