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Wednesday, September 09 2020

This is #6 in the Crossing the Threshold series.

                                                     The Church

How did the church come through this great rift? Unscathed? Did any of the Titanic survivors come through the sinking uninjured? Hardly! They bore the scars for the rest of their lives. Once again the church was divided, this time between Catholic and Protestant, a division which just seems to keep multiplying (think: Mainline, Fundamental, Evangelical, Pentecostal, Charismatic, Seeker etc.) There are volumes written by learned scholars on the impact of man’s reorientation from being one who worships a god to one who thinks he is a god. For our purposes we need to understand three major changes that occurred. There was a shift from the corporate to the individual, from the heart to the head, and from the objective to the subjective.

This great divide brought about a radical shift in allegiance from the corporate church to the individual. The Reformation led the way with Martin Luther’s “priesthood of all believers”. This was both a natural response against the abuses and corruption of the medieval church and a scriptural one. However, the ideas that glorified man coming out of the Renaissance and the movements that followed fed what was to be corrective in nature into something more far reaching. Very subtlety a reorientation was taking place that would lead people away from the corporate body to a more privatized and individualized faith. Not only did this affect their understanding of what it meant to be part of the Body of Christ, it also resulted in a diminishment of the Gospel.

Today the Gospel is often presented as the means by which an individual gets “saved” so they can go to heaven when they die. It is rather like a glorified life insurance policy sold by energetic salesmen, and it is all about you. It is all about what happens when you die and where you go when you die and that Christ died for your sins. A gospel that emphasizes death more than life and sin more than godliness, Dallas Willard calls it a “gospel of sin management”. There may be elements of truth in such a gospel but the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the “good news” is about a whole lot more than you. As N.T. Wright says the good news was news about an event that actually happened, an event that changed time and eternity forever. The Resurrection from the dead of Israel’s Messiah Jesus of Nazareth meant that God’s project for renewing and restoring His entire creation was now going forth. The life of the age to come had now entered time and was being made available to all. The invitation was and still is you can be part of God’s new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17) by receiving Jesus the Christ (the King) and in so doing you become part of his corporate body the church. You enter a fellowship, a “royal priesthood” where sacrificial love replaces ego driven spirituality.

Not only did the great rift divide the church, it also divided human beings. In the 17th century the great head heart split occurred when Dr. William Harvey dissected a human body and held up the heart as a pumping machine. The mass of tissue, blood and muscle became part of the evolutionary process and design while the Biblical heart, the seat of wisdom and the wellspring of life (Proverbs 4:23) was lost. If the heart retained any mystique, it simply became the seat of emotion. The human mind, the storehouse of empirical knowledge and scientific fact now became preeminent.

 This shift from heart to head infiltrated the church. Knowing God in the Biblical sense of intimacy (Adam knew Eve and she conceived) was replaced with knowing about God intellectually. This radical intellectualism led down a slippery slope to a modern day form of Gnosticism. Your spiritual life is now confined to your mind/spirit, which is “good”. Your physical body is only matter and is part of the fallen world; therefore what you do with is inconsequential. One day your spirit will leave it behind and you will depart this evil world for a disembodied existence in the heavenly realm. This is not orthodox Christian belief, but it is the mindset of many professing modern day Christians. 

The third shift I have suggested is from the objective to the subjective, and it is more difficult to define. Perhaps an illustration will suffice. When the elderly Rose comes to the end of her story about her time on the Titanic in the James Cameron film, she says of her lover and savior.” Now you know there was a man named Jack Dawson and that he saved me in every way a person can be saved. I don’t even have a picture of him. He exists only in my memory.” Jack has gone from being an objective real person to being a subjective memory in Rose’s imagination. And so has Jesus to much of the world. The transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern World kept moving God out of this world. Like Jack slipping out of sight in the dark waters of the Atlantic, or a helium balloon floating away into the upper atmosphere, God was gradually being removed. He went from being a real presence here on earth, one that could be known through the sixth sense of the heart as the Comforter, Teacher, Advocate, Holy Spirit (which Jesus himself said was better than his actual physical presence …), to being by the 18th century a remote god out in heaven, one that got the whole thing going by an act of creation but really was not interested or involved, to the god of today, who now exists only in the mind of the believer.

Most people can “see” Jesus in his first coming walking the roads of first century Palestine or hanging on the cross. They may be able to picture his second coming by envisioning him coming in clouds of glory. But where is he today? Right now? Well for most people the answer sounds much like Rose’s “there really was a person Jesus Christ (they think it is his last name) but now he exists only in my mind. The objective, real, present God who created the universe has now been reduced to a subjective experience that exists only in our imagination. How tragic. How fatal!

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