I came across some interesting quotes the other day, both from Anglican clergy. On the surface, both of these quotes can stand for an orthodox expression of the faith. Without their contexts, both are in many ways very true. But there is a sinister underbelly to one of them that reveals far more than its veneer of orthodoxy could ever hide. And therein lies the danger of a theology which attempts to blend elements of revealed orthodoxy with the philosophy of the world at large; such attempts “have an appearance of wisdom” but ultimately “lack any value” in realizing God’s plan of salvation for believers (cf. Colossians 2:23). So that the full power of syncretism to hide its poisonous effects in the sweet flavor of revealed truth may be clearly manifest, I will present both of them now free of their larger contexts, and provide commentary after.
In an attempt to inspire her fellow Episcopalians to a common cause, Judy Mayo of the Diocese of Forth Worth sounded this rallying cry: “Surely we can say together that Jesus Christ is Lord. And if we can’t, we have no reason to be here.” Such a rally was met with all manner of comments, both for and against, which included this one from the Canon Theologian of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, Rev. Eugene McDowell (now serving a church in Massachusetts), who articulated his conviction that how one lives his life is the more important issue than whether one affirms Jesus as Lord: “Actions speak louder than proclamations…What Jesus calls us to do is to live our lives.”
Can you smell the savory aroma? Surely we can confess that Jesus is Lord. Surely we can also confess that Jesus wants from his followers far more than just lip service, as he heartily warned his disciples in Matthew 7:21, among other places. As Saint James also assures us, for the believer, actions do indeed speak louder than words (James 2:14-26). So what gives? Where is this poison I so resoundingly decry?
In all things, context is key. Ms. Mayo’s comment came on the heels of a resolution at the gathering of Episcopal clergy and laity at the 2006 General Convention. The resolution called on all the bishops, clergy, and lay deputies there present to affirm their “unchanging commitment to Jesus Christ as the Son of God, the only name by which any person may be saved” (Resolution D058). However, the party led by Rev. McDowell, which outnumbered Mayo’s group nearly three to one, prevented Resolution D058 from leaving committee and going to the larger Convention for a vote. Did you catch that? The nuance of it demands repeating: they prevented even talking about bringing the resolution to a final vote.
From Rev. McDowell’s point of view, affirming the Lordship of Jesus Christ is irrelevant to the moral life. Jesus calls his disciples to be agents of social transformation and justice. Such a call cares not about creeds and confessions, which concern the mind only, but only demands outward obedience. Indeed, to suggest that Jesus would have wanted his Church to confess his Lordship rather than do his work in the world strikes Rev. McDowell as a form of Nazism. Yes, Nazism. Read his own words about the Resolution: “this type of language was used in 1920s and 1930s to alienate the type of people who were executed. It was called the Holocaust.” “Confessions” as Rev. McDowell envisions them only breed contempt for dissenters, and are therefore as undesirable as Auschwitz or Buchenwald, where their propagation must inevitably lead. (Because clearly one cannot disagree with someone without also desiring their extermination.) No, only actions properly express the love of Christ, and therefore only actions count.
Let us return again to Paul’s words in Colossians. In that church, the people had been deluded into thinking that the proper expression of the Christian faith demanded their obedience to a whole laundry list of outward religious acts. But Paul will have nothing of it. For Paul, Christ is wholly sufficient in his person for the Christian precisely because he is the fullness of divinity in bodily form (1:19, 2:9), the Lord of creation (1:16-17), the Lord of the Church (1:18), and the very image of God himself (1:15). In other words, the proper expression of the Christian faith is nothing else but the confession of Christ as Lord because that’s who he is, and that’s why the Church exists at all.
Does Paul then deny the importance of works in favor of mere confession? In his own words, “may it never be!” (Romans 6:2). “Count yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body” (6:11-12, emphasis added). For Paul, the confession of Christ as Lord not only demands but even assumes an outward obedience to Christ’s commands, including the ones calling the Church to be a public witness to holiness and justice. Indeed, Paul goes much further than this, because Paul knows about the power of sin and death, which reign in all our mortal bodies. For Paul, we simply cannot muster up a holiness and justice our own without Christ’s aid (Romans 8:7-8; Ephesians 2:12; cf. Hebrews 11:6). It is only by means of the confession of Christ’s Lordship that the Church can live the moral life precisely because of what such a confession entails. To confess Christ as Lord means to affirm the destruction on the Cross of the sin and death which plagues us, to acknowledge the reality of his bodily resurrection which testifies to that completed work, and to affirm that God has therefore seated him at his right side, with the power and authority to pour out on God’s people a holy and just character (Romans 6:4; 1 Corinthians 15:20-22; Ephesians 5: 26-27; Philippians 2:6-11, Colossians 3:1-4). It is this character which then produces all manner of holy and just behavior in a dying and unjust world. That’s why confession is really all there is, because it not only assumes but even produces all the rest. Indeed, our Lord himself taught the same thing: “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:29, emphasis added).
Rev. McDowell has turned the Gospel of Jesus Christ completely on its head. For him, we save the world by our actions, which we, apparently, do in Christ’s name, having “realized” that we should “live into” a grace which is “already there.” Or something. In other words, our works save us and the world. Confession is then not only unnecessary, but potentially even damaging to the world. Potentially even genocidal, it would seem. Such is the poison of his teaching. Not least does it lead him to wild conclusions about where orthodox confession must necessarily lead, but more importantly he says that, at the end of the day, it is up to the church to “realize” God’s grace on their own, without the help of a divine Lord and Savior.
His words look sweet on the outside because, without appropriate context, his words ring true. Christ does indeed call his disciples to more than mere words. But he only calls them to that because he has previously empowered them to that on account of his being Lord of all creation. Without the confession, the life simply does not follow.