Thursday, July 28, 2011

People are bruised reeds, please don't break us

I've found myself in a twitter conversation about a certain American pastor who protests he's not a legalist but would consider my application of 1 Timothy 5's exhortation that men should provide for their family to make me "worse than an unbeliever".

How so? I've pursued a call to ministry with a mission agency who for better or for worse can't fund me to the extent that I can live in my part of the UK on a single salary... at least not if I want to live somewhere convenient to the ministry and if I want to be responsible for the future by having a mortgage and if I want to follow the call to increase and multiply (i.e. be a Dad). I've watched this pastor on video say he'd subject me to church discipline for leading my family in such a way that my wife needs to work part-time (about 2.5 days a week). It seems he'd kick me out of the church...

I'm prepared to accept that I've made some bad calls along the way though I've sought to be wise and careful financially, and I could just be trying to justify my own failings and sin. I accept that.

And actually, I don't disagree with the principle - I am responsible for my family. 100% agreed. My question is, is this the only way this can look? Even in this pastors own context? Is everything primary? This pastors vision of the godly life seems to be that a man should move out of home, buy a house, marry, have kids and do it all on one income. It's a very western, middle-class, middle-income view of life. In some cultures we'd be bringing our family up in my parents home with the advantages of the care of parents and grandparents... would that be ungodly?

It's hard to disagree when it's done in the name of godliness (charismatics play the same card when they wont let prophecy be tested!)... day care becomes evil... Flee! The world will ruin us and so on... Homeschooling becomes salvation. And women stay in the kitchen, even though the much idealised Proverbs 31 woman was evidently a successful business woman.

That's all meant by way of illustration. I've taken my family where I've taken us and I make no claim to have got that 100% right at every stage. But, my thought here isn't really about that issue. 

Its more about the rediscovery of church discipline and the way it seems to be brandished and threatened against people rather than pursued with gentleness for peoples good. And gentle application of the gospel seems to me to mean there isn't one law for everyone, but the transforming work of the Spirit degree by degree.

My question - how far should application of the gospel go? How far should a pastor seek to authoritatively bind the consciences of his congregation (and his own!), and to what extend should he just be holding up the worth of Christ and allowing freedom of conscience and freedom of the Holy Spirit? 

At one extreme - "if you're not a home-owning single-income Dad you're worse than an unbeliever" at the other (as I heard on an mp3 from my own church family recently as they interacted with another American leader) - "It's not my business whether one of my congregation drives a Hummer or a Prius". I've had similar conversations with pastors who've objected to students leading Christian Unions... because there isn't an Elder present... neither is there when I'm witnessing to my neighbour. Leaders have many opportunities to form their people, winning hearts to Christ week by week, but that doesn't mean they micro-manage the lives of their congretations.... and boot them out if lives don't fit their plan.

Granted sometimes threats and warnings are helpful (usually for the most pious), in my experience people mostly need someone to bind up their brokenness, to comfort them, and to walk with them. There are plenty of bruised reeds in the church. I feel bad enough about some of the choices we have to make in this broken world without someone throwing guilt on to me! There are responsibilities on church leaders that weigh heavily on them, and I wouldn't want to advocate a total-hands-off approach. I want to care for Christians - my heart is that of a pastor-teacher - but I don't want to turn into a heavy-shepherding micro-manager or a biting wolf. I'm not saying that pastor is doing this, but I could imagine him being imitated unhelpfully.

I know I have a bent towards the big picture rather than the detail and I'm really not saying that rigorous application of the gospel isn't required - it is, and every detail of life matters... but does it look the same for everyone in every culture? We're not all called to the same job, same income, same location, same standard of living etc. A pure church is a great vision - but that's not done with an iron fist. No church is pure yet. And progress and joy in the faith come as everyone plays their part, not highlighting one another's failings but holding out the gospel, so that by the Spirit the eyes of our hearts might look again to Christ.

And in all this I'm thankful that I live in the presence of one who is My Provider, the true provider for my family, who is more than able to meet my every need, wretched as I am, and carry me home.