Following Christ as the church militant

14 February 2023

Rev. Dr Joe Boot responds to the Church of England’s recent vote at General Synod to approve of blessing same-sex unions.

An urgent warning to the clerics and parishioners

Christian thinking must be concerned with actually following the Christ of Scripture and having his Word dwell and abide in us by his Spirit. Submitting oneself to being a humble follower doesn’t come easily to anyone – especially cultural leaders, thinkers and apparently bishops. This was evident in the recent diabolical and self-immolating ruling of the bishops in the Church of England to formally bless same-sex relationships in the churches, all in the name of the love of Jesus. The human inclination is always toward autonomy, preferring to live the illusion that we can ‘legislate’ for ourselves; to be a king without a country in the rootless despair of defiance is the preference of our rebellious age.

Being a professing Christian in the church does not remove the temptation or inclination to strike out alone, to follow our own desires or those of our culture, to live by our own priorities and to set aside the awesome and all-consuming call to be a disciple of Christ; to come and die in order to truly live. Kneeling as a living sacrifice sounds incredibly painful and involves a transformation of the heart which implies the pain and suffering of rejection by a world conformed, in the final analysis, to a very different spirit. But the divine midwife insists this is the only way. We must be reborn, transformed, and given a new heart, a new mind.

As Christians we may claim to follow Christ, but the lifelong challenge in developing a truly Christian mindset requires regularly asking ourselves if we have followed him far enough? Have we been to Jordan and seen the dove descending, but hung back from the mountain to avoid his exposition of the law and radical insistence that only those who teach that law are great in the Kingdom? Have we fallen asleep in pious satisfaction at the gates of Gethsemane, or lingered from a safe distance at Golgotha, never making it to the slopes of Olivet or to the upper room in Jerusalem with the dancing flames of fire?  Is it possible that we are not yet Christian enough?  It is all too easy to follow Christ only as far as is convenient, till the tarrying is just too tiring. If we only follow Christ part way, then we are uninvolved in key aspects of the drama and miss the significance of God’s full act in history.

The entire work of Christ in all his offices must become contemporaneous with us if we would truly be transformed by the renewing of our minds. It is not sufficient to appreciate Christ washing Simon Peter’s feet at the last supper as a model of service if we refuse to see him, let alone join him, where the bloodied Stephen saw him – exalted in heavenly places, standing up from his seat of total authority at God’s right hand.  Unambiguously, we must see him as priest on the road to Calvary, but we must also recognise him on the footpath to Emmaus as resurrected Lord – the gardener of creation among Arimathea’s roses – if we are to truly follow Christ and know the renewal of our minds.

In a hostile context, the temptation is to follow him just as far as culture permits. When the storm rises, dread grips us and we hear his call to step out of the boat and walk upon the Word – despite the wind and waves of the world’s antagonism – we suddenly become hard of hearing. And if we will not hear that Word over the inimical clamour of idolatry, we certainly cannot then speak it.  If our cultural moment is allowed to determine how far we follow Christ, then we cannot follow him at all.  We may perhaps hear hosannas from a distance, but we won’t be found stammering with the doubter, ‘My Lord and my God!’  We may even be permitted by our age to stand near the wooden cross of a brave martyr, but not on the mountain of ascension with the ruler of the kings of the earth.

The sad end of hearing and heeding only the word our culture will permit is first an unwillingness, then a tragic inability, to speak the whole counsel of God as faithful prophets. As priest and prophet, Christ was hated, knew the world’s enmity, and warned that the spirit at work in the children of disobedience would naturally hate his followers also. But we cannot follow our Prophet nor share in his sufferings if we refuse to prophesy. Many contemporary priests would rather predict with Balaam to preserve their living than stand with Elijah against Baal. It is certain an ass has spoken with more wisdom in the annals of prophetic utterance than many English bishops – hirelings who would flog the meekest of God’s prophets if they could for hindering their progress in vexing the people of God. Like powdered-wigged courtiers fighting over who will fetch the king’s chamber pot, much of the church simply courts the culture – ingratiating themselves with the influential, the powerful, the professors, even senior clergy who have whored themselves to the spirit of the world.

The moment that God’s people call a truce and reach a settlement with the spirit of the world, the mindset of the age, is the moment they abolish the Christian mind and overturn true Christianity. The kingdom of God is indeed in this world, but not of it; it is surely present here, but it is not from here – its power, authority and mandate derive from a transcendent source. In history, the church is always the church militant, not the church triumphant. The struggle will continue over our graves till the King comes who will open all graves. We are called to victory, not to peaceful collaboration.

When the church says ‘peace, peace’ when there is no peace and signs a treaty with a rebel world, it pretends to be the church triumphant, and pretends that the struggle against lawlessness and spiritual darkness is complete – but before the consummation of Christ. It is a tragic irony that those who preach righteousness and hope for history through following Christ to the uttermost, bringing them into direct conflict with the world on the frontlines of battle, are charged with ‘triumphalism,’ whilst popular collaborators who claim neutrality with the world, making a compact of surrender or privatisation to the applause of culture are thought pious and realistic. In reality, they are triumphalist – seeking to immanentise a false eschaton by denaturing the faith, abstracting it from the affairs of daily life and coating what remains in honey so as to avoid any bitter taste in society’s mouth – for a church no longer at war is a church triumphant.

This article was originally posted on Ezra Institute and has been republished with permission.

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