In 2005 Larry King asked Billy Graham if “gay people are lesser.” Graham replied “it’s just one of many sins.” He felt the church has bigger fish to fry. Last week I made the same recommendation. A few readers asked for a few more fish. Here they are.
Not understanding the times. The sons of Issachar were lauded for understanding the times (I Chr. 12:32). I’m not sure most church leaders do. James Davison Hunter defines the church as in exile, similar to what the Israelites faced in Babylon. He says Christians must come to terms with this.1 I wonder how church leaders are doing this. Max De Pree said the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. If the church is in exile, then not understanding the times is a big fish to fry. In fact, it points out other fish.
Hubris. The Israelites were in exile because of their idolatries (2 Chr. 36:17-20). Jewish leaders reacted arrogantly to this indictment. In their hubris they falsely assured the nation that relocation would be brief. One leader, Hananiah, predicted that within two years the Jews would return to Judea and Jerusalem would be restored. Wrong.
All sorts of idolatries plague the church. They include idealism, individualism, and consumerism but the deeper issue is they produce fatally flawed strategies for changing the world. Hunter says this but the response by church leaders is often indignation. Like Hananiah, they have difficulty believing they’re idolatrous. It’s a big fish worth frying.
Incoherence. The Babylonians spoke Aramaic. The Jews spoke Hebrew. The Hebrew language was incoherent to Babylonians. That might be why the sons of Judah (the ones who did recognize reality) were selected to study the language and literature of Babylon (Daniel 1). They learned to translate their peculiar biblical language into the conventional language of Babylon. Incoherence is another big fish to fry.
When I came to faith I found most Christians to be sincere but incoherent. They were fluent in the peculiar language of scripture, such as “the blood of Christ cleanses.” But I found most of them uninterested in translating scripture into the conventional language of the street. They didn’t believe the church is in exile. They remain incoherent.
Early Christians were coherent. In the anonymous “Letter to Diognetius,” the writer notes how “Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country, language, or customs… they do not use a peculiar form of speech.” We live in a cultural context similar to the Babylonian exile. Babylon had a polyglot of pagan deities, tucked in 1197 temples. Saying there was only One True God was considered intolerant. This is similar to our world. “It is important to find words that are graspable by those who no longer go through the doors of churches or synagogues,” writes Michael Novak. “It is necessary to express these originally religious concepts in non-religious ways.”2
Inattentive. In exile, God told the Israelites to benchmark success by the flourishing of Babylon. “Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jer. 29:7). Churches generally don’t pay much attention to this. Do you know any benchmarking success by the flourishing of their city’s institutions? There’s a way to find out.
In Organizational Culture and Leadership, Edgar Schein writes that whatever an organization pays most attention to – what it most often measures – becomes its real mission.3 Schein would suggest setting aside a church’s mission statement and asking a question like, “How is your church doing?” Pay attention to what is first said. That’s when we hear the unedited response, when the heart most clearly speaks. More often than not, I hear attendance figures. “We’ve got over 1,000 coming.” Schein would say this is the real mission. This is one of three ways most churches measure success.
Dallas Willard believed churches measure success by the ABCs – attendance, building, and cash. These matter, but less so in exile. If a church in Maryland recognized exile, its congregants would instead reply to the question of success with something like: “It depends on how Northrup Grumman is doing.” Northrup Grumman is one of the biggest employers in Maryland. It disproportionately shapes the culture we live in. Churches recognizing exile would say if Northrup is not flourishing, neither is our church.
I’m sure there are more fish worth frying. I chose these with reference to a comment Dallas Willard made a few years back. A large percentage of Americans confess to a “new birth” experience – yet the church in America reports high instances of “unethical behavior, crime, mental distress and disorder, family failures, addictions, financial misdealings, and the like.”4 If judgment begins with the household of God, it might be wise to first get our house in order. We have bigger fish to fry than the gay issue.
Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike
1 James Davison Hunter, To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford Press, 2010), p. 277.
2 “North Atlantic Community, European Community: Divergent paths and common values in Old Europe and the United States,” a speech delivered by Michael Novak for the F.A. Hayek Foundation in Bratislava, Slovakia on July 3, 2003.
3 Edgar Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership, Third Edition (New York: Wiley Publishers, 2004)
4 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1998), p. 38.