Chapter 6 – Parish Ministry as Truth Telling

From the book: “Resident Aliens – A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know That Something is Wrong.” By Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon.

  • Learning to Enjoy Truth Telling

“What does it mean for us to live in a culture of unbelief, a culture which does not even know it does not believe because it still lives on the residue of Christian civilization?” (p. 115)

The church’s current structure, teaching, and practice put a vaguely Christian tint on the world’s way of salvation. This is leading to the slow death of Christendom in a world that so desperately needs it. Some argue it is the death of the civilized world.

I want to include a couple of excerpts from a recent essay by Jewish journalist, Naomi Wolf.

“I’ve been reading, as you know, the Geneva Bible, and alongside it, the Bible in Hebrew. For sure, according to these texts, there are cataclysms [e.g., The Flood, the plagues of Egypt, Sodom and Gomorrah] when humanity wanders astray from the clearly stated, and indeed quite reasonable and simple, will of God; when humanity deviates from what are explained without ambiguity in those texts, as being moral laws of the universe.

“By the same token, humanity’s behavior – when it is moral – in the Hebrew Bible, causes the world to be in balance; even causes the natural world to be in harmony.” [e.g., The rain to come in season, the land to flow with milk and honey.]

Read Deuteronomy 11

“Are these perturbations and crises globally due perhaps in part or entirely, to our own often-disgusting behavior? Is it up to us to stabilize and even bless our world, by behaving in a less selfish, less self-worshipping manner? Every ‘primitive’ culture has a version of the above idea: the notion that human dysregulation and perversity can affect physical reality, and even throw off balance the natural world. Could that be happening now? In spite of our post-enlightenment certainty that our moral behavior has no effect whatsoever on a mechanistic universe?” [1]

Naomi Wolf, Survival of the Weirdest, Outspoken with Dr. Naomi Wolf, 8 April 2024

Just because God sent His Son, Jesus, to bring about our salvation, should we think that the way God operates in the world today is any different from the way He operated in the world of Old Testament times? Did Jesus’ birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension change the laws of nature or physics?

The world does not need more of what it already has. What role does the church play? The church desperately needs its members and leaders to address the spiritual needs and goals of those around us.

“All Christians, by their baptism, are ordained to share in Christ’s work in the world.” (p. 113)

“For these for whom Christian ministry is little more than institutional conformity, we call them to accountability to what the gospel demands that the church become rather than conformity to the things as they are.” (p. 117)

  • Training in Ministry

When the church has no vision of its ministry, we have no idea why we are here. But our ministry is where we should find our purpose and meaning.

The church is not to be a center for therapy or social well-being, but a place to worship God. Ministry is not the sole job of the pastors, teachers, or staff, but of every faithful Christian.

“Ministry originates in baptism. Ministry is the vocation of all Christians, a communal undertaking.” (pg. 118)

To be friends with God, we must heed Paul’s words to Timothy:

“I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” (2 Timothy 4:1-4, ESV)

Compassion and sentimentality can make a successful ministry impossible. An excess of empathy is referred to as pathological compassion. Sometimes this results from pathological altruism. Pathological compassion harms the one being helped by not allowing them to grow and mature from the challenges they face. Pathological altruism is more based on the feeling it gives the altruistic person than on the person they are supposedly helping. But, even here, in addition to the harm it can cause to the helper, it can cause more harm than good to the recipient of the help.

In either case, compassion is appropriate when the person receiving the help cannot remove themselves from the plight they are in. Proper compassion gives them just enough help to get them started again, but not to do everything for them or to create a co-dependent relationship. But this is not the only pathological problem.

“Private charities that dispense aid indiscriminately while ignoring the moral and spiritual needs of the poor are also to blame. Like animals in the zoo at feeding time, the needy are given a plate of food but rarely receive the love and time that only a person can give.”[2]

The roots of this pathology are based on the empathy and sentimentality of always being ready to understand the need but not applying judgment or addressing the cause of the person’s situation. Without God or His Son to drive our motivations and calibrate our actions, all we have left is sentimentality. Jesus showed grace and helped people unable to help themselves, but He also did not leave them there.

Jesus healed a blind man but required action on his part:

“Having said these things, he spit on the ground and made mud with the saliva. Then he anointed the man’s eyes with the mud and said to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). So he went and washed and came back seeing.” (John 9:6-7, ESV)

After Jesus rescued the woman caught in adultery, he responded,

“’Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.’” (John 8:10b-11, ESV)

These people could not do it on their own, but with help and their participation, they were healed. But they realized their limitations and sought help. Can we help those who are not seeking help?

How Do You Help Someone Who’s Lost? Jordan Peterson (4:06) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W_I6n1tE4JE

The church’s challenge is creating a living, breathing, and witnessing colony of truth for the world. We must be prepared for this challenge because otherwise we just end up helping people feel better about themselves as they are heading toward hell rather than inviting them to a dramatic conversion.

  • Successful Ministry

We must start with the proposition: What would it take for us to have a church that could tell the truth and live the truth? This is neither a minor challenge nor an easy one in the world today. The truth is a standard by which all are judged, and many do not want to know the truth. It is much easier to look the other way and hope that the truth will not challenge us. It is like a person who feels ill but refuses to go to the doctor because they are afraid the doctor will tell them they have a disease. What ultimately happens when they have a disease is that it worsens to where it is potentially fatal before they acknowledge it. Spiritual disease is the same.

“But Felix was frightened when Paul started talking to them about doing right, about self-control, and about the coming judgment. So he said to Paul, ‘That’s enough for now. You may go. But when I have time I will send for you.’” (Acts 24:25, CEV)

Is this the way you respond to the Holy Spirit’s words to you? Is this the way you respond to someone who challenges your ideas or actions?

As with a physical disease, an earlier diagnosis of a spiritual disease results in less damage to the soul.

“God’s way of saving us, as we argued earlier, is entirely communal, and social, a creaturely means of helping people like us to be better than we could ever have been on our own.” (p. 129)

Two of the biggest challenges for the church are wealth and security. These apply to both individuals and the church and are interrelated. How we raise and spend funds is important, but how and why we hoard funds can be just as critical.

Trust in the Lord is what gives us the security we so desire.

“Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act.” (Psalm 37:4-5, ESV)

People often misunderstand this passage. It is not saying that God will give you what you now want if you delight in Him. It is saying that your delight in the Lord will change your motivations to be in line with His. When you delight in Him, you will be given the new desires of the heart. This is the truth that people do not want to hear because they do not trust God.

Sometimes the security we seek is not about wealth but about health, family, career, church, or other things. Humans dislike change, as it threatens the security of our knowledge about the present. This is revealed in the popular idiom: “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.” Consider the attitude of the Israelites just before they were to enter the promised land.

“‘Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?’ And they said to one another, ‘Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.’” (Number 14:3-4, ESV)

They would rather return to being slaves than face the challenges of freedom. This, even in the face of God’s promises.

Just as “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10a, ESV), the love of security can also lead us to all kinds of evil. The irony here, though, is that God’s love offers the greatest security we could ever imagine.

“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39, ESV)

This is true for individuals, but it is just as true for the church. Unfortunately, the church sometimes forgets this. The church, as the Bride of Christ (Revelation 19:7-8), should understand this security.

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:18-19, ESV)

When the church caters to the secular culture or government out of fear for its own wealth and security, it cannot bear witness nor minister to the world in truth.

Not to press the bride metaphor too hard, but we were not created to do this life alone (Genesis 2:18), even alone with God. We are not the church just for fellowship. We are the church to love and cherish one another (1 John 4:7, Mark 12:31), through better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.

  • The Service of God

The church in Acts is not that different from today’s church. Both they and we are in hostile territory. While the Roman and Greek cultures were pre-Christian, the western world today is post-Christian. Recent surveys show that the percentage of the American population attending services regularly is a minority (20% weekly, 41% monthly, 57% seldom or never).[3]

What else do we have in common with the early church?

“Yet from the first these ordinary people depended heavily on other ordinary people to keep raising the right questions, to keep telling the story, to keep speaking the truth in love.” (p. 141)

As critical as truth-telling is, it is not comfortable and often leads to trouble with those who do not wish to hear the truth. This can lead to conflict. But this is everyone’s calling.

“I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” (2 Timothy 4:1-4, ESV)

This does not mean we have to be in the pulpit, classroom, or on the street corner. We do this with everyone with whom we have a relationship.

“Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.” (Ephesians 4:25, ESV)

However, it can be disheartening when those with whom you relate reject this truth. It makes it easier to just go along to get along. Do we become disheartened or depressed if others do not listen? Do we not warn those who are at risk of physical harm?

“To declare any truth in a way that steps away from God’s love is to speak no truth at all, as well as to step away from the One who is truth. But to claim we are being loving when we step away from the Truth of God is not to love at all, but only to fool ourselves into thinking we are being loving… So not to speak an uncomfortable truth to someone who needs to hear it – and giving the excuse that we are loving them – is to not love them but to harm them.”[4]

What then of those who are at risk of spiritual harm?

“Failing at such truthfulness, we acquiesce to the sentimentality of a culture which assumes that we have nothing to offer empty people than to make their lives a little less miserable.” (p. 143)

But we know that we have something to offer. We have the Gospel, the “Good News,” to share.

“We must be honest and admit that much of the time we are not living out our faith but are at least partially enslaved to public opinion over the truth. And this is the main reason we are silent when we should not be silent.”[5]

Share with others the encouraging words the Holy Spirit speaks to you.

“Everyone is terrified when a lion roars – and ordinary people become prophets when the Lord God speaks.” (Amos 3:8, CEV)

“But you are God’s chosen and special people. You are a group of royal priests and a holy nation. God has brought you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Now you must tell all the wonderful things he has done.” (1 Peter 2:9, CEV)

You are not a nobody. You are a child of God. We are the body of Christ.

[1] Naomi Wolf, Survival of the Weirdest, Outspoken with Dr. Naomi Wolf, 8 April 2024 https://naomiwolf.substack.com/p/survival-of-the-weirdest?utm_source=post-email-title&publication_id=676930&post_id=143390911&utm_campaign=email-post-title&isFreemail=true&r=s059e&triedRedirect=true&utm_medium=email.

[2] Marvin Olasky, The Tragedy of American Compassion, Regnery Gateway, Washington D.C., 1992/2022.

[3] The State of Church Attendance: Trends and Statistics [2024], churchtrac, https://www.churchtrac.com/articles/the-state-of-church-attendance-trends-and-statistics-2023.

[4] Eric Metaxas, Letter to the American Church, Salem Books, Washington D.C., 2022, p. 89.

[5] Ibid. p. 91-92

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