Elusive Indeed

Elusive Indeed July 16, 2019

I don’t know Mark Galli, but I like much of what he writes.  I can’t speak for him, but in his writings, I sense a leaning toward Eastern Orthodoxy/Anglicanism, which is where I find myself these days.  He is, in my view, hardly a typical evangelical.  He is clearly aware of the problems in that world.  I’m not sure he sees them deeply enough to leave that tradition, but who knows what the end of the day might bring?  Perhaps a Trump second term would do it?

Anyway, I bring your attention to this series of essays by Mr. Galli.  Like with most things, it’s a mixed bag.  I can say that, over-all, I found myself agreeing with much more than I disagreed with.  He certainly is moving along the edge, the fringe of evangelical thought, especially when it comes to the concept of being “missional.”  However, while I did find myself agreeing with much of his line of thought, his over-arching theological narrative, I did disagree with many of the conclusions he drew.

This was true especially when it came to this essay.  His main point is noted here:

“My reading of the sweep of the biblical picture, then, is that the purpose of the church—the family of God—is not to make the world a better place, but to invite the world into the better place, the place called church.”

While I agree the Church, the Body of Christ, is an end and not a means, I have a problem with the idea the visible church, whether in the form of an institution, convention, denomination, tradition, theology, or local body is necessarily a “better” place.  Further, a small thing, but Galli seems to undercut his contra to the purpose of being “missional” when he asserts the purpose of the Church is to, “invite [emphasis added] the world into [this] better place…”

Beyond that, I don’t understand how his reasoning here leads him to believe that if we were to get his thinking across to evangelical Christians (or his target audience), it would not lead to making the world a better place.  Rather, I would argue, the fact the Church is an end and not a means, if believed and internalized, would indeed lead to a better world.  I don’t see how they are mutually exclusive.  Is he making an argument against those Christians, movements and traditions who emphasize social justice as intrinsic to the gospel and the Christian life?

Moving on, we come to the part in the essay where Galli attempts to address those passages in the Bible seeming to teach that the Church does, indeed, exist for the sake of the world.  I don’t have a problem with his interpretation of some of those passages, such as the Great Commission passage in Matthew 28, or his views regarding the calling of Abraham and the creation of Israel.  I think he is correct to note how those passages do not necessarily teach what evangelicals assume they do.

However, when he comes to the “least of these” passage in Matthew 25, I strongly disagree.  He, like many others, believes this passage is telling us the “least of these” are Christians only.  I have addressed that issue here.  I think he is entirely wrong in his interpretation.

Of course, even Galli must know the entire sweep and arc of Scripture and the Judeo-Christian narrative is one that strongly supports the necessity of social justice.  So, he does qualify his assertions and tells us he will circle back to address this arc later:

“…one can hardly deny the need for Christians to work for justice in society. Any Christian whose heart does not break over injustice, who does nothing to alleviate suffering in the world, is likely not a Christian in the first place. But we’ll come back to this.”

Okay. We’ll see.  And that leads us to his next essay.  From this one we read:

“[I’m] mostly making an argument that we’ve made an idol out of neighbor love at the expense of the first and greatest commandment.”

Let me get this straight:  One day we appear before God and God is upset with us.  We ask God, “God, why are you upset with us?”  And God responds: “Because you loved people more than you loved me.”  Does that sound like the God revealed in Jesus?  God is love.  And the person who does not love their neighbor in concrete action does not know or love God.  We wish loving our neighbors was so out-of-control it was considered idolatry!  We are far, far from such.  Look around.

Rather, I would hope we hear: “Well done good and faithful servant for loving me, the image you recognized in your neighbor as you loved them too.”

Moving on, we read:

“My conclusion after surveying this biblical landscape is this: The church’s mission is not to go out and make the world a better place, to be a blessing, to transform culture, to bring justice to the earth, to work for human flourishing. The church’s destiny and purpose are to live together in love in Christ, to the praise of God’s glory. That, in fact, is the destiny of all humankind, no matter what corner of the globe they come from.  Simply put: Rather than the world being the purpose for the church, the purpose of the world is to become the church.”

Again, this simply doesn’t need to be put this way.  The conclusions do not line up with the theology nor the “biblical landscape.”  They seem to be coming from somewhere else.  Is this an attempt to walk some middle ground between evangelicals’ emphasis of evangelism as the primary mission, as opposed to progressive Christians who stress social justice?

Agreed, the Church’s destiny and purpose is union with the Holy Trinity, to live in love, all to God’s glory.  However, as that happens, even in this time (secular) between the times, guess what? The world becomes a better place, it is blessed, culture is transformed, justice does take place and there is human flourishing.  The Church’s mission should lead to all those things, otherwise, the Church is not being the Church—she is not following Jesus.

If the Church is loving God and seeking God above all else, if the Church would do and understand its purpose as Mr. Galli suggests, then all those things should follow.

Not only are his conclusions theologically suspect, they are unnecessary, misguided, and unhelpful.  They are especially tone deaf to our current moment.  Imagine white evangelical Christians in the 1960’s, especially in the South during the Civil Rights Movement, being told, “The church’s mission is not to go out and make the world a better place, to be a blessing, to transform culture, to bring justice to the earth, to work for human flourishing.”

Such would have been to completely throw under the bus the “least” and marginalized of those times (and presently!), specifically, people of color, and to aligned one’s self with the privileged and powerful.  It is just as culturally and contextually tone deaf and irresponsible now, given the current occupant of the White House and our very present crisis situation.  We would call it out then, and we should now.

There is almost a, “Church/Christian first” mentality running through these essays that is spookily similar to the, “America first” mentality.  Might I suggest both are theologically faulty ideas, to say the least.  The last thing we need right now is a theological justification for tribalism.

Love of God and love of neighbor, even enemies, are intrinsic to one another.  We cannot separate them.  God is imaged in our neighbor, even in our enemy.

If we exist for God, then we exist for our neighbor, our enemy, and the world.  One cannot biblically, or without understanding orthodox theology, separate the two in their conclusions, unless of course, he has misunderstood both.  It is this truth and others that elude Mr. Galli.

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