Jesus’s ministry vs. church ministry

Just a quick thought – I was just reading this article Mark Driscoll tweeted about how Acts 29, his church planting network, fared in the last calendar year: “4000 saved and 133 new churches.” 2010 was Acts 29’s “biggest year yet” after “an explosion of growth over the last five years.”

It’s pretty clearly implied in the article that numerical growth is linked to divine approval. Which is interesting. It’s one of the peculiarities of American evangelical culture that people simultaneously believe that their “persecution” is a sign that their version of Christianity is the true faith, and also believe that growing churches and revenue are a sign of divine blessing. It’s a convenient paradox; either way God is on their side.

The other thing that occurred to me was how very different the Acts 29 model of “ministry” is from Jesus’s ministry in the gospels. By a lot of measures today his ministry wasn’t terribly “gospel-centered” or all that successful. He had a small, rag-tag bunch of followers, most of whom were of pretty low status if not total outcasts (fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes, adulteresses…). Sure, he told people to repent and converted people into his followers, but that wasn’t really the bulk of his ministry.

In the gospel accounts he seems to have spent far more time healing the sick, feeding people, and caring for the poor and marginalized, even arguing that such people were more righteous and closer to the kingdom of God that the rich and the religious elite of the time. He preached a radical vision for society: give up your wealth and security to follow the way, share what you have with those who have less, nonviolence, the poor are rich in spirit and the meek will inherit the earth, make yourself last if you want to be first. He spent a lot of time ministering to the physical needs of people who didn’t have much – something contemporary evangelicals consider to be a “distraction” from the gospel – and called that righteousness, and said those who failed to provide for the physical needs of those with less than them could not be part of his kingdom.

What if churches measured their ministries by this standard? What if they spent more time making sure everyone has food, shelter, healthcare, basic rights and needs than they did trying to police people’s morality or make their churches bigger or win more converts? What if they defined success by how many people they helped, by how much they shared with others, not how much money or people they could claim?

I’d be proud to belong to a faith like that.

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Strange priorities

Newsweek recently profiled Brian Brown, the president of the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage.  The article presents a very sanitized picture of Brown and his work; it gives the impression that he’s some sort of moderate homophobe, not as hateful or prejudiced as the other guys.  As Jeremy Hooper of Prop 8 Trial Tracker points out, this is a rather strange way to depict a straight man with a “near-daily, decade-long obsession with same-sex marriage.”  Further, the article misrepresents NOM’s record, overstating its influence and success, and casts marriage equality supporters in a negative light.

Still, the article offers some insights on how Brown spins his image and his message to make it appear less homophobic than it is, and raises some interesting questions as to why Christians like Brown, a convert to Catholicism, invest so much effort and resources into opposing marriage equality.  NOM has been able to raise, and spend, huge amounts of money in support of anti-gay measures:

Although NOM operates with a skeleton staff, its budget has ballooned from $500,000 in 2007, when Brown cofounded the group, to more than $13 million today. With that war chest, it was able to pour some $5 million into 100 races in the recent elections.

That’s quite a lot of money, money that could make a huge, positive difference in many lives if spent thoughtfully.   NOM doesn’t disclose its donors, but it’s safe to say that most of it is coming from traditionalist Christians and churches.  This is just one organization, of course, and doesn’t include the millions of dollars groups like the LDS and Roman Catholic churches have invested in anti-gay campaigns – so it only represents a fraction of the expenditure on such campaigns in the US.  As always, I can’t but wonder why so many Christians think this issue is so important that it’s worth pouring so much individual and collective money into.  Honestly, this is something I found disturbing even when I still accepted the fundamentalist and homophobic version of Christianity I was raised to believe.  It’s one thing to believe same sex marriage is wrong, but what makes it SO wrong, so threatening, that millions of dollars are needed to deny it legal recognition?  What makes it so much more urgent or important that it deserves more attention and funding than any number of causes focused on actually helping people?  And if it’s really so awful, where are the millions of dollars being spent to ban divorce for straight couples?

Even if you read the Bible the way fundamentalists and evangelicals as literally as they claim it should be read, there’s no rationale for making fighting gay marriage and other LGB legal rights such a huge priority.  Again, if you look at what Jesus actually said about righteous conduct, and what will get you into heaven, there’s absolutely nothing in there about fighting for the government to enforce (one version of) Christian beliefs as law, and quite a lot about Christians’ obligations to respect the government (“render unto Caesar what it Caesar’s”), and about how the kingdom of heaven has completely different values, goals, and priorities than earthly kingdoms and governments.  Jesus rejected conventional measures of worth and status:

And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 43 But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10, ESV)

Jesus was expected to overthrow the Roman government, and instead taught that his kingdom was of another world.  He taught that people who ignored the plight of the poor, hungry, sick, or downtrodden on earth would not be allowed into the kingdom of heaven, that the rich should give their money and possessions away to follow him, and that it’s easier for a rich person to enter heaven than for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye (read: pretty damn impossible).  He taught that people should be more concerned with their own failings than with other people’s shortcomings.  And then there’s that pesky business about loving your neighbor as yourself and treating others the way you’d want to be treated by them.

Christian anti-gay campaigns are fundamentally an attempt to use power and privilege against people with less power, and less privilege.  Their tools are wealth and political influence.  Their goals are to ensure that gay couples and families are treated with less dignity and respect than straight couples and families.  As such they are inherently opposed to everything Jesus stood for, and are run completely counter to how Jesus would have operated.  And they’re on no firmer ground if you look at the rest of the New Testament – not unless you decide to ignore Paul and Peter they say Christians should respect ruling authorities, or decide that James is being metaphorical when he says true religion is caring for orphans and widows.

So I’m wondering again how Christians like Brian Brown justify spending millions trying to codify their version of Christian teaching into law, while simultaneously being opposed to the government – and sometimes even the church – spending money to assist people in need.  Jesus was pretty specific about how both of those positions are incompatible with following him.  But I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising when fundamentalists show, again, that they don’t really believe the Bible.


If Fundamentalists really believed the Bible . . .

I loved this cartoon from Russell’s Teapot (ht The Redheaded Skeptic, click for a bigger version).

I’ve often thought that if literalist Christians in this country really, truly believed that the Bible is completely divinely inspired, inerrant, and literally true, most of them would be living completely different lives.  After all, Jesus had quite a bit to say about people who go through the forms of religion but don’t actually live up to the standards of holiness required to make it into heaven.  And he explicitly includes caring and providing for those in need as one of those standards:

41“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45“He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ 46 Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matthew 25)

Can you imagine how different the world would be if so called biblical literalists actually took Jesus’ words in this passage seriously?  If they actually believed not caring for the vulnerable, poor, sick, hungry, and incarcerated would mean eternal damnation?