An Episcopal lawyer discusses his intimate involvement with evangelistic agencies outside his church
Dangerous as it is to categorize fellow Christians, sometimes one can hardly avoid it. But classification is no better nor broader than the viewpoint of the classifier. Since I am a layman, my view of my fellow Christians is from the pew level, without the overall perspective enjoyed by priest and pastor from the pulpit.
However, since I am both an evangelical Christian and an active member of an Episcopal church, my vision is broadened somewhat. I am involved in the life of a parish church with a non-evangelical theology, and I am involved in the fellowship of conservative evangelical Christians with various denominational roots. Among these evangelicals I see a genuine spiritual ecumenicity centered in the personal relationship with Christ; this transcends the demand within the institutional church for organizational ecumenicity centered in corporate relationship with Christ.
Before I came to know Christ as Saviour during a time of deep personal crisis, I served as an officer in the state council of churches, and I am familiar with the quality of spiritual life in both ecumenical and evangelical circles. I am convinced that the Holy Spirit is leading Christians to fuller truth both in the ecumenical understanding of the visible church and in the evangelical witness to the necessity of the rich personal relationship with Christ revealed in Scripture.
I have taken part also in numerous laymen’s witnessing missions, in various evangelical retreats and institutes, and in the work of Young Life, Campus Crusade, and the Navigators. Sometimes mixed loyalties arise that can easily develop into serious tensions if not viewed in Christian perspective. I see these mixed loyalties and tensions in others similarly involved in both the life of the institutional church and the freer movements of evangelical witness. But I have found also that God’s guidance expressed through Word and sacrament, prayer and fellowship, will amply sustain both involvements.
As I see it, however, the independent evangelical ministries more clearly manifest spiritual vitality than does the institutional church at the local level, which is where I observe it. This is not to deny the validity of the church’s ministry to the community, nor to ignore the tremendous amount of pastoral counseling that goes on in my own parish. Neither is it to impugn the Christian commitment of individuals within the church. But on the whole, when compared to laymen in the institutional church, evangelical laymen seem to be more involved with people in the name of Christ, to have a more powerful witness to God’s love expressed in Christ, and to proclaim the Gospel more clearly.
Unfortunately, the church always seems to be dabbling in current religious events and theological novelties, serving up fancy theological dishes instead of the nourishing food of scriptural truth. The customers are hungry, and the menu does not satisfy them. I know this from hearing them talk when they are uninhibited by the presence of the clergy.
Changing The Menu
Perhaps this layman’s-eye view can serve as a starting point for serious discussion and also for changing the menu. Let me hazard some ad hoc classifications:
First, I see many of my friends in the institutional church who are attached to it for its own sake, as a kind of civic enterprise with a moral base, a place for intellectual fellowship. Nearly all of them subscribe to the creeds much as they do to the Republican or Democratic platform. Many are wanderers in the thickets of the new theology. Some from the old social-gospel crowd are among this group but are now discussing The Secular City and Bishop Pike. For the most part, those in this group are still seeking for an answer to life and believe that the church is composed of others engaged in a similar quest. Some of them are not seeking anything at all but plainly have found a certain satisfaction in church activity, in a sort of nostalgic or traditional way. Others are attracted by the entertainment value of the church and its social opportunities. And since Anglican worship is ceremonial and impressive, many are attracted by the liturgy as an end in itself.
Second, I find a group of people within the institutional church who obviously have been touched by the Holy Spirit and who profess, genuinely and openly, a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. Having come to this knowledge of the Saviour apart from evangelical ministries, they are not burdened with the jargon of evangelical Christianity. Nevertheless, they witness to God’s saving grace in their lives. Many of them, however, have entered into a relationship with the church not clearly understood in terms of the Bible nor nourished by it. They can nurture this relationship only feebly by sacrament and worship, and they can define it only ambiguously by creed and prayerbook—and then only within the theological boundaries currently expounded from the parish pulpit. Their Christian lives are existentially real but revelationally disoriented or in plain words, the Lord has touched their lives, but they have not grown in knowledge of him through his Word.
Third, I find evangelicals—most of them outside my parish church—open to the Holy Spirt and growing in the Word of Christ. Not all evangelicals fit this description of course; but many do, and the strength of their commitment to Christ is evident. I do not for a minute pretend to say that in God’s eyes they are closer to Christ than their more churchly counterparts; I say only that they seem to have more spiritual vitality and a stronger commitment than the others. The reason, I am convinced, is that they not only try to center their lives in Christ but also are nurtured regularly by the revealed Word in the Bible. They have a life-orientation with biblical roots and real supernatural authority.
“If there is this love among you, then all will know that you are my disciples,” Christ said (John 13:35 NEB). Some will undoubtedly say that Christians are known by their love for God and man and not by their ability to speak of their personal experiences in Christ, or quote Scripture that defines those experiences. And this, by our Lord’s own words, is indeed true. I should not deny having seen God’s love manifested in the lives of those in the second and third categories and, in a much less focused way, in the first.
However, it is among evangelicals that I often find workers of love and words of witness combined with power in the Holy Spirit. I know very few evangelicals whose Christian lives are restricted to Bible reading and prayer. Nearly all are also actively concerned in works of love—in the support of homes for delinquents, in the affairs of Young Life, in campus ministries, in auxiliary work at hospitals, in personal counseling with others in the daily rounds of business and homemaking, in community service and civic benevolence, in active leadership in the overseas outreach of World Neighbors, and even in personal, though temporary, service on the mission field. These are but a few of the outlets for Christ’s love in the lives of evangelical laymen in just one city. But as they participate in these works of Christian love, these men and women are able to speak the Word of salvation and healing, giving a kerygmatic content to their ministry. They have a constant concern for bringing others to Christ.
The Word Of Love
A clergy friend of mine has chided evangelicals by saying we should do more for Christ than study our Bibles. While this is an interesting criticism, I am sure (1) that there is an outreach in love as a product of the Christian life nurtured by the Bible; and (2) that the deed of love, unexplained in biblical terms, is often misunderstood and misinterpreted. In the framework of the gospel message, works of love clearly point to Christ. Without the word of love, his works can pass for humanitarianism.
Now let me offer some observations about evangelicals in relation to a theological framework. The Word and experience, it seems to me, are the two great sources of knowledge in Christ—and I am speaking of spiritual knowledge, not just theological proficiency or doctrinal familiarity. The a priori Word, spoken by the transcendent Lord through his servants, prophets, and apostles, but supremely in his Son, and revealed in the Bible, is the prime source of our knowledge of the Saviour’s love. But the complementary channel of such knowledge is the activity of the Holy Spirit in vitalizing the Word within the lives of us needy, repentant sinners. What is objectively revealed is by faith tested in real life, and thereby the imminent Lord is graciously manifested in the lives of those who come to him in trust and discipleship.
Reality of experience—a genuine, existential awareness of and response to God’s saving grace—and an orientation and nurture of that continuing experience in Christ by the biblical word as vitalized by the Holy Spirit: these are essentials in the birth and growth of the Christian. And these are the heart of the evangelical Christian life, as I have come to know it.
Synthesis Of Experience
And yet, I see varieties of emphasis within the evangelical community. I have been to Navigator conferences where the emphasis was strongly on the revealed word. At the Butt Foundation’s Laity Lodge, on the other hand, the emphasis was strongly on the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing about a personal awareness of Christ’s love through small-group sessions.
I think that the vitality of the small-group movement and of lay witnessing missions within the Church is directly related to this synthesis of experience and the Bible. The testimonies of Christian laymen give existential content and verification to the authoritative revelation in Scripture. And Scripture verifies, validates, and is the objective test of their experiences. Through this synthesis, the Holy Spirit often brings real renewal in Christ. Here I speak out of participation in one of Richard Halverson’s lay witnessing weeks in a major Midwestern city, as well as out of similar involvement in Howard Butt’s preaching missions and other community-wide evangelical efforts in which lay participation has been central.
Yet evangelicals can become so Scripture-centered that they attempt to do God’s work with a kind of gospel pill, unquickened by the Spirit. A related problem has been described by a friend of mine as “spending so much time in the cookbook that we never have time to bake a cake.” Having completed the Navigator topical memory system, I know that Bible memorization, for instance, can easily become an end in itself rather than a tool for works of love and witness, just as the liturgy of the Church can become an end in itself rather than a vehicle for the Word and Holy Spirit. These are serious criticisms of imbalances within evangelical life. All evangelicals should take note of them, because we are not trying to memorize our way to heaven, nor are we dealing in gospel pills or spiritual cookbooks. We are dealing in the very Word of Life.
Just as an over-emphasis on Scripture to the exclusion of experience has its pitfalls, so an over-emphasis on experience can drift off into experience-seeking for its own sake. When not disciplined by the counsel of Scripture, and when not centered in Christ, experience-seeking can lead to aberrations in the Christian life. I think that speaking in tongues, for example, of which I can speak only as an observer, is open to this danger if it is not kept in strict perspective by Word, prayer, and sound fellowship. Likewise, small-group prayer and sharing sessions, with which I am familiar, can become a sort of group therapy when not focused and defined by constant reference to the Gospel and when not related to the larger fellowship of the Church.
In all these areas—in the institutional life of the Church, and in the fellowship of evangelical Christians—if the Kingdom of God is to consist of power rather than mere talk (1 Cor. 4:20), Christ must be central, and experience must be defined, tested, and nurtured by the Bible as made alive for us by the Holy Spirit.
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