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by Robert M. Smith

Chapter 9 - The Positional Game


Chapter 9 - The Positional Game

by Robert M. Smith

Not long ago, certainly within the last couple of decades, North American evangelicalism had a most biblically repulsive way of dealing with various problems. If there was a need for more evangelism in our local area, throw money at it; if there was a need for more people reaching out in practical ways to the poor and disenfranchised among us, throw money at it; if revival was required among God’s people in order to obtain Christ-like maturity within the body, throw money at it; no matter what the issue there was one major way of addressing it … respond like the upper middle-class snobs we are, from our Americanized Christian penthouses, by shamelessly applying the only thing that means anything to us: money! Seriously, we did not know any better because we grew up under the ever watchful eye of this idol. Our parents were in love with it and they passed it on to us, so that we, in turn, might indoctrinate our children and theirs after them.

There was a slight hue and cry against materialism in the 1970’s and the 1980’s as Christians were compelled to think more about the end of the world. With “1984” approaching and the Hal Lindsey books doing so well, there was a modest stirring of souls to get ready for Christ’s return. It’s funny how much fussing and cleaning is done around the house when we think that company is coming! Thus, for a while there was a slight interruption – perhaps nothing more than a sabbatical retreat really – for the god known as money. A little down-time to recuperate possibly … for once the danger of the real God’s return had passed, with the demise of the Lindsean/Orwellian theories and the dispelling of Y2K fears, money-love is back on track, reaching even deeper into North American evangelicalism than ever before. But although we still listen and respond to this idol frequently, Christians had concocted another idol during money’s temporary “brush-off”. This new idol was designed to simulate true spirituality and “hold the fort”, shall we say, until things got back to normal in idol-land. It has the appearance of godliness but there is no power extant. It is a perfect substitute to true Christianity for it incorporates much of what is good about Christianity while basically denying one thing only. The trouble of course is that that “one thing” is absolutely crucial … but, of course, that is what an idol is all about: it is meant to appear so much like that which is true – to be so close to the original – without being true. That new idol is intellectualism … often deemed Christian intellectualism. This is an issue we discussed in a previous chapter but we shall haul it out again because of its impact on the issue in this chapter.

So now, instead of just throwing money at problems and issues, we can also throw information at them. If I, as a believer, am struggling with obedience, discipleship, loving the Lord as I ought [Rev 2:4], worshipping in spirit and truth, or any other of a myriad of deep spiritual issues, the solution is as easy as tossing mega-doses of information at them. I don’t need to do battle with spiritual forces while relying upon the Lord, I just need to be more enlightened mentally. Why would I go through all the trouble of knowing the Lord when it is so much easier – and softer on the conscience, I might add – to know about Him? In our complacency we have settled for academia. C. S. Lewis saw this as a most hideous place for the Christian. In his book The Weight of Glory he indicates how unchristian it really is: “As the author of the Theologia Germanica says, we may come to love knowledge – our knowing – more than the thing known: to delight not in the exercise of our talents but in the fact that they are ours, or even in the reputation they bring us. Every success in the scholar’s life increases this danger. If it becomes irresistible, he must give up his scholarly work. The time for plucking out the right eye has arrived.”[1] This sad perspective is now dominating North American evangelicalism and we are going to be taking a long, hard look at how we got into this game, and perhaps how to get out of it.

Have you ever noticed how much of life and how much human effort is focused upon the job, the social status, the lifestyle, the fame and the influence of men and women at the top of the economical/corporate/social food chain? The man or woman at the top is the most important of all human beings, correct? “VIP” is an anachronism that we have coined in our era to define the gap between these people and those of us on the lower rungs of the social ladder. Achieving a certain level of notoriety among “VIPs” is often done through special knowledge, advantageous personal characteristics or through precise “contacts” and “connections” at times, while financial prowess, regardless of how it was obtained, can be utilized at other times. We must also note that the people at the secular top are often specific kinds of men with specific kinds of vocations. Scientists, psychologists, lawyers and politicians are sought diligently by media for “professional” opinions both in and out of their fields of expertise. What’s more is the fact that the elevated public acclaim which comes from medial exposure is, perhaps, attributable to the mystery surrounding some of these positions in society. Not comprehending many of the intricacies inherent to those jobs, the public can continue to be held in awe and their elite status can be maintained.

The church, in its early years, had frowned upon such inequity and has, in these last days, from time to time, suppressed some of the reverence attributed to scientists, lawyers and doctors through its various stands on specific issues like evolution, human rights, abortion and corporate corruption. But it’s funny how, after doing battle for right and just causes, accommodation, compromise and diplomatic coalitions seem to creep into our camp. There exists a constant yearning within the modern, North American church to find peace in this world with all its adversaries; that somehow the daily spiritual warfare is counterproductive to the spread of the new gospel; that, perhaps, the combatants are not that far apart in their true, foundational perspectives; that resurrecting the old adage of “peace, love and understanding” – the rallying cry of hippies who have now become leaders in many churches – is more important than truth, righteousness and the will of God. Where there once was distinction between the counter-cultural church and the all-encompassing social mores of the public at large, there is now a tentative truce amidst all of its flowery talk and cotton candy expectations. Few stands are being taken upon Biblical ground because the church of the twenty-first century can seldom be found there. It is more apt to follow the pattern of this world than to contradict it; more attuned to the business practices of major secular corporations than to the spiritual advice of Spirit-led authors of antiquity; looking more like corporate headquarters and the local shopping mall than church buildings; as inundated with backroom politics and financial shenanigans as any other secular syndicate.

We now have within the church, contrary to the teachings of the Scriptures, the clarion call for Christians to become elitist, intellectual and “power brokers” in one form or another. The general consensus is that those in ecclesiastical leadership roles are to be separated from the rabble by the greatest of all mortal divisions: education. Indeed “Education,” writes Muggeridge, “the great mumbo-jumbo and fraud of the age, purports to equip us to live, and is prescribed as a universal remedy for everything, from juvenile delinquency to premature senility. For the most part, it only serves to enlarge stupidity, inflate conceit, enhance credulity and put those subjected to it, at the mercy of brain-washers with printing presses, radio and television at their disposal. I have seen pictures of huge, ungainly, prehistoric monsters who developed such a weight of protective shell that they sank under its burden and became extinct. Our civilization likewise is sinking under the burden of its own wealth, and the necessity to consume it; of its own happiness, and the necessity to provide and sustain the fantasies which embody it; of its own security, and the ever more fabulously destructive nuclear devices considered essential to it. Thus burdened, it, too, may well soon become extinct. As this fact sinks into the collective consciousness, the resort to drugs, dreams, fantasies and other escapist devices, particularly sex, becomes ever more marked.”[2] Education, thus explored and esteemed beyond its desert, has slithered its way into the sanctuary to supplant what is really needed in our churches. As a substitute for holiness, true spirituality and discipleship, academia has been foisted upon the modern evangelical church in ways that insure the continued elevation of a neoteric ecclesiastical aristocracy. To honour and respect those in authority (1 Tim 5:17) is one thing … to isolate, to enshrine and to idolize is quite another! And in our day, in our churches, we are certainly adhering to the latter.

The laity within North American evangelicalism is commonly pictured as spiritually mediocre and theologically-challenged. To some extent that is not entirely an erroneous assumption but it is indeed poor rationale for the establishment of a religious hierarchy amongst us. At the present time there are “seminaries” punching out clone after religious clone whose sole priority is to advance the idea that spiritual awareness is directly proportional to intelligence, to a wealth of knowledge and to seminarian tutelage. Intellectualism is enshrined within Christian ranks now … and, like the Pharisees of the past [Christian intellectualism is the new Phariseism, with all the earmarks of such: precepts of men, earthly wisdom, exclusive authority, the only ones who see God, the desire for notoriety, the approval of men, self exaltation, pride, seeking to communicate above and beyond the people rather than being understood, making belief a mental exercise rather than a spiritual one], it was intended to serve a specific purpose but has risen to the point of domination rather than service.

The graphic structure of the church is presently pyramidal when it should actually be, in accordance with Eph 4:11-16, the inverse. The many are not intended to be the support of the few in the sense that they must fall all over themselves to exalt any form of superiority found in leadership. To the contrary, rather, the few in leadership are to edify the many. Scratching and clawing to the top of the heap, through financial clout, political maneuverings or educational screening is anything but Christian! Seeking and vying for the knowledge that divides and separates fosters an air of incompatibility and haughtiness – the complete antithesis of counting others better than ourselves (Phil 2:3). Though presently found in direct opposition to the fellowship of the saints, those in authority must not consider themselves as being above learning from those of lower standing within the church. Some of the greatest lessons of history have been taught by those who had no claim to an office of any kind: take your Bible and look through the list of authors and scribes … there are not many kings and dignitaries but there certainly are many people “of the soil” who penned under the God-breathed guidance of the Holy Spirit. The very Bible that we study and supposedly esteem as the authoritative Word of God would have gone unheeded and would have gone unwritten if our modern day elitism were prevalent in the testamental eras. The cessation of this improper polarization within the church is an absolute must for we have come to a magnificent error of perspective: that true discipular spirituality is only available and evident in the highly educated, in the very rich, in the very famous, in the very successful or in the very important people of our Christian communities. This is a 2,000 year old mindset that we haven’t dismissed even though we have appropriate lessons within the Word of God to teach us to do so (Matt 19:23-25; Mk 10:24-26; Lk 18:24-26; Jas 2:1-7). The positional game continues unabated today.

In a para-church context we should be made aware of an increase in religious scholars and theologians in our era as well. There is increasing pressure – both peer pressure and worldly pressure – to develop more and more philosophical outlooks with a subsequent shying away from biblical practicality. Contrary to the epistles of the New Testament we have consistently been moving away from the universality and modesty of faith in response to the technical demands of our time. The faith of common people has been deprecated by a spiritual paradigm shift from the state of simplicity and orthodoxy to a new and elaborate complexity. Men like Tyndale and Wycliffe were dedicated to the cause of making the Word of God applicable and available to all men. The new elite, however, appear to be devoted to a dichotomy that undoes what these spiritual pioneers had accomplished.

The basic reasons for this excessive “build up” are fairly simple but seldom addressed: a tickling of one’s mind … an elevation of one’s own image … a stroking of the ego … a bottling of the soul. Such things make this game stylish today. Such things demand that all lessons on life and faith come from the “top”; no doubt a subliminal reinstatement of a hierarchy to rival that of the church of Rome. Such things presuppose that ordinary men cannot be led by God and that if, perchance, that were to happen, they’d certainly have nothing to truly offer the men at the top. The death of fellowship and the subsequent death of “the body” is the only fruit produced by this form of spiritual segregation.

In contradistinction to our North American concepts of spiritual primacy, Jesus’ earthly life stands out and stands firm. He had the mind of a servant, counting others more important than Himself (Phil 2:1-8). And we are called to have that sort of mind; in fact a true Christian does have it we are told (1 Cor 2:16). One of the major pitfalls in possessing and implementing and seeing this in our lives, however, is our reluctance to surrender our lives and our selves to Christ. The culture around us is a very self-centered culture and we – contrary to our bravado about not being “of this world” – all too often succumb to the same attitude. The result has been that there are more Christian churches and more Christian leaders, in our day, promoting spiritual pride, self-esteem, prosperity and every other kind of narcissism in direct contravention to the very heart of Christ. Allowing for none of this new gospel, Oswald Chambers pulls no punches when he reveals the true nature of such biblically-contrary teachings: “If either my goodness or my badness is based on the disposition of self-realisation, I am anti-Christ.”[3] Further to this he adds, “The characteristics of individuality are independence and self-assertiveness. There is nothing dearer to the heart of the natural man than independence, and as long as I live in the outskirts of my prideful independence Jesus Christ is nothing to me.”[4] Therefore, unless our position within the church and our advanced status as a learned believer is primarily used for “the body”, in the role of a servant, it should be placed under the scrutiny of the Word of God for correction.

Jesus had the ministry of a servant. His mindset led to an active participation in the lives of other people (Mk 10:42-45). Note the warning He gives in Mk 10:42-43: “But Jesus called them to Himself and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant.” And then He caps His comments by likening His disciples to Himself: “And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” As He is, so they must be … and, so too, we must be.

Everything Jesus said while He walked this earth was said under the direction of God the Father (Jn 7:16-18; Jn 12:49-50; Jn 14:10). Everything Jesus did while He walked this earth was done under the direction of God the Father (Jn 5:19 & 30; Jn 8:28-29). Jesus deflected all the glory in His life to God the Father (Jn 12:27-28; Jn 13:31-32; Jn 17:1-5) and that is to be our lot as well (Matt 5:16). When our ministry remains our ministry instead of God’s, because our own academic standing has gotten in the way, our ministry is no longer the ministry of a servant [of God].

Neither persuasive and clever speech [“A clever exposition is never right because the Spirit of God is not clever. Beware of cleverness, it is the great cause of hypocrisy in a preacher.”[5] - Chambers] … nor the luster and refinement of the finest schools of thought [“The Welsh called it the hwyl when a preacher lost himself in his sermon and was carried to lofty heights by the Spirit. Today we have become dignified and precise until it would be unthinkable for a minister to so forget himself under the sway of divine power. The result is smooth and polished discourses that please fastidious churchgoers but bear no resemblance to that liberty that sets a preacher free. There is only one way to pulpit freedom. The preacher who is concerned with gaining a reputation, rising in his profession, is always in bondage. Every great opportunity finds him tense and nervous for fear that he will not ‘put it over.’ He measures success by audience response, the compliments of his hearers, his rating among his contemporaries.

There is only one way to turn sermons from weights to wings. When the man in the pulpit rises to that lofty realm where he is fired with a sense of mission, when he has a burning in his bones, a word from God to give to men regardless of how they receive it, then he is set free from his shackles.”[6] - Havner] … could ever replace the inimitable power of God in the servant who is given over totally to the Father’s will. Our Lord Jesus Christ is the supreme example of this: as a Galilean He had no “polish”; as a carpenter He had no academic rank (Jn 7:15). But there He was, doing all to the glory of God in Heaven. On the other hand, the Christian intellectualism of our time has turned into the personification of the “grasp” that Jesus declined (Phil 2:6).

Jesus had the methods of a servant. In Jn 13:1-17 Jesus had shown what His ministry was all about through the purposeful action of washing the feet of His disciples. Again, He called upon them [and us] to do likewise. His methodology was not of a supercilious, unearthly nature but rather of the most modest of earthly positions. He practiced this principle so much that the religious authorities of that time heaped condemnation upon Him for stooping so low: “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ But wisdom is justified by her “children.” (Mt 11:18-19). The Pharisees could not possibly win with these accusations; they only served as evidence of their own ignorance. Ironically they did not realize that they were only authenticating and underscoring Jesus Christ’s mission with comments like that. The Pharisaical method was that of barring contact with the lowly and by this approach they were out of touch with daily living. They could not recognize the presence of God in the seemingly mundane existence of the commoner and, therefore, became leaders who were set apart from the people rather than set apart for the people.

The great fear among all human beings is that of losing control of any given situation. We establish lines of command and administration virtually automatically. And although God is indeed a God of “order” (1 Cor 14:40) the Christian – especially the Christian leader – must realize that the order He speaks of is His own and not ours. Our rules and our demands have no place in His sanctuary. No political game and no financial “takeover” strategy within the church [there is no “wiggle room” here … “own up to it”! These do indeed take place, and frequently!] can be anything but contemptuous in His sight. To all the leaders within the true church everywhere: This is not our “body” and we are not the “head” of it! When we finally get that straight in our minds and hearts we will then, for the very first time, appreciate Muggeridge’s terse rebuttal to us all: “Let us then as Christians rejoice that we see around us on every hand the decay of the institutions and instruments of power, see intimations of empires falling to pieces, money in total disarray, dictators and parliamentarians alike nonplussed by the confusion and conflicts which encompass them. For it is precisely when every earthly hope has been explored and found wanting, when every possibility of help from earthly sources has been sought and is not forthcoming, when every recourse this world offers, moral as well as material, has been explored to no effect, when in the shivering cold the last faggot has been thrown on the fire and in the gathering darkness every glimmer of light has finally flickered out, it’s then that Christ’s hand reaches out sure and firm. Then Christ’s words bring their inexpressible comfort, then His light shines brightest, abolishing the darkness forever. So, finding in everything only deception and nothingness, the soul is constrained to have recourse to God Himself and to rest content with Him.”[7]

Negativity prevails today when elitism dominates any fellowship of believers. Our system of ostracizing, compartmentalizing and categorizing individuals by position [or a lack thereof] follows the pattern set by the Pharisees and the world, not that which was set by our Lord Jesus Christ. Today we need all spiritual gifts – all leadership roles – to function under supernatural guidance, not under or because of super scholastics or super reputations. A simple look at the factors that were significant to the leaders of the New Testament era (Paul, Peter, Timothy, Stephen, Silas, Barnabas, Titus) will show this to be true:

“For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence. But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God—and righteousness and sanctification and redemption—that, as it is written, “He who glories, let him glory in the Lord.” And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” (1 Cor 1:26-2:5 NKJV)

[1] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.., New York, 2001, Page 57

[2] Malcolm Muggeridge, Jesus Rediscovered, William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., Glasgow, 1969, Page 53

[3] Oswald Chambers, The Complete Works of Oswald Chambers, Discovery House Publishers, Grand Rapids, 2000, Page 117

[4] Oswald Chambers, The Complete Works of Oswald Chambers, Discovery House Publishers, Grand Rapids, 2000, Page 96

[5] Oswald Chambers, The Complete Works of Oswald Chambers, Discovery House Publishers, Grand Rapids, 2000, Page 398

[6] Vance Havner, Three-score & ten, Fleming H Revell Co., New Jersey, 1973, Page 112

[7] Malcolm Muggeridge, The end of Christendom, W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, 1980, Page 56

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