Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Missional Abuse

Spiritual power is real…and where there is spiritual power there is also the temptation to abuse it. Jesus warns us not to use the spiritual power and influence that we have for selfish and self-centered ends.

In Matthew 10:8b, Jesus prepares his disciples for their first missional adventure with these words: “You received without payment; give without payment.” Why is it so important that we offer the gospel free of charge, and without manipulation or intimidation? First, the character of God requires it. Extending the love of Christ without charge or ulterior motives bears witness to the truth of God’s grace, generosity, and self-giving love. As we have freely received salvation and power for living through Jesus’ life, atoning death, and victorious resurrection, so we must freely share it. But secondly, it is because the vulnerability of people demands it. It is a fact that spiritual benefits and blessings awaken deep gratitude, and that those who receive such blessings are vulnerable to manipulation.

I’ll never forget watching a TV evangelist hock a holy handkerchief that was said to have special healing powers. This special prayer handkerchief which the pastor had prayed over could be mine with a love gift of $20. I declined. Another church sent me a mailing offering a chance to have my name inscribed on a 200 foot prayer tower, for a $1000 donation. I declined again. Finally, I read in Time magazine about a popular American preacher who received annual gifts from listeners nearing $51 million & kept half as personal income. He owned a luxury home & a fleet of cars. OK, I was a little jealous! It’s unfortunate that these are actually some of the most benign examples of the abuse and misuse of spiritual authority.

Let’s be honest here. The history of the Christian Church includes some very dark moments when manipulation and intimidation were the preferred tools of a supposed spiritual conquest. Friends, we know that this does not reflect the teaching or example of our Lord Jesus Christ, who laid down his life and was crucified for us. Paul was very aware that it was not through power, but weakness, that Christ was most visible in him: “For I came to you in weakness and in fear and much trembling....that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2: 3-4).

One of the newest ministries at St. John’s is an outreach to international students who live in an around the UCLA Village area. It is our desire to extend to these new friends the love of Christ without coercion, intimidation, or manipulation. We have received the love of Christ as a free gift…and we want to offer it in the same way…without any strings attached. I’m very impressed with the “code of ethics” under which we are operating. They are valuable and instructive for anyone hoping to share the good news of Jesus Christ with others:

1. We will respect the dignity of international students and will seek to understand their ideology without denigrating either the person or his/her views. We will affirm their freedom of choice in making intelligent judgments concerning various philosophical and religious beliefs and practices.
2. We will maintain honesty, openness and sensitivity in the publicity of any activity and approaches to international students; and will oppose the use of manipulation, harassment, pressure, restraint, dominance by nullifying the individual’s will, compulsion to listen or act by force or threat, or offering special inducements to listen or act by force or threat, or offering special inducements to affect a change in philosophical or religious beliefs and practices.
3. We will treat international students with dignity and respect, not as museum pieces or objects to be converted.
4. We will focus first on the physical and emotional needs of students. When inviting international students to any kind of Christian meeting or activity, we will be sure the invitation includes a clear explanation of the nature and purpose of the activity, without surprise or manipulation.
5. We will not pressure international students about becoming Christians.
6. We will recognize there is no substitute for tangible expressions of love and caring concern.
7. We will tread sensitively on issues where political or religious differences exist. We realize that being critical of another’s ideologies, either explicitly or implicitly, is not conducive to good relationships or to a loving witness.

I believe this “code” would be helpful in a variety of situations – but especially when we're in relationship with those who come from other cultures or religious backgrounds. As we share Christ “freely” and “simply” – God is able to reveal his grace and truth through us. In that spirit, this is my prayer:

“Father, we thank you for the gift of gracious pardon which we have received through faith -- a free gift but not a cheap one, for your Son paid the just penalty for our sin when he died for us on the cross! We cannot repay you for this gift; we can only receive it; and share it freely and generously. We therefore renounce any effort to intimidate or manipulate others with the gospel, or to touch others spiritually that we might profit selfishly. May we go out into this city in your name as though walking into a sanctuary; with a sense of humility and dependence upon you, the holiness of our task, and the dignity of each person we meet.”

Can you think of a time when you felt abused, manipulated or taken advantage of by a religious group, or a time when you felt protected and/or delivered from such abuse? What happened and what did you learn? Here’s another question: Jesus says, “You received without payment; give without payment.” What are some creative ways that we can offer Jesus Christ and his love to others “with no strings attached”? Friends, let's chuck the holy handkerchiefs, and start sharing the gospel (with integrity and sacrificial love.

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