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We have met the enemy and he is us! Thoughts on the state of the western evangelical church

We have met the enemy and he is us! Thoughts on the state of the western evangelical church December 7, 2021

 

We have met the enemy, and he is us.”[1]

It was 739 BC when the prophet Isaiah saw the Lord sitting on a throne: “lofty and exalted” (Isa 6:1). One of the Seraphim cried out, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory” (Isa 6:3). When the Seraph does so, the foundations of the temple shook (Isa 6:4).

Not sure about you, but if I were in Isaiah’s shoes, I might have soiled myself.

The presence of Seraphim—let alone the glorious presence of Lord seated on His throne—would be enough to send mere mortals fleeing.

NB: We don’t know much about the Seraphim. Isaiah 6:2, 6 are the only places in the OT where they appear by name. Interestingly, the Hebrew “sarap” (Seraphim) is the same word used to describe the “serpent” that the Israelites feared in the desert (cf Num 21:6-8; Deut 8:15). There is a reference to a “flying serpent” later in Isaiah that may also depict the Seraphim (Isa 14:29; 30:6). The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery suggests, the “image of a seraph may have had more in common with our idea of dragon than of angel.”[2]

Isaiah quickly realizes that he should not be there! “Woe is me, for I am ruined” (Isa 6:5).

It is not simply because Isaiah is a sinner standing in the presence of the Holy Lord. It is also because: “I live among a people of unclean lips” (Isa 6:5).[3]

The prophet repents and is forgiven (Isa 6:5-7).

Isaiah is then called and commissioned for a prophetic ministry (Isa 6:8-10).

The Prophets

Now, I suspect that many Christians have a romantic view of prophets that is far from reality. Being commissioned to a prophetic ministry, especially when that ministry was to your own people, was never a glamorous task.

Moses recognizes that a call to the prophetic office is not something to be desired. Even though the Lord continuously assured Him—

“I will be with you” (Exod 3:12);

“I will stretch out My hand” (Exod 3:20);

“I, even I, will be with your mouth, and teach you what you are to say” (Exod 4:12).

—nonetheless, Moses continues to manufacture excuse after excuse as to why he cannot proceed:

“Who am I that I should go?” (Exod 3:12)

“I don’t even know your name” (my paraphrase: Exod 3:13)

“What if they will not believe me or listen to what I say” (Exod 4:1)

“I am slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Exod 4:10)

“Oh, my Lord, please send someone else!” (Exod 4:13; ESV)

Isaiah’s commissioning, however, takes on an added twist. He is to:

“Render the hearts of this people insensitive, their ears dull, and their eyes dim” (Isa 6:10).

“Your mission—should you choose to accept it—is to preach and have no one listen.”

Not only would people not listen, Isaiah was to ensure that they did not: “render the hearts of this people insensitive” (Isa 6:10).

As difficult as it is to be in ministry, can you imagine what it must have been like for Isaiah? His commissioning was to ensure that he not form a mega-church. He will never preach to throngs of eager listeners.

(In modern terms: his blog and podcasts will have no followers. His Instagram posts will have no likes. And on Facebook he will have no friends).

If he is successful, no one will listen.

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The people’s perception

The problem for Isaiah (and Jeremiah and Ezekiel and . . . the list goes on) is that his message regarding the sinfulness of the people of God [4] did not square with the people’s perception of themselves.

You can almost hear them still people groaning: “What do you mean we are a sinful people? We fast regularly. We tithe. We sacrifice. We do everything we are supposed to do!”

Note the people’s puzzled response to the Lord:

Why have we fasted and You do not see? Why have we humbled ourselves and You do not notice? (Isa 58:3).  

The state of the western evangelical Church today.[5]

I am beginning this series of posts on the state of the western evangelical church with an appeal to the commissioning of Isaiah (though I could well have appealed to just about any of the prophets) in order to make a point.

It is my conviction that the western evangelical church is in bad shape. And I do not believe that most evangelicals are aware. In fact, if my appeal to Isaiah is valid, it might well be that they cannot realize it.

(Note: I am not drawing the comparison with Isaiah in order to suggest that most western evangelical Christians are following pagan gods and are lost).

I can imagine quite a few readers who might be wondering what problems I could possibly be alluding to.

NB: One of the difficulties in addressing the evangelical church is that we all come to the conversation with our own perceptions. I have mine. You have yours. This is not bad. It is just the way it is.

Many of you, the evangelical church is a beautiful thing. It has been a home for you, a sanctuary. You have developed your deepest friendships and experienced some of your greatest joys in evangelical churches. You have endorsed the evangelical church as it has coalesced around a number of political and social issues. You view it as a standard-bearer for the truth.

To many others, sadly too many others, the evangelical church has been a place of great pain. You had hoped that it would be a refuge for you. You worked hard to serve, but you only found pain and disappointment.

NB: An interesting book on this topic is Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith, by Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope. Packard and Hope conduct extensive interviews with over 100 former pastors, elders, and leaders who have left evangelical churches.

(Though I disagree with their overall view as to what the church is, the value of this book with regard to the point at hand is that it confirms that there are scores of really good people who have deeply loved and served the evangelical church and yet have been so wounded by evangelicalism that they may never step foot in a church again, let alone an evangelical one.)  

Now, I do not intend to suppose that it is all bad. Even in Isaiah, there was a faithful remnant.[6]

to be continued . . .

 

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[1] This saying, from Walt Kelly’s 1970 comic character Pogo, is an adaptation of the American Naval offices Oliver Hazard Perry’s phrase in 1813: “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”

[2] Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, 579.

[3] That the nation is sinful is a repeated theme in Isaiah (cf 1:4; 5:18; 43:24; 59:2).

[4] Note that the people of God in Isaiah’s day were not just “sinful.” They were abominable. The book of Isaiah makes abundant use of the lawsuit motif. In accord with the lawsuit theme, God is depicted as the Divine Judge who is seated on His throne (cp Isa 6). The Lord makes just judgments (cf Isa 1:24; 3:14; 5:13–16; 11:3–4; 28:6; 41:11, 24, 29). There is also a summons for the people to listen (cf 1:2; 18; 41:1, 21, 22; 43:8, 9; 48:1, 14, 16). In Isaiah, the people of God are supposed to play the part of God’s witnesses in the lawcourt (Isa 43:10). They will testify to the nations for Him. Problem is that God’s witnesses are themselves “blind” (Isa 42:19). The lawsuit then contains accusations against the people of God—those who are supposed to be His witnesses are instead accused themselves (cf Isa 1:3–4; 5:2; 30:9– 11; 42:20; 57:8; 59:2–4). The Lord’s judgment against the people is intended to encourage them to change their ways (cf 1:1– 20; 3:13–17; 30:8-33; 42:18–25; 43:22–28; 50:1–3).

[5] Though I am only intending to examine the American evangelical church, this does not mean that what I write does not have an application to the larger body of Christ.

[6] The remnant is a major theme throughout Isaiah. Even one of his sons is Shear-Jashub: “a remnant shall return.”


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