I wonder if the dam is breaking.
I invited you all last week to join me in a dialogue to get to the heart of our Presbyterian identity and the language we use to communicate it to the world. Using “The Great Ends of the Church” to aid in this I expected that last week would just serve as an innocuous introduction. The real meat of this dialogue series would start with my reflections on the first great end—“The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind.”
I was wrong!
The response was immediate and swift. From readers who are both inside and outside of the Church, as well as some who admit to being on the very edge of the Church, one theme stood out above all others—the Great Ends of the Church reveal a certain Christian arrogance, an assumption of religious superiority, and an obvious “us vs. them” mentality.
I had assumed that I would, with your help, run through these six great ends incisively looking for the values at their core. Then we would explore more accessible language to the everyday 21st century American. What I didn’t expect was a nearly unanimous gut level reaction that essentially said, “Get rid of the arrogance and maybe these six great ends are salvageable.”
One reader reported that she is absolutely committed to truth-telling in this time, but she is not hopeful that the church will survive its own self-inflicted wounds. Another reader provided an objective analysis as she wondered if where we are at is the result of the church being less an outgrowth of the movement of Jesus and more a reflection of the expansionistic imperialistic Roman empire. Another reader acknowledged that he felt that not all of these great ends could or should go forward into the future.
It is not difficult to see the source of these reactions. The great ends use language of “proclaiming, maintaining, and preserving.” There is an implied assumption that we have been given a treasure that others don’t have. The language of being “a chosen people” is woven into the DNA of our great ends. With Presbyterians representing about 1 of every 285 people in America it is not difficult to see why a group that thinks they have THE gospel truth for all humanity seems just a wee bit arrogant.
What was interesting about this week was this sense that a great convergence was happening. It is what makes me wonder if a cultural and ideological dam is breaking. While this invitation to a blog series revealed a visceral distaste for the Christian arrogance of our great ends we were also honoring Indigenous People’s Day in what we formerly celebrated as Columbus Day. We went from honoring a colonizer to honoring those who suffered at the hands of colonizing.
At the same time, I received a call from an executive in another denomination over concerns that our two denominations might be exposed for abusive practices in the establishment of missionary boarding schools. He said that it was just a matter of time before stories of “well-meaning” Christians are come to light for eradicating whole cultures in favor of a Christian identity.
And, all of this is happening while we are wrestling with our participation in the structural racism of our society. I could not help but notice that a white Christian nationalist could take all six of our great ends and make a case for their particular brand of religiously based terrorism. While I do not think very many Presbyterians would identity as white Christian nationalists, the ideology of white Christian nationalism has its roots in language very much like “The Great Ends of the Church.”
Is a cultural and ideological dam breaking? Has our particular brand of Presbyterianism run its course? Are our great ends salvageable? Is there too much Christian arrogance and us vs. them thinking to carry them into a future of global interdependence? Can a religion based on offering salvation to all people survive in a world not all that concerned about our particular brand of salvation?
I have to admit that I write all of this with some fear and trepidation. In the back of my mind I can hear a voice saying, “Brian, as a church executive shouldn’t you be holding up and reinforcing the core values and assumptions of our tradition?” But, I have a louder and even deeper voice that is telling me that if we can’t answer these questions, the church as we know it will disappear into the annals of history. As I write I think of the lyrics to one of our old hymns, “We’ve a story to tell to the nations, that shall turn their hearts to the right…” There it is again.
Readers this past week chimed in together, “Enough with the Christian arrogance!”
What do you think?
Am I being too harsh? Not harsh enough?
This is a dialogue.
Let me have it!
By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades
One can be humble and at the same time share and proclaim the Good News of God’s love and forgiveness found in Jesus, the Christ. If it is considered arrogant to believe that there can be some ideas, beliefs and practices that are better and more desirable than others, well, most people could be considered arrogant. While, historically, Christians can be accused of aligning with the cause of empire and domination, the message and purpose of Jesus and his disciples can be one of liberation, joy and hope. Some Christians, including some Presbyterians, may regret that the first disciples proclaimed a particular message about the truth and salvation they found in Jesus. They lived in a multi-cultural and multi-religious environment as do we. They were bold enough to state what they found by faith and experience and sometimes it cost them their freedom and their lives. There are Christian believers today that face persecution for their willingness to state and live their faith, to share God’s love through speech and action, through acts of love and protests against injustice and war. It isn’t arrogant to do such, in my view.
Wow! I never saw the Great Ends of the Church as being arrogant, but it really fits. Is the whole concept of the kingdom of God arrogant as well? How can we offer the good news of the gospel in ways that are kind and generous, and don’t trample on the faith journeys of people who are not Christian? I think we can share our stories of our faith journeys in ways that are like, “This is my experience,” without discounting the faith journeys of others but this requires a humility that we seldom see, especially in evangelicals.
Well, if you’re not going to include the Scriptures as a major source for your blog, then yes; the Great Ends are over. But if we continue to hold Scripture as the main definer of what it means to be a follower of Jesus – a Christian – then the Great Ends of the Church are not arrogant… unless we deign God to be arrogant. (2 Corinthians 4:7)
I think we forget how merciful God was in stepping into a particular cultural moment, not to valorize it as the standard, but to work through a specific cultural context to bring reconciliation to creation. The early church decided in Acts 15 that the Jewish way to be Christian was not the universal way to be Christian. But somewhere down the line we forgot that Western Christianity was also a very particular cultural context and that became the standard of what it meant to follow Christ.
We forgot that Jesus saying, “Follow me,” was not an imperative but an invitation. We forgot that the “Kingdom of God” was not a nation-state, but a new reality. In the Apostle Paul’s language, a New Humanity. And Western Christianity has used Jesus’ language to justify conquests, wars, enslavement to the point where Jesus’ “Follow me…” might be followed up with, “… or die.”
We need to remember where we sit within this history. This is our heritage of Western Christianity – not ALL bad, but certainly not all good either. Maybe our particular flavor of Christianity (PCUSA in the Pacific Northwest) should follow Christ’s example, where we don’t grasp onto power and privilege, but we let it go and become weak and small – not needing to be important. Isn’t that the story of the Bible? God uses the weak things to show what strength is. As long as the Church in the West is tainted by this grasping to power and self-importance, perhaps those of us within its confines cannot fully exhibit the very qualities that compelled so many to answer Jesus’ invitation to “Follow me.”
From one perspective I see a conundrum. From another I see a simple rewrite of our “Great Ends”
Faced with providing commentary on the “Great Ends” of God’s “Chosen People”– saturated as it was with a myriad of laws, commands, and traditions–Jesus reduced a complex, binding, and yes, arrogant, system to two simple practices.
No word-smithing required.
There is significant irony in the title wording of “The Great Ends Of The Church”, since the Presbyterian Church has been in the process of “Ending” it’s membership, now down over 50% from a high point in the mid 1950’s. The World War II generation built church membership and developed the rather “self assured” Great Ends of The Church concepts that reflected their vision of mission and truth as Christians of that era. I was a college student at the time (I’m 87 now) and can remember the general arrogance of our government and religious leaders toward other nations relating to their “salvation” from communism and the need for hearing the gospel message. The bitter lessons of Vietnam were still a decade away (“we had to destroy the village to save it”) when the Presbyterian Church leadership and membership, along with most all other churches in the USA remained silent and did not speak out when our military bombing campaign killed over a million Vietnamese civilians. A new generation took note of the silence of religious organizations and their lack of authenticity between their teaching and being willing to take any risk or action for what they stood for. The older generation has now passed away, but there has not been the replacement of membership in the Presbyterian Church, and there is no indication at present that the church will survive in it’s present structural form. Most Presbyterian Churches are working a form of Legacy project, and any New “Great Ends” Statement should reflect the Reality of The Presbyterian Church USA in 2921 and how the present organization relates to the Christian Gospel and the values of Jesus Christ with a focus on Love, compassion, forgiveness, and perhaps a little kindness.
No, your response is just right– reporting accurately the feedback, and the power of the unanimity. You said you would listen, and you heard right. If more church executives would do this, we might have a chance at survival, and appropriate change.
The problem is that arrogance is an attractive stance to many, and comes naturally to too many. It’s opposite is humility, which is harder to achieve, and even harder to express.
I have seen this change happen in small supportive groups. Maybe giving up large churches and moving to small house gatherings — like the early Christians — wouldn’t be such a bad idea.
I would like to continue as you first suggested and move on through all the “great ends” one by one.
I wrote my first comment before reading the others. I really like the sincerity on both sides of this dialogue.
The history, timing and context of “the Great Ends” is helpful. If we really want to continue Christ’s invitation to liberation, joy and hope, then why continue to use words like “salvation”?
I do think beginning with a re-write is a good first step. It may not be enough, but it would demonstrate a good intent. Can we support a re-write with personal demonstrations that our lives and experiences as Christians are liberating, joyous and hopeful?
Yes, we each believe some ideas are better than others. It is the manner of expressing that very personal choice to another that make these “Great Ends” sound offensive. Even their title: “Great Ends.” Does it need to sound so inflated to have power? I think not.
Jesus never represented God, the Father, as arrogant, but as loving, merciful. Jesus had the benefit of simplicity, which we do not have, since he was not part of a structured powerful edifice. Power is not usually relinquished voluntarily.
I can see that some can read the Great Ends (or Great Goals) as arrogant, but from my perspective the Great Ends are truly biblical. For me, “proclaiming” is both word and deed! Sadly, I find the Church has been failing to follow the Way of Christ, much too concerned with survival than with faithfulness to the cross. I embrace Stan Hauerwas’s comment, “the problem with American Christianity is that it is too damn American!” As Christians in the US, we should be denouncing “American Exceptionalism” and “American Imperialism”…yet too many congregations in this presbytery and beyond have placed American flags in places of worship. God, have mercy, and forgive our silence in face of militarism, misogyny, racism, et.al.
I’m reminded of the resolution from the 203rd GA, 1991, called “Turn to the Living God: A Call to Evangelism in Jesus Christ’s Way.” The 14-point summary is a pastoral, non-arrogant presentation of all the ways the message of Jesus is Good News. I just looked up my copy of this yesterday in preparation for a sermon.