Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Shane Claiborne and Minimizing Doctrine

Shane Claiborne is the co-founder of The Simple Way, a ministry that is attempting to take Jesus’ teachings into his Philadelphia community. In an interview carried by ALife of the Christian Missionary Alliance, he states that, according to the Sermon on the Mount:

  • We are to love our enemy…we’re not to worry about tomorrow. It would flip the world upside down if we really read the Sermon on the Mount and tried to live as if Jesus meant it.
Although much of what Jesus taught shouldn’t be taken literally – He taught us to figuratively pluck out our eyes and cut off our hands and even to “hate our parents" – Claiborne is correct that there is much that Jesus taught that the church has largely ignored to our detriment. Claiborne is probably also correct that our failure to love others as we ought has served to marginalize the church in the Western world.

However, much of Claiborne’s rhetoric is troubling:

  • Jesus says at the Judgment all of us will be gathered before God and asked a few questions as we give an account for our lives. The questions are not doctrinal – “Virgin Birth: agree or disagree?” “Creation or evolution: did it really happen in seven days?” According to Jesus we will be asked, “When I was hungry, did you feed me?” “When I was a stranger, did you welcome me?” “When I was in prison, did you visit me?” The real test of our faith is how it works itself out in love and compassion.
Claiborne is correct that real faith “works itself out in love and compassion,” as James affirmed:

  • But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds." Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that--and shudder. You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? (James 2:18-20) 
A faith that fails to produce obedience is a faith that isn’t real – a faith that doesn’t save. However, a real faith is also one that has content. A changed heart that produces faith also illuminates Biblical truths. According to John, a real faith has the anointing of the Spirit, which teaches us all the things that we need to know (1 John 2:20, 27). One of them is the truth about Jesus:

  • My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. (John 10:27-28)
Consequently, if faith doesn’t include certain truths, it is not a saving faith. Saving faith must perceive that Jesus is the Savior – and this is what He requires:

  • “I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins." (John 8:24)
When asked about the “work” that had to be performed in order to be saved, Jesus answered:

  • "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent." (John 6:29)
However, Claiborne maintains that judgment has little or nothing to do with doctrine:

  • Jesus says at the Judgment all of us will be gathered before God and asked a few questions as we give an account for our lives. The questions are not doctrinal – “Virgin Birth: agree or disagree?”
Instead, it seems that faith, and not works, is the key to salvation:

  • "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
  • "I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.” (John 5:24)
This is certainly not to dismiss or minimize our responsibility to follow Jesus. However, following Jesus is the fruit of believing and being born from above:

  • For my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day…No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day. (John 6:40-44)
In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus taught that bearing fruit must be preceded by the seed of the Word of God:

  • But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown." (Matthew 13:23)
Hearing and understanding the Gospel must precede the crop! As there cannot be any harvest without the planting of seeds, there cannot be any spiritual growth without understanding the Word. There are many reasons for this:

Without faith it is impossible to please God. The Book of Hebrews explains why:

  • Because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. (Hebrews 11:6)
Clearly, there are certain beliefs that are essential to a relationship with God. The rest of the chapter then demonstrates how faith served as the engine to produce good works. It was by faith that Noah built the ark and condemned the world (Heb. 11:7-8)

Without the teachings of the Bible, we do not know how to love and to be the light to society. Without understanding the teachings of Jesus in the light of the rest of the Bible, we cannot follow Him. For many, adultery equates with love. For others, the welfare state represents a form of love. The communists believed that their revolution was an expression of love. However, it seems that such “love” has done more to undermine the family and entire communities than it has benefited them.

Good deeds, without a changed heart and Gospel knowledge, inevitably produce arrogance and self righteousness. I have seen so many who have unselfishly sacrificed for others who have developed an entitlement mentality. They subsequently feel entitled to look down on others because they have now become more worthy. In one parable, Jesus demonstrated how the self-righteousness of the Pharisee enabled him to look down on others (Luke 18:9-12; also 7:47).

A good-deeds-mentality tends to give us the wrong idea – that we are deserving. However, Jesus taught that this was the last thing we should think (Luke 17:10). Instead, the only two people Jesus praised were Gentiles who displayed an incredible understanding of their unworthiness (Mat. 8; 15).

Without faith – growing in the knowledge of God – we will not be grateful, an essential quality to serving Christ. Instead, we have to know and remember from where we have come in order to be grateful as a motivation to produce good deeds:

  • At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures…But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy…I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. (Titus 3:3-8)
We are what we believe. If I hadn't believed that I was forgiven (1 John 1:9) and totally cleared of all of my sin (Rom. 8:1), I would have remained a dysfunctional mess.

Most importantly, without the Gospel, we cannot be saved. Therefore, Claiborne’s emphasis on a judgment based exclusively on works is, at best, unbalanced. In place of this simple assurance or grace, Claiborne insists that judgment will be based exclusively on works - did I show enough hospitality? Did I feed the hungry often enough? The consequences of this thinking will lead in either of two directions. Either we will become arrogant, thinking that we have performed better than 95% of the church, or we will be morbidly self-conscious and depressed, knowing that we have consistently failed to live up to the example of Jesus (1 Peter 1:15).

While it is true that the fruit of our lives (good works) is relevant to the final judgment, this is only because our fruit reflects something far more important - our faith (who we are before the Lord). As apples reflect the apple tree that bore them, our fruits reflect our changed status before God, and this is the most important thing!

Claiborne’s understanding of judgment is superficial. It focuses on works and not the changed heart that produces them. Although a number of verses do associate judgment with works, these works are significant because they reveal the state of the heart:

  • "I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward a man according to his conduct, according to what his deeds deserve." (Jeremiah 17:10)
Our deeds reveal the more important question of the heart and the mind. For our Lord, it is the tree (the heart of faith, the heart that clings to Him) that has priority over the resultant fruit. Consequently, if we are His – and this is the main issue - we will follow Him, however imperfectly.

Believing and following are inseparable. Therefore, if we are judged by what we do, ultimately, we are judged by the renewed heart that enables us to do.

Claiborne claims that his outreach to his Philadelphia community has “been fun.” There’s nothing the matter with fun, but what happens when the fun stops. We are instructed to not weary of doing good (Gal. 6:9). This is because good deeds can become wearying. They loose their psychological payoff.

What will happen to Claiborne and the rest of the Emergent Church when they become weary? Will they have the theological roots to keep them on course, or will they simply dry up when the hot sun scorches their ground?

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