“The Gospel” As a Power Discourse

This post is strange to write. Maybe because it was written in response to a request for me to explain “the gospel” to a group of Christians who really, really dislike my church.

Two well-beloved Sydney theologians warned me recently “don’t engage trolls”. But, it would be too easy for me to call these people trolls and walk away – I don’t believe that gives them enough dignity. These are Christians (and a few non-Christians) struggling with questions we all struggle with – personal faith, institutional commitment, justice, social responsibility.

e9832693147d0c4c460c0f83c1f36fe4Maybe this group would dub themselves “haters”, in the sense that they dislike me, without having ever met me. That’s weird, but definitely a part of our internet-dominated life. To have a view is to have detractors, and unwittingly enter a war of words.

Strangely though, our disagreement is about “the gospel” of Jesus Christ — a man advocating non-violent resistance against Roman oppression in the form of “The Kingdom of God” who never used the internet (but who presumably could predict it would exist) ;).

Here is my second attempt. The first time I had no idea who was asking (they use pseudonyms), and so I decided to simplify things by posting a well-known scripture John 3:16 and a picture of Jesus, Son of God, hanging on a cross. I thought it was pretty clear that salvation was through Christ — any Christian and I could agree on this definition. However, to find something we could agree on was not what was being asked. So, it appears their “gospel” question is more complex than it first appears.

I added a couple of warnings in that conversation, which I’ll here explain. Across the Christian church there are many views as to what constitutes “the gospel” message, and its outcome, often called “salvation”. My new friends made it clear that they recognize some of these views as Christian but not others. And they’ve weighed up my church with the word TEKEL (“you have been tested and found wanting”). Thus, I am excluded by association.

Now, I briefly mentioned this to some Anglican friends, who warned me that Moore college, Sydney had recently itself issued a “missal” explaining exactly what the gospel is. They felt I was up against, in their words, “Moore-ites with little respect for women, and even lesser respect for women with their own ideas”. Well, funnily enough, I don’t disagree with much in the article they passed me, except the idea that God’s wrath or judgement could be distanced from “social disintegration, ecological catastrophe, political tyranny, economic loss”, as if this anger arose more over a tone of voice I ordered my last latte than the social mechanisms I’ve subscribe to. But, anyways, if a “Moore-ite” were to disagree with me, they would be bound to “speaking to [me] face to face (Matt 18.15); correcting with gentleness and with view to repentance rather than condemnation (2 Tim 2.25)”. So, I doubt my new online friends are from Moore.

I personally agree with the writer, that the biblical words hold the best authority to describe “the gospel”. We can turn to Ephesians 2 to see “the probIem”, a situation of rebellion and broken relationship between humans and God that was so deep it was ingrained, and had become our very nature, e.g:

Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved.

The CEV translation states “In the past you were dead because you sinned and fought against God” (Eph 2:1). I think that’s a good summary. And, although we tried, we were unable to figure our own way out.

And so, God executed a solution, which in fact had been planned before time began (John 1:1) but became reality through a child born to a virgin. Named Jesus, He was human and also God. In other words, God Himself left heaven and came down to fix things. God, who was the victim of our behaviour made the move towards reconciliation. Matthew 3 makes it clear that Jesus’ mission was to be the final sacrifice or scapegoat, a theatrical display which was acted in his own body dying upon the cross. He died, was buried and rose from the dead to triumph over the powers of darkness that held the entire system in place (1 Cor 15:3-4). He had set us free to start again.

Those who believe that this is true and accept His sacrifice (John 3:36) are “saved” from God’s wrath, not only now (with a deposit) but also completely in the final judgement (1 Thess 1:10, Rev 6:17). But Romans sums it up, stating that people were left without excuse because “They know about God, but they don’t honor him or even thank him” (Rom 1:21). In Jesus’ sacrifice, Paul proclaims, we can restore God’s rightful place, as the object of our worship, without being tarnished by our previous actions. The blood of Jesus speaks loudly against any claims otherwise.

The Bible has lists of evidence for those who despite all this, still worship their own mind (Rom 1: 29-31). And, Colossians 3 paints a bit more of a “future forward” picture of a community of believers, called the Followers of The Way (or early church), who gather as the new, resurrected body of Jesus on earth. They receive the gift of the Spirit of Jesus through prayer. And the community they build mostly looks like the peace of Christ ruling – with all playing different but complementary roles in a new, alternative social order — called “The Kingdom”.

Today, communicating “salvation” and what it means is a pretty big deal — it needs more than reciting scriptures. This is awesome for a small group in the first century, but how would we live this out in our everyday? How does “The Kingdom” operate for a mum with her kids in Sydney? or a migrant worker in China? Theology plays a key role in answering this question.

Over the years, similar questions have taken much space in the church’s discussion. In fact, an entire theological sub-discipline called ‘Soteriology’, while debating Christ’s actual work on the cross was a whole ‘nother library shelf, ‘Christology’. When we are talking across denominations trying to find agreement as to what “the gospel”, we might call this ‘Ecumenics’. Many traditions stand against ecumenism in principle, restricting definitions to those who worship in churches like their own.

However, the Pentecostal tradition is primarily interested in “attempting to ‘live in’ and ‘walk according to’ The Spirit”, as Amos Yong explains. This means that our energy is put into turning doctrinal statements into ways of living, that can become “good news” for all of society. Because of this, some pastors may fail to communicate the scriptures well. I’m not going to justify that — or the sheer diversity of a movement with over 500 million people searching for post-modern, post-patriarchal, post-foundationalist, post-colonial, post-hierarchical, post-Cartesian, post-Western, post-European ways of articulating “the gospel”.

Most of them return to the books of Luke-Acts (rather than the Pauline epistles) in an attempt to find a way forward.

Yong argues that “the gospel” is experienced in four particular ways. First, as news of forgiveness of sin and the canceling of our debt to God (Acts 3:19; 5:31; 10:43; 13:38; 26:18). Second, it assures deliverance from the evil powers which operate over and within us. Third, it announces our healing (both received in part in our bodies in this lifetime and fully with the gift of eternal life in the next life). Fourth, it is a message of freedom for the oppressed. And lastly it also reassures us that our damaged earth will not be discarded and abandoned, but that the Creator will renew His creation.

Of course, when non-Christians read and interact with these ideas (as in online space), some of them are pretty serious claims. We end up debating things like whether Jesus could make these claims, or whether people should believe these things. So, we end up on another library shelf called ‘Interfaith dialogue’, which examines the outcomes of religious ideas for society, compares the claims, and addresses how we should interact while sharing our beliefs. This actually seemed to matter a lot to Jesus, who put great emphasis on what the local guys at the tax office thought, but placed not so much importance upon the views of his religious contemporaries. Because there’s no Christian internet, I’m going to assume I have non-Christian readers, and chat a little about interfaith dialogue — the reason I shied away from this lengthy discussion in the first place.

Basically the worst way to host an interfaith dialogue (or even ecumenical discussion) is to assume that we speak on universal truth straight up. I believe that a universal or absolute truth or reality exists, which we can call ‘R’ (for Full Reality).  I believe that Jesus had a grasp on Reality or ‘R’, and that’s where his ideas on “The Kingdom” came from. But I don’t believe that any other human has a full claim on that universal truth. The rest of us need to admit that at times we have a pretty warped, or contextual understanding of what’s really going on. We get insights, which we can call ‘r’ (for a smaller reality). People might denounce this argument as “pluralism”, but that isn’t what I’m saying here, so it would be a mistake to write it off in that way. This is actually a broader position called Critical Realism. This position just allows me to say that, regarding many issues, including salvation, in order for us to get to ‘R’, we may have to critically evaluate each others ‘r’. Which is why I answered this call to present my understanding of salvation, actually.

The least transparent thinker among us would be furious about this, and claim there is one view of salvation, i.e. their own. Given the number of theologians and classic authors that address “the gospel” throughout history, I can already see a number of valid or “orthodox” views slightly different to mine. So, I’d much rather us host a *dialogue* on salvation. Why? Because I think it’s most likely to lead to us all getting a better understanding of R.

That’s not to say I think a dialogue results in a) everyone on the inter-webs being right, or even b) coming to a boring vanilla consensus. Both of these outcomes are naive, given the nature of humans and their flawed thinking, and also the issue at hand. Perhaps you or I may be right on some things and wrong on others. And perhaps we will have to “agree to disagree” as the phrase goes.

And thus, if I am forced into competitive discussion, where only one view is going to win, I (and my opponents) become apologists for our particular views, providing defense against any other ideas (and also, of course the contribution of people from other faiths or who hold no faith at all). This is the point at which some readers will depart from my post in disgust, as I point that the rules of engagement of any discussion dictate the outcome. It’s sad to me, but denouncing each others’ ideas is a pretty normal way of interacting in the church. But, I think I’ve here argued toward theology as “faith seeking understanding” — as Anselm did.

I’m just trying to be explicit about my ‘r’. And that it is affected by my context, my gender, my life history. One factor is that I attend a NeoPentecostal church (distinct from the Neo-charismaticism of the Vineyard movement) in Sydney, Australia.

But I can really only speak for myself, here providing a lay theology or definition of “the gospel” — not only because I recognize that theology is a profession, but also because I’m not employed or authorized. I’m Not The Official Voice of Hillsong Church. I’m not paid to defend my church or its actions to another group. I am not interested in being caught between two groups engaged in a cultural war, and essentially, ideological battle. This is a statement of my own understanding of the gospel.

It’s unfair to ask me to state that my church defines me or my belief entirely, or, likewise to take this post and claim that my ideas define my pastors. I have no problem with attending Hillsong services. Its core beliefs are contained here in this statement. I don’t believe there are clashes between what I’ve written, and what is preached.

My final point is that whoever we define as “the church” should hold certain characteristics. Here I would like to affirm “one, catholic, holy and apostolic church”. By this I mean I affirm church unity as well as diversity in the power of the Spirit. I affirm catholicity, as in I believe that the church is compete, full and whole, bearing the presence of Jesus. Also crucially I believe it must be holy, holding to the moral behaviour presented in the gospels. I don’t think we should settle for our world’s corrupt and broken ways. Finally, I affirm our apostolicity: that we have received a faith passed on by apostles, and that we are ‘sent’ into our community to be a witness to all the things we’ve received.

Anyways in conclusion, there seems only three main options for response to this post, based on interpretation of the biblical text — i.e. any further disagreement can only really be fixed in the following ways. My conversation partners can decide one of three things:

1) I am decidedly lost: meaning, I am not a Christian. In which case, a Christian response is to find lost people and bring them home.

2) My view can be discounted due to syncretism: it could be said that my cultural setting influences my Christianity to the point it has overtaken the “true kernel” of the gospel. The usual outcome is that we engage in a cultural struggle, one voice shouting down the other in the marketplace. This is an outcome I am opting out of… because it’s ridiculous. You can be right if that’s what you need me to say.

3) I am promoting heresy: the final position is that I promote a gospel at odds with the biblical text. There are two options here, the first is that a) God will deal with me, or, b) that my views must be actively fought against for the purity of the faith. The final response represents a minority Christian view, but of course, those comfortable with it don’t agree, as they define what is “Christian” in a much narrower way.

I think it is unusual for a PhD student to be decried online — it is usually a much older academic forced to deal with their earlier (and maybe less researched) publications. But here in Sydney the Australian media largely defines how outsiders see those from my church – which is highly problematic, and leads to misconceptions.

In the end, Paul indicates that words of the great men of God (and even the rituals they preside) aren’t supposed to hold any ultimate power, which should be instead reserved for the cross of Christ (1 Cor 1:17). So I freely admit the many flaws of this piece and likelihood it will be misinterpreted. That’s OK if it draws power beyond me, but points to Christ. My last words:

“He must become greater, I must become less”

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