Can I be faithful without running away?

We’re reading Shane Clairbourne’s Jesus for President.

The main thrust of the book is that belief in God is highly political.  First with the Israelites in the Old Testament, and now with the church since the New Testament, God has been forming a people who will live as a different kind of community because they live with him.  The 10 commandments, with rules about not working on the sabbath for example, were meant to make Israel a distinctive nation that didn’t work because they trusted God rather than their own effort.  For the church, the sermon on the mount is a manifesto for the kind of community Jesus wants the church to be…it’s distinctive because it “seeks first the kingdom of God” trusting that everything else it needs…money, clothes, food….will be added to it.

Great!  But then we hit a snag – does this mean that anyone who wants to be a faithful Christian has to withdraw from regular society into a Christian ghetto?  Is the example of the Amish the way all Christians should go?

Let’s not delude ourselves…we’re not that far off at times with our Christian music, Christian clothes, Christian food products, Christian festivals, and enough church meetings to give every person a 24/7 Christian diary.  But what does this mean for people, like Anna (and the vast majority of Christians), working in a community that doesn’t live by a Christian world-view…that doesn’t even acknowledge belief in God, let alone shapes itself around such belief.

Are we stuck with a choice between compromise or withdrawal?

This made me think of a paper I wrote comparing the views of 2 modern theologians – Stanley Hauerwas and Lesslie Newbigin.  Both call for Christians to be distinctive. The title of this blog comes from Hauerwas’ conviction that Christians are called to be ‘faithful’ rather than ‘effective’ – we live with integrity before God trusting that he will do what he wants to do through us. What is interesting is that Hauerwas is often accused of demanding that the church withdraw from the world, whilst Newbigin is known for actively encouraging Christians to find places of influence within it.  He even formed ‘Frontier Groups’ where lawyers, businessmen, scientists and other influential members of society could meet to thrash out what it means to be a Christian in their sphere of work.  The difference, I concluded, was not that one calls for withdrawal and the other doesn’t, but that Hauerwas simply doesn’t think that someone who is truly faithful to Christ – who will put integrity before him above the priorities of their employer – will find themselves in a place of influence for long; Newbigin thinks we should try to help them do it!

I’m going to disappoint you now by saying we don’t have a solution to the issue, but we do have a couple of thoughts on it:

  1. The issue is not about withdrawal or not – like Hauerwas says, we can’t withdraw, we’re surrounded! The issue is whether we recognise that there are times that our jobs and roles will call for us to compromise our faith.  Sometimes this is just the workplace culture – lying, not taking responsibility for mistakes because it reflects on the whole team, gossiping or going behind people’s backs.  Sometimes it is actually the values of the organisation itself – for Anna, are there areas of scientific research that she would not want to see funded by the Trust she works for as a Christian?
  2. There are no set rules or general principles that will guide us through every issue.  The big thing we need to be able to do is to identify compromise when it approaches us – can we recognise the line?  This means we need to train ourselves in the skill of integrity – an understanding of Jesus and his character that helps us recognise when something contradicts it.  There are two key aspects to this:
  • Be with Jesus everyday! Spend time with him, love him, get to know him through prayer, reading the bible, and resting with him.
  • Be with people who know Jesus and know you! Newbigin was on to something – we need help!  We need to regularly share our lives with other people who know us and know Jesus – people who will help us see what is compromise and what is not.

Claibourne is right – as the church we are called to be distinctive.  It is too easy to hear this as a big picture principle for everyone to run away from non-Christian society….but that’s not the point – there’s no big principle to guide us either way.  What we have is a need for relationship – for ongoing, daily, walking with Jesus, recognising that we are surrounded by a society that don’t know him, but we’re not and never on our own.


4 thoughts on “Can I be faithful without running away?

  1. Nice post, Sam. Have you read Hunter yet? (James Davidson Hunter, ‘To Change The World’) He’s probably closer to Newbigin than Hauerwas, (he has a section critiquing what he calls ‘The Neo-Anabaptists’, which may get Hauerwas wrong, I don’t know), but I think he ends up in a similar place to what you’re advocating here, which is a theology of faithful presence. Worth a read if you haven’t yet. Great to see you yesterday. Blessings, Jon.

    • I’ve not read Hunter yet – I’ll have to check him out. Really interesting what Sam Wells was saying yesterday about ‘being with’ in the context of all this – will be posting about that too soon! Great to see you as well mate, enjoyed our Trinity mini-reunion. Peace, Sam

  2. I have a copy of To Change the World but have only dipped in and out of it–good book from what I can tell. Great review of it here:

    This is a really important issue for us protestants and one that’s getting more confusing because it seems like denominational lines/schools of thought are becoming increasingly blurred and conflated in PoMo Christianity (or is it just me?).

    It seems like all our attempts to try to re-imagine “being in the world” post-Constantine are all haunted by Constantinian memories (and I can’t decide whether that is healthy or frustrating!?). Perhaps one of the fundamental questions that we are asking is “how Constantinian should we be?” And the answer is…? I find this one particularly hard.

    Does the bible provide us with a complete & ideal account of dealing with Caesar anyway? (I’d appreciate your thoughts!)

    • Sorry it has taken time to reply. My next post relates a little to this in considering how the purpose of the church differs from the great human project much of society is engaged in…but more of that later.

      I wonder if we get to caught up considering Constantine and the Caesars. I think there are important insights to see, but the deepest one is perhaps this: the Bible points us to God not Caesar.

      Jesus challenged Caesar because he pointed to God. It strikes me that he was so focused on the Father and his kingdom that Caesar wasn’t so central anymore. The challenge came from what he called us to rather than what he called us from. It is worth us remembering that.

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