In Luke 8:1-15, Jesus tells the parable of the sower. In it he describes the fate of the seeds that fall onto different sorts of soils. The seeds represent the word of God (Luke 8:11) and the soils the hearers and their context and concerns:
“Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. Those on the rocky ground are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away. The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature. But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.”Luke 8:12-15
The emphasis of the parable is on the competing forces that stand against those who hear the word of God. Whether it be the devil, testing, or life’s various anxieties or pleasures, hearing the word of God is no guarantee of an enduring faith.
Though it is tempting to be content with saying that those who fall away never really had faith, we must go further. The parable of the sower suggests that the soil onto which the word of God falls determines the degree to which the word of God will take root and endure. So, while it is certainly the case that God’s word will fall along the path, in the rocks, or amongst the thorns, it is also the case that the community of faith must strive to cultivate “good soil” and to support all of those who hear the word of God by considering “how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24).
To what degree, for instance, are we a community that contributes to the thorny environment in which those who hear the gospel “are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature” (Luke 8:14)? Where have we made it more difficult for “the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it” to develop roots within the community of faith (Luke 8:13)? When have we thrown rocks into the good soil making it more challenging for those with “a noble and good heart” to persevere so as to “produce a crop”? Such questions assume that the church plays a role in discipleship and that one of our goals as the community of faith should be to avoid becoming the rocks or thorns that nullify the word of God we are commanded to teach and preach. While we can expect some of those who profess faith in Christ to fall away, we cannot ignore the community’s role of helping to clear and cultivate the soil into which the seed of God‘s word falls and, God willing, takes root.
Over the past few years, several reports have been released of prominent pastors and theologians who have decided not to be Christian any longer. This has prompted me to reflect on my time as a Christian and to ask myself a simple, straightforward question: will I always be a Christian? There are certainly theological answers to that question. The doctrine of the security of the believer is well established though not universally accepted within the body of Christ. But, for the moment, I’m not interested in arguing for or against that doctrinal position, nor am I interested in diving into philosophical arguments for the existence of God or the historic probabilities of Christ’s resurrection. It is not that these topics are unimportant, unnecessary, or uninteresting. Rather, it is that addressing them doesn’t quite “scratch the itches” I’ve been feeling as I have reflected on my time as a follower of Christ.
My experience with the community of faith, as I am sure is the case with many others, has been both bane and blessing. Navigating evangelical culture hasn’t always been easy despite the presence of amazing women and men who have taken the time to teach, guide, and disciple me. I have too often found evangelicals (1) to be mean-spirited and to applaud mean-spiritedness, (2) to substitute bravado and brashness for loving, bold, honest proclamation of the truth, and (3) to cultivate a culture of adherence that is quick to identify supposed instances of doctrinal drift or heresy rather than engage in deep, transformative discussions governed by the scriptures.
There are certain barriers embedded within evangelical culture in American that often make it difficult to embrace the body of Christ. The sort of tribalism that these barriers engender create unnecessary tensions and confusion within a body that often looks like a gangly teenager whose actions are uncoordinated and awkward. Ultimately the barriers and tribes are of less consequence than the risen Lord. Yet, we must still take a hard look at our individual and communal lives because all who come to profess Jesus as Lord will be joined to and built up as members of the faithful and flawed people of God.
While D.W. Bebbington’s four characteristics of historic evangelicalism (i.e. conversionism, activism, biblicism, crucicentrism) are, in some measure correct, they also paint a rather pristine picture of evangelicalism. We would do well to reckon with the dark corners of American evangelicalism described by individuals such as Mark Noll who notes several barriers to “productive thinking” which “include an immediatism that insists on action, decision, and even perfection right now; a populism that confuses winning supporters with mastering actually existing situations; and an antitraditionalism that privileges current judgments on biblical, theological, and ethical issues (however hastily formed) over insight from the past (however hard won and carefully stated).”
Over the years, I’ve experienced and seen several colleagues struggle with the sorts of barriers Noll references. In broad terms, it would seem that these three barriers to “productive thinking” have a practical impact that hinders the coordination of the members of Christ’s body and, thus, the church’s demonstration of God’s “manifold wisdom” (Ephesians 3:10). We are a people who bury new members of the church with Christ through baptism and teach them to walk in newness of life by obeying all that Christ commands (Matthew 28:19-20; Romans 6:4; cf. Colossians 2:11-12). To do so, we recognize God’s word as the final authority for life and faith. While we are a people of the body and the book, the body and its logics are to be conformed to the image of Christ as we obey God’s word. Noll’s barriers, it would seem, obstruct our individual and collective ability to sit beneath the authority of the scriptures subjecting us to the anxieties, whims, and thoughts of the day.
Immediatism, for instance, lends itself to a less-than conversational context in which new theological ideas are met with skepticism and treated with hostility. Far from suggesting that all new theological ideas should be accepted, I would argue that, at times, our rather abrupt condemnation of such ideas is less a reflection of our desire for doctrinal purity and more a reflection of our general unwillingness to engage in the messy process of discipleship. Walking with an individual as she or he comes to the realization that some of what she or he holds dear does not fit with what it means to be in Christ requires patient effort that immediatism is unlikely to allow.
Populism can create a vicious circle in which confronting one’s audience with the scriptures becomes counter-productive to one’s ministry. Jesus, according to the logic of populism, was mistaken when he alienated many of his disciples by teaching that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood (John 6:22-59). For those who sit on the fringes of the church and need the body of Christ to practice “pure and undefiled” religion (James 1:27; cf. 1 John 3:18), it can be difficult to watch as ministers tickle the ears of massive audiences who will only tolerate sound teaching that reaffirms their own preferences and lifestyle (2 Timothy 4:3-4). Populism lends itself to the development of networks that become so devoted to certain issues that they functionally deny the full counsel of God’s word.
Antitraditionalism offers a ready excuse to promote one’s own perspective without any particular sense of historical accountability. In neglecting the rich, intergenerational resources of faithful women and men in the past who have done the hard work of interpreting the scriptures and discerning the Holy Spirit, we lean on the broken reed of our own limited minds. We lose perspective as we give ourselves over to the urgencies of the moment while missing the fact that Christ has set us free to obey his teachings not to solve the problems of the world with our own wits and ways.
For many evangelicals (myself included), the barriers noted above (and surely some others) create a deep sense of sadness and tension. These barriers constrain American evangelical thought and practice. They keep us apart and limit the contributions the various members of church might make to the building up of Christ’s body. Rather than coming together as one body, these barriers often lead us to choose sides so that we find ourselves saying something akin to “I follow Apollos” (1 Corinthians 1:12) rather than embracing our unity in Christ. We form tribes that can hinder us from offering a comprehensive, faithful testimony in so much as we no longer consider “what the coming of Jesus Christ means as expressed ‘in the form of a community’” (Pickard, Seeking the Church).
In Private Truths, Public Lies, Timur Kuran describes a phenomenon called “preference falsification” whereby people hide their true thoughts and feelings to avoid the negative social consequences expressing them might bring. It seems easier to “go along to get along” than to be transparent and risk being labeled “liberal,” which is often less reflective of one’s beliefs or orientations than of one’s difference of opinion regarding certain “tribal” commitments. If you are not part of my tribe, you are viewed with suspicion and, in those areas in which we disagree, you are obviously incorrect. Yet, to echo the apostle, we do not follow Cephas, Paul, or Apollos, but are united as one people in Christ.
So Why Will I Always Be a Christian?
In When Prophecy Fails, Festinger notes, “A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree, and he turns away. Show him facts or figures, and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic, and he fails to see your point.” As a man with conviction, I’m not sure I agree with Festinger on every point. I seldom turn away from a disagreement and am generally open to different arguments and new information. Christians need not fear the truth. But I would agree that I am a hard man to change, particularly when it comes to my belief in Jesus Christ.
Given the challenges noted above, it might seem strange that I can say with confidence, “I will always be a Christian.” There would seem to be plenty of reason to stop being Christian, but I never will. It isn’t because the good things I have experienced within the body of Christ outweigh the bad. They do, but the fact that the good outweighs the bad makes little difference when I consider what I did when I dedicated my life to Christ. I didn’t sign on to a life of comfort and luxury. I pledged my allegiance to a Lord who said, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). I entered an imperfect community that must “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone” (Colossians 3:13). I committed to love God by walking in obedience to his commands (2 John 1:6), to pursue the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20), and to be filled by the Spirit of God for the edification of the body of Christ and the glorification of God (Ephesians 5:18-20).
While the failings of American evangelicalism or the members of the church are maddening, disappointing, and, many times, demotivating, there is no amount of hurt, anger, sadness, or disappointment that would justify breaking the commitment I made to follow Christ. Faith is not simply an intellectual decision, but an act. In fact, as O’Donovan asserts in Finding and Seeking, “faith is the categorical act, the source of life’s activity, and precisely as such may be known from the acts that spring from it.” He also notes, “Acts do follow and precede other acts, but they also spring from them, necessitate them, comprise them, and contribute to them. There may be logical implications which require that we do this after having done that; there may be actions that precipitate further actions, not to mention mental dispositions and commitments that demand to be enacted physically.” In other words, having proclaimed “Jesus is Lord,” I am logically (or, more to the point, theologically) committed to obey the greatest commandment and the second which is like it. It is what I have committed to do even when my own sin or the sin of others makes loving God and neighbor difficult. I’ll always be a Christian because in responding to the call of God to come out of the darkness and into the light, I have committed to pursue a life worthy of that calling (Ephesians 4:1). I trust that by God’s grace, I will see that commitment through. I will always be a Christian.
In thinking about those who have renounced their faith, we would be wise to take the opportunity to reflect on our communal life and the obstacles we set before those who hear the word of God. It is not so much that I think we determine the fate of individual believers, but that we have the opportunity to showcase the sort of life made possible through our shared faith in the resurrected Christ. We can help cultivate the ground not by pandering to those who hear the word of God, but by serving them and by speaking the truth in love. We can show ourselves to be a community that is committed to living in accordance with God’s wisdom rather than succumbing to the urgencies and pleasures of the world.
Ultimately, for those of us who have made a commitment to Christ, we would do well to honor it. In dedicating ourselves to Christ we become “like living stones” that “are being build up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). That commitment is not conditioned on the treatment we receive in the church but arouses within us a desire to “strive to excel in building up the church” (1 Corinthians 14:12) even as we pray with the apostle Paul that “the God of peace” might sanctify us and keep our “whole spirit and soul and body … blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:23).
Lord, help us to be a community that seeks to work the soil that is those who hear your word. Grant us the wisdom and resolve to disciple those you bring into our midst. Show us where we set up barriers that keep us and others from hearing and embracing your word. Help us to be a community whose love for you overflows into love for others and distinguishes us as a people of your kingdom. Keep us, comfort us, give us your peace, and teach us to be a people that walks in the obedience of faith. We are grateful that you have sent your Son to redeem us and your Spirit to restore us. Grant us patience with one another. Keep us from bickering and choosing sides. Help us to be of the same mind. May we fix our eyes on Christ and throw off all that might hinder us from living faithfully without reserve or regret. Amen.
JAMES SPENCER, PHD is President the D.L. Moody Center, an independent non-profit organization based in Northfield, MA, and author of Useful to God: Eight Lessons from the Life of D. L. Moody and Thinking Christian: Essays on Testimony, Accountability, and the Christian Mind
Photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez