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Part VI - Life Together: The Difference Between Doing Church and Being the Church

November 2, 2009
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In a recent Newsweek magazine article entitled, “Marriage Is Hard: The religious right admits it” (Oct. 19, 2009), writer Lisa Miller begins by drawing a contrast between the convictions and conduct of two professing Christians: Billy Graham and Senator John Ensign (R-NV). In describing the Reverend Billy Graham she writes:
Billy Graham had a rule. He was a powerful man, away from his wife and children more often than he was with them. Aware of the significance of his reputation and convinced of the moral value of the Gospel message, he took precautions to guard against his own human weakness. He gave his ministry colleagues explicit instructions: never leave me alone in a room with a woman who is not my wife.
By contrast, Senator Ensign admitted to an extramarital affair with a campaign staffer and wife of a top aide in his office this past June. Of Senator Ensign, Miller writes:
If only someone had given John Ensign similar advice. Or if someone did, that he'd heeded it. The Ensign story continues to reverberate not because of its delicious best-friend's-girl plotline (for who among us is surprised anymore that politicians sleep around?), but because he said he stood for something else. He is a "family values" Republican who voted for the impeachment of Bill Clinton and in 2004 lent his support to a constitutional amendment defining marriage, saying, "Marriage is an extremely important institution in this country, and protecting it is, in my mind, worth the extraordinary step of amending our Constitution."
It isn’t my intention to vilify Senator Ensign or pile on to man who is suffering the effects of his own sin. I am truly sad for him and his family. We all suffer from the destruction of a single family and Miller adds a painfully obvious point by saying, “Ensign has become the latest example of what so many see as the failure of the right to retain any credibility on the marriage question.”

However, as Christians our foremost concern is not the political right or left but the Christian church that is called to bear testimony to the lordship of Jesus Christ. This is why marriage both as an ideal and in reality should matter to the church, because its condition within the body of Christ either serves or opposes the gospel of the kingdom. We are simply called and empowered to live according to a higher standard—lives that should bear witness to a people who have been changed by God.

Of course the world has every right to expect this, especially when we assume the authority to speak on any moral issue. Ms. Miller echoes this expectation specific to marriage when she writes, “Of course, every person who utters ‘till death do us part’ and then separates is, in a sense, conceding defeat. But when evangelicals are leading the charge in the marriage movement (and now, the anti-gay-marriage movement) arguing that sacred unions between one man and one woman are good for society because they're good for children, one would hope that they'd have worked out the kinks a little better than the rest of us.”

Again, secular Newsweek magazine makes the ugly but all-too-apparent point, “No one denies that conservative Christians have a marriage problem, a dizzying gap between their articulated ideals and their success in achieving them.” Miller points out that “according to the Pew Forum, evangelicals are more likely to be divorced than Roman Catholics, Mormons, the Eastern Orthodox, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and atheists.” Linda Malone-Colon, Ph.D., a conservative advocate of marriage and director of the National Center on African American Marriages and Parenting gets straight to the point by saying, "It's as true with Christians as it is with other religious groups. They don't live by what they're talking about." Ouch!

Returning to our contrast between Billy Graham and John Ensign, one must ask, “What was the difference?” The immediate response might be, “Well, of course, Billy Graham is simply the better Christian.” But Billy Graham, as wonderful as he is, isn’t the recipient of more particular grace than anyone else. Granted, Billy Graham likely understood something about himself that Mr. Ensign did not, namely his own sin nature. Rev. Graham didn’t think he was above temptation; he placed no confidence in the flesh. Quite the contrary, he didn’t trust in himself at all, which is why he took the added precaution of asking others to help protect him—not from seductive women—but from himself. Billy Graham was perhaps wiser than Mr. Ensign, but he wasn’t supernaturally immune to temptation.

More importantly, the Reverend Billy Graham understands the value of the larger Christian community and its rightful relationship to his life. At the very least, we are far more vulnerable to sin and destruction when independent and isolated than we are under the care (and accountability) of a loving community. Further, the Christian life is not an event in which we compete for the “individual gold medal” but a corporate life in which we seek the spiritual growth and restoration of the whole community. This is not happening on the scale that it should within the American church. Too many Christians remain individualized, isolated, alienated—and subsequently the church fails to flourish in its mission and purpose. My days are frequently filled counseling those who have found no support within their churches.

Furthermore, this “life together,” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer argued, is not about “good experiences,” but rather concerns real relations as we abide together in Christ—who is and who becomes present in the life of the body. Neither is this life together to be confused with a romantic sense of community, nor is it to be exclusively self-serving. The Christian community exists in Christ for the sake of the world, and when this common life together is not seen, both the church and the world suffer. It is the difference between actually being the church and simply doing church. Life in the body involves loving, sustaining, and supporting one another, in practice and in prayer, through the vicissitudes of life.

Because we all too often fail to foster the relationships essential to true Christian community, we cannot abide together in Christ. Consequently, we remain relatively indifferent to both sin and sinner in the church. We are reluctant to confront when necessary, seeking to arrest sin’s destructive effect and restore the sinner. The result? Sin reigns within the church; marriages unravel and families are destroyed and the body of Christ looks no different from the world.

It is not enough to respond to the marriage crisis within the church by saying, “My marriage is fine!” If we abide together in Christ, then we together must prepare and care for marriage generally, and intervene specifically when any marriage is endangered. Practically this means we become more transparent in our struggles; we ask for help! It means we seek to restore sinners and thus we stop “shooting the wounded” when they share their weakness. Finally, we must engage in the spiritual warfare of which Paul speaks in Ephesians 6:10–18, setting captives free, fighting against the sin (not the sinner) that destroys, divides, and weakens the body.

In conclusion, we must take seriously our life together in Christ, bringing the abiding love of Christ to bear on each other and stop ceding the body’s matrimonial and familial ground to the enemy.

© 2009 by S. Michael Craven

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Response from : David  

November 2, 2009 9:39 AM

Awesome article. I believe you are hitting on the dirty, little secret that few Christians truly want to fix in their congregations. It is too personal for many people and, yet, it is the root of our problems.

We need to strengthen our families if we expect to defend them from the world.

Response from : S. Michael Craven  

November 2, 2009 10:16 AM

Dear Cathy,
If you peruse the studies relative to divorce within the church you will discover that no matter how you slice it, the church is no different in its habits relative to marriage (or any number of moral behaviors) than the unchurched. Sadly, our defense is not reducible to any qualification nor is this a "blanket statement." It is an accurate representation relative to the facts in this particular context. It serves no good purpose to try and mitigate our failures.


Response from : Wayne Wilkins  

November 2, 2009 10:36 AM

Interesting but somewhat misleading article, partly due to an epistemic question: how do we discern stated vs. real faith, and how does that impact divorce rates? But before I get to that, and quite importantly, there is some selective citation by Miller, so we need to be careful to cite good research before making too hasty a generalization and prescription. For example, juxtaposing a 2008 Barna study... (note: Barna is the best research firm in this area, probably. His sampling error here is only ±1.6 percentage points at the 95% confidence level, which means he oversampled quite a bit to be sure he achieved statistically significant results):

"Among adults who have been married, the study discovered that one-third (33%) have experienced at least one divorce... The study showed that the percentage of adults who have been married and divorced varies from segment to segment. For instance, the groups with the most prolific experience of marriage ending in divorce are downscale adults (39%), Baby Boomers (38%), those aligned with a non-Christian faith (38%), African-Americans (36%), and people who consider themselves to be liberal on social and political matters (37%).

Among the population segments with the lowest likelihood of having been divorced subsequent to marriage are Catholics (28%), evangelicals (26%), upscale adults (22%), Asians (20%) and those who deem themselves to be conservative on social and political matters (28%).

Born again Christians who are not evangelical were indistinguishable from the national average on the matter of divorce: 33% have been married and divorced. The survey did not determine if the divorce occurred before or after the person had become born again. However, previous research by Barna has shown that less than two out of every ten people who accept Christ as their savior do so after their first marriage.

In fact, when evangelicals and non-evangelical born again Christians are combined into an aggregate class of born again adults, their divorce figure is statistically identical to that of non-born again adults: 32% versus 33%, respectively."

This means that evangelical Christians have a statistically significant better rate of divorce than average (-7%), and better than non-Christian faiths (-12%), in direct contradiction to your article's assertion. Now, one could argue that 26% is not that much better than 33%, but the fact is that Evangelicals are statistically better than average and equal to Catholics according to Barna but worse than other groups (e.g., Asians). Makes me ask the question "why?"- and question your article's conclusions a bit, but also why, for example, Asians and upscale folks do better- shouldn't we be much, much better given our profession?

This brings me to the second point, which is critical in my mind.

A sharp distinction needs to be made between "professing" and "affirming" Christians. For example, Madonna for years professed to be Catholic, though her stated belief system was wholly inconsistent with Catholicism. Likewise, the same is often true with Evangelicals/Born Agains. By "affirming," I mean their beliefs comport with historic, orthodox Christian faith. Barna research suggests those who affirm 6 basic beliefs of Christianity only numbers 9%.( >> absolute moral truth exists; the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches; Satan is considered to be a real being or force, not merely symbolic; a person cannot earn their way into Heaven by trying to be good or do good works; Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; and God is the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the world who still rules the universe today).

Those who claim to be Evangelical and Born Again are 26% and 35% respectively, according to Barna. Assuming the 9% above are a subset of Evangelicals and Born Agains, fully 2/3 of Evangelicals and 3/4 of Born Agains don't affirm these 6 basic beliefs of Christianity! So, it would be interesting to see whether divorce rates are any better/worse for the 9% whom he calls "worldview" Christians. But lumping everyone together clouds the truth and thus the remedy.

Response from : S. Michael Craven  

November 2, 2009 11:00 AM

Dear Mr. Wilkins,

I'm afraid you have missed the point of my article. It is not an affirmation or challenge to the rates of divorce within the church. Nonetheless, the Pew Research is what it is and the matter of determining the real Christians from the pretenders is another issue entirely. The church has and always will include marginal Christians (see 2 Tim 2:20-21) which is why the whole community is important to real spiritual growth. The fact remains, divorce along with a host of other of moral shortcomings plagues the American church. The emphasis of my article is on the communal nature of Christian faith, i.e. "Life Together, as an essential element in the church's growth and witness. This is undeniably absent. The individualized church today offers much comfort to the marginal believer and you cannot know where a person is on their sanctifying journey so it isn't helpful to defend our shortcomings by saying those who fail are simply poor Christians or not Christian at all. We succeed and fail as a Body.


Response from : Slider  

November 2, 2009 11:07 AM

Ronald J. Sider's "The scandal of the evangelical conscience" examines "why christians live just like the rest of the world" He explores and discusses where the evangelical church has erred in it's thinking and what to do about it. It's a fascinating insight to the disconnect between the church and God's word. Check it out.

Response from : Ronald Newcomb  

November 2, 2009 1:29 PM

Tim LaHaye once informed the congregation of a conversation he had with his then teenage son when asked about using his car for a date. His son asked, "don't you trust me dad?" To which Tim replied, "I don't trust myself, why would I trust you?"
I explain to people that if you cannot see yourself falling into sexual sin, you are half way there.
Seeing and understanding our sin nature is critical to building walls against it, to prevent the illegitimate fulfillment of God created (but often human fanned) desire.
My wife recently had a pap smear that produced a false positive for abnormal cells, most commonly found in HPV. She said, sorry, one man, one woman for life, test again. Sure enough, it was a false result.
Fidelity pays good rewards.
Conversely, an old friend who was a pastor fell and fell hard. In fact, it seems he hardly tried. He destroyed multiple marriages including his own.
Keep the faith.

Response from : Paul Klassen  

November 2, 2009 9:04 PM

Thank you for another pointed, applicable article. I am pastoring a brand new church plant in Melrose, MN (in fact, we don't even have an official name yet). We are in the midst of very important discussions about what it means for us to be the Church in the community, not just a Community Church. Your article especially struck me because of your closing reference, Eph. 6:10-18. It was the topic of my recent Prayer Update that I send out to over 120 of our faithful prayer partners. The enemy is full of "power", it is a "force", it does have "authority," and they are called "rulers." We are in enemy territory, as Jesus-followers. It seems that we as Christians are more on the defense than on the offense as Jesus described us in Matthew 16:18. Since prayer IS the battle, may we NEVER give in to all the reasons to NOT pray.
Thanks again,

Paul Klassen
Melrose, MN

Response from : Bill Kendall  

November 2, 2009 11:03 PM

THANKYOUTHANKYOUTHANKYOUTHANKYOU!!!And again - Thank you for this work, Michael.

With your permission, I'm forwarding your latest article to a few friends whom I believe will take it to heart. (I'm not about throwing pearls before swine, so-to-speak...)

PS - Did I say thank you?? YES!

Response from : Tony Foote  

November 3, 2009 2:58 AM

What does it mean to be a good husband? Not, what do good husbands do? Or how do I know when I'm a good husband? There are lots of answers to those questions. This is more of a vision or philosophical statement.

For example, if the question is,”What does it mean to be a good father?” the answers come easier for me. Bring up your children in the fear and admonition of the Lord. Prepare your children for life away from you. In reviewing answers to this example, maybe it is a goal I am looking for.

Any thoughts?

Response from : Acushla  

November 3, 2009 3:37 AM

It is only when people are totally committed to our LORD JESUS CHRIST than they are totally committed to their spouses. It is Irrevocable.

Response from : Houston  

November 5, 2009 11:44 AM

Great article. I will send this out to our leadership. Thank you.

Response from : Dannette  

November 5, 2009 5:55 PM

I agree. We as the church must be set apart to be an example of Christ to the world so in turn, He is what they would want. I also think that the church needs to be a place where people who are struggling with sin need to feel like they can come to someone and pray and talk with someone because the Bible says, Confess your sins one to another and pray for one another so that you may be healed. How does one expect to be healed if they don't confess their sins and have an opportunity to repent.

Response from : Susan  

November 8, 2009 5:31 PM

The American style of church is too reflective of American culture that expects the rugged individual to be responsible for everything - which fuels spiritual pride.

A true brother or sister in Christ would not be put off by a fellow member of the Body admitting that they needed help to stay pure and loving just as Reverend Graham did.

I don't think the leadership of most of our churches today understand or even try to apply the role of spiritual authority and accountability because we have lost the sense of God's mandate to love one another in a sacrificial way.

It's not a moral rule that will change hearts - it's the understanding of true Christlike love among our brethren that will change us and the world of sinners like ourselves that we hope God will save.

When we love one another this way and keep the faith with one another for the sake of our Lord's sacrificial love for us...the world will notice.

Response from : Ken  

November 16, 2009 1:47 PM

Well said! It's a bit tiring to not see more impressive stats on marriage within the church. But marriage is just one issue. If we can't manage to honor commitments we made ourselves accountable to at public altar before God, a minister and a room full of witnesses, I can only imagine what other kinds of sins we're permitting ourselves to perform where we don't have that sense of accountability.

The problem is that we're still allowing ourselves to be the products of society rather than allow the Holy Spirit to shape us into an accurate image of Christ. Rom 12:1-2 tells us to "be not conformed to the world's standards any longer...but be transformed by the renewing of our minds". In other words, we are going to 'be' made into something. If we don't rely upon the Holy Spirit to change the way we think, thus renewing our minds, then we will likely be conformed to the mold that the world is producing.

Our choice is simple. Either we are molded from without (world) or within (Christ). When we are molded from within, that is a transforming process...taking one thing and turning it into another.

Since we become what we gaze upon, let's make sure our focus in on Christ. That means to ask him if it's alright to do what we want to do. Clearly, the church is not seeking God's answer to their interest in divorce, otherwise the church divorce rate would not be as high as the world's.

We need to change the way we think.

Response from : Brad Prince  

December 1, 2011 7:24 AM

Mr. Craven,

May I use your article in a sermon? It makes many excellent points that need to be restated.

Thanks for publishing this. I hope that with more teaching we can have Biblical Marriages within the church that are true examples of Christ and his Church. Even among those who don't divorce there are unbiblical situations of not fulfilling proper Christian roles. So while on the surface they have not neglected their religion, they have neither fully submitted to it.



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