Sunday, November 15, 2009

What IS the Church's Problem with Failure and Excess?

I want to ask a question - and it's been on my mind for years. Yesterday's blog post has simply sparked it off - for those who haven't read it, I responded to a post that stated a whole church was taken out of the charismatic movement because of moral failure. In my 30 years of church life I have watched aghast as church pastors have publicly destroyed people's lives with little or no obvious compassion - simply because of failure. Why is this? Surely it may be a bit simplistic - but shouldn't the church be the "safest place on earth"? Or to put it another way; "The happiest place on earth"?

But this isn't an unusal situation. This of course happened in the New Testament. John 8:3 follows the well-known account when the teachers of the Law dragged a woman caught in prostitution to Him. They quoted the Law to Him to see His reaction. But what caught my attention was the verse after this;

"They began to go out one by one beginning with the older ones".

What does this mean? Does it mean that the older ones were convicted first that they were not without sin and so left first? Or does it mean that the older ones left first because they were outraged and frustrated that Jesus would not apply the letter of the Law to this hideous, sinful and disgusting woman? I wonder ... The commentaries I checked said this;

"The older ones either had more sins for which they were answerable or else had more sense than to make an impossible profession of righteousness".

Would anything change in the church today? I can honestly say that I have seen churches metaphorically "drag people before Jesus and demand they be stoned". Do we not all know that we sin? So surely why is it that Rob Rufus has to say of the church;

"If you are bleeding - don't swim with the sharks".

Tragically this isn't just theory. Why else do so many Christians persist in struggling secretly with sin terrified that they may be found out? Have we ever considered that very few people jump straight to the "big" sins? Few Christians will fall into moral failure - adultery or homosexual practice. It all begins with thoughts and temptations and how sad - if the church was really that safe then maybe this could be dealt with. But it isn't.

Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones had a great deal to say about the "fear of excess". Moral failure was the first thing mentioned that dragged my home church into functional cessationism. Fear of excess was the other. The Toronto Blessing was something that was made to be terrifying to us. We were shown video after video of people howling and cackling with laughter and it genuinely scared us. "This" is what may happen if you stay charismatic - we were told.

Here is what Dr Martyn Ll0yd-Jones had to say;

"Certain people by nature are afraid of the supernatural, of the unusual, of disorder, so concerned about discipline and decorum and control, that you become guilty of what the Scripture calls "quenching the Spirit"; and there is no question in my mind that there has been a great deal of this"

I have little hesitation in saying that many "anti-charismatics" seem to fall into this category. I don't know whether they mean to. But the fear of excess seems to drive this. And again I wonder why. What's so scary about going over the top? The world does it all the time through drugs, alcohol and so on. You pay good money to do that. Why is the church so scared of it?

"People are so afraid of what they call enthusiasm and some are so afraid of fanaticism that in order to avoid those they go right over to the other side without facing what is offered in the New Testament".

Dr Martyn Ll0yd-Jones sums the problem up exactly. How I long, wish, agonise and regret that my home church couldn't have simply sat back and said; "Well there is some excess here and there - but we don't have to go that way. We have the Word of God, yet we see that we can have the life without going crazy!". Sadly Dr Ern Baxter pleaded exactly this in his last visit to Dunstable in a sermon called; "The Spirit and the Word". Dr Lloyd-Jones goes on (and here is my favourite quote that I often cite);

"Look at the New Testament Christian, look at the New Testament church and you see it vibrant with spiritual life, and of course it is always life that tends to lead to excesses. There is no problem of discipline in a graveyard; there is no problem very much in a formal church. The problems arise when there is life".

Vibrant with spiritual life! So if we are to take Dr Lloyd-Jones counsel to heart then we could almost say that if you can't remember when there was a loving discipline of a church member for doing something crazy, then your church may be pretty formal. But if you cannot remember the last time something untoward happened in a church service - you must ask, does my church resemble something of a graveyard where you know exactly what will happen?

"Problems are created by life and by vigour and the problems of the early church were spiritual problems, problems arising because of the danger of going to excess in the spiritual realms".

Oh that we would have these problems again! Of course I don't mean we should hunger for excess and failure. But I DO mean that I think formality, deadness and legalism is a more deadly problem at present that excess. These quotes of Dr Ll0yd-Jones were from my favourite book; "Joy Unspeakable" and Terry Virgo wrote a commendation on this edition. He said;

"This is no age to advocate restraint; the church today does not need to be restrained but to be aroused, to be awakened and to be filled with the Spirit of glory".

Do it again Lord. Bring life back to Your church!


Mad said...

Really great article.

janelle said...

So I read something like this and part of me is like "YAY!" and part of me scratches my head.

I say YAY! because it is soooo true that we should desire "excess" so to speak. Even the Corinthians were told to eagerly desire the spiritual gifts, and Paul was writing to them to reprimand them for being chaotic about their exercise of the gifts.

I scratch my head when you write, "Tragically this isn't just theory. Why else do so many Christians persist in struggling secretly with sin terrified that they may be found out? Have we ever considered that very few people jump straight to the "big" sins? Few Christians will fall into moral failure - adultery or homosexual practice. It all begins with thoughts and temptations and how sad - if the church was really that safe then maybe this could be dealt with. But it isn't."

I totally agree with you, yet you don't like the idea of confessing sins to others for accountability. At least, that's my understanding of previous conversations we've had. Can you clarify? Am I misunderstanding your stance on that?

Dan Bowen said...

Thanks Mad :)

Agreed Janelle, you caught the flaw in my thinking! :) I think what I object to in accountability structures that I've seen and observed is the mechanical framework WITHOUT the loving caring relationship.

Take SGM Bristol - I didn't "get" why we were allocated into accountability groups with people we didn't know, love or trust and then expected to bare our souls. Maybe (and I'm guessing because we weren't told) but maybe the hope was that those relationships, love and trust would follow (they didn't that I recall) but I think it hindered the depth of honesty and openness.

So am I being too demanding perhaps?! I don't mind an accountability structure but it's got to stem from a relationship and a friendship! Well to me, that will work if the first step is to get into cell groups or care groups or whatever and don't rush to "allocate" those accountability groups.

Maybe the allocating was done from a panic that sin was going on?! Well sin was going on long before the church was even formed, so really another few weeks or months wouldn't have hurt. And I think the result would have been increased sharing and perhaps increased honesty and vulnerability too.

I don't mean that to sound overly critical of SGM Bristol (again) - it's just that was my only formal experience of accountability so that's all I can really talk about!

Does that make sense? Sorry it's 05:20 here and I'm freezing clutching a cup of tea!!

janelle said...


Yes, it does make sense. And now that I understand where you are coming from, I agree with you. It does seem a little strange when you are not used to it.

I've never seen another church do it that way. Maybe it was just your church. Typically, (I might be wrong) accountability is supposed to be organic, just part of the LIFE of the church. You're right, programs that are put into place to force us to confess sin don't work. Also, we have to keep in mind that accountability isn't always about sin, either. For instance, I'm memorizing Galatians, so I told some people close to me so that they could ask me how its going, encourage me, and so on. Like you, my mind automatically leaps to sin when someone mentions accountability, but that doesn't always have to be the case! Seeing it that way also keeps accountability from seeming like a negative concept (always associated with sin) to being just a part of who we are as Christians.

jul said...

Aha, so what Janelle calls accountability Dan calls relationship! I'm all for true relationships where we naturally share our lives with one another, not in order to hold one another 'accountable' but to encourage one another in grace and preach the gospel to each other in love, not to mention enjoy each other! I think there's a bit of discrepancy over terms...and of course some differences in doctrine would affect the way relationship will play out as well.

Excellent post by the way Dan!

janelle said...

Good point Jul.