Free to be…

Post moderns like myself love to quote 1 Corinthians 20-23.  These are the verses where Paul talks about his ability to become like whoever he witnesses to.  Usually, we use this to emphasize the importance of cultural relevance.

I don’t think that we’re misinterpeting or misapplying the scriptures when we do all these things.  But there is a wider context, that puts quite a different spin on the whole deal.  There is a different meaning going on here when the verses before are read and considered.

In the verses before, he is talking about how he has the right to be paid for the work he does for God.   He goes on to say that though he has this right, he won’t exercise it.  (A side note: how much would Christian ethics be revolutionized if we followed this example more… noting that there is a difference between having a right and choosing to exercise it.)

At any rate, the lynch pin comes right before the often quoted portion.  In verse 17, he says “This means I am not bound to obey people just because they pay me, yet I have become a servant of everyone so that I can bring them to Christ.”

It’s an often-noticed phenemon that pastors are unfairly and unnecesarily bound, or atleast tempted to be bound, by the whims of their congregations.  (I suppose from a different perspective, it could be said that they are held accountable by their congregations…)

I think of this as a somewhat modern occurence, but clearly it’s not, if Paul noticed it.  But the thing even more interesting is this, a repurcussion I’d never considered:

If a pastor is bound into a certain style via the purse strings of a congegation, that pastor is not free to explore a style which might be relevant to people who haven’t yet found Christ.  I always viewed the main problem with pastors feeling stymied by their congregations to be an issue of theology, experimentation, etc., etc.

Clearly, though, it has consequences related to spreading the gospel itself.  This is a pretty interesting thing to me, and it’s truly astounding that it’s all sitting there, in 1 Corinthians.


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The stories that speak to our soul begin at a home where things are good. Cinderella is happy with her father. The three little pigs have grown up and are ready to move on. Bilbo Baggins knows his shire. Adam and Eve walk with God in the garden. My story isn’t much different. There was a time and a place where it was so good. There was a community for me. And there was joy. We were filled with a sincere desire to do what God wanted us to do. We possessed explanations and understandings that went a certain distance. We offered security and tradition and laughter. For a lot of years, that was enough. I have this sense that it was also necessary. I have this surety, now, that it certainly wasn’t everything. There were some things that became increasingly problematic as time went by. There was a desire to package things up so very neatly. Sunday morning services were efficient and strategic. Responses to differences of opinion were premeditated. Formula began to feel more important than being real. A real desire for everybody to be one of us, but also a real sense that there is an us, and there is a them. They carried a regret that it has to be this way, but deeper than this regret was a surety that this is how it is. I began to recognize that there was a cost of admission to that group. There were people who sat at the door, collecting it. Those people wished they didn’t have to. But I guess they felt like they did have to. They let some people in, and they left others out. There was a provisional membership. My friends did possess a desire to accommodate people that are different… But it would be best for everyone concerned if they were only a little bit different. I did make many steps forward in this place. Before I went there, there were lies that I believed. Some of the things that I learned there, I still hold on to. But that place is not my home anymore. Those people are not my community anymore. There were times it was hard. I am engaged in a different community now. And I am working hard at finding a place in many different places now, embracing many different kind of families. I don’t always get it right. I am trying and I am learning and I am moving foreward. I have this sense that I am not alone in these experiences. I believe that we are tribe and we are growing. We are pilgrims, looking for a new holy land. Perhaps we won’t settle on the same spot of land. But if you’ve read this far, I am thinking that we are probably headed in the same general direction. I have begun this blog to talk about where my journey is taking me. In every space, we find people who help us along. And maybe we can get to know each other, here. We embrace ideas that provide a structure for the things we believe, and perhaps we can share these too. Maybe we can form a group, a tribe, a community, if we can figure out a way to work through the shadow of these kinds of groups, if we can bigger than the us-and-them ideas that have caused so much trouble in the past. As important as they are, I think the very nature of online interactions will lend itself to something equally powerful. I am stumbling onto these practices that my grandfathers and great grandfathers in the faith engaged in. I am learning about these attitudes and intuitions are so different than the kinds of things we call doctrine today. I don’t know about you, but I am running out of patience, and even interest, in conversations about doctrine. I hope that maybe you’ll share a little something about where your journey is taking you, and maybe our common joys and challenges might help each other along, and we might lift each other up. Thanks for doing this journey with me.

3 thoughts on “Free to be…”

  1. Hey Jeff, long time no blog.

    There’s a whole lot to consider that you haven’t touched upon with this post. Though i find your observations sound, i think it’s relevant to point out that Paul’s ministry was itinerant(sic).

    Most pastors today find themselves having to balance their call to ministry between three things: how God has gifted them with skill and vision, where they’ve been called to minister, and to whom the message is intended (culturally). In the U.S. (and probably most places) the culture is dynamically different from generation to generation. Though the matrix of the greater society is the same, people are all over the map in terms of “relevance”.

    And let’s try to identify what “relevance” really is in a church setting – it’s comfort. If we were to paraphrase Paul’s intent it could be inferred that he’s intent on leveling irrelevant obstacles to people hearing the true relevance of the message of Christ. The point being to convey the appearance that “i’m just like you except for…” The object here being a relationship with the living God through Jesus.

    A pastor and a congregation ought to be on the same page as to the target of the Message. In that way there needs to be accountability and flexibility. If i find my pastor’s means effectual yet don’t necessarily find them personally fruitful, i have choices to make that don’t include trying to change his vision through extortion or any means to make me comfortable.

    Using money as a tool in the way you’ve described is surely an affront.


  2. Occasionally, certainly, it might be a clear affront. But what I have in mind is that most of the time, it’s a good deal more subtle than this.
    It seems to me that I have a bit of an obligation to give in a manner that reflects good stewardship. It further seems to me that a pastor has an obligation to lead in a direction where he feels called.
    It seems quite concievable that somebody in this relationship might do a lousy job of discerning God’s voice. Perhaps it’s the parishoner, who stops giving when the pastor leads in a new, Godly direction. Perhaps it’s the pastor who is only rationalizing that he hears God’s voice in heading in such-and-such a direction.
    Clearly, the whole thing should focused on a discussion of who is right. But I’m not sure such things can always be settled. If I’m reading Paul correctly he’s saying that a pastor who isn’t professional side-steps this issue.
    It’s fair enough to point out that there are significant differences between Paul’s situation and modern times. (His itenerancy being one.)

    However, I want to say that I have to significantly qualify the idea that relevancy is about comfort.
    In some limited sense you might be right. But comfort is no small thing. Comfort is the difference between a bed of nails and a craft-o-matic adjustable bed. Comfort is the difference between finding Christ and not finding him.
    Lots of whineness among those who are already in Christ occurs in the name of relevance. But there is some legitmacy here, too. I think it’s easy to say “relevance is no big deal” with the expectation that everybody else should just give up on thier own “comfort”… But when I consider the idea that I might have to give up a style of service, worship, or preaching that makes me feel closer to God, I suddenly get quite up in arms.


  3. my only point in mentioning Paul’s itinerancy is related to the hostile response folks often have to outsiders. As i see it, the fixed pastor has similar concerns but in reverse.

    The strangers are now coming to the church rather than the church (evangelist) coming to them. The environment of a church and the cultural component of the music and preaching are designed to be attractive to a specific demographic. If thery’re not, the whole presentation can be a stumbling block.

    i see the wisdom of this, but also the pit-falls.

    i don’t have time to make a list of what those might be. i’ll toss it out there for thought.

    i’ll leave you with this:
    the church in which i came to Christ was culturally relevant to my grandfather and my father as a young man.

    It is now closed.


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