Endangered Gospel

How Fixing the World is Killing the Church

This website it dedicated to promoting John C. Nugent's book Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church.

If you have a question about Endangered Gospel, fill out the form below. If the question is appropriate for a wide audience, the author will answer it below as soon as possible. You may also get in touch with the author by way of the Connect tab.

Name
Name

Question 1 - How does the approach you take in Endangered Gospel impact creation care / environmental Concern? (Tommy M)

The approach advocated in Endangered Gospel has several important implications for creation care or environmental concern. Four basic truths are immediately relevant:
(1) Nowhere in the New Testament are Christians in particular called to fix nonhuman creation.
(2) It is clear in Genesis 1-2 that all humans everywhere must be responsible stewards of whatever nonhuman creation they inhabit or interact with. It’s part of what it means to bear God’s image and exercise dominion within creation.
(3) Just like God called Israel to be good stewards of their land and animals in the Old Testament in order to show the nations what proper creation care looks like, so Christians must continue to relate to nonhuman creation in exemplary ways. Nothing in the New Testament leads us to believe otherwise.
(4) The powers and principalities in particular have been given jurisdiction over large portions of nonhuman creation and are responsible to God for overseeing it well.

These four truths were relevant in Old Testament times and continue to be relevant for Christians. Yet they do not fully reflect the newness that Christ brought. In the Old Testament, we see in several places that fallen humanity has a negative impact on nonhuman creation. The soil cries out, for instance, when Cain defiles it with Abel’s blood. Several prophets highlight the negative impact that human sin makes on the land and animals (e.g., Joel). In multiple places we see creation groaning under the burden of human sin.

Something changes, however, in the New Testament. Romans 8 depicts creation not only as mourning its fallen condition, but also as eagerly awaiting the revelation of the children of God. It’s as if creation is aware that the coming of Christ and the beginning of God’s kingdom has created a kingdom people that has begun to experience the kingdom already. It is aware, further, that this experience is not universal. It is the experience of God’s people and it is not fully complete. It will only find completion when Christ returns. Yet only after Christ returns will creation itself be swept up in that full restoration. I explain this in chapter 3 of Endangered Gospel.

All of this is to say that only when the children of God live as first fruits of God’s kingdom does nonhuman creation experience the new creation made possible by Christ. Until Christ returns, God’s people are as close to the kingdom as nonhuman creation can get. So just as the created order reels under the violence, greed, hatred, and discrimination of fallen humanity, it may also thrive and enjoy the peace, generosity, love, and equality that is embraced, displayed, and proclaimed by God’s set apart people.

Christians may therefore bless nonhuman creation not merely by being good stewards and advocates for it, but also—and perhaps more importantly—by living out the new creation in the midst of nonhuman creation. So let us fill creation with multiple churches in every city and town. Let us dance upon and alongside nonhuman creation with love, peace, justice, and harmony with our common Creator. If creation does not experience this through us, then it will not experience it at all.

Creation is better off when any person of goodwill—Christian or not—does something that impacts the environment positively. This is good work that we should applaud and encourage wherever it happens. We shouldn’t hesitate to be a part of it, so long as it doesn’t draw us into practices and narratives that stand in fundamental tension with God’s kingdom. But we should not equate this with God’s kingdom work. It is unlikely that creation will either. For it is most eager, according to Romans 8:19, when it encounters God’s children carrying out their specific mission by living in new creation ways that only those who possess the first fruits of God’s Spirit can (Romans 8:23).

Question 2 - The parable of the Good Samaritan seems to extend the idea of love to those beyond our circles. Does this contradict the claims of Endangered Gospel? (Jubilee H)

This is a great question and one that I am asked quite often. I offer a brief answer to it on p. 95. But it deserves more space than I could give it in the book. Before digging in, I offer some context for the question.

The thesis of Endangered Gospel is that God has not called us “to make” this world a better place, but “to be” the better place God has already made in this world through Christ. Part one sets forth this thesis, part two shows how it follows from the full scope of the Bible story, and part three tests this thesis against specific case studies. This question grows out of part two, ch. 11, where I show that it is the church’s responsibility to display God’s kingdom in our life together. On p. 90, I make a claim that is NOT original to me. Citing a New Testament scholar, Gerhard Lohfink, I observe that one of the best kept secrets in NT studies is that when the NT talks about love for humans it almost always refers to love for fellow believers. I then quote verbatim 30 such instances. This is a nearly comprehensive list that leaves out only two instances: the passage about enemy love and the parable of the Good Samaritan. I save these for last because they appear to be exceptions to the rule (see pp. 96-97 for my discussion of enemy love).

Before I focus on the Good Samaritan, I want to note that if these two instances are in fact exceptions, then they would compromise the claim that the NT never tells us to love unbelievers. That is not a claim I need to make or one that my thesis depends upon. The claim I make in ch. 11 is that the NT clearly teaches that Christian witness centers on believers displaying God’s kingdom by loving one another. This is encapsulated in Jesus’s claim that everyone will know we are disciples by our “love for one another” (John 13:34-35). The Apostle Peter underscores this claim in 1 Peter 2:17 when he instructs us to “Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the Emperor.” Peter’s point—also in the context of witness (v. 12)—is that God uniquely receives our fear, fellow believers uniquely receive our love, but everyone (including the emperor) receives our honor.

If the primary calling of the church was to make this world a better place, then this overwhelming emphasis on love for one another—to the near exclusion of passages about loving unbelievers—makes little sense. If the primary calling is to be God’s better place and it is through our display of God’s better place (in our life together) that unbelievers will come to faith, then this lopsided emphasis on in-house love makes perfect sense. So, if I can prove that the biblical portrait of love is highly lopsided, which even a 30:2 ratio would demonstrate, then I’ve accomplished my goal in that chapter. But I get a little greedy anyway and go after the two possible exceptions: enemy love and Samaritan love. My claim is not that these passages teach us NOT to love outsiders to the faith, but that it is not as clear as most people assume that these passages are about love of outsiders.

Now to the Good Samaritan. The most important point to make is that the Samaritan is a Samaritan and not a Gentile. Gentiles were true outsiders to Israel. Jesus makes explicit that he was not sent to Gentiles but to the lost sheep of Israel (Matt 15:24). New Testament scholars agree that the mission to the Gentiles does not begin until the conversion of Cornelius’s household in Acts 10 (even though there are earlier hints that Gentiles were capable of faith and would soon be discipled). In Acts 10, however, the Apostle Peter is surprised by God’s special favor upon the Gentiles. For up until this point, in his experience, they were truly outsiders. But this was NOT the case with Samaritans. Jesus initiates the conversion of a Samaritan woman and her whole village in John 4. And the mission to Samaritans in Acts, which Peter is part of, begins in chapter 8, before the Gentile conversions. For some reason—to Jesus, Luke, and Peter—Samaritans and Gentiles were not the same.

There was certainly a significant difference between Samaritans and other Jews, but they had enough in common that they were more like estranged siblings. They both shared the land of Palestine and they both claimed to worship the God of Israel (though on different mountains). From Jesus’ perspective, it seemed as if the Samaritans were part of Israel’s lost sheep – even if they strayed farther from the fold than all other Jews. In Luke’s Gospel, they are treated like Jewish prostitutes and tax collectors. Mainstream Jews had written them off, but Jesus was unwilling to abandon them altogether. He embraces them as part of his mission if gathering Israel’s lost sheep. They were definitely not the center of his mission, but he draws them in from the periphery.

The message of the parable of the Good Samaritan, then, is that if God’s people are truly to love one another the way God has called them, then they are going to have to love not only the easy-to-love who are at the center of the faith community, but also the hard-to-love who are at the periphery of the community. The message does not appear to be that Jesus is making all people everywhere the object of Christian love. If this were the case, it appears that none of the apostolic authors caught on. For all NT letters, without exception, speak about human love in terms of love for fellow believers.

This whole point may seem a bit less scandalous when one considers how first century believers likely defined love. Today we think of love rather lightly. It is about being nice to people, helping them out in times of need, and wanting what’s best for them. If that is what we mean by love, then there is ample evidence in the NT that we ought to love unbelievers. There are passages that instruct us to honor, do good to, be kind to, pray for, and witness to unbelievers. If we fail to do this, we have failed at our calling with relation to unbelievers. So I am not suggesting that anyone start neglecting and ignoring unbelievers or to abandon all efforts to serve them or seek the good. When the church ceases to exist for unbelievers, it ceases to exist as God’s missionary people.

Rather, in the OT and NT, love has a stronger meaning than that. It has to do with prioritizing. Likewise, its opposite, hate, has a weaker meaning that we often assign to it. It has to do with de-prioritizing. The ones we love get the lion’s share of our time, energy, and resources. The ones we hate are relegated to second place—not first. We don’t go out of our way to harm them! This makes sense of passages about God loving Jacob and hating Esau, Jacob loving Rachel and not Leah, and Jesus telling us to love God and hate our families. In Scripture, love is about placing some above others. To place our family before God is not an option, but it doesn’t mean treating them disrespectfully or not honoring them.

What Christians have to grasp is that God does want all people to be saved and he wants the church to participate. But his strategy is to fill this world with communities that showcase his kingdom by how they love one another. Since this is God’s strategy, it must be the best strategy. We might think we would be more effective evangelists if we were to prioritize unbelievers before believers and, in so doing, “to love them into the kingdom.” But that is hubris. Do we really know more than God what is best? If we really care about unbelievers, we must follow the directives of the all-knowing, all-wise God. All throughout the OT, God’s people resisted his strategy for them in this world. Whenever they improvised or tweaked God’s plan, their efforts failed. I wrote this book because I want to see us succeed, precisely for the sake of unbelievers.

Question 3 - Are the ideas in Endangered Gospel new? If not, why haven't I heard more about them and where can I read others who think similarly? (Dalaney A)

The ideas in Endangered Gospel are not original. What makes them seem fresh today, I suspect, is the context in which we live. Over the past few decades, scholars and popular level writers have done a commendable job of convincing Christians that the gospel has profound social implications. It’s not just about saving souls for the hereafter; it also entails transformed life in community in the present.

Yet Christians today have such a strong allegiance to western culture and such a weak view of the church that it seldom dawns upon them that this transformed way of life in community is supposed to be about the shared life of God’s set apart people: the church. They assume that the gospel empowers them to make the world a better place and not to be the better place God has already begun to make in this world through Christ.

Christians have enjoyed a majority presence in the western world for so long that the logic of a minority movement with a distinct way of life is alien to us. Western culture has seen so much scientific, technological, and social progress that it is nearly impossible to regard it, like Scripture does, as the old order that is passing away. How could an ancient religious sect that is rapidly losing cultural clout bear the meaning and direction of world history?

Everyone likes to be on the winning team, and all signs seem to indicate that the western church is losing. Yet western culture offers no hope for eternal life, so demoralized Christians don’t want to forfeit their spiritual stakes altogether. Instead, like good investors, they diversify their lifestyle portfolio. They invest deeply enough in western cultural goods to reap their immediate benefits, and they invest just enough in spiritual goods to secure a postmortem return.

Only, now more than ever Christians have come to equate spiritual investment with good deeds of world betterment. It has become second nature to read the Bible as supporting this agenda, and the gospel itself has been conformed to it. Churches have done little to counteract these trends. Leaders often accept the reality that they must settle for their parishioners’ leftover energies. So when congregants are passionate about anything and want to pursue it together with the church, far be it for them to get in the way. World betterment projects are thus quickly assimilated into church programming and added to the missions budget. Bible folk attend studies, anxious people join support groups, parents enroll their kids in youth group, and social activists participate in protests. There’s something for everyone.

So the short answers is: No, the ideas in Endangered Gospel aren’t new. They only seem new in our current cultural climate. Scholars like John Howard Yoder (Mennonite), Gerhard Lohfink (Roman Catholic), and Stanley Hauerwas (Methodist/Anglican) have been saying such things for a long time. Yoder’s Revolutionary Christian Citizenship (esp. chs. 1 & 6) spells out the specific place of God’s people in God’s mission in an engaging and easy to read way. Lohfink is a bit more difficult to read, but he sets forth the NT foundations for a similar view in Jesus and Community. Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon provocatively spell out the specific posture of God’s people in this world and warn us against making the world’s most noble agendas our agenda in Resident Aliens. More recently, Scot McKnight says similar things in Kingdom Conspiracy.

The contribution of Endangered Gospel is to locate the church’s precise role in the full Bible story. As far as I can tell, no one else brings together the Old and New Testament pieces in as brief and accessible a manner. I also expose the lack of biblical support for the notion that God has commissioned his people to make the world a better place.