Why go to worship on Sunday? Obedience is a good reason. The fact that going might just encourage your soul is a solid reason. But when you are struggling, and when those reasons are not moving you forward, perhaps remembering that you are needed will help. When a believer is absent, the local church is the less for that absence. We are a body, and we need all our members together for our mutual good.
Why should I go to church when I just don’t feel like it? Aren’t I just being a hypocrite? Why go if I feel like I won’t get anything out of it this week?
As a pastor, I find myself regularly helping people work through reasons why they should not give up gathering together with other believers (cf. Heb. 10:24-25). Quite often, my words of encouragement go down two paths. On the one hand, I remind believers that gathering for worship is fitting in keeping with the commands of God. Obedience calls you to discipline yourself to gather and worship. On the other hand, I will try to encourage believers that, even when they do not expect to personally gain from the service, they may be surprised. God often breaks through our stony hearts and enlivens our souls when we gather together with his people under his word for his glory. God has designed our worship in the church, not only to honor him—which is primary—but also to feed flagging souls and nourish hungry hearts.
Today, I want to ponder yet a third reason to gather that I do not often point to, but which is of great importance. It popped up in my daily Bible reading.
1 Corinthians 12:21-26
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.
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By Dan McLaughlin — 1 year ago
The conventional wisdom holds that spending your twenties focusing on education, work and fun, and then marrying around 30 is the best path to maximize your odds of forging a strong and stable family life. But the research tells a different story, at least for religious couples. Saving cohabitation for marriage, and endowing your relationship with sacred significance, seems to maximize your odds of being stably and happily married.
The traditional model of marriage — not always honored in practice, but as the societal ideal — was to marry young without living together first, and with the aim of a lifetime commitment. The supposedly sophisticated critique of this model has argued that young people should do other things besides form families, that one should try on multiple relationships first, that 21-25-year-olds aren’t mature enough for lifetime commitments, and that living together first is a good test run of whether the relationship will endure. As sociology professor and National Marriage Project director W. Bradford Wilcox explains, however, his latest empirical study along with demographer Lyman Stone supports the traditional view, not that of its critics — at least among religious Americans, who may start off with the advantage of taking marriage more seriously in the first place:
Our analyses indicate that religious men and women who married in their twenties without cohabiting first…have the lowest odds of divorce in America today. We suspect one advantage that religious singles in their twenties have over their secular peers is that they are more likely to have access to a pool of men and women who are ready to tie the knot and share their vision of a family-focused life. Today, young singles like this are often difficult to find in the population at large…Shared faith is linked to more sexual fidelity, greater commitment and higher relationship quality. One Harvard study found that women who regularly attended church were about 40% less likely to divorce. The family-friendly norms and networks found in America’s churches, mosques and synagogues make religion one of the few pillars of strong and stable marriages in America today.
By T.M. Suffield — 5 months ago
Written by T.M. Suffield |
Tuesday, May 9, 2023
We need difference—the difference between the Church and world is what we usually call holiness—and then we need to behave like Christians and radically welcome people within the bounds of our homes and churches, without having to knock down all the walls, expecting that the encounters around the table will change all of us.
Sounds paradoxical, doesn’t it? We think we know that to welcome is the very opposite of having a wall up. We’re wrong.
Ivan Illich taught that the welcome of hospitality requires a threshold. By definition, we need to move over a threshold in order to be welcomed. If there is no threshold to move over, I can’t welcome you.
To put it another way, if someone isn’t in some sense an outsider, I can’t welcome them into my space. Why not? Because if they’re already an insider there’s nothing to welcome them into.
We live in cultures that don’t like this from two angles. Either, we loath the idea of walls—groups that are not accessible to everyone without a process of entry—from the angle of inequality, imagining that the only way to get true equity is to tear down the walls.
Or, we are so radically individualistic that we’re instinctively allergic to the idea of welcoming someone into something private enough to have walls. From this angle we either bridle at the idea of walls because we can only imagine welcoming people in the broad public square, or because we cannot imagine welcoming someone into our lives.
I don’t think either of these thrusts is at the surface, these operate at the level of the stories that we live by, the ‘Social Imaginary’ that describes the space we live in, but that’s why the phrase “welcome requires walls” sounds paradoxical to us.
I think this is an important concept for Christians to get hold of if we think, as I do, that hospitality is the solution to many of our societal problems. If hospitality should define both the church and the ‘city,’ and is a broad principle that flows to us from the Cross and is encountered at the Lord’s Supper, then we need to understand that tearing down the walls doesn’t help us.
To take the most literal example, if you come into my home then I’m going to do my best to make you welcome. We will eat together and I will endeavour to treat you like you belong. Nevertheless, it isn’t your home, because if it was then I wouldn’t need to welcome you. You must cross the threshold into my world.
My world comes with my rules, even if we’re talking about as mundane things as which items you can stack in the dishwasher after we’ve eaten, or where the teaspoons live. If I’m a good host then I may well try to make you welcome by shifting some of my rules in your direction: perhaps I won’t serve something that I’ve discovered you don’t like to avoid making the threshold too difficult to cross.
You are still crossing into my world. This is always the case when we eat with someone, we enter their world. That’s as it’s meant to be—not least because we learn how to behave at a table by the grand hospitality of God in the Lord’s Supper. We enter his world as we come to eat, which has his rules. We’re invited, we’re welcome, our transgressions are forgiven, but we don’t pretend for one minute that this is our table.
By Aaron Hann — 7 months ago
I make no apology for being an advocate against spiritual abuse. So when James writes that “This dynamic [of pathologizing discomfort] is evident throughout the broader Christian subcultures that have embraced a more activist approach to church abuse,” I can only conclude that he is not reading the right advocates.
Samuel D. James has given some additional thoughts on “church abuse activism” generated by books like When Narcissism Comes to Church by Chuck DeGroat. I published a response to James’ prior critique of DeGroat last November, and feel the need to do so again, but with some hesitation. I hesitate, because I believe there are different strands of “abuse activism”, and what I want to defend is probably different than what James wants to critique. His examples come from the milieu of social media. My experience in advocating for abuse survivors comes from flesh and blood experience of witnessing church abuse. If we are careful in distinguishing our dialogue partners, I suspect (or hope, at least) that James and I would have substantial agreement. The danger is in addressing different enemies while arguing as if they are the same. So, caveat lector; or, caveat apologiste: let the apologist beware.
What pushes me past this hesitation is that influential evangelical leaders seem to really like what James has to say about spiritual abuse. Justin Taylor retweeted (twice) James’ initial review and Dane Ortlund praised this second piece.
So, a pastor who as been accused of abusing spiritual authority commends an article on spiritual abuse. Hmmm. That gives me pause. Well, not pause, because I’m taking action by writing. But it’s certainly a red flag for me. Now onto the material itself.
I don’t find a whole lot new in James article. Indeed, it’s strange to me that he hasn’t actually addressed the “pointed pushback” he reports:
“My review of When Narcissism Comes to Church generated some of the more pointed pushback I’ve ever received from those I would consider generally in my theological/political tribe.”
James conveniently passes over the majority of Mike Cosper’s 3,000+ word constructive criticism. For those who like what James has to say, I can only hope that you do the hard work of studying his critics even if he doesn’t. I don’t mean any offense by that. It’s just that Substack is a medium for richer dialogue that social media doesn’t allow, yet James spends more time critiquing social media tweets than he does engaging 3,000+ word responses (including my 3,000+ word response, but that I understand, I don’t realistically expect James to read my writing because I don’t have any kind of online platform). Given the greater potential of long-form writing vs social media, I would welcome some true back-and-forth dialogue with James in a spirit of genuine Christian catholicity.
Given that he presents similar ideas in this second piece, I will be re-using some of my previous responses. Here is how James restates the main point of his first review:
“The decision that DeGroat made to emphasize psycho-therapeutic categories and marginalize concepts like sin and repentance is consistent with the framework he establishes, wherein the definition of a narcissistic, abusive person is highly contextual and depends mostly on how the people around that person feel about him.”
I commend James for softening his critique here. Where he initially said DeGroat “abandoned” theological language of sin (2x in that review), now he says DeGroat “emphasized psychology” and “marginalized Biblical concepts”. Still, emphasizing one domain of discourse does not logically require marginalizing another, and as I pointed out before, DeGroat is quite comfortable and adept at using biblical language and concepts. This means DeGroat does not believe there is an inherent incompatibility between psychology and Scripture. I believe James is reading DeGroat with a presupposition that DeGroat does not share, and charitable reading requires acknowledging those differences.
More to the point, here is how I restated James’ main points from his initial review:
First thesis: Biblical categories are superior to psychological categories, and psychological categories are harmful/heretical.
Second Thesis: Biblical categories allow us to come to true and accurate judgments, whereas experiences and feelings do not.
The rest of James’ article after that quote about emphasis and marginalizing, which was initially behind a paywall, is all about how “we’re seeing a pathologizing of personal discomfort”. But James focuses his attention at “online therapy culture”, whereas my concern is the local church. I am going to skirt that online discussion entirely, except to say that any analysis of cultural influence between social media and church is going to be complex and multifaceted. So, I am wary of any reductionistic assumptions that because “pathologizing of personal discomfort” is happening online, it’s obviously happening in churches.1
This is where I think we are talking about different cultural forces. And I am concerned that pastors will take James’ critique of online spiritual abuse discourse and apply that to their local church in defense of truly abusive behavior. To that I say, anathema.
Theology vs Psychology?
Back to the first thesis. Are Biblical categories really superior to psychological ones? I believe James’ approach suffers from an overworked antithesis principle similar to movements generated by Cornelius Van Til, Jay Adams, and the nouthetic counseling / ACBC movement. That is a big debate, and in a short response I can’t do much better than quote from Eric Johnson:
“In transposition, in order to understand the lower order [e.g. biological, psychological] properly and more comprehensively, the knower interprets the dynamic structures of lower orders from within a higher order of meaning…This process is a hierarchical transposition, by which the meaningfulness of the lower order is redesignated, so that the higher order gives the lower-order information a new depth and significance.”2
This comprehensive perspective, or what Johnson terms “complex theocentrism,” contrasts “simple theocentrism” and “religious dualism.”
“Religious dualists focus on the highest order of human life—the spiritual—and see it as so much more important than the other orders of the creation that the latter are neglected or seen as unworthy of serious attention, or, in the most extreme versions, are interpreted as being antithetical to the spiritual realm…Christian models of counseling that focus exclusively on God and sin and downplay reference to biological and psychosocial influences may have fallen under a gnostic spell.”3
Johnson calls for “a more profoundly theocentric approach” than dualism:
“Upon greater reflection and in light of Scripture, all the created aspects of human life are recognized as important because they are made by God. Therefore, for God’s glory every aspect must be “given its due,” corresponding to its particular significance in relation to God…Contrary to religious dualism, a more thoroughgoing theocentrism understands that God is honored by an appropriate regard for all that he has done and made, including those created strata of lesser significance.”4
1 This really isn’t my concern, but it’s also worth noting that James (and many other objectors) missed David Dark’s actual wording, which pointed to Keller’s statement as a reflection of “the language of spiritual abuse.” He did not say, “this is spiritual abuse.” As such, the statement merits dialogue, not dismissal as “gross overreaction”.
David Dark’s Inner Psychic Revolution @DavidDark
This is the language of spiritual abuse.
“Nothing more important for a Christian to do than to read right through the whole Bible over and over and over, at the very least once a year. You have to keep checking and refining your beliefs by immersion in the Scripture.”
2Eric L Johnson. Foundations for Soul Care: A Christian Psychology Proposal. IVP Academic, 2007, p. 366, emphasis original.
3Ibid., p. 357.
4Ibid., p. 359.