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The Private Jesus versus the Communal Jesus: Some (ecclesial) observations…

March 12, 2008


It was heartening to see the Southern Baptists changing their position on global warming.   The story that broke on Monday reports that forty-six influential members of the Southern Baptist Convention, including three of its past four presidents, criticized their denomination for being “too timid” in confronting global warming.  It is encouraging to see the Church able to change, grow, move to a more faithful position in response to the witness of Scripture and the Spirit.

One of the catalysts within the evangelical community for this kind of a shift was Rev. Richard Cizik.  He was a policy director in Washington who has pressed for years for more action to combat climate change, saying in a recent documentary that “to harm this world by environmental degradation is an offense against God.”

Unfortunately, he took a lot of heat from the evangelical community for speaking to this issue.  In 2007, a number of conservative evangelicals signed a letter calling for the resignation of Cizik.  James Dobson of Focus on the Family was among the signers of this letter that included the following statement:

“We have observed that Cizik and others are using the global warming controversy to shift the emphasis away from the great moral issues of our time, notably the sanctity of human life, the integrity of marriage and the teaching of sexual abstinence and morality to our children,” their letter said. “The issue (global warming) should be addressed scientifically and not theologically.”

I am wondering whether Dobson and the others who signed this letter truly believe it is a question of either/or?  Either we advocate for the sanctity of human life, the integrity of marriage, etc. or we advocate for stewardship of the environment.  It is regretable that the issue of environmental stewardship (creation care) is cast in polemical terms by those in this camp. 

This question raises other questions.  It is clear that Scripture teaches that the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.  Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, teaches that God sees the birds of the air and the lilies of the field and he cares for them.  If God cares for the created order in this way, then why would we expect any less of those who claim to believe in the way of Jesus? 

So we must ask.  Is it Scripture that is shaping the political views of Dobson and the other conservative evangelicals who signed the letter, or is it their a priori political views that are shaping their reading of Scripture?  This points us to a problem that is endemic to the Sola Scriptura framework of the evangelical world.  With whom do we read Scripture?  To whom are we willing to submit our views as we discern truth on any given issue?  Is it just the local community?  How are we related to the broader Community of Jesus in practices of discernment?

I submit that it is the private Jesus that shapes the ecclesial expressions throughout much of the evangelical world.  While we would give assent to the doctrine of the priesthood of ALL believers–the de facto reality on the ground is that we have few tools to help us interact with those who read Scripture and come to divergent interpretations (whether the issue is a polity question or the priority of caring for creation).  Without a sense of how we go about uncovering the reality of a communal Jesus, we see alternative expressions of ecclesial authority and spiritual discernment. 

These alternative (ecclesial) expressions of discernment are often borrowed from other models of group organization–social contract, democratic process, corporate structure and sometimes unhealthy autonomous authorities.  We see the various models expressed with varied results.  Power struggles.  Conflict.  Fragmentation.  Reaction.  Polarization.  

We engage in networking (i.e. new apostolic paradigm) with people who think like us. we create vision and core value statements.  We appropriate the language of Scripture without the interpretive motiff of submission to the historical community of Jesus.  We write letters seeking to convince others of our view of truth.  This happens at all levels within the Christian enterprise.  Whether it is the public discourse of evangelicals surrounding what are the important issues of our day to which the Gospel speaks, or whether it is a congregation seeking to find its identity and vision–these dynamics are not uncommon. 

Underneath the surface of these presenting symptoms is an entrenched individualism that is the defining motiff of Western society.  We read the Gospel through this lens.  We think about Church through this lens.  We engage in politics with the interests of the individual in mind.  We don’t have a language for the communal framing story.  At least there is much within our cultural norms that works against a communal framing story as we encounter the Gospel. 

The way this works itself out in the laundry of church life is sometimes quite messy.  You may have a church board at odds with a pastor.  Various segments within a congregational system with differing views and expectations of church–old guard versus new on any number of issues.  So how do we uncover the holy reality of the communal Jesus?  How do we avoid the toxic battles of this group versus that group within a congregation, a conference, a denomination, a movement?  What is the remedy for expressions of Church that act and speak in a way that is cut off from the communal Christ–the priesthood of ALL believers?

Can we broaden our understanding of the priesthood of ALL believers to include both the living and those who have gone before us in the faith?  To whom will we be willing to submit our views our interpretations of Scripture, our ideas about worship, our ideas about what it means to faithfully follow the way of Jesus?  Where is the locus of authority in our ecclesial expressions?  Not made visible through great individuals, but the whole community of Jesus?


2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 12, 2008 10:21 pm

    This is interesting stuff. Dobson really does have an interesting interpretation of global warming. He treats it like it is a scientific issue, and as such cannot be a theological issue. It reminds of George Kennan, and, while a committed Christian, did not believe God really cared about the European economic system during the Cold War. Rather, Kennan argued, we should care about containing communism. He picked and chose what God cared about. I think it is dangerous when we do this at any level.

  2. just an apprentice permalink
    March 13, 2008 6:30 am

    Thanks for your comment. Blessings to you as you finish at Azusa Pacific and seek God’s direction for ministering among the urban poor.

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