If you were to ask someone if there are problems in the church today, most anyone you ask will say, “yes!” There is evidence not only in the news, but in worship services, book shelves, and television. We can easily see the evidence when we consider all the different ways that church leaders are trying to combat it. The Emergent Church movement and the Purpose-Driven movement are just two examples of people who are trying to find ways to be “relevant” and “seeker-sensitive” all in an effort to reclaim influence in today’s culture.
Yet even with the mounting evidence, it is a rarity for someone to step up to the platform and declare what the problem really is.
Lights up on Dr. Rod Rosenbladt.
In his definitive talk called “The Gospel for Those Broken by the Church” (available at New Reformation Press), Dr. Rod Rosenbladt makes this charge: “there just isn’t enough substantial theology in most ‘mainline’ Protestant churches….” The implications are clear: abandonment of substantial theology means an abandonment of our faith. When so many churches are trying to find other ways of becoming relevant, what is missing is the structure of belief that is, in fact, the faith that they are trying to promote.
Rosenbladt sends his appeal directly to those who have once considered themselves as part of the church. He all but calls them the casualties of this abandonment of theology: “you once believed that Jesus was your sin-bearing Savior, but that you no longer believe that. Or that you wish you could still believe in Jesus, but you just can’t.” Leaving behind the theological foundation of Christianity, it has been easy for many churches to translate those truths into nothing but shoddy moralism. There is not necessarily anything wrong with teaching morality, but “if we do it badly, the sensitive Christian believer can be driven to a slavery [to morals] as bad as any slavery done to them by a totalitarian dictator.”
Becoming a Christian, we all find that it is not the end of our struggle against sin. The emphasis on moralism without the context of the Gospel becomes “just evidence that I’m not really a believer at all. If I were really a believer, this thing would ‘work!'” What has happened is that we got the Gospel right for unbelievers, but then abandoned it for Christians. We encourage people to “sign-up” as a Christian but then rescind the grace that God gave. Instead we hand them a book of rules to live by and imply that any failure means that they were not even likely to be a Christian in the first place. We use phrases like “re-committing my life to Christ” because a real Christian would not act that way.
What happens to those who are so aware of their struggle? Rosenbladt aptly observes, “they did what is really a sane thing to do: they left!” The perception is that the church has lied to them or that they are not good enough for God. The interesting thing is that this was not made an issue when signing-up, but it does become an issue after being part of the club. “We are pretty clear that imputed righteousness saves sinners,” Rosenbladt observes. “But can the imputed righteousness of Christ save a Christian?”
Grace and Christian Failures
If grace is sufficient to save a sinner, is it not just as capable of saving a Christian? We have limited the power of salvation if we limit its work to saving people who are outside the faith community. The Bible is clear that there is no other way to have a relationship with God, but by Christ’s imputed righteousness. Rosenbladt says, “Christian failures are going to walk into heaven, be welcomed into heaven, leap into heaven like a calf leaping out of its stall, laughing and laughing, as if it’s all too good to be true.” It is too good to be true! That is the scandal of grace and the good news of the Gospel. In fact it is good news again to those who have struggled to be Christians for their entire lives, thinking that they had to work so hard to maintain God’s favor.
Some, like myself, sit through the confusion and lack of theology because we read something completely different in the Bible and scratch our heads about how it does not seem to be what we hear from the pulpit. What happens to others? Rosenbladt explains “that they are angry at any and all religions and anyone who represents any religious position — but especially Christianity.” And why wouldn’t they be?
It is not Jesus that has let them down, but it has been the lack of Christianity in our Christianity. “People like this often speak as if Christianity ‘baited and switched’ them — just like a used car salesman ‘baits and switches’ a young couple at a car lot,” says Rosenbladt. But this is not Christ, because it is clear that grace is sufficient, not only for the unbeliever, but also for the Christian. We do not earn God’s favor, but we are given it as a gift. That gift is free, no matter what may have been preached to the contrary.
Redeeming the Conversation
Personally, I am continuing to come under fire for my empathy and compassion for atheists. I have been admonished in these exact words: “Empathy for God’s enemies equals apathy for God.” Yet, to my critics I have stood firm. Rosenbladt also obviously agrees that many, atheists among them, have become broken by the church. If I am part of the body that has perpetrated this damage, should I not become part of the solution to the problem?
In effort to help find a resolve, Rosenbladt offers possible solutions which are very close to mine, though we have arrived at those conclusions independently. It is important to engage in dialogue with people who have been ostracized and broken by the church. Rosenbladt encourages us to “identify with the anger of these people at the church [and stand with them by agreeing,] ‘Well, of course you are angry!'” If we can recognize the “bait and switch” and own the damage, even if we have not done this intentionally, we are doing nothing but acknowledging the reality that exists for so many. Those who are not angry are likely sad and have slunk off into a corner, hoping that someone will again open the door for them and acknowledge their pain.
“And, believe me, the ‘angry’ alumni are listening closely to see whether we are going to defend the church as much as we defend the Gospel,” warns Rosenbladt. If we reach out to these people, but still cannot offer anything different, well we are simply reinforcing their disappointment or anger. We need to reclaim the Gospel for ourselves as we reclaim it for others. We need to stand firm on God’s promises and remember that they are for all people, not just unbelievers.
Yet, it may still not be wise to “get them to come to church” with you. The pain may be too deep and their anger or disappointment may be so strong against the church that they will not even entertain the idea. Yet, Rosenbladt suggest, “if your friend can see for just a moment that the truth of the Gospel does not turn on Christ’s church, but only on Christ’s resurrection from the dead, it might be the first time he has ever thought such a thought.” Certainly we hope that as we reclaim the Gospel for Christians there will again be a safe haven for those who recognize their sin and are comforted by the imputed righteousness of Christ.
SEE ALSO: The Good News of the Bound Will