Monday, January 26, 2009

How to Turn a Church Away from the Truth

David Strauss, in his book Life of Jesus (1835), writes:

In his discourses to the church, the (speculative theologian) will indeed adhere to the forms of the popular conception, but on every opportunity he will exhibit their spiritual significance, which to him constitutes their sole truth, and thus prepare...the resolution of those forms into the original ideas in the consciousness of the church also. Thus, to abide by the example already chosen, at the festival of Easter he will he will indeed set out from the sensible fact of the resurrection of Christ, but he will dwell chiefly on the being buried and rising again with Christ, which the Apostle himself has strenuously inculcated. This very course every preacher, even the most orthodox, strictly takes, as often as he draws a moral from the evangelical text on which he preaches: for this is nothing else than the transition from the externally historical to the inward and spiritual. It is true that we must not overlook the distinction that the orthodox preacher builds his moral on the text in such a way that the latter remains as an historical foundation; whereas, with the speculative preacher, the transition from the biblical history or the church doctrine, to the truth which he thence derives has the negative effect of annihilating the former.

Strauss thought the life of Jesus proclaimed in the Bible was a bunch of bunk. A liberal theologian to the bone, he was one of the first who popularized a dichotomy between the "historical Jesus," a first century cynic peasant, and the "Christ of faith," the risen Christ proclaimed from the pulpit (The "Jesus Seminar" is the latest group to take up this debunked way of thinking.). He argued that the former was the actual Jesus that historically lived, while the latter, much like a placebo or a legend, was and is the "spiritual" view that accrued over the centuries, that lives on only in the hearts and emotions of the faithful. Strauss thought that the church would be better served if it forsook the Jesus described in the Bible.

The question for him near the end of his book was "how should a liberal ("speculative" in his terminology) theologian go about bringing that change in his congregation? He can't just go out and boldly proclaim it; he'd be run out of his church. Neither can he just keep his true beliefs tucked away; that would be hypocrisy.

Strauss' solution was an emphasis/de-emphasis method of preaching. If a pastor avoids preaching a certain doctrine, over time, his congregation will stop believing in it. This won't happen overnight, but it will happen. By persistent neglect, "progress" will be achieved.

The example he gives above is the Resurrection. "Don't preach about the historicity of the resurrection," Strauss says. "Just preach that the resurrection is about a 'risen' life in the heart...just tell your congregation that its 'all about faith, man.'" After a generation or two, over the course of one's pastorate, the congregation will go from believing in the historicity of the resurrection, to thinking that its not that important, to thinking that it never happened.

I find this an absolutely genius method of turning a congregation away from biblical truth: just de-emphasize something. Stop preaching about it, and your congregation will stop believing it.

Here's the kicker, though: orthodox evangelical preachers do this all the time. Its not their intention, but, because they like the praises of the people, they avoid unpopular doctrines (some avoid doctrine wholesale) such as hell and evangelism (in the latter case, they often change the definition of evangelism, leaving out the "vocally proclaiming the salvation message" part and emphasizing the "serving the poor" part). If you cornered them and asked them about these controversial doctrines, they'd admit, after a few drinks, that they do, indeed believe in them. They might even be in the church's statement of faith.

You wouldn't know that by what is proclaimed from the pulpit, though. There's hardly ever a mention of them.

So, evangelical pastors, do you want your church to start believing that its not necessary to share one's faith? Or, even further down the rails, do you want your congregants to think that it's immoral to share one's faith?

Take uncle David's advice: all you have to do is stop preaching about evangelism. Simple as that.

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