Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Repentance and the Institutional Church

One Christian that I follow is Jamal Jivanjee, the convert from Islam who has become a minor Christian celebrity through his role in leading Rifqa Bary, another convert from Islam, to Christ. Her conversion and subsequent running away from home catapulted her into the media spotlight and Jamal ended up on Fox news talking about Rifqa and Islam. Before the storm ended, Jamal was also embroiled in criticism of Rifqa's lawyer, John Stemberger, a prominent pro-life attorney in Florida. Now Jamal spends most of his time speaking about Islam and promoting revival in the Church through his ministry, Illuminate. We're Facebook friends and he knows me slightly. And though I disagree with him on some things, I like him a great deal and often read his articles on his blog.

Recently, he wrote a critical review of the book Radical, which has been creating quite a stir within American Christianity. I have not yet read the book, but two things in Jamal's review struck me. One is his very negative view towards the "institutional church" and the other is his view of "repentance."

Jamal writes concerning repentance:

Repentance is one of those words that has been hijacked by man’s religious system. According to man’s religious understanding of repentance, the burden is placed on our actions. In order to repent, we are urged to confess our sins and then seek to change our behavior and actions. It is all about ‘obedience’ to what God requires. This understanding of repentance is unbiblical and false. It does not produce freedom, rather more bondage and performance.

I have concluded that David Platt and Francis Chan’s messages resonate with us because, in a sort of a religiously sadistic way, the fleshly religious side of us likes a good ‘beat me, I’ve been bad’ message. Basically speaking, we feel good when we feel ‘bad’. Our religious flesh has an addiction to ‘conviction’. We just keep hearing how bad we are, keep attempting to be more obedient, and we never seem to see that part of the problem is the system that is keeping us in bondage to the ‘box’.

Platt does not seem to understand that repentance (which literally means to ‘change your mind’) is a one step process, NOT a two step process! Once your mind truly changes about something, action naturally follows. Those who think you must (1.) have a change of mindset (repentance), and (2.) try to implement a new set of behaviors to go with the new mindset, usually revert back to religion and rules.

Now Jamal isn't all wrong in his concern to guard against legalism, which has no power. And I'm sure he's right that a human-centered, self-powered attempt at obedience completely infects the church. He's also right that Christians can become very attached to a sort of emotional self-flagellation which is simply a modern version of Medieval religious masochism. But he's in danger of ending up in anti-nomianism, a rejection of obedience as being intrinsic to faith. This is where obedience is a secondary issue and faith is primary. The problem is that a faith that doesn't intend to obey isn't faith at all.

He supports this by a common misconception of the word "repentance" ("metanoia" in Greek). He repeats the common error that repentance is simply a changing of one's mind.

While pagan Greeks assuredly used the word to mean “change of heart/mind”, Jews in Jesus’ day certainly did not. In the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint, the word metanoia was used to signify either a changing of direction (behavior) or a change of heart and behavior at the same time. Amos 7:3 is a good example. Where the Septuagint declares that the Lord “metanoia-ed”, the ESV renders it “the Lord relented.” Another instance is Proverbs 14:15-16 where the Septuagint says that “the wise comes into metanoia, carefully planning his steps, fearing and turning away from evil.” Much more learned than I have demonstrated time and again that the defining of metanoia as “change of mind” is the worldview of Greek pagans (assisted by liberal moderns such as Rudolf Bultmann). This is why Jesus says, “Repent and believe” in Mark 1:15. Belief (pistis) is a heart trust. By Jamal's definition, Jesus would seem to be repeating himself. But he’s not. He’s telling people to turn away from their sins and trust in him.

His rejection of "the institutional church" is also pretty problematic, though I'm pretty confused by his use of the term. When Jamal and others use the term, I wonder, do they mean “connectional church”, a church with some kind of formal attachment to other congregations? Do they mean “congregational church,” where people identify with a single gathered local group? Do they mean hierarchical church where there are some kind of formal offices? Or do they simply mean a “worldly church” which has ceased to be a dwelling of the Spirit and is only the place where men do some kind of religious business?

Jamal writes:

"I agree with Platt’s assessment in the first section of the book when he says that you can’t share the life of Christ with the masses. My question for him is this: Why is he attempting to do that each and every Sunday in what he is calling church? Why is he beating the church for not looking like Jesus who lived outside the religious institutional box?

Does he not realize that, as a mega-institution Sr. Pastor, he is sitting in a position that keeps the box in existence? I am in favor of destroying the box and setting the people free."

You see, I belong to a denomination which I am sure Jamal would declare “institutional,” but which resembles very little of what he and others describe, especially the two congregations I have belonged to. I read his stuff and I think, “Wow, the congregations you’ve taken part in must really suck.” The problem is that I run into lots of Christians that talk critically of "the institutional church" and I find a great deal of rejection of accountability, undealt with sin, and a decided lack of Kingdom fruit. I’m sure that they’re not all like that, but I run into it a lot.

I have a hard time making sense of the New Testament's picture of community without the “institutional church.” The New Testament has deacons and elders. Believers live in formal accountability and go to official worship services. You can argue that many modern churches do not have communities with the level of participation seen in the New Testament Church, but that's no reason to reject the only structure that reflects the biblical witness.

When a family isn't functional correctly, we seek to heal it, not throw it out altogether.

1 comment:

  1. Travis,

    I appreciate your comments on the blog. I also understand where you are coming from. In regards to a view of the church, I just posted an article about what I see a New Testament church to be from a Biblical perspective, and a non-institutional one as well. Here is a link to the article. Thanks brother.

    A Stunning Body- (A Vision of Jesus Christ part II)