Last Friday one of the brothers who ministers to young adults was deeply disturbed about the scarcity of spiritual fathers/mothers in the Church. This led us to a key passage in Paul; “I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (1 Cor 4:14-15). A famine of spiritual parenting indicates few older Christians are grasped by the gospel, a gospel which is shame free. This led us to pray into the spiritual meaning of words I’d heard a few days earlier from an emotionally distressed young woman; “I don’t go to church but I’m not a bad person.” As we prayed we became persuaded that we were touching on a subject that will shape the future of the Western Church.
Conscious of Sin
Hebrews states emphatically, ““I (God) will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.””; this new covenant promise brings freedom from “consciousness of sins” (Heb 10:2, 17). What has this got to do with spiritual parenting? Spiritual fathers and mothers express an initiative and authority to speak into others lives. Such authority is absent and abdicated when we are conscious of personal sin and failure; such a consciousness is carried in the conscience. A healthy Christian conscience registers the difference between two very different kinds of sanctification or holiness. Our “being sanctified” is our personal growth as believers, a situation that can go up and down (10:14). But through Jesus’ completed sacrifice we “have been sanctified”; this is a past and completed state (Heb 10:10). In Christ we have been wonderfully “perfected for all time” (10:14). Importantly, in Hebrews the language of “perfection” does not mean moral blamelessness but grounded in the Old Testament sacrificial system it means complete access to God (Ex 29:9; Lev 21:10 L.X.X.). In sharing in Jesus access to the Father we know our heavenly Father is not ashamed to have us as his children (Eph 2:18; Heb 2:11). Access to God brings experience of the glorious love between Father and Son so that anyone who experiences this revelation is released into confident spiritual fathering or mothering (John 17:26).
Spiritual maturity is not about being situated somewhere on a scale between goodness and badness, it is a state of relational intimacy with a holy and loving God (Eph 4:13 = Heb 10:14). Mature Christians are not self-conscious about their “goodness” but know sin lacks the power to block access to Christ as their righteousness (1 Cor 1:30). These men/women of God minister from a place free of shame and guilt and produce disciples who likewise produce disciples in a multi-generational succession of parenting in God (1 Cor 4:16). What then is blocking the power of the gospel to release such spiritual parenting today?
A Weak Conscience
Paul proclaims, “through the law we become conscious of our sin.” (Rom 3:20). If consciousness of sin is the one thing that blocks authority to spiritually father/mother then it is religious legalism that has bred our current crop of spiritual orphans. For centuries Christian societies (Christendom) have bred “good people and good citizens” through a socialising process that has emphasised morality above grace. To become a Christian has meant to become a “better person”. (No wonder “Christianity” has long been labelled moralistic, judgemental and self-justifying.) Generations of believers with moralised minds have fallen prey to accusation, control, spiritual abuse and an inability to spiritually discern good from evil in the Church (Heb 5:11-14). Where the power of the gospel is unknown the contemporary Church becomes plagued with what Paul calls “a weak conscience” (1 Cor 8:7ff). Those who lack a revelation of who they are in Christ have an inner fear that they might turn out to be a “bad person”. Such folk are open to the satanic strategies of being shamed and guilted into conforming to the status quo; this has long happened within the Western Church, but now it is happening big time as the Church faces the world.
Conscience Culture or Christ
Without the Spirit, ethical transformation in the world must come through making people feel guilty and ashamed of themselves. Anti-Christian secular culture has in recent years made the followers of Jesus intensely aware of how society perceives us. This is all about perceived moral status. There are three classes of “bad people” in the eyes of progressive Westerners; “racists”, particularly opponents of Islam, “paedophiles”, especially Catholic priests, and “homophobes”, namely conservative Christians. This three pronged attack on traditional Christianity leaves believers with three natural responses. 1. Avoidance; let’s pretend it’s not really happening, we can always hide behind the good feelings of Sunday’s praise and worship. 2. Aggression; whilst an understandable reaction this is not the way of Christ (1 Pet 2:23). 3. Conformity to culture; this is to abandon the gospel. The current debates over “equal marriage” have successfully jammed the Church into responses that are read as though we are saying that we are “good people” and gays and their advocates are “bad people”. Secular culture has set the tone of moral conversation in a way that is catastrophic for the testimony of Jesus, because Jesus was not a moral teacher and the gospel is not about becoming better people but a new creation (2 Cor 5:17). Satan has strategically snared the Bible-using Church so that we have been led into a great deception. God however is using this attack to strip off a blanket of moralism which lies over our minds. He is stripping off the layers of a moral Christianity, Western “Christendom”, which has long diminished our union with Christ. When the Lord has laid us bare a radical Christianity will emerge in the West like that which has not been seen since the days of persecution under Rome (Rev 3:17).
The scandal of the gospel is that it does not discriminate between good and bad people; all equally need repentance and forgiveness (Luke 5:32; 1 Cor 1:23). Only a renewed revelation of the gospel can impart the strength of conscience that we need in the face of our countless moral failings to be those men and women God is calling us to be in fathering/mothering others. The New Testament message takes us outside of both our own self-evaluation and the opinions of others so that we recognise Christ as our sole righteousness. Jesus delivers us from the “bad person” vs. “good person” division because he has become our identity (Gal 2:20). Since “Jesus Christ has become my conscience.” (Bonhoeffer) my freedom of conscience in him is absolute; whatever any cultural force or law of the land may say. If the atoning blood of the cross has satisfied God’s conscience then what can hold me back in testifying to Jesus both inside the Church and without (Rom 3:25)? It is time to stop allowing the dialogue about good and evil to be framed by anything other than the gospel and to turn back to the Word of Jesus alone. In him is perfect freedom (Augustine), the freedom of access to the Father from whom all things flow (1 Cor 8:6). What then is left of the “bad person”? S/he was carried away into oblivion in the death and resurrection of the Son of God. ““Behold, I make all things new,”” (Rev 21:5) is a word both Church and world desperately need to hear once again. When they do hear, true restoration and revival will come.