Living in the last dim rays of gospel light in Western culture can give the church a strong sense of isolation and marginalisation. The vestiges of public sympathy and visibility which may have been enjoyed in previous generations has diminished to the point where most of our work is undertaken in a context of obscurity and increasing hostility. A signal of this in recent months has been the obvious lack of understanding on the part of government and society about the nature and activity of the local church, and its place within society. In my previous post on this theme the reality of our invisibility and our wider world’s obliviousness to our work and witness was highlighted, showing that some of the tone deafness around Covid-19 and church gatherings can spring as much from ignorance as from outright opposition.
In this post I want to normalise some of that experience by tracing the theme of a misunderstood church all the way back into Scripture, demonstrating that not only is this what Christians in all ages have experienced, but it also what Christians in every age should expect. We will find that those churches, ministries, and pastors who have enjoyed a well understood public profile are statistical outliers, and that ‘though with a scornful wonder men see her sore oppressed’ obscurity and even cultural rejection can be the very soil in which gospel seed grows.
Do you still not understand?
The theme of misunderstanding runs right through the gospel accounts. Much of the action and dialogue of these books is focussed on the Saviour’s training and teaching of his own followers, and that is often the relationship in which misunderstanding is most rife. From misapplying parabolic teaching, to misinterpreting units of Jesus’ speech, to a complete misconception about the nature of the kingdom, the disciples were capable of breathtaking ignorance of what the Saviour was actually doing in the world. The irony and humanity of not understanding are so prominent that John uses it as a didactic tool for articulating the truth of the gospel.
This is an important foundational point to come to terms with regarding misunderstanding the church, as it is evidence of a natural human propensity to misinterpret the mind and ways of God. If those closest to Jesus in his earthly ministry could miss the point, could conflate the kingdoms of the world with the kingdom of heaven, and could hold stubbornly to a view of the Messiah which failed to recognise his mission, then our expectations of the world around us should be better managed. A government who can’t comprehend the ministry of the Word or the importance of the ordinances left to us by Christ, who can’t distinguish between our work and that of temple, synagogue, cathedral, or mosque is not in any way anomalous. Without the help and power of the Holy Spirit we ourselves would not understand this, and nor would the Apostles.
It is not just the intellectual content of the gospel which is hidden from the eyes of those without Christ, but also the rhythms and realities of our gathered life. When Paul was descrying the wisdom of the world to the Corinthians, it was both message and messenger who could be viewed as foolish by the wider culture. Social media and wider media can enforce on us an almost teenage obsession with fitting in, or being understood by those around us, which can lead to deep frustration on the part of Christians and churches when what we do and how we do it are so mistaken by our world. If we draw our minds away from the PR preoccupations of the world and remind ourselves that the spiritual nature of our work precludes good and clear understanding by those around us, we might relieve ourselves a little of that ire.
This does not invite us to wilful obscurantism. Paul encouraged the Corinthians in the ordering of public worship to be mindful of those who would come in among them, and reminded them of how intelligibility and transparency could be powerful means of seeing others trust in Christ. Even after all of those best effort, however, we will still seem like fools to those who don’t have their understanding enlightened by the Holy Spirit.
Not drunk, as you suppose
The book of Acts provides a helpful anatomy of cultural misconceptions. The New Testament church was born in a squall of misunderstanding, with the very power of God being mockingly mistaken for the potency of alcohol (Acts 2:13). Many of the sermons Luke records are apologetic in context, although evangelistic and theological in content. Peter preaches at Pentecost to correct wrong thinking, and many of Paul’s missionary messages sought to redirect the minds of people who had drawn wrong conclusions about Christ (think of Lystra and Athens).
The civic authorities who surface at different moments in the mission of the church show a similar lack of understanding and empathy for the work of Christ. The liberation of slave girls from trafficking and oppression are met with imprisonment (Acts 16), and even a philosophically nuanced message delivered on Mars Hill leaves the leading thinkers somewhat nonplussed. The indifference of Gallo sprang from what he saw as theological hair splitting between the Jews and Gentiles, and Paul’s appearances before Felix, Festus, and Agrippa show governing figures who are intrigued, unpersuaded, and ultimately confused by the message and meaning of the work of God.
All of this should both normalise and abnormalise our experience as Christians in the 21st century. In terms of normality we should see lines of connection and coherence between our experience of living in a world, and with leaders, who simply cannot grasp who we are and what we are about. It should also helpfully give us a sense of our wider abnormality, and help us to own the peculiarity of following Christ and connecting with his people. Our world cannot quantify our work, it cannot clarify its thinking about why we believe, what we believe, or how we behave, and that very abnormality is a powerful sign that the kingdom we belong to us is not of this world. We might rankle at the broad brush our governments use when interfering with our life as a church, we might even find that misunderstanding quickly shifts to outright opposition, but if we expect to be understood well in the world, we are asking for something the church never enjoyed in the New Testament.
In my next post on ‘Misunderstanding the Church’ we will look at some examples of misunderstanding from church history, as well as some ways in which we can helpfullly address our obscurity.