The missing parts of the story

I had a curious exchange recently with a man who got me thinking about being a pastor.

Talking to this man, who professes faith in Jesus Christ, I realized that the story he tells himself about his own life includes neither Genesis 3 nor Revelation. If he wrote a private version of the Nicene Creed, it would not include the line about Jesus being crucified for our sake or coming to judge the living and the dead. The article on the Holy Spirit would not include mention of forgiveness of sins or the life of the world to come.

He is living now and for today and — so far as he can see it — the only point of Christianity is to help improve the material and social conditions of people living right now. The only sin he could see in the world was “institutional” or “systematic.” It was all out there and not in him.

I understand that Christianity can easily become so “other worldly” that it fails to live out the call to love our neighbor. It is pretty easy, however, for me to point out where and how the Bible instructs us on this point and corrects this mistake. Someone who acts as if Christianity is purely about getting a personal, eternal fire-insurance policy has missed some important parts of the Bible.

And it seems to me that the man I was talking to did so as well. Talk of his own sin, his need for a Savior, and his own eternal status before the Lord were dismissed as if the Bible never spoke a word about such things.

I struggled to draw his attention to this in a way that he could hear. I’m sure he left our encounter convinced that I was the one missing the point.

I am reflecting on the conversation, in part, because I know that man is not the only one in my community who thinks that way. I wonder how I am called to witness to our faith in his presence. As a pastor, how do I best feed this lamb of Christ?

There is a model in our Wesleyan heritage that says the correct response is to lay out in clear terms his mistakes. Like John Wesley himself, we might dust off our copy of “Almost Christian” and walk through point-by-point where he has gotten the whole thing wrong.

That is a model, and Wesley would chide me at my hesitation to embrace it. He would tell me to pick up my cross and bear it for the sake of this lost soul. He would remind me that if this fellow — clearly still in the slumbers of his fallen nature — would not hear the message, I would at least be clear of the guilt of refusing to deliver it. His blood would not be on my hands.

I can feel Wesley’s firm but loving stare as I write these things, but I must confess that I feel ill-equipped for such a response.

Nearly every person we encounter — and I don’t exclude myself here — is getting something wrong and failing to live the faith we profess in full. How as pastors do we respond? The answer, of course, depends on the particulars of the person and the situation before us. There are blanket principles but not blanket answers. Each person requires different things. This is also something Wesley would say.

Discerning when to lead with the rod and when to offer milk is a skill learned over many years. I am aware that I have much to learn in this area. I know myself well enough to know I am apt to err too much toward gentleness when firmness is often required. I pray that the Lord will give me grace to do this thing I have been called to do, to feed and care for his flock.

 

 

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5 thoughts on “The missing parts of the story

  1. Wesley had the advantage of living at a time when arguments were thought to be subject to principles of verification. One might hogtie opponents with rational proofs. We may wish it so today, but the opposition is not so easily subdued. In our moment, the incommensurability principle is in play. There is no single standard, ethical paradigm, institutional regulation, or set of criteria available to verify truth claims, so they say. That may explain why we get these incredulous looks when we expound the faith fervently and cogently with open Bibles. Better, it may explain why muddled rationalists offer little for resolving the current conundrum of Methodism.

    1. Your point about incommensurability is a helpful reminder, Gary. Thanks. Need to read my MacIntyre again. Wesley did very much see himself as communicating within a shared tradition rather than across them.

  2. There is also the question of whether you will ever encounter him again. Going up one side and down the other might satisfy us that we touched all the bases but there is the idea of laying a foundation for later discussion. The Holy Spirit might lay something on his heart that brings him back to you for further thought!

  3. John I struggle with the same challenge of when to reprove and when to hold my peace and pray or just listen.
    It sounds like your friend in question has a higher view of man than he does of Scripture. I wonder how he explains the source of institutional sins since institutions have no choice apart from the men who lead them.

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