Grace and Culture Building

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As a community of Christians we were all called and shaped by radical grace. One of the things that grace does (and which law cannot do) is build a culture with standards—which then presents a potent threat to grace. We are called to understand this dynamic because if we don’t, we will be continually frustrated.

“There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (Rom. 8:1-4).
For those who are in Christ Jesus, for those who walk after the Spirit and not the flesh, there is no condemnation (v. 1). The Spirit’s law of life sets us free from the law of sin and death (v. 2). The law was unable to fix us, because it was undone by our weakness. The law and the flesh are—to use the jargon—codependent. Law fails when the flesh does. But what the law could not do, God did by sending His own Son to be condemned on the cross (v. 3). And why? The reason is so that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk according to the Spirit, and not according to the law (v. 4).

By not calculating on the basis of standards, grace enables us to fulfill the standard. And by insisting that every molecule of the standards be honored, the legal approach collapses in a heap of self-contradictory lusts. In other words, grace keeps the law, and the law is a lawbreaker.

But grace does not just “keep the law” in matters related to a person’s private ethical conduct. Grace enables men and women to marry and to bring up children properly. Grace enables people to build schools with genuine academic standards. Grace enables us to learn to love work, and to enjoy the consequent prosperity. Grace, in short, has a tendency to create subcultures within the culture of grace called the church, and as a result creates a thorny theological and pastoral problem. Let’s tackle it now.

You cannot flunk out of the Christian faith. You can be expelled for high rebellion (which is what excommunication is), but you cannot be kicked out for being slow or lazy. You cannot even be kicked out for being sinful. How many times will God accept you back to this Table? More than 70 times 7? The church is therefore tailor-made for misfits. Robert Frost once defined home as that place where, “if you have to go, they have to take you in.” And this is why, in a fundamental way, the church is your home. You might be the king of the screw-ups, but you are always most welcome here. Own your sin, and you are never on your own.

But at the same time, it is right and proper that a sluggard supreme be able to flunk out of a Christian school. It is right and proper that a profane child not be allowed to play with your kid anymore. Suppose you couldn’t carry a tune with a fork lift—it is right and proper that you be denied the solo part in the church choir. In fact, it may be right and proper that you be frog-marched out of the church choir entirely. Suppose one of you gets a farm job this summer for your teen-aged boy, the point being to teach him the value of hard work. After two weeks, your farmer friend lets him go, and you go to inquire into the reasons. He gives his reasoning in this way: “If that boy had another hand, he would need a third pocket to put it in.” It is right and proper that he be fired. But how does all this fit with grace? Do you get the problem?

The qualifications for fellowship are quite simple—faith in Jesus and sorrow over sin. The qualifications for leadership are different—and if disqualification has occurred, sorrow doesn’t address it in the same way. If a bank president embezzles a couple hundred thousand dollars, he doesn’t get his job back just because he feels really sorry about it.

Confusion over these two different kinds of qualification has led to a great deal of mayhem. Suppose a pastor disgraces his office, is defrocked, and when he wants to be reinstalled three months later and is refused, he then says something like “where’s the forgiveness?” But the forgiveness is plainly seen in his access to the Table from that side of the Table.

So there is the grace-based standard of fellowship. But there are also the grace-created standards associated with office. Once we have this down, there is the additional complication of seeing how the standards of office can be layered and hierarchical (husband, boss, owner, etc.), as well as being informal and not just formal (friends, role models, etc.).

The church generally is like the militia, and it is like a militia where you pretty much have to take in anybody who shows up with a gun. Then there are the “parachurch” developments which wind up creating (at least initially) our Navy Seals—Knights Templar, or monasteries, or seminaries, or colleges, or Bible societies, or mission agencies, and so on. The Puritan experiment in New England began as an attempt to turn the militia into the Delta Force.

This problem manifested itself in the very first years of the Christian churches existence. This is why Paul had to distinguish between the “strong” and the “weak” (Rom. 15:1), and this is why he had to tell the strong to bear with the weak.

There is a temptation to resentment that works in two directions. The strong get something going, and those who need that strength (for whatever reason) are attracted to it, and attach themselves. The strong resent “the drag.” Then the weak begin to resent the strong out of envy. Who do they think they are?

Strong and weak both are called to humble themselves under the mighty hand of God—and He will lift them up.

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