“What kind of Christian does God want to send into the world?”
The Rev. Chuck Irish posed this question to us as young clergy entering full-time leadership in local churches. He followed this question with three other predicates:
- “What kind of church produces the kind of Christian…”
- “What kind of lay leaders produce the kind of church that produces the kind of Christian…” and
- “What kind of clergy leader produces the kind of lay leaders…”
These same questions frame our American Anglican Council initiatives addressing clergy care and wellness, clergy leadership, and church revitalization in North America.
But it’s this first question that I want to address as we enter 2022. Many of us feel that we are experiencing unprecedented cultural shifts and challenges to gospel ministry. George Weigel, a Roman Catholic theologian and writer in First Things, cited an address in 1873 by John Henry Newman who was looking ahead, prophetically, to the trajectories of western culture at that time:
“I know that all times are perilous, and that in every time serious and anxious minds, alive to the honor of God and he needs of men, are apt to consider no time as perilous as their own…and all time have their special trials which others have not…still I think that the trials which lie before us are such as would appall and make dizzy even such courageous hearts as St. Athanasius…And they would confess that, dark as the prospect of their own day was to them severally, ours has a darkness different in kind from any that has ever gone before it…[For] Christianity has never yet had the experience of a world simply irreligious.”
Weigel goes on to explain that the phrase “a world simply irreligious” does NOT mean a world without believing Christians, but rather a world in which biblical faith and the biblical view of human nature, human community, human origins, and human destiny no longer shape culture, society, and public life in a decisive way— “a flattened human landscape,” writes Weigel, “a world without any transcendent reference points of any sort.”
We have ample evidence of “a world simply irreligious” in the Barna Report on the Millennial generation’s worldview in North America [LINK: https://americananglican.org/news/reaching-out-to-the-next-generation/]. We see expressions of this elsewhere such as in our Supreme Court when three Justices opined in Planned Parenthood v. Casey: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and of the mystery of human life.” Freedom as willfulness, as the expression of the autonomous self without any overarching truth, “without any transcendent reference points of any sort.” This is the “simply irreligious” culture we are challenged to engage with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
How can we do so in 2022?
As a good Roman Catholic, the subject of Weigel’s essay points to the moral and teaching authority of “The Pope We All Need,” and says we need the following:
- A countercultural papacy, challenging the spirit of the age rather than reflecting it
- A papacy that affirms the goodness of creation, the given-ness of things (i.e., natural law) and the true dignity of the human person
- A papacy that teaches an adult understanding and exercise of freedom whose goal is always growth in virtue
- A papacy that does not play politics by conventional political rules but rather engages with biblical principles and
- A papacy that will lift hearts that are weighed down by a fear of the future, the deepest cause of which of which is a loss of confidence in ourselves
As a good reformed Catholic, I’d like to say “Amen!” to such moral and teaching leadership but not locate it in a single magisterial leader of the Church. Rather, shouldn’t this be the clarion call for every leader at every level of the Church, lay and clerical alike?
Given our own Anglican conciliar model of decision making in which bishops have a unique role in guarding and propagating the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Church, shouldn’t this be a special focus of our bishops at such a time as this? Perhaps the ACNA College of Bishops could give some consideration to this topic as part of a renewed focus on their moral and teaching authority at their annual meeting next week in Melbourne, Florida.
I continue to circle back to the prophet Daniel who arguably faced as challenging a culture as you and I face today. Hippolytus’ commentary on Daniel is the oldest surviving Christian commentary on scripture. It was composed by Hippolytus of Rome most likely between 202
and 211 AD at a time of great persecution. The fact that the earliest Christian scholars focused on Daniel in such times may hold clues for us. Daniel exemplifies a servant leader who managed to navigate the political intrigues of his day, threats to his religious freedom, and open hostility to his faith with grace and truth and without compromise. His story is remarkable, and here’s what I learn from just the very first chapter of Daniel:
- God is still in control! In fact, he is the very one who has delivered Daniel and us into the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Therefore, we can have confidence in him and his directions to us (Dan. 1:2 cf. Jer. 29:4-7, 11).
- Daniel never let go of his fundamental identity in YHWH as evidenced in his God given name (Dan. 1:6, 8) despite the efforts of the culture to change his identity.
- He resolved to follow God’s word even if it placed him at odds with the culture and the spirit of the age (Dan. 1:8-10).
- He responded to those with whom he disagreed with charity, respect, and reason rather than attacking them (Dan. 1:11-13).
- He trusted God for the breakthrough and for favor with those above him, and God responded by giving him and his companions “knowledge and understanding” for their witness (Dan. 1:17).
- He and his companions were devoted to excellence in all they did and said, being found “ten times better” than their non-believing peers “in every matter of wisdom and understanding” (Dan. 1:20).
Daniel is not the only example of the kind of Christian that we all need to be for such a time as this. He is not the only answer to the question, “What kind of Christian does God want to send into the world?” and the other three questions that precede it.
But Daniel’s life and witness as a biblically faithful, courageous, and resilient servant leader is one model that the Bible commends to us all, not just a papacy, for the challenges we face in 2022. In the days ahead, I will have more to say about Daniel, his life and witness, and his remarkable relevance to the challenges we face in engaging North America with the transforming love of Jesus Christ.