In our discussion about the Culture Driven Church, I keep coming back to one major question. You should know how questions affect me. Questions are the hobgoblins that niggle my brain. On more than one occasion my good friends have heard me begin a two hour conversation with the words, “There’s this question that’s been bugging me.” Questions are the launching pads for inspiration. And often I find if we let some questions simmer and bubble without rushing to a judgment, they tend to yield some useful insights. So here’s the question that been crawling up the side of my mind throughout the last year.
“What Christian critiques of the culture are truly scandalous?”
By “scandalous”, I don’t mean which ones fit the Pulitzer Prize nominated National Enquirer’s definition of scandal. I mean those aspects of our proclamation to the culture that are stumbling blocks that non-Christians simply cannot abide. Even with this clarification, I find that I must clarify again because “stumbling blocks” are usually bad things. After all Paul says,
” Let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way (Romans 14:13)”
If we present a stumbling block to the world, its something we should remove not investigates. But the term “stumbling block” or in Greek “skandalon” has another meaning. It can be something that offends those it should offend. Consider Isaiah 8:14 and its description of Messiah:
. . . He will be a sanctuary; but for both houses of Israel he will be a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall. And for the people of Jerusalem he will be a trap and a snare.
Messiah will offend the people of Israel because of what he does and says and especially because of what he is. As Michael Card illustrates in his song “Scandalon”
He will be the truth that will offend them one and all/A stone that makes men stumble/And a rock that makes them fall.
The purpose of this kind of scandal was to bring people to repentance. To shake them out of their complacency and their misconceptions about Messiah. Some would accept this paradigm shift because they “had ears to hear” and others would not.
Many will be broken so that He can make them whole/And many will be crushed and lose their own soul/Along the path of life there lies a stubborn Scandalon/And all who come this way must be offended/To some He is a barrier, To others He’s the way/For all should know the scandal of believing
We have written about the bad kinds of stumbling blocks but I’ve been wondering what are the good stumbling blocks that Isaiah and Michael Card are describing? What are the good stumbling blocks that we need to concentrate on?
Grace and Hell. By themselves the doctrines of Grace and Hell are odious to our society but combined to create a theology of salvation, they are formidable stumbling blocks. The concept that no amount of our own personal accomplishment (even moral accomplishment) can render us worthy of God’s grace simultaneously assaults our sense of deserving based on merit and the contemporary cult of self-esteem. Likewise the concept of eternal exile from God for not accepting that grace offends these same sentiments of desert and personal worth.
In many discussions with non-Christians I have heard honest consternation surrounding the possibility that if Jeffrey Dahmer did repent and if my good friend who volunteers at the local shelter didn’t, that Dahmer enjoys heaven and my friend endures Hell for eternity. Of course this is related to the doctrine of grace above. In short Hell assaults our sense of justice (people getting what they deserve). Dahmer “deserves” hell and good people don’t. As Rabbi Harold Kushner (of Why do Bad Things happen to Good People fame) asks How Good Do We have to Be? Rabbi Kushner is offended by the Christian answer: “Infinitely Perfect” to which we fall back on Divine Grace.
Evangelism: The philosopher Robert Nozick once said that trying to get someone to believe something whether they wanted to or not is not a good way of behaving toward them. But then Nozick admitted that any good persuasive argument has the effect of forcing us to acknowledge it or endure the charge of being irrational. Evangelism offends our sense of religious pluralism. If all religions are legitimate ways to God, then thumping for one of them is seen as arrogant. Combine that with caring for the poor, providing education, and fighting hunger in third world countries and “arrogant” becomes “manipulative” or worse “wicked.” But as Nozick recognized good reasons are coercive; they force us to confront our ill-reasoned beliefs. The persuasive act of offering those reasons is not coercive or even manipulative. (for more on this see “The Ethics of Proselytizing” in the Midwest Christian Outreach Journal.)
Sexual Ethics In the contemporary bifurcation of Jesus and Christianity where Jesus is portrayed as merely an ethical teacher (a sort of Jewish Buddha) and Christianity is portrayed as having diverged from the simple teachings of its master, the Christian preoccupation with moral absolutes such as (honesty, reverence for life, etc.) are treated with aplomb. However there is one line, when crossed, causes many non-Christians to balk, sputter, and stumble–Sex.
The contemporary world can take us admonishing people to love one another, care for the poor, and even curb our lying, cheating, stealing, and carousing. But suggest that sex is anything more than a pleasure to be enjoyed between any combination of loving individuals and our morality becomes a giant stumbling block. The same goes for the enjoyment of pornography.
I’ve been trying to figure this one out. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far. One question separates ethical from unethical when it comes to personal satisfaction in the modern liberal state–“Does it harm anyone?” Sexual gratification is the ultimate harmless and gratifying activity. There simply is no secular reason to curb this gratification provided it doesn’t harm anyone. That’s a stumbling block because given the above principle, there is no distinctly sexual ethics, there is only harm and non-harm.
It occurs to me as I look back over this list, that all of these distinctly Christian stumbling blocks have been questioned by the Culture Driven Church. Grace and Hell have long been disparaged. Grace has either been watered down into universal salvation or thickened with concepts of good works. Hell has been disparaged by even venerable dons of theology. Evangelism has been abandoned in favor of a social gospel and Brian McClaren’s religous pluralism. And sexual ethics have been simply and quietly ignored in favor of discreet trysts or transformed into political debates. All of this in an effort to remove the skandalons that offend. But as Michael Card warns us:
It seems today the Scandalon offends no one at all/The image we present can be stepped over/
Could it be that we are like the others long ago
Will we ever learn that all who come must stumble.
I invite you dear reader to provide some other stumbling blocks for me to consider.