You’ll know My Wife and My Mother-in-Law, I’m sure!
No! Not my wife (whom many of you have met and know), nor my mother-in-law (whom you probably haven’t met and didn’t ever know). I mean the capital letters version, the ‘Young Woman / Old Woman’ ambiguous figure illusion, dating back to the late 1800s (otherwise known as ‘My Wife and My Mother-in-Law’), where a 2-dimensional portrait can be viewed in two entirely different ways. Attractive young woman, or a rather less than attractive elderly hag.
You see one thing, I see another: and once we’ve each got it into our head what the picture displays, well, it can be hard to see anything else. Perspectives can be very hard to shift.
And that’s at the heart of one of the major spiritual challenges facing the church in our land today. Shifting ingrained perspectives. Shifting our thinking from ‘empire’ to ‘kingdom’: which is far, far more than any mere semantics. It’s to do with a mindset, a perspective, a way of viewing the work of the Lord and the world in which we live.
What if we’re seeing things quite the wrong way? What if our mindset’s distorted, our perspective somewhat askew? What if the way we think of church has become so deeply ingrained that we never even give it a second thought? And what if that way of thinking of church has got ever so subtly ‘warped’? What if we’re too much concerned with ‘building the brand’ than with securing the coming of the kingdom? What if we’re overly occupied with expanding (or at least maintaining) our own little empire – and too little invested in the building of the kingdom of God?
What if our perspective’s skewed? What if, indeed, it’s so thoroughly skewed that we can’t even see what the problem is? And skewed, I suggest, it is.
There are reasons why that’s so – several powerful reasons which explain how this skewed perspective has become so deeply ingrained as our way of viewing Christ’s church that we simply can’t see past it and don’t ever give it a second thought.
Number one is the parish system. From the time of the Reformation the Church of Scotland has been, very intentionally and, indeed, constitutionally a ‘territorial’ church: and the rationale behind that fundamental feature of the ‘national’ Church is steeped, of course, in a noble gospel urgency.
The parish system was designed to ensure that there’d be nowhere that a person could be safe at all from the summons of the gospel and the ministry of grace. Every last square millimetre of our land fell within the parish bounds of a local congregation, whose remit under God was ever to ensure that the urgent, vital message of salvation in and through our Lord Jesus Christ was pressed upon the souls of each and every individual in the land. There was to be no hiding place at all.
The intention behind the whole parish system is, therefore, only good: a gospel-driven outlook and concern to see that Jesus is proclaimed to every last, least individual in the land. And who can complain at that?
Except. Except it’s nurtured, ever so subtly, down the years a mindset that’s become itself … well, ‘territorial’. A ‘this-is-my-patch-keep-your-hands-off’, empire-building outlook, where the over-riding top consideration can almost imperceptibly become the concern to keep your own little show on the road. The laid-down parish boundaries become some kind of feral-like assertion of a local church’s ownership of territory: and that in turn has certain repercussions.
First, a ‘keep-away’ defensiveness can subtly creep in, making all the eager parish workers just that bit resistant to whatever might be deemed to be the threat of competition. And then, as well, the time and gifts and energies of both pastor and people can all end up invested in their keeping simply their local show on the road. This is their patch, after all, for which they’ve been made responsible.
Of course, you can easily argue that there’s good and sound biblical warrant for just this sort of system. Isn’t that the sort of pattern which the Lord Himself laid down for Adam and Eve? Didn’t the Lord give the couple a ‘parish’? A demanding but workable ‘parish’ with its boundary lines, and the two of them told to go and work it well.
And that, of course, is true. But read on to see what happened. They were called to be kingdom-builders, but barely within the blink of an eye – the very next chapter – they’ve succumbed to temptation and become instead just ‘empire-builders’. The garden will be their domain, thank you very much, and they will be as gods: their plot, and they’ll run the show. In truth, of course, they lost the plot.
So for hundreds of years the Church’s ‘parish’ system has ingrained within the mindset of believers this perspective which is centred on each congregation’s ‘empire’, and instilled in Christian people an exclusive concentration on their church’s life.
Now, yes, of course, that’s a massive, and unfair generalization; I know. But I’m trying to make the point and explain why it is that this ‘empire-building’ perspective so often persists.
Reason number two is Christendom. The church was birthed in the cradle of the Roman Empire. And like a forest fire, burning its way through the moral peat bogs which formed the rotting undergrowth of Roman society, the message blazed across that ancient world and spread with extraordinary rapidity, until Rome itself simply melted before the fire of the Spirit of God and the lordship of the risen, living Jesus. The empire’s famous strap-line, ‘Caesar is Lord’, was replaced by the credal formula of faith, ‘Jesus is Lord’.
But … But ‘empire’ itself remained. At least in the thought and perspective of a church which understandably, but rather carelessly, exulted in all the success that she’d known. The pattern of life as an empire was simply absorbed, and the trappings of empire embraced. Palatial buildings, fit for imperial powers. Officials bedecked in the garments of prosperity, rich and thoroughly regal, as befitted an empire’s rulers. The church became now Christendom. The kingdom subtly morphed into empire.
And the rather different mindset of the empire was unwittingly assumed. The messengers of God became the marketers of grace. Different. Ever so subtly different. A whole new perspective on how Jesus’ church should be viewed: how her aims should be framed, how her work should be done, how her life should be lived. An ‘empire-building’ mindset put down roots. What the Empire had been, the church would become – only better and more spiritual, of course.
That ‘Christendom culture’ has persisted right down to this day. Those who are rightly our companions in the service of the Lord become, at least potentially, competitors. In a limited ‘market’, only the fittest survive. And the models of the business world (which understands so very well the dog-eats-dog perspective of an empire-building zeal) – the models of the business world seem fruitful and attractive for a church which still so easily succumbs to that seductive and appealing lie the devil’s always pedaled since beguiling our first forbears into sin.
Think of the ways we measure success: the numbers, the income, the plant. Or think of the ways we structure and order the church: managers more than ministers: programmes more than prayers: boxes to be ticked more than souls to be saved.
Again, I’m generalizing, unfairly, I know. It’s not always like this, for sure, but I’m hoping you get the point. Christendom brought with it, from more than a millennium ago, an empire-building perspective which it’s hard for the church to throw off.
Reason number three is just a very Scottish ‘tribalism’. Scotland’s geography and history have both alike combined to rear a hard-to-shake-off outlook and perspective which is best, I think, described as often simply ‘tribal’. Ponder for a moment our distinctive and striking geography, as a starting point, and consider if it hasn’t in at least some small and subtle way contributed to this: for the mountains and rivers between them create these great and natural barriers, which in turn became both lines of demarcation and so often, too, the contours of distrust.
Think of the clans from their different glens and their warring against one another. The Campbells and the Macdonalds, for instance – there was no small amount of ‘history’ between them down the years!
And, yes, think of the history and you soon start to see why there’s grown to be across the years a certain, wary ‘guardedness’, a psyche of suspicion in the depths of our subconscious, adopting as its cautious, canny, default line the view that strangers may be enemies until they prove the contrary. Stick with your clan, the people you know; and be wary of anyone else. Tribalism.
Even Shakespeare got this, I think. Remember that line in MacBeth – “Beware MacDuff: beware the Thane of Fife”. MacBeth. MacDuff. Different clans. Be on your guard.
And no wonder, in some ways. What, after all, has Scotland been but a small and widely scattered nation whose lands were again and again, it must have seemed, the target of marauding troops intent on expanding their .. yes, their empires. The Romans. The Vikings. The English. No wonder there grew in the psyche the default of defensiveness. The ‘others’ are (at least potentially) the enemy.
Celtic and Rangers. ‘Presby’ and ‘Piscie’. Treat them as the enemy and ask any questions later. Fight your corner first of all, before you’re caught unawares and hit when you’re not expecting it. Defend and expand your ‘empire’ – and guard against the ‘others’. Build your brand, and the devil take the hindmost. Tribalism.
Another massive generalization, yes; and a gross exaggeration, too, I’m sure! But you get the point. There are reasons why this ‘empire-building’ outlook is so difficult to shift.
And those are just some of the reasons there are why it’s always hard work developing more of a ‘kingdom’ perspective and practice in the way Christ’s work is undertaken here. Not the only reasons by any means, for you could track this same trend in the rise of ‘celebrity culture’, for instance (a culture unwittingly rife very often within the evangelical church): that ‘celebrity culture’, too, tends to reinforce an ‘empire-building’ mindset in Christ’s church and militates against the sort of careful partnership which ‘kingdom-life’ involves.
That’s the great ‘paradigm’ shift which needs to be made. Getting back to perspectives informed by the Scriptures and rooted in God Himself. For our life as Christ’s church is surely to be modelled on the Trinity. God Himself, the fundamental ‘paradigm’ for all we are and do: God Himself, the ultimate ‘community’ in whose likeness and image we are made: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the triune God.
And what is the way that the Trinity works, if not in perfect partnership? The persons of the Godhead simply never act alone: never simply ‘do their own thing’: never simply focus on their own little ‘patch’ of glory. There’s a wonderful distinctiveness about each person of the Trinity, a distinctiveness as well in terms of their activity: and yet not the smallest trace of any ‘empire-building’ outlook on the part of each. Only the kingdom. Theirs is a perfect partnership.
Our life as Christ’s church must be modelled on Him. Kingdom more than empire. Partners more than partisan. We may well be an independent church .. but we cannot be an independent church. Gilcomston isn’t a ‘brand’ and our energies are never to be spent in ‘building the brand’. We are in truth but one small part of the body of Christ located here in Aberdeen, learning to live in partnership with those through whose so richly varied ministries our Lord is also so plainly at work.
This is the perspective which we studiously adopt. This is the concern we seek to have. This is how we strive to work. A kingdom perspective. A careful gospel partnership with others who pursue, for all their differences, the cause of Christ. The NESGT initiative has been a case in point. Developing that into a Ministry Training Academy here in Aberdeen, with an expanding base of committed partners who share the same core biblical convictions – this provides a further illustration of the way such an outlook works out.
It’s a very necessary paradigm shift, all the more pressing in days when the culture itself has lost its ancient moorings in the Word of God and shows itself all at sea. We’re applying ourselves to this paradigm shift, and intent on encouraging others to embrace it as well. The cause of the gospel in Scotland through these coming years may well be dependent on it.
May we not be found wanting! ‘Everything I am, for Your kingdom’s cause, as I walk from earth into eternity.’
Yours in Christ Jesus our Lord,