Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Exclusiveness of Christ and Spiritual Formation

Much is made in evangelical circles about the need for an intelligent and argued defense of the faith against it's "cultural despisers." Apologetics is a hot topic, with parachurch organizations, radio broadcasts, and even seminary degrees devoted to the task of engaging the faiths of the world with the truths of Christ.

I have nothing at all against such ministries. Certainly, the best of Christian scholarship should be devoted to addressing the questions of the world and answering them with biblical clarity and theological coherency. And, in an age where it is often claimed that "all roads lead to the same place," it is necessary to delineate the distinctiveness of Christian faith.

Even while tremendous effort is being expended in an effort to convince both the world and the church that the Way of Christ is the only true Way, very often I hear pastors and evangelical leaders decry the creeping pluralism in the pews. The truth is, many American Christians are increasingly uncomfortable claiming that Christian faith has an exclusive claim on Truth. I would venture to guess that, if they were honest, most American evangelicals, even ones who affirm the existence of a literal burning hell, would confess that they hesitate to draw the lines between them as Christians and the "good" Hindu, Buddhist, or Jew. They don't want to make a guess as to who's "in" and who's "out." It just doesn't feel right.

Why is this the case? Book after book, program after program, course after course, has been written and experienced, educating the Christian masses about the superiority of Christianity over the faiths of the world. And yet, in their heart of hearts, many Christian still wonder: Is Jesus really the only Way? Is the Way of Christ truly eternal life? Are Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and many others really missing out on something? Is there any real way to tell the difference between us?

Recently, I have been engrossed in Dallas Willard's latest book, The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus' Essential Teaching on Discipleship. In chapter 7, "Spiritual Formation in Christ: A Perspective on What It Is and How It Might Be Done," Willard offers a brief perspective on the matter of "proper Christian exclusiveness," that I believe is truly insightful. His point is that if Christians were truly focused upon attaining obedience to Christ's teachings through a transformed heart and personality, then the matter of Christian exclusiveness would be largely taken care of. Here's the rest of the quote:

"The real issue relating to exclusiveness is whether the Christian actually has a relationship with God, a presence of God, that non-Christians do not have. Apart from Christian spiritual formation as described here, I believe there is little value in claiming exclusiveness for the Christian way...

"The realization of this may be what is reflected in the current mass abandonment of the exclusiveness of Christianity that is going on among Western Christians now, especially in its academic centers. Why should one insist on the exclusiveness of Christianity if all it is is one more cultural form? But let the reality of Christian spiritual formation come to its fullness, and exclusiveness will take care of itself. If the witch and warlock, the Buddhist and the Muslim, can truly walk in a holiness and power equal to that of Jesus Christ and his devoted followers, there is nothing more to say. But Christ himself, and not Christianity as a form of human culture, is the standard by which 'we' as well as 'they' are to be measured."

To put it another way, Willard is asserting that it is largely due to the lack of Christian spiritual transformation in Western churches that has led many Christians to reconsider the exclusive truth claims of Christianity. Because we have not taught our disciples to "obey everything [Jesus has] commanded," (Matt 28:20a) we have no tangible, existential evidence that the truths of Christ make for transformed, eternal kinds of lives. Because it appears that Jesus Christ and his followers do not walk in holiness and power exceeding that of the witch, warlock, Buddhist, and Muslim, both Christians and non-Christians have justifiable reasons to doubt the exclusiveness of Christian truth.

Of course, our motivation for seeking genuine formation in Christ's likeness should not be the desire to demonstrate superiority over the faiths of the world. If we truly believe that apprenticeship to Jesus leads to an eternal kind of life now, an engagement with the power of God, and a character that increasingly evidences the virtues of love, joy, and peace, then why not devote our entire lives to attaining it? And, why not devote the energies of our churches to teaching others to do the same?

Willard goes on to say: "Are we seriously and realistically about the business of Christian spiritual formation as measured by unqualified love of Jesus Christ, and as specified by our 'job description,' in the Great Commission? How does our work, what we really do, actually relate to the charge he has left us? How much of what goes on in ourselves, our local assemblies, our denominations, and our schools, is dictated only by 'futile ways inherited from [our] ancestors' (1 Peter 1:18)?...This question is surely put to each of us individually, as well as to all our institutions and programs, by the one who said, 'Why do you call me, Lord, Lord, and do not do what I tell you?' (Luke 6:46)."

As I have referenced earlier, Jesus' language in the Great Commission makes it clear that his aim in the church, his job description for God's people, is that they bring disciples to the point of obedience to "everything I have commanded you." And yet, I know of no current denomination or local congregation that has a concrete, practical plan and/or practice for teaching people to obey "everything" Jesus has "commanded."

I think Willard is correct when he concludes that if we continue in this way, gradually drifting from the mark set by Christ's Commission, we will "increasingly find it harder to differentiate ourselves in life from those who are non- or even anti-Christian." God help us reclaim our responsibility to make apprentices to Jesus whose lives reflect the eternal life that Christ offers to the whole world.


Steve said...

A well-written post about something that has been bothering me and affecting some on my family for a while. If we believers were more openly living a spiritual life this creeping disease would not be so prevalent.

How ironic that you should post this on the day when the most prominent leader of the Church of England seems to elevate the consideration of Sharia law as valid as the law of Britain (formerly known as Great Britain.)

CharlieMac said...

Good to have you back. I hope you are feeling more energized. This post says you are "back in form."
Good insights into the answer to the question we have heard and discussed several times in my particular SS class.
Pogo said, "We have met the enemy and he is us!"
Mac McFatter
Semmes, Al

Rex Ray said...

February 8, 2008
This is a well written post, and I don’t mean to hijack, but Willard’s book, ‘The Great Omission’ made me think of the one omission that caused the greatest confusion in Christian theology.

This omission was the greatest victory for the devil in confusing his greatest defeat—Calvary.

The simple truth of Peter’s words, omitted in the letter to the Gentiles, led Christians to try to obey Jewish laws for their ‘continuing’ salvation.

Peter’s omitted words: “All are saved the same way by the free gift of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 15:11) stunned the multitude to silence, but in their hearts they were thinking: ‘No! It’s not right for Gentiles to get a free gift instead of what Moses said we must do.’

James saved their day by adding four laws of Moses that were necessary.

It can be argued today if they are necessary to be saved, a result of being saved, or not necessary at all.

There is a sect of Christian Jews in Israel today that believe Jews must obey Jewish laws, but Gentile Christians don’t have to.

Confusion is the devil’s greatest weapon.

Alyce Faulkner said...

Emily, I'm glad you're back, I was about to have withdrawals.
This post is unfortunately painfully true.
I believe most Christians think that making disciples is a task that clergy or Evangelist do or taking a program, memorizing a test and repeating what they've been told for a few weeks the program last.
It is a commandment, it is not an option but a lifestyle and yes, Jesus Christ is the only way.

traveller said...

Dallas Willard is one of the most astute writers and thinkers among Christians today. He is also one of the most humble persons I have ever met. He exemplifies the very transformation he writes and speaks about.

His point is always that in the modern church we have failed to intentionally go about creating disciples; therefore, there is no true transformation of the person into the image of Christ. I think he is correct. The modern church, including evangelicals, Baptists, etc., has focused on trying to get people to outwardly look good without regard to what we are inwardly. I realize this is not the intent but it is the result. Somehow we have arrived at the point of thinking if we get people to conform outwardly it will result in inward transformation when the opposite is true. This is the fundamental error of "fundamentalists".

Randy said...

Excellent insights, especially using Dallas Willard's wisdom. Keep writing. You're onto something big.