Renewed Appreciation for an Unchanging Story
by Elizabeth Achtemeier
Elizabeth Achtemeier is adjunct professor of Bible and homiletics at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. This article is one in a series from the Christian Century magazine: "How My Mind Has Changed." Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
My mind has not changed a great deal, because the biblical story has not changed. The account is still there, from countless witnesses, of God's thrusts into history. God created his world to be "very good," but we corrupted his creation by attempting to be our own gods and goddesses and by trying to shape our own futures apart from him. We thereby brought distortion and ruin into the world of nature, family, work and community, bringing upon ourselves God's absence and curse, and the sentence of eternal death.
But God would not give up on us. He called Abraham and Sarah out of Mesopotamia to be the forebears of a new community that would live under his guiding lordship in justice, righteousness and obedience. Then through all of the vicissitudes of actual life in the ancient Near East, God made himself a people from those forebears -- delivering them from slavery in Egypt, protecting them against their enemies, leading them through the terrors of the wilderness, entering into covenant with them, giving them his guiding presence in the covenant law, bringing them into a land flowing with milk and honey, giving them a Davidic king to be their protector of justice in peace and in war, and finally taking up his own dwelling in their temple on the Mount of Zion.
When that people nevertheless rebelled against God's rule, he constantly wept and worried over them, repeatedly forgiving their waywardness and sending them prophets to speak his words of judgment and mercy. Then to erase their sin he sent them into exile, but he nevertheless promised them "a future and a hope," forgiveness and blessing in a new land, with a new covenant written on their hearts, under a new Davidic king ruling over an obedient, faithful and righteous community of all peoples.
Finally, in the fullness of time, God kept his promise to Israel, sending his Son to be the cornerstone, covenant and Davidic leader of that new, forgiven, universal community. Through the death and resurrection of that Son, God wiped out our sinful past, joined us to himself in an everlasting and unbreakable covenant, gave us instructions about how to live until his Son comes again to set up his rule over all the earth, and promised, to all who trust his ways and work, eternal life and joy in his kingdom which will have no end.
That biblical story is the bedrock of my faith and the faith of my church, and always I, with my church, am called to hear that history and respond to it, pass it on and live by its promise. Yet, events in our changing and torturous times constantly illumine new portions of the story and call for new responses to it, just as they also call for new reflection and understanding. In the past 20 years, new emphases from the biblical history have impressed themselves upon me in response first of all to the fruits of the '60s.
In June of 1989 the Philadelphia Inquirer printed portions of an interview with Timothy Leary, "the world's most famous acid head." "It's true," Leary was quoted as saying, "that in the '60s we were young, romantic, naïve and sometimes obnoxious. But we were right. I regret nothing." The truth is, we have a lot to regret, and indeed, a lot of which to repent. In the '60s our society decided that drugs were acceptable, that sex was free and that authorities were useless. "The old taboos are dead or dying," exulted Newsweek in 1967. "The people are breaking the bonds of puritan society and helping America to grow up." We are now paying the price of that blind and irresponsible folly -- in a drug war that we are not winning, in burgeoning crime that has made city neighborhoods uninhabitable, in teenage pregnancies and "children having children," in rampant abortions, swelling welfare roles, sexually transmitted diseases, self-indulgent neglect of community good, and countless ruined lives. We chose our own way and as with the primal choice in the garden of Eden, we brought on ourselves the way of death.
In the light of that, I therefore have come to a new appreciation of the place of law and commandment in the gospel, in both Old and New Testaments. Obedience to the divine law does not form the basis of our relationship with God, but is rather the outcome of it. God redeems us by the cross and resurrection before we have done any deed and while we are yet sinners. But having made us his own, God does not abandon us to wander in the dark. Instead, he gives us commandments as guides in this new life he has given us. "This is the way," he says to us, "Walk in it."
God's guidance in the new life is pure grace, given out of his love for us. Heaven knows our society is unable to instruct us about how to live the Christian life; society is still lost in the willfulness of its own sinful ways and knows nothing of God's way. Apart from God's continuing guidance, we do not know how to live. But God, in his incredible mercy, wants it "to go well with us," as Deuteronomy puts it. God wants us to have abundant life. God wants us to have joy. And so in love he gives us directions to point the way to wholeness, life and joy.
Sometimes, of course, we do not like the directions. For example, God says, "You shall not commit adultery," while almost every program on TV assures us that it is the only way to go. But seeing the consequences in our society -- two out of every three marriages now end in divorce -- I am overwhelmed daily by the love of God manifested in his commandment. Truly he is a God who wants us to have the unsurpassed joy that comes from a lifelong, faithful marital commitment. Experiencing that joy and the blessing that results from obedience to other commandments as well, I have come to a new appreciation of the wisdom and mercy embodied in the divine instructions given us in the Scriptures.
Similarly, I think I have come to a new understanding of the place of sanctification in the Christian life, perhaps mainly because the doctrine of sanctification has fallen into disuse in so many churches in our culture. Who in our society want to be good anymore? Persons strive to be self-fulfilled, integrated, successful, even rich, beautiful and thin, but rarely does one find a person who wants to be good as the Bible defines it. Who speaks of "a man or woman of God," or of a Christlike person? Yet the New Testament tells us that that is God's goal for us, and that he is changing his faithful people into the image of Christ "from one degree of glory to another."
I have encountered persons undergoing that process of sanctification in my travels throughout the church, and they are in fact lights in the darkness of our world, savory salt and leaven in the loaf -- persons who have become so saturated with the will of God that one could entrust anything to them. I cannot but think that they are the forerunners of what the church as a whole is supposed to be -- a beachhead on the shores of this present wilderness, a little colony of heaven, set into the jungle that is our world to claim its territory for God's rule over it.
Such persons of God inspire me to follow after them, but they also impress upon me that the way of Christ is a discipline -- of prayer, of regular worship and study of the Scriptures, of constant willing after obedience to God. Self-fulfillment and individual freedom are claimed as inalienable rights in our society, but persons undergoing sanctification know that holiness comes from having a master. Israel lost her life when she refused to wear a yoke, Jeremiah says. Similarly, our Lord taught us that life comes from bearing a cross that does away with self, and the sanctified life results from accepting Christ's blessed yoke. "Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me," is Christ's instruction, for that yoke is easy and that burden is light and that discipline leads to rest for our souls.
Indeed, I have come to understand more and more that it is only by wearing the yoke of Christ and following his guiding reins that we have that perfect freedom for which so many long in our society. Our difficulty in America these days is that we want freedom without discipline, rights without responsibilities, self-fulfillment without the necessity of committing ourselves. How often do we leave off the first phrase of Jesus' teaching: "If you are my disciples, you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free"? But freedom comes only with commitment, and commitment to Christ is the only truth.
We sometimes kid ourselves into thinking that we can be free just for and of ourselves. But the apostle Paul tells us that we are either slaves to sin or slaves to Christ. There is no neutral ground between those two bonds. And it is in that bondage to Christ, as he is portrayed for us in the Scriptures, that I have been instructed more and more in his freedom. What liberty he gives us when we bind ourselves to the Word!
I think this has become ever clearer to me as I have observed the growth and course of church bureaucracies in the past three decades. For some reason -- and I do not posit a necessary correlation -- the more church membership declines, the larger become the ecclesiastical bureaucracies -- those bodies that the late Paul Ramsey aptly named "the church-and-society curia," those bodies that seem to have a disturbing way of following the latest media-generated fad and that are sure they know the course the church should follow better than do the people in the pews. Such curia seem to have no freedom from the society around them, even though they claim to be prophetic voices in the church. Rather, they have rather well-defined ideologies, of either the left or the right, and therefore rather predictable positions on public issues.
But rarely it is through being saturated by the word of God -- getting it into one's bones until one sees everything through its values, reason, language and worldview -- that we are given true freedom from the society around us and no longer need be "blown about by every wind of doctrine." That is the freedom one sees in the prophets -- the freedom of a Jeremiah to preach treason when the Babylonians are at the gate, or the freedom of an Elijah to topple a royal dynasty for the sake of one little vineyard next to the palace, or indeed the freedom of a Nathan to turn around and support an adulterous Bathsheba, his former enemy. The freedom of the prophets comes from the word of God burning in their bones, just as Paul says that when we are "in Christ," we no longer see anything from "a human point of view." That is true freedom, and more and more I have come to realize that it is the only rock in the midst of the turbulent waters of our rushing times.
Similarly, I have come ever more to realize that the only freedom from one's sinful self lies in that liberty given us by Christ. This has been impressed upon me by observing the women's movement in the church. Certainly, the women have a just cause, because they have been discriminated against as second class members in the church for centuries, despite the Lord's and the earliest New Testament churches' clear example to the contrary. Women graduates at Union Seminary in Virginia, most of whom are topnotch preachers and pastors, still have difficulty finding a call to a pulpit. If the church had lived up to its gospel, in which we are all one in Christ Jesus, we would not be in our feminist mess today.
But many contemporary feminists in the church have unfortunately concentrated everything around themselves. They have made their experience the ultimate authority, above the Scriptures. Their liberation has become their all-consuming occupation, coloring everything they write, say and do. The radicals among them have even begun to claim that they have a goddess in themselves, or that they are divine, because they have substituted for the biblical God a "Primal Matrix" or "Mother Goddess" or great world spirit flowing in and through all things and people. Mistaking Christ's "dying to self" as a ploy to keep them oppressed, they have elevated themselves to the place of the divine and thus denied themselves any knowledge of the glorious liberty of the children of God. That surely is captivity to sin and bondage to one's feeble, mortal person. And such captivity leads only to death, whereas God in Christ so much desires to give us only abundant life.
Many in the church curia have almost totally surrendered to such ways of death, perhaps from a sense of guilt over the past treatment of females or from a real sense of justice, but often without thought or theological understanding of the consequences. And so the rest of the church may find its liturgy changed by some worship committee into a celebration of a Canaanite, fertility birthing god, or it may discover that it is no longer allowed to sing a hymn based on Isaiah 63. At the same time, the church is told by feminists that its Scriptures, the only written guarantees of its freedom in Christ, are now suspect and to be judged as true only if they accord with modern feminist views. Alongside the body of Christ, some feminists are constructing a new church, called women-church, and celebrating a new religion, sometimes utilizing the symbol of a female "Christa" on a cross. It is difficult to imagine any more confining bondage to one's sinful self and society.
In the tenth and ninth centuries B.C., Israel in the Old Testament was tempted to construct a new culture and a new religion based on Canaanite models. The parallels with our society are many and ominous. And it was only the early, nonwriting prophets, such as Elijah, Elisha and Micaiah ben Imia, who preserved the nature of the Mosaic covenant faith before the threat of total corruption by pagan religion and culture. God grant us a new prophetic voice in our time, perhaps rising up in protest from the pews, or sounding forth, as did Karl Barth, from an obscure and seemingly unimportant pulpit, a prophetic voice that proclaims justice and equality for women, but on the sure basis of the authority of the Bible and the equalizing nature of the apostolic Christian faith.
This brings me to my last point. Through 30 years of teaching in seminaries I have become convinced that the church has largely failed in its mission of educating its people in the apostolic, biblical faith. Every preacher who enters a pulpit these days must assume that the congregation knows almost nothing about the content of the Scriptures. The language of faith, the meaning of the sacraments and the basic doctrines of the Christian church are almost totally devoid of meaning for the average churchgoer. Thus our congregations are often at the mercy of the latest kooky cult (witness Shirley MacLaine and New Age religion), and there is no common biblical story that binds them together in their faith. Individuals drift from one church to another, without roots, without religious history, without any Rock or Refuge or any sense that they belong to a communion of saints or participate in an ongoing history of salvation that God is working out in their lives and world.
One could blame such biblical and doctrinal illiteracy on several factors. Surely the fact that most children remain in the Sunday worship service only long enough for the children's sermon has deprived them of the opportunity of learning the language of liturgy and prayer and of absorbing the content of doctrine from hymn and from sermon. It is no wonder that the church is losing its young people; the formative years of their childhood were spent in another room. Surely too, despite our multimedia and high-gloss curricula with pictures, Christian training has been occupied more often with relevance, social issues and entertainment than it has with learning (and even memorizing) the content of the biblical message.
But in the last analysis, I cannot help thinking that our Christian illiteracy is due largely to a failure of the pulpit. The Christian faith was passed on for centuries, long before we had educational programs and Sunday schools, from one generation to another by its preachers from their pulpits. Yet far too many clergy today hand over educational matters to associates and religious educators, while they themselves dispense therapy, psychology and the latest religious or social opinions.
I gave a talk some years ago in which I mentioned that the Christian faith was a matter of life and death. Afterwards, I was approached by a publisher who found that statement so amazing that he asked me if I would care to write a book about it. Surely his amazement was symptomatic of our society's sickness: that it knows no divine commandment nor desires any sanctification; that it seeks life apart from God, who is the sole source of life; that it searches for freedom but is unwilling to bear a cross; that it wants a story to live by, but will not teach or learn the One Story. Those are, indeed, all matters of life and death, and the church must deal with them if it truly wants to be the Body of Christ, and a light to the world and salt and leaven.