State of the Church 2024

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The Moscow Mood

As you might know by now, the tone coming out of Moscow has gained a little bit of notoriety. For good or ill, this reputation shows no signs of going away, and because you are likely to be fielding questions about it, I thought that it would be good to use our annual “state of the church” message to help you sort through some of the relevant issues.

The Texts

“And sent messengers before his face: and they went, and entered into a village of the Samaritans, to make ready for him. And they did not receive him, because his face was as though he would go to Jerusalem. And when his disciples James and John saw this, they said, Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did? But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them. And they went to another village” (Luke 9:52–56).

Summary of the Texts

The basic lesson we should take from our text is this. Just because it is biblical . . . doesn’t make it biblical. As I learned from my father, there is always a deeper right than being right. James and John were nicknamed “sons of thunder” by the Lord (Mark 3:17), meaning that they were almost certainly a hot-blooded pair. When a Samaritan village denied them lodging because they were Jews on the way to Jerusalem, the two brothers appealed to the example of Elijah. When he had sent a message to King Ahaziah that he was not going to recover from a fall, the king had sent an armed guard of fifty men to arrest Elijah, and Elijah called down fire from heaven and consumed them all (2 Kings 1:10). The king dispatched a second troop, and the same thing happened again (2 Kings 1:12). The third captain was a great deal more polite—having seen what happened to the first two bands. This is the same Elijah who had summoned fire from heaven to consume the sacrificial altar on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:38), which he followed up by having all the priests of Baal executed. So the prophet Elijah was no buttercup, and James and John did have a biblical example to point to. But Jesus responded by saying that they had wildly misjudged the two circumstances—and they had particularly misjudged the nature of the mission that Christ was on. Christ had come to save, not destroy. So it is not enough to “have a verse.”

But This Knife Cuts Both Ways

If there is always a deeper right than being right, then this must apply to every kind of “right.” Not just the right that has hard lines and straight edges. This also applies to the right of being kind, or generous, or sacrificial, or thoughtful. There is a deeper right than being thoughtful. Try being thoughtful. There is a deeper right than being winsome. The problem with being merely winsome is that it is so off-putting.

C.S. Lewis once commented on a woman who was the sort of woman who lived for others, and you could tell who the others were by their hunted expression. Maybe he was afflicted by this sort of thing himself because he even wrote a poem in the form of an epitaph about it:

Erected by her sorrowing brothers
In memory of Martha Clay.
Here lies one who lived for others;
Now she has peace. And so have they.

Lewis, Poems

Is it possible to bestow all your worldly goods to feed the poor, and have no love, no charity (1 Cor. 13:3)? It most certainly is, and that profits nothing. Was Judas concerned about the poor when Mary anointed the Lord’s feet with spikenard? Judas was the treasurer, and he was concerned about the extravagance (John 13:29). And he said that it was for the poor (John 12:5), but his motives were clearly mixed (John 12:6). It was the White Witch who is concerned about conspicuous consumption, remember. “What is the meaning of all this gluttony, this waste, this self-indulgence? Where did you get all these things?”

And there have eras when the saints were prone to miss the deeper right through a zeal to be hard line. That really is true. But to assume that this is the error of our age is to waver on the threshold of a serious delusion. Since I am already quoting Lewis so much, here is one more. When confronted with a flood, we break out the fire extinguishers.

But We Must Resist Our Own Temptations, Not Those of Others

Godly satire should come from within a worshiping community of orthodox and faithful Christians, only some of whom are called to it (Eph. 5:21). The satire should arise from the language and categories of Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Those exercising these gifts should have warm and affectionate relationships with their families. No close member of his family should flinch when he walks into the room (Col. 3:19, 21). The practice should continue a long and worthy tradition, and there should be broad acquaintance with that literature. There needs to be an instinctive knowledge of the quantitative difference between satire and scurrility. There may not seem to be a logical difference between 37 lashes and 42 lashes, but Scriptures say there is (Dt. 25:1-3). We have to know when to say when.

There is a qualitative difference between the two also. This is a matter of timbre and tone. No mechanical rules can be set down for it, but it is a very important distinction to make (Heb. 5:14). These weapons should not be entrusted to anyone too young (1 Tim. 3:6). The whole point is to target lack of proportion, not to exhibit lack of proportion (Matt. 23:24). What effect is all of this having on those who aspire to fighting Amalekites with a chain saw (2 Cor. 11:1)? Is the satire coming from within a community that has long experience in letting love cover a multitude of sins (1 Pet. 4:8)?

This requires a courageous disposition, not a bullying one. Lawful satire is leveled at targets that know how to defend themselves, and who will defend themselves. As King Lune of Archenland put it, “Never taunt a man save when he is stronger than you: then, as you please.” And if a man is too proud to humble himself if and when he has sinned (Jas. 5:16), then he is too proud for this calling. Man’s anger does not advance God’s righteousness (Jas. 1:20). Anger, even when it is righteous (Eph. 4:26), is like manna and goes bad overnight (Eph. 4:27). And this kind of thing should never proceed from “little man syndrome,” where a man has something deep inside to prove, usually to his father. We must be free, completely free, of envy (Jas. 4:1-6). Envious satire is brittle satire, and not very effective anyhow.

The target should always be arrogance, not weakness, and, as far as possible, reserve his arrows for the former. There must be a general knowledge of church history, which will dislodge the very provincial notion that the current rules of academic etiquette are somehow binding on all generations of the Church. Scripture is the norm, not our current traditions. We must love to sing all the psalms that God has given us (Eph. 5:19). Nothing serves like the psalms if the goal is to nurture and restore a vertebrate church. We must never get stuck on one speed however (Ecc. 3:1-8). All satire, all the time, would be tolerable for about forty-five minutes. We must learn as a community to really hate what is evil. The fear of God is not only the beginning of knowledge, but it is also defined as the hatred of evil. “The fear of the LORD is to hate evil: pride, and arrogancy, and the evil way, and the froward mouth, do I hate” (Prov. 8:14). And last, we must all grow in our love for what is good (Tit. 2:14), motivated by a love that yearns to defend what is noble and right, or weak and defenseless, and never be motivated by a bitterness that seeks to bite and tear (Gal. 5:13-15).

A Body Life Thing

There will be critics around the country who will say something like this. “All the qualifications you make are reasonable, and it is good to hear you say that there is a deeper right than being right. We just don’t think you are exhibiting the kind of balance you have just described.” And so we reply with an invitation. “Would you like to come here for one of our events and see what the community is like for yourself? We will pay for the ticket.” And the answer is consistently no. And so we would point out, somewhat mildly, that not only is there a deeper right than being right, there is also a deeper right than being wrong.

Some people assume that if you move to Moscow, you are committing yourself to making fun of everybody, all the time. Not a bit of it. We are the body of Christ, and here, as with everything, each part of the body does what it was fashioned to do. So the eye doesn’t have to do what the ear does. But the eye needs to be committed to the ear and should expect the ear to have a completely different take on things.

But the whole body is Christ. When we say, “all of Christ for all of life,” this is part of what we are talking about. We do not worship a piecemeal Christ. We are not limited to the New Testament. We do not focus on one of the Lord’s attributes while neglecting the others.

The body of Christ is not supposed to be a bowl of room temperature tapioca. It is to be more like a salad. You know, the kind with bits of bacon, and pomegranate, and croutons, and slices of apple.   

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4 months ago

So good! Thank you

Roger McClelland
Roger McClelland
4 months ago

This is very encouraging to me. There is much wisdom in this.

David Anderson
4 months ago

I find the parts in the introduction and conclusion about the “Moscow mood” as a bit absurd. I think what’s really happened is that some people assume that the mood in Moscow is probably the same mood as the approach and self-presentation of this particular blog. If you look at things like the content of the Canon Press bookstore, Logos Online School, the NSA Conservatory of Music, etc etc etc. a few times over in other ministries, then you’ll soon realise that the blog mood doesn’t at all accurately summarise the mood in Moscow. Hence, calling it “the Moscow mood”… Read more »

Jennifer Mugrage
4 months ago
Reply to  David Anderson

You are right that the content of DeYoung’s critique was all aimed at Blog and Mablog and the NQN videos, not even at Canon Press, which puts out a lot of the type of theological material that he accused Wilson of *not* producing. But his thesis wasn’t just about Wilson. His thesis was that it is these spicier parts of “Moscow’s” overall approach that are attractive to some Christians, and that he fears will be spiritually harmful to them. Thus, he was indeed implicitly accusing anyone who is a member of Christchurch, especially if they moved to Moscow to join… Read more »