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Fleming Rutledge: Proclaiming God's mighty Word

Do you believe God has a special task for American Christians? Fleming Rutledge does. But she thinks evangelical Christians won't understand that task unless they return to the Bible and talk with each other. A feature story exploring the ways to proclaim God's almighty word.

You know the territories staked out in American mass media. Red state, blue state. Godless liberals, God-fearing conservatives.

Maybe you speak disdainfully of those who call themselves Christians, yet "fail to defend the sanctity of traditional marriage." Or, perhaps your scorn is reserved for believers who support the war in Iraq.

Fleming Rutledge, one of the first women ordained as an Episcopal priest, describes this polarization as "a moment of great danger." Yet, she also sees the ferment as "a great opportunity for renewal."

"For the soul of American Christianity, we must keep working on what the term 'evangelical' means.

"There is no more pressing mission than for American Christianity to fashion a more inclusive understanding of Christianity-without relinquishing the Christian claim to the uniqueness of the power of the risen Christ. Jesus Christ is the hope of the world," Rutledge declared in a January Series lecture at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Rutledge spent 22 years in parish ministry before taking on an international vocation in preaching, speaking, and writing. In The Bible and The New York Times and her other sermon collections, she sets forth the intersections between biblical theology and real life.

She says that American Christians, especially evangelicals and charismatics, hold the key to 21st century geopolitics in this post-9/11 world. There's a condition, though, she says. American Christians hold this keyif they follow the mighty God "whose outstretched arm delivers people from bondage into freedom."

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Like the late theologian Karl Barth and John G. Stackhouse Jr, a professor of religion and culture at Regent University, Rutledge knows that prayer and worship are never apolitical. Our words and ways in worship reflect our understanding of how God works in the world.

Barth famously advised pastors to write sermons with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other hand. In a recent interview on realism in worship, Stackhouse said that preachers tend to be "long on theology and the direct application of this or that ethical text, or long on current events and the direct application of the preacher's own ethics."

Instead, Stackhouse suggests, preachers should see themselves as neither master theologians or political experts but mediators who "stand between the Bible and current events," helping worshipers see how the Bible applies to the congregation's particular situation.

Similarly, Fleming Rutledge urges Christians to look for where God is at work in the world. She says there's never been a more important time to read newspapers, magazines, journals, and more for analytical accounts of cultural phenomena. Sound bites on the evening news or AOL aren't enough.

In her January Series lecture, Rutledge challenged an audience of more than 1,000 to remember that the gospel is good news for the whole world.

But when evangelical Christians label and dismiss each other according to their views on stem cell research, gun control, the environment, corporate responsibility, racism, or human rights-then the rest of the nation, and the world, dismiss Christians.

American Christians who focus on what divides them end up neglecting other issues they share with Christians outside their borders.

If instead, American evangelicals focused on what they have in common, they'd be better equipped to ponder these vital questions:

  • How will confrontations between Islam and Christianity shape our world?
  • Why is God raising up more Christians in the southern hemisphere than in the northern hemisphere?
  • How can we learn from Chinese Christians, as faith explodes in the world's most populous country?

"Doing real Christian theology puts us in the forefront of all the struggles of our time, because that is where our God (theos) is at work. He is up to something. Our task is to discern, through study of the scriptures and in the context of the worshipping community, what God is doing in the world so that we can move where he is moving," Rutledge writes in her chapter of Loving God with Our Minds: The Pastor as Theologian.

Remember God's mighty power

In Matthew 22:29 and Mark 12:24, Jesus chides religious leaders for not knowing the Scriptures or the power of God. Understanding the full story behind today's news depends on immersing yourself in the Bible, God's story.

Rutledge says that too many American Protestant churches have lost knowledge of and confidence in God's Word. This mutes their public voice and makes them unable to "speak truth to power."

In Loving God with Our Minds, she exegetes Isaiah 55:11 and Romans 10:14-17 to show that the power in preaching does not result from the preacher or from the listeners' receptivity. Rather, God's message-akoekerygmaeuangelionevangel, the revelatory and performative word-is a victorious power that penetrates the unwilling and makes things happen.

African-American churches live out this understanding when members talk about who will "bring the message" rather than who will preach on a given Sunday.

Aligning with God's message makes churches strong, and churches "need to be strong in order to mount the critique of the body politic that the biblical faith requires," Rutledge explains.

To churches that offer genuine service to their communities-yet would rather talk about "spirituality" than the living God-Rutledge warns that their witness is secularized and "does not praise God." She recommends a "revivifying dose of Scripture and the power of God."

To churches that have so acculturated that they identify faith in Jesus as pro-war and only pro-American, Rutledge pleads that they return to what they say they believe in-that Christ's resurrection is good news for the whole world.

She faults Christians on the left and the right for not fully understanding how the gospel describes our status before God and each other. Both sides tend to narrow the doctrine of justification by grace through faith to justification by right doctrine. The result? Some church members feel marginalized for not embracing politically correct dogmas, while others get tossed out for voting Democrat.

See yourself as the sovereign God does

Whether speaking or writing, Rutledge often returns to Romans 11:32-36 (NRSV):

For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! "For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?" "Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?" For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.

Living the truth of this passage, Rutledge says, means seeing that we are all sinners in need of grace. This passage does not support a philosophy that identifies Us and the U.S. with God and ultimate Good. It does not give humans the right to decide who deserves grace.

Some Christians may mistake Psalm 139:19-22 ("do I not hate those who hate you") as permission to divide the world into good and evil and act accordingly. But Rutledge interprets the psalm's final verses ("search me, O God") as David's realization that his thoughts about enemies mean "he himself must be purged of wickedness by the only one who is able to purge us."

Rutledge believes that if evangelical Christians agreed on the sovereignty of divine grace in salvation as "the irreducible core" of evangelism, then they would no longer play the moral superiority card. They would not denounce each other as un-Christian or decide that one country has divine permission to say that some people do not deserve to be treated according to the rules of the Geneva Convention.

Claiming moral superiority to justify harming other people, such as Iraqi prisoners, does not fit with evangelical theology. "The mark of Christians is not righteous indignation of evil. The distinguishing mark is the way we behave when other people are in our power," she says.

Truly evangelical theology, she says, looks at how God can use the most unlikely agents for his purposes, even secret police with "corrupt money in their pockets and blood on their hands," who worked behind the scenes to bring down a falsely-elected president in the Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution.

Can I get a witness?

Even though many evangelical Christians have accepted the polarizing categories staked out in mass media, Fleming Rutledge sees several reasons for hope.

She points to the Episcopal Church, where people who disagree with each other's politics nevertheless join at the communion table each Sunday. "It's a great wonder, a sign of God's presence," she says.

Rutledge credits many African-American churches for persevering with forgiveness and tolerance, keeping faith that God can redeem anyone. Romans 4:17 promises that the God who raises the dead can call into existence things that do not exist. The African-American folk paraphrase of this verse, popularized by Rev. Andrew Young and his colleagues, puts it this way: "God can make a way out of no way."

As Rutledge said in her Calvin lecture, when evangelical Christians define themselves by Scripture and theology, rather than politics, they can "build on biblical bedrock." Together they can seek the common good and offer themselves "for the sake of the whole world for which Christ died."

Who is an Evangelical?

Fleming Rutledge, lecturing during the 2005 January Series at Calvin College, reminded her audience of more than 1,000 people that the root meaning of evangelical is “good news.”

She asked evangelical Christians “not to push people out of the circle if they don't think the same way as you.” She especially asked those who identify with the evangelical right to be more inclusive in who they think of as evangelical Christians.

She charged that evangelical churches in the U.S. have failed to preach and teach a sufficiently radical interpretation of good news. “Many churches are quite acculturated and lack a truly biblical perspective on our lives,” she said.

Rutledge outlined the history of the term “evangelical” and then proposed six beliefs common to evangelical Christians.

History

The term “evangelical” was first used for Protestant denominations committed to sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura—by divine grace alone, by faith alone, by the Bible alone. This Reformed and Lutheran position powerfully influenced Europe and North America from the 1600s on.

During the First Great Awakening in the 1700s, people started using “evangelical” to refer to people who'd had a certain kind of personal experience. John Wesley described it as having his heart “strangely warmed.” Others called this experience being born again.

In recent decades, Christians and reporters have been using “evangelical” to delineate and separate groups of Christ's followers from each other. Evangelicals often try to explain to people (who often don't grasp the need for distinctions), that evangelicals are not strictly fundamentalists but nevertheless see themselves as conservatives, definitely not liberals.

What we hold in common

Rutledge proposes to look at common theological ground among evangelicals. “What we have in common is more significant than what we disagree about. Christians on the evangelical left and right share a devotion to Jesus Christ and Scripture,” she says.

She suggests that people accept each other as evangelical Christians if they can agree on these six key confessions.

  • Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of God.
  • His crucifixion and resurrection were the definitive acts of God to overcome sin, defeat the Evil One on his own turf, and inaugurate the new reality called the kingdom of God.
  • The holy Scriptures are the true revelation of God's own self. The Bible is therefore unique among writings and can be trusted as the living, active word of God.
  • We receive the new life of Christ through baptism, justified by grace alone through faith.
  • The Holy Spirit is actively at work in the world, shaping events and people to bring his ultimate redemptive purpose to pass.
  • God in Christ is gathering disciples, the saints of God, to embody his purposes through the ministry of the one holy, catholic, apostolic church. The church, in which is the very essence of Christian faith, bears witness to the story of God and makes his gospel known to all nations.

“I would like to believe that Christians who appear as evangelicals in the polls could agree on at least these things,” she said during her January Series lecture.

A theological orientation, not a movement

Rutledge recounted an interview given by the late F.F. Bruce, a theologian and commentator respected throughout English-speaking Christendom.

When asked to define “evangelical,” Bruce said an evangelical is someone who believes in the God who justifies the ungodly. “To believe in him and nothing more and nothing less is to be evangelical,” Bruce stated.

The interviewer asked about how to draw the line between evangelicals and those who are not.

Bruce replied that those who are not evangelical have a defective view of God's work of salvation and of the sovereignty of divine grace in the human process. “Anything that begins to allow for an element of human merit or human achievement in the work of salvation is to that extent not evangelical,” he explained.

The interviewer persisted, asking Bruce whether he saw evangelicalism as more a theological orientation than a movement or group within the church. Bruce agreed: “Primarily it is theological.”

That's why, Rutledge explained, it is disastrous to identify evangelical Christians with one political party—because the good news of the gospel is for all people, everywhere and in every age.

Learn More

Get tips on designing services that include peace and justice and help worshipers meet Jesus in the eyes of "the least of these."

Listen to Fleming Rutledge's lecture on polarization among American evangelical Christians. Read an interview with her. Browse her website to buy her books or book her as a speaker.

Consider starting a book club to which you invite evangelical Christians who don't focus on the same issues as each other. Read books that help you understand the faith, theology, and perspectives of Christians you wouldn't normally think of as "in our camp." Question that phrase. And look for what you can admire in each author.

Check this list if you like reading sermons. check out text helps for preaching through the lectionary.

Dana L. Robert, professor of world missions at Boston University School of Theology, explains how the center of world Christianity has shifted southward. Christudoss Theodore, formerly director of communications for the Church of South India Synod and now director of Jersey City Ministries in Jersey City, New Jersey, pleads for unity among American Christians. Warren Larson, a former missionary to Asia, talks about Muslim-Christian relations.

Before the 2004 World Alliance of Reformed Churches gathering in Ghana, women preachers from around the world were invited to submit sermons on the theme "that all may have life in fullness." Other pastors from several countries contributed Bible studies on topics such as choosing life, exclusion and inclusion, and church renewal.

Reflecting on Americans who abused prisoners in Iraq, Richard Mouw says he knows from experience that we are all sinners who need God's grace. Other Christians recommended focusing on our enemies rather than on why U.S. soldiers abused prisoners. Richard Hays asks fellow Methodists what happens to the world when Christians fight about homosexuality but remain silent about the question-the war in Iraq -that troubles Christians in other countries.

Start a Discussion

Before getting into these questions, you might want to take a deep breath, sing "They'll Know We Are Christians by Our Love," and pray John 17:20-23 together:

  • You've probably heard the phrase "God is not a Democrat or Republican." Do you agree with it?
  • How does your choice of friends, conversations, reading material, charitable giving, prayer concerns, worshiping community, or political activity reflect your beliefs on how and where God is at work in the world?
  • Do you ever question another person's Christianity? If so, why? How often do you try to talk with this person and learn from each other?
  • What are the most important issues facing your country and the worldwide church? In what ways do your congregation's sermons, Bible studies, and other activities address or remain silent on these issues?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you've found to recover the power of God's Word in your congregation? 

Whether you do these or any other things, we'd love to learn what works for you:

  • Did you gather church members for a survey of what contemporary issues they'd like to study, guided by what the Bible says?
  • What's the best way you've found to help Christians of different viewpoints explore common ground and respectfully explore their differences?
  • Can you share liturgical banner patterns, PowerPoint templates, or other visuals that help worshipers understand and look for where and how God is at work in the world?

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