Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Danger of Preaching Christ as a 1st Century Che Guevara

I've noticed a trend among some preachers to innovate the Gospel to try to make Christ more relevant to younger, usually liberal "seekers." One of the convenient ways to do this is by preaching Christ as a glorified 1st century socio-political rebel. Whether as a clever hook to a larger rendering of the Gospel or as a boiling down of the Gospel message to appeal to the unchurched, this rubric of preaching Christ winds up being historically inaccurate, unbiblical, and of little help in confronting sinners with their need for the Savior and/or encouraging Christians to persevere in the faith.

Let's look at some remarks Pastor Rob Bell of Mars Hill Bible Church made recently, as excerpted in Christianity Today's Liveblog (emphasis mine):

We refer to ourselves [at Mars Hill] as aggressively nonpartisan, so we don’t engage in partisan politics in terms of “Here’s whom you should vote for; here’s whom you should support.” We do acknowledge that the Gospel has deeply political edges to it, but that should not surprise anyone. Jesus was killed because of how He confronted a particular socioeconomic religious system. He’s a first-century Galilean revolutionary who proclaimed a Kingdom other than the kingdom of Herod, so the Gospel does have political edges.

Bell was talking about the challenge of preaching in a heated election year, especially when the media has an interest in readers the tea leaves about the evangelical vote, so maybe it should be taken with a grain of salt. However, at his church's Web site, Bell lays out a "narrative theology" (see PDF) that echoes the language cited above. Only in this narrative, Bell substitutes imperial Rome for Rome's Galilean lackey, Herod:

He and his message were rejected by many as he confronted the oppressive nature of the religious elite and the empire of Rome. Yet his path of suffering, crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection has brought hope to all creation.
Of course, there are many problems with this statement. Let's first look at the historical.

The Gospel accounts show us a Roman governor in Pontius Pilate who sacrificed Christ essentially for fear of a riot. Pilate acceded to the demands of mob justice, but the Gospel accounts lend the impression that he barely had any idea who Jesus was in the first place.

What's more, under agitation from the mob, Pilate released a robber and insurrectionist, Barabbas, in lieu of releasing Christ. Pilate, was more interested in releasing Christ than letting a violent insurrectionist threat back out on the street, but ultimately relented out of fear of an insurrection should he fail to crucify Christ.

And what of Herod? From the brief Gospel account of his interrogation of Christ seems to show Herod thought Jesus was a sideshow, a religious curiosity (Luke 23:8). Indeed, Herod was curious as to who Christ was, thinking at one point he was John the Baptist raised from the dead (9:7-9). Sure, Herod didn't mind seeing Jesus dead, but it seems he really wasn't the driving force for Christ's execution in the first place. Like Pilate, he wasn't that familiar with Christ.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, are a different story. Bell is right in a sense that the "religious elite" opposed Christ, but their "oppressive nature" was but the fruit of their sinful hearts, not the root cause of Christ's opposition to them. Jesus confronted the hypocrisy and faulty teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees and He did so strongly, both word and deed. Christ called them a brood of vipers and whitewashed tombs, murderers of prophets, robbers of widows, you name it. And all these indictments were accurate. Christ always accurately addressed the sinfulness of their hearts, and they hated Him for it.

So ultimately, while there is truth to there being a political and religious context for Christ's crucifixion, it is but a surface facet of the larger cosmic drama of Christ's mission, an aspect Bell's "narrative theology" doesn't address.

There's no emphasis in Bell's narrative theology on Christ taking in Himself on the cross the wrath of God for a sinful world, for example, or how Christ's crucifixion and resurrection are central to our ability to live a life pleasing to God. That is the mystery of salvation that Paul preached at the original Mars Hill in Athens (Acts 17:16-34).

Paul confronted the Athenians with their sinfulness, particularly idolatry, pointed to Christ crucified and raised from the dead, and spoke of coming personal judgment. But that notion of personally answering to God is soft-pedaled in the official Mars Hill narrative theology.:
We believe the day is coming when Jesus will return to judge the world, bringing an end to injustice and restoring all things to God’s original intent.

That's well and good and true. Jesus will judge the world, but this passage seems to make Jesus chiefly concerned with political or official injustice, and not personal sin, which is not the emphasis of the preaching of the apostles.

Indeed, when Paul confronted the supposedly wisest of the Athenian wise in the Areopagus, he did so addressing the personal sins of that city, chiefly idolatry, and he did so not with clever philosophy or reasoning or political arguments, but with the message of Christ crucified, resurrected, and coming again to judge the living and dead.

That's also how Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, confronted the assembled crowd in Jerusalem at Pentecost (Acts 2:16-41). And what was the result?:

Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” 40 And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” 41 So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.
It's this Gospel that has the power to save, and the power to preserve Christians in a life of obedience and worship unto God. It's this Gospel that was, is, and always will be relevant to a sin-enslaved world. May it be preached and proclaimed boldly in every church that calls upon the name of the Lord.

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