We don’t have the option to withdraw into self-congratulatory faithfulness
Jesus didn’t call us to produce results. He called us to be faithful.
Have you heard that adage before in a sermon? Read it in a devotional book? Had it quoted to you by a well-meaning friend?
It’s everywhere. And it’s importantly wrong.
I grew up hearing this reassurance in our small, dedicated denomination. It was indeed comforting. But when I was a teen I recall my uncle – a pastor, missionary and professor in the same movement – blowing it sky high.
He observed that New Testament churches grew as they obeyed Jesus’ Great Commission, and concluded straightforwardly that faithful churches normally grow. Therefore, if we weren’t growing, we weren’t being as faithful as we thought we were.
Yes, having served in some spiritually grim parts of the world, he knew sometimes the best Christians can do is simply hang on. But in most places in North America? What excuse could a church have for not producing results?
The Bible is replete with commands God expects us to obey and that require results, not just sincere effort.
The very first command God gives human beings in the Garden of Eden is to be productive. Literally, to be reproductive – "Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth" (Genesis 1:28).
Why did God want humanity to engage in such a project? So we could "subdue" and "rule" the world’s beautiful wildness and cultivate it, "till it," into a global garden (Genesis 2:5, 15).
God calls Israel to be holy toward a particular outcome – so the nations would stream to its light and receive salvation. When Israel fails to inspire the nations to seek out the Lord, God chastises them – not just for being wicked, but for failing in their constitutive task.
Jesus gives us the Great Commission, and please note it is not just a call to be good witnesses, an assignment which we could accomplish without anyone who heard us actually changing their mind. The Great Commission is a call precisely to change minds, literally to "make disciples" of people all over the world (Matthew 28:19–20).
John’s Gospel records Jesus warning His disciples that He is the Vine, they are the branches, and God the Father prunes the branches so they will be – faithful? No. Fruitful (John 15:1–8). Branches that do not bear fruit are by definition unfaithful and are cast away.
The soothing voices I heard growing up, telling my small evangelical community all was well since we were so faithful, are still heard nowadays. I think I hear them in the United Church and other liberal-leaning denominations, blessing their members for their stout faithfulness to what they believe is their prophetic witness, even as maintaining those convictions seems to have cost them so much in the way of winning new members or even retaining old ones.
South of the border we hear voices weary of Christian entanglement in worldly politics telling Christians to take "the Benedict Option," to leave off trying to exert cultural influence and settle for "faithful presence." You can’t help but be sympathetic to fellow believers horrified by the easy alliance of certain American Christians with certain leaders and causes contrary to Christian teaching. Yet the right response isn’t withdrawal into the splendid isolation of self-congratulatory faithfulness.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in fact, was fierce about resisting such a temptation. He scorned his fellow Christians for establishing lists of virtues and then, pharisaically, ticking off boxes to pronounce themselves holy while Nazism flourished and Jews perished. "The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation is to live."
Loving God, your neighbour and the world means doing all we can to make all the difference we can for their benefit, not in preserving our own sanctity in anticipation of a divine pat on the head.
We must beware the dangers of statistics, charts and awards. We must swat away superficial understandings of success and instead establish good biblical standards and strive to meet them.
How else can we hope to stand before God one day? Merely to say, as one poor sap said to his master, "Here is what you gave me, entire and whole, with nothing missing" (Matthew 25:14–30)?
We all (should) know how that turned out.
John Stackhouse teaches at Crandall University in Moncton, N.B. Read more of his columns at www.FaithToday.ca/ChristAndCulture. This one is adapted from his new book Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World (Oxford, 2017)