Monday, September 14, 2009

Responding: Discrepancy Between Christian Ideal and Practice

I am beginning work on my sermon for Sunday, the second in a six week series on our congregation's core values. This sermon will focus on the call to service, a sermon that will be rooted in Matthew 25. Thinking about the text and the sermon, I picked up a copy of sermons preached long ago by Edgar DeWitt Jones, the founding pastor of the congregation I now pastor.

Jones notes that the biggest problem facing Christians (and he published the sermons in 1932) was the discrepancy between the ideal and the practice of our faith. He then offers three typical responses to this discrepancy in a paragraph worth considering.

There are at least three reactions of humanity to the discrepancy between Christian ideas and practice, to wit, atheism, fanaticism, and institutionalism. Atheism is sometimes the last resort of a baffled believer who, unable to reconcile reason and faith, abandons his belief in God. Fanaticism takes the other horn of the dilemma and, mistrusting man cooperating with God, rests its case upon a miracle-working Deity who through some supernatural way will impose His will upon mankind and so usher in the happy consummation. Institutionalism is the view of life where one buries his idealism in organization, satisfies his soul with statistics, and ceases to worry over the failure of Christian teaching to captivate and transfigure society. [Edgar DeWitt Jones, Blundering into Paradise, (Harper & Brothers, 1932), p. 14]

Jones was a proponent of the Social Gospel, while serving as pastor of a cathedral-like church that had a strong institutional basis. So, in many ways this was a sermon pushing upstream. But, now as then, the issues seem similar. We find ourselves believing that the teachings of Jesus are nice but impractical. Thus, we ignore them and go about our business. But is this what it means to be a people called to the mission of God?


John said...

What needs to happen is that those Christians with the commitment and courage to live out their faith need to do so publicly so that those with less courage and less vision have clear and practical models to inspire them.

And the church must participate in the process of witnessing by lifting courageous Christians up and shining light on their work and witness.

In another vein, I think that the reason Jesus took on human form and lived the life he did was to demonstrate that the life God calls
us to live is attainable for one born of flesh and blood - it does not require divinity to live life as a faithful Christian. If Jesus were not wholly human he would not inspire us as he does. The life he witnessed to is attainable by all humans.


John said...


'The People's History of Christianity,' on page 203 begins a brief discussion of 'theologica spinosa' -vs- 'theologica practica' which I understood to be a comparison of a faith which expresses itself in a concern for orthodox thinking and doctrinal purity as opposed to a faith which expresses itself in "the practice of love."

The discussion suggests that a preoccupation with orthodoxy implicitly bolsters ecclesiastic authority while a dedication to the practice of love breathes life into 'the universal priesthood of God's people'.

Interesting coincidence that I should reach this point in the book this week.


John said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John said...

Taking that last point a little further, the author comcuds with the suggestion that perhaps the two cannot go hand in hand.

Reflecting on Jesus' life, it seems that most of his conflict with Jewish authorities was over the fact that his acts of compassion were constantly conflicting with the requirements and limitations which the Law imposed on practice.

A further consideration is that Jesus' ministry, while it included teaching, was balanced with 'the practice of love' - the Gospels show him almost constantly engaged in compassionate service to others.

And when he sends the disciples (not the Apostles) out two-by-two, he sends them to serve (to proclaim and to heal and to drive out evil spirits) not to teach right doctrine.


Pastor Bob Cornwall said...


Taking refuge in right doctrine is an easy way to absolve oneself of responsibility for transforming the world.

Concern for right doctrine is a form of institutionalization, where we have a check list and if we can say that we have checked them all off then we're safe.

I think the reason why such an emphasis is placed on homosexuality on the right is that it is an issue that the protester doesn't have to struggle with -- unless one is gay or has a gay family member then things change.

But poverty, war, etc. these things are closer to home and thus must be ignored.

Anonymous said...

I believe there are scriptures that suggest "tooting your horn" too much can be self defeating.
Public displays appear too pious and a turn off to some. Shouldn’t we serve humbly? Reminds me of multi kilowatt hour Christmas displays. How does that look to non-Christians when we should be conserving energy and reducing carbon dioxide? David Mc

John said...

Jesus of Nazareth, God Incarnate, came to announce the Kingdom, He will come again. What are we to do until He comes again? That is the question. What we feel, what we believe, those are really out of our control. It sounds counterintuitive to dismiss feelings and beliefs, however, those are largely shaped for us by our experiences.

What we do is up to us. If we accept the foundational belief that Jesus Christ is the son of God, that He came to announce the Kingdom, and that he will come again, for me, most doctrinal questions fall into the background.

We control what we do. Having established the foundation, we can address the practical issue of how shall we live?

This was the question for the early church and it is the fundamental question for our time as well. It is all about what we do. This is not about works righteousness, not about earning our way into the Kingdom, but about responding to the Incarnation.

Having accepted its truth, what then is the rational response to the Incarnation? For me the answer is service.