Sunday, October 18, 2020

The Commentariat Speaks (19)

Moscow, Idaho is home to Christ Church, a conservative reformed evangelical gathering of about 900 people that has produced an unusual number of what Wikipedia calls “institutional projects”, including New Saint Andrews College, the Logos School, a Christian book publisher, a scripture translation group, a three-year ministerial training program and four spin-off churches in Montana, California and Myanmar.

Christ Church congregants form an active community of homeschoolers and Christian businesspeople within Moscow.

A National Profile

In a city with a population of less than 24,000, a group of nearly 1,000 people working together for the furtherance of the gospel has an understandably outsized impact, one which went national in late September when three members, including a music teacher and his wife, were arrested for singing hymns outdoors sans masks and while failing to socially distance, a story which made Breitbart and was retweeted by President Trump.

Far from being put off by Christ Church’s rather vibrant public profile, in these unsettled times, Christians like this Texan father of four are making plans to move to Moscow to join the party. In fact, so many families have expressed interest in relocating to Idaho that the elders of Christ Church felt obliged to write an open letter to attempt to manage expectations, pointing out that: (1) successfully relocating to a small town like Moscow requires prearranging employment rather than just showing up in hope of it; and (2) like all local churches, Christ Church is imperfect, and those who move to Moscow with unrealistic hopes of finding their New Jerusalem early will inevitably be disappointed.

This week, a question about home schooling prompted this reply from Christ Church’s Doug Wilson on his personal blog:
“The best way to ‘go out’ into the broader culture is to do so with an intact Christian culture behind you. We weren’t told to build bubbles or ghettos, but we were told to disciple all the nations. And there is no way to disciple a nation without building an alternative Christian culture within it.”
Doug’s statement begs the much-bandied question of whether the Lord intended his followers to disciple all nations, or disciple believers from all nations.

The Great Commission Passages

Like most amillennialists, Doug Wilson takes the former position. The ESV of the Lord’s parting words to his disciples in Matthew says, “make disciples of all nations”, which may be read both ways: as either “make all nations your disciples” or “make disciples from or out of all nations”. The underlying Greek is literally “teaching all nations”, but since it goes on to say “baptizing them”, it should be evident that the word “them” most likely refers to individuals from the nations rather than the nations themselves. (Unless you have the Red Sea handy and a miracle up your sleeve, baptizing a nation is a non-starter. Discipling an entire nation is equally unlikely, as Israel well demonstrates.) Nevertheless, Christians whose systematic theology demands the cultural transformation of whole people-groups prior to the second coming of Christ read Matthew 28:19 the way you might expect them to.

Matthew is pretty much it on this subject. Finding wholesale cultural transformation brought on by the church in other “great commission” passages requires more creativity. Mark says, “Proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.” Nothing there about either nations or institutions: it is “whoever believes” and “whoever does not believe”, suggesting that the gospel will divide nations rather than unite them. John’s take is entirely personal and easily missed. The book of Acts simply speaks of being “witnesses” in various geographic locations. Luke also speaks of the forgiveness of sins being proclaimed in the Lord’s name “to all nations”, but since the practice of Paul and the other apostles was to go first to the synagogues of the Jewish minorities in Gentile cities across Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, and then to receptive individuals rather than to heads of state, it is evident the apostles did not view themselves as being in the business of constructing an alternative culture, except perhaps to the extent that sufficient numbers of believers in any given location might tend to do so organically as a by-product of the gospel rather than as a specific agenda item.

The mandate to transform cultures, then, rests on fairly dubious scriptural ground, but is commonly believed and occasionally attempted. The Moscow group are certainly accused of attempting it: Doug Wilson uses the term “spiritual takeover” unironically, and not every unsaved Muscovite is enthusiastic about that.

A Biblical Precedent

Now, the Moscow situation is not without biblical precedent. The post-Pentecostal church in Jerusalem sounds like it was a fine place to be. In the first century, a thriving community of thousands gathered in the temple and from house to house, shared resources, enjoyed happy fellowship, lived out the Christian life and spread the gospel. They had solid leadership and the strength of numbers. Their corporate testimony was powerful and unusually effective. If the folks in Moscow are managing even a fraction of that, the appeal of the project is understandable.

And yet the Lord quickly dispersed the church in Jerusalem notwithstanding all its positives. It is estimated those halcyon days lasted as little as a year. Subjected to intense persecution, all but the apostles shortly scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Many Jewish believers traveled much further abroad after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70. It may certainly be argued that the Christians of that day went out into the broader culture with an intact Christian culture behind them, but that “intact Christian culture” was spiritual rather than institutional, and atomized rather than monolithic. The church of those days moved more like a ragtag group of cooperating insurgents than a mighty army.

It is therefore hard to make the argument that the Jerusalem church serves as a model for modern Christian community, and there is nothing comparable to be found in our New Testaments which might replace it. And yet there is nothing intrinsically wrong or undesirable about large groups of Christians living together and transforming their communities, and much to like about it.

Regardless, if Christ Church is only a bubble, it may not last long. Sudden influxes of any sort are hard to manage, and even like-minded folk are rarely like-minded across the board. We do not know how the church in Jerusalem might have fared spiritually ten, fifteen or twenty years down the road, as it became something much smaller and more modest shortly after its inception. So too may Christ Church ... or it may become something else entirely.

A Question

So here’s a question: Regardless of our systematic theology, should Christians in general still be thinking in terms of “going out into the broader culture” in the same way we did in the first century? After all, in North America it is fairly difficult to go anywhere except the downtown cores of big cities without finding large numbers of fellow believers already in place. This being the case, is there much value to the Kingdom of Heaven in joining with one group in one locale over another? (Other than, of course, that one’s spiritual gift may be of greater use to the work of the Lord in some places than others.)

Or is it acceptable and productive to “hunker down” in place, enjoy the fellowship of large numbers of like-minded believers wherever they may be found, and build into the culture where we are?

Discuss amongst yourselves ...

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