Fool Proofing Our Churches

A few weeks ago, I read through Jan Silvious’s book Foolproofing Your Life: How to Deal Effectively with the Impossible People in Your Life. It is a wonderful book, based in the scriptures, and it does have a lot to say about dealing with a person, even a Christian or a Christian leader, who fits the Biblical definition of a fool in some way.

The question that I came away with was: Why are there so many in our churches who live like the Biblical definition of a fool? Why do they find it easy to live like fools in the middle of a church which ostensibly believes the Bible and follows the Bible? Is there some sense in which our churches function as fool factories?

I confess that I do not have much of an answer at this point to that question, but there is a situation from my pastoral experience which comes to mind. Some years ago, a young husband attended my church who was experiencing deep problems in his life and marriage. It came out over the course of time that he had had at one time a connection with a fellowship of believers and had even been on at least one overseas mission trip with that fellowship, though he had left any kind of regular church attendance and involvement before he was married. His profession of being a Christian was quite over-the-top, we may say; it was beyond assertive to be quite defiant, oppositional and antagonistic to be a kind of personal power trip, that when he went into a kind of short term self immersion in what he thought was Christian behavior that he felt strong and powerful and superior. Naturally, this kind of behavior was a tremendous provocation to his wife, since it was almost as if he was trying to be a Christian version of the cartoon character He-Man and his Christianity was a kind of strutting, crowing and and immersing himself in an in-your-face psycho-drama that ‘I have the power!’

It came out that when I shared the two diagnostic questions from Evangelism Explosion that he had never really come to a Biblically based saving faith. His outward profession of faith was all about him living up to what he thought was a manly, powerful Christian, but no trust in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of his sins and for eternal life. This was no conclusion that I had to force upon him at all, but when I gently and caringly shared the questions and then led him to such passages as Ephesians 2:8-9 he came to that conclusion himself. He was visibly shocked and astonished when he himself realized that he had never really even understood the gospel in the first place and what it meant to be saved by the grace of God through Jesus Christ. There were some hopeful signs at first, since he did pray with me to express repentance for his sins and trust in Christ as his Savior, and there was enough of a change at first for his wife to show up at church wondering what had happened and wanting to know for herself. Unfortunately, someone who attended my church with ambitions to be a pastor and an elder (but who would not submit to any educational course of pastoral preparation nor to any evaluation by any established denominational licensing and ordaining council but who would simply try to copy little things he saw pastors doing) showed up at his door, and we never saw him again at church, and my efforts to visit him again were unavailing.

I’m not losing any sleep over my church losing the attendance of a grown man who had all the resources of any number of easily understandable Bibles and the gospel preaching churches of North America to get the gospel straight and follow Jesus. I have prayed for him and his wife and I would rejoice in the news that he and his wife found a stable, Bible believing church and have been growing in Christ. Rather, I think that there are several things right here which indicate why our churches may seem to be fool factories.

First, we often seem to accept people who show up and say some of the correct things to have been truly saved. It is neither intrusive nor rude to ask someone gently and lovingly  who attends our church and seeks to be a part of the fellowship about the nature and history of his or her profession of faith in Jesus Christ. For what it’s worth, I’ve found that our body language can be of great help to draw people out to disclose what is really in their hearts; if we don’t stand in front of them and stare right into their eyes with an expectant, pressurizing smile that seems to be demanding an immediate answer, but sit beside them and let them speak freely, we can often find out their basis of trust for salvation. It’s usually possible to find out fairly easily those who have experienced a change of opinions and association from those who have experienced the saving power of Jesus Christ by faith in him alone for their eternal salvation. Jan Silvious does mention in her Foolproofing book that many fools who profess to be Christians were probably never saved to begin with, and I would definitely agree. I know that there are risks in putting numbers to this, but I would personally estimate that probably about a third, if not more, of the fools who profess to be Christians fall into this category. (And this brings up a problem that I think there has not been sufficient prayer and scriptural discussion: the problem of North American evangelical nominalism. I’ll leave the pastors and other Christian leaders who read this to chew on that for a while.)

Second, in addition, I don’t think that we say it often enough and loudly enough that our reception of the salvation of Jesus Christ does not make us in ourselves better than any other human being. The very heart of true repentance, the abject humility of the broken and contrite heart (Psalm 51:17), which is part of the Biblical reception of salvation, in itself entails the renunciation of any self pretensions of superiority, since it involves the admission of personal sinfulness, and this cannot include any pretensions to be a better person than any other sinner on this earth. In the classic work The Pilgrim’s Progress, in fact, John Bunyan made this awareness of personal sinfulness as the difference between a Mr. Faithful and a Mr. Talkative, and someone who came into the kingdom of Jesus by the Wicket-Gate of repentance and faith and someone who tried to slip in by some other way.

Even more, we need to say it much more often and much more assertively that  the fruit in our lives which comes after we have received salvation by faith in Christ is not something that we can crow about, but it is for the glory of God, to demonstrate his power and glory and not our own (John 15:6, Ephesians 2:10). Even more, if we find ourselves in a position of leadership in the church, it can never be about ourselves and our personal glory (“looking good” in front of fellow believers). This was something that I tried to make clear in my earlier post Who Is the Greatest?, and I would repeat: In Christ we are blessed with all his spiritual blessings in the heavenly places (Ephesians 1:3), and there is no indication that there’s anything in being a leader that adds anything on to all the spiritual blessings in Christ with which we have already been blessed.

As a final note, I want to go back to a point that I was making in my earlier post, Called to Follow, Not to Be Radical, that we need to back off of the hype and rhetoric about being radical and extreme as Christians. Quite frankly, I think that such hype may very well feed an underlying sense of self superiority and a foolish power and superiority trip such as I described earlier. It may well be a good idea for youth pastors and other leaders in the church now to issue an apology and disclaimer to the previously fashionable rhetoric and hype about being extreme and radical. It’s not about being radical or extreme – and no believer can find anything to crow about in whether he or she thinks that he or she is a radical or extreme Christian, and especially not if this includes any sense of being superior to any other believer or any other human being. Rather, it’s about denying ourselves, taking up our cross daily, and following him (Luke 9:23).

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