Sunday, January 13, 2008

Cost of Discipleship

Continuing my Bonhoeffer theme, prompted by a chance discovery at i-Tunes:

"When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." writes Bonhoeffer in Cost of Discipleship, a dense and challenging little tome. It is not the kind of rosy optimistic aphorism that you would expect to find in one of Joel Osteen's efforts, or the Purpose Driven Life, or any other of the populist Christian self-help books that populate the best-sellers lists. I am quite confident that, if Cost of Discipleship were published today, it would never breach the top ten, let alone dwell there for months at a time. Yet in fifty years, when Osteen is but a footnote in history, Bonhoeffer's work will endure.

In today's American church it is more a question of, when Christ calls a man he bids him come and give 15 %, or so a letter in Ask Amy (Dulcie points these references out to me lest you wonder what I spend all day reading) would suggest. A woman fallen on hard times, after having to separate from her affluent, though embezzling, husband, was no longer in a position to hand over the 15 % tithe expected (nay demanded) by the church. (That's inflation for you: it used to be 10 %). She was, she says, shunned by the body. She observed that the pastor drove a Mercedes and his wife an Audi. I wonder what transpo' a latter day Jesus would favour? A new Nano perhaps from India. Or Pace. I'm sure he would be green.

Should one begrudge a hard-working pastor a nice car or a nice house? Why not, though I was shocked when I learned that James MacDonald, of the very successful Harvest Bible Chapel in Rolling Meadows, plonked down nearly $4 million to buy the house once owned by a retiring wealthy senator. (That I have just learned that he is younger than me just makes it worse). How much of his flock's hard-won tithes ended up in the granite counter tops? Should our pastors instead be expected to shuffle around the neighbourhood on a bicycle in pumps wearing a cardigan from the last century? No, the modern pastor does not the rounds of the neighbourhood make any longer. He has an office and is the CEO of his church corporation. Underlings, or even unpaid lay people, are called upon to perform those pastoral services in the modern "one church many campus" franchise concept that seems to be proving enormously successful - if success is measured by attendance and turnover. In a sense, the appropriateness of using the word pastor at all any longer can be questioned.

The tithing thing has long been a problem for me. I once heard someone offering that the last thing to be converted was a man's checkbook, so perhaps I never completed the process. Judgment day will be the determining factor there I suppose. The 10 % thing is one of the few parts of the bible that modern churches like to be rigid about. In the attempt to be inclusive and out-reaching, there is a tendency towards fuzziness in some areas, which all of a sudden evaporates at then 10 % rule, no rationalizing in terms of metaphor or archaic tribal custom here. Some, it seems the church in the letter is one such, have introduced a sliding (upward) scale, where 10 % is the entry level point. No biblical basis for that. Here's the thing: the tithing, the honoring of God with the first fruits of one's labours, was ceremonial and involved burning stuff. So, forgive me if I am a little skeptical about how converting that ancient ceremony to God into supporting burgeoning church staffs is justified.

The church can also be remarkably lacking in compassion when told that someone cannot afford it. It is a test of faith, this giving of 10 %, they will say. Give it freely and see what reward you will get. The church will show little patience with the person who "can't afford it." "Ye of little faith." they will say. Or, worse perhaps, the backslider will be admonished to modify the budget to "Put God first." The argument that everyone believes they need more money no matter how much they have will be trotted out to defend this. Perhaps there is some truth in this, but at some point, 10 % of nothing is nothing.


Snipper "Book Zeller" said...

I am sorry I have been unable to read your past few entries and am about to skedadle off to Chambana again.
However, my dear brother was at a going away part at a nearby restaurant, code name Charlies, and he thought he might have spied the J-master himself. I was wondering if his identification was accurate. I believe this was thursday evening this occurred.

Aylwin Forbes said...


I hope your term downstate is prosperous. My oldest offspring has just been accepted into that illustrious institution, so you maybe sharing the campus with a .jar next year.

If codename Charlies is in fact Charlies, indeed it could have been me. In fact I was there Thursday and Friday, slumped over a pint of Cane and Ebel reading the latest New Scientist.

What, the SSCP has a drink problem?