Transformed into the Image of…The Church? (Jan-Feb 2010)

By Matt Dabbs

by Ben Overby
January – February, 2010

“Now to be sure, if anything else is a gift of the Gods to men, it is probable that Happiness is a gift of theirs too, and specially because of all human goods it is the highest. But this, it may be, is a question belonging more properly to an investigation different from ours: and it is quite clear, that on the supposition of its not being sent from the Gods direct, but coming to us by reason of virtue and learning of a certain kind, or discipline, it is yet one of the most Godlike things; because the prize and End of virtue is manifestly somewhat most excellent, nay divine and blessed.” Aristotle, Ethics, Book 1, ch. 9

“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” Jesus, The Gospel of John, ch. 15.

Restoration & TransformationAristotle discovered and articulated much reality. He lived 350 years before Jesus (ok, well, no one really ever lived “before” Jesus). Student of Plato and tutor of Alexander the Great, Aristotle knew something about reality.

I’ve become less and less a theoretical person and more and more a practical person. And, like most everyone else, one of my primary concerns is that I become a good person. Aristotle writes about becoming good, not theoretically but practically, noting, “But most people do not do these, but take refuge in theory and think they are being philosophers and will become good in this way, behaving somewhat like patients who listen attentively to their doctors, but do none of the things they are ordered to do. As the latter will not be made well in body by such a course of treatment, the former will not be made well in soul by such a course of philosophy.” Ibid, Book 2, ch. 4.

Everyone that I know wants to be good, though the meaning of good varies greatly from person to person. Aristotle believed that the good life is the life well-lived, a life in which a person is happy. By happiness he meant a deep sense of well-being, of wholeness within and without. And he believed the means to that end was virtue (literally strength), both intellectual and moral.

And this is where Aristotle and Jesus come together. In Christ, we realize the true end of man is not mere happiness but a sort of super-happiness—ecstasy, a happiness to be reveled in throughout the eternities, in what is clearly described as a new creation—a fusing together of heaven and earth at the end of “time.” Jesus was infinitely concerned with our well-being—our joy, our happiness. As noted above (Jn 15), he invites us to set up our lives in his neighborhood, doing what he says in order that our joy may be full.

Lives full of joy—that’s the point of Ethics (by Aristotle), and it is a foundational theme for Jesus. And in Jesus we see the paradoxical nature of the whole thing. By living the virtues of bravery, temperance, humility, meekness, simplicity, etc., he became a sacrifice, murdered by a world known for its vice—reckless power, cowardice, impulsiveness, envy, and an unquenchable thirst for political and social superiority (both Romans and Jews alike).

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus describes the sort of man who is blessed, or happy. And it’s the man with the dispositions described by Jesus that is truly happy—really filled with a sense of well being. Jesus defined what it means to be a good man/woman, and then he lived a life that shows the outrageous good that comes from doing rather than just theorizing. He touched lives. He changed the world in just three years of active ministry.

And this brings me back to Aristotle. He knew that some people only talk about being good, and thus only speculate (rather than experience) about what true happiness is. But Aristotle wanted to live in the condition of happiness, not merely think about it. And thus he wrote Ethics. Ethics teaches moral virtue, something Aristotle describes as habits (or ethics), dispositions of behavior that are good, and when lived, leave us deeply satisfied. He puts the will on the battlefield of pleasure and pain, insisting that the virtuous person responds well to pleasure and pain while the bad person responds inappropriately to both. In a world where we are given the distinct impression that happiness means doing whatever is pleasant and avoiding whatever is painful, Ethics stands as a lasting work of genius which has a far better grasp of reality than the hedonistic tripe trotted out as wisdom in our world today.

I must confess that I’m part of a growing number of Christ-followers exhausted by the powerlessness of our churches to both articulate the real goal of humanity and provide practical guidance toward that end. And when I say I’m exhausted, I’m not exaggerating. I’m not a virtuous man. That is to say, I’m not a good man. However, the one thing I want more than any other is to be good, to have the dispositions described by Jesus. I don’t mean that I want merely to be able to keep commandments. An old fashioned stoning can coerce people to comply. No, I want to keep the commandments because I want to keep the commandments. I want to do the right thing and want to want to do the right thing. And that’s the virtue taught by Aristotle and in an even superior manner taught and lived by Jesus. After all, it was Jesus who said we didn’t have a shot at the kingdom of heaven unless our righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the most righteous people of his day—the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus insisted that it wasn’t enough to do the right thing. To be good people, to be filled with His joy, he insisted that our will had to be completely changed, retrained, or recreated.

Aristotle wrote, “Since, then, the present inquiry does not aim at theoretical knowledge like the others (for we are inquiring not in order to know what virtue is, but in order to become good, since otherwise our inquiry would have been of no use)…” ibid, book 2.

Churches tend to theorize. Much is said about holiness with little progress. Question: are you part of church that takes spiritual growth seriously enough to even identify and consider the level of competency of those in the group? Someone comes to church wanting the good life, happiness, all the stuff Christians promote. He’s told to accept Jesus. He does. He wants to become a good person, doing the right things, and doing the right things easily because he wants to do what is right. He’s told his sins are forgiven. He says, Yes, I know. Now, I want to become a good person. What should I do? He’s told to attend church regularly and give a percentage of his income to God. He says, I can do that, but I’m not sure I want to. I’d prefer to hang on to my money, but if I need to give it in order to go to heaven, reluctantly or not, it’s all yours. He says, But I’d rather want to give the money. Can you teach me to be a giving person who wants to give?

Now I ask you, how many ministers, pastors, etc., are out there in and among churches, who can begin to provide an answer to that last question?

If the church is the body of Christ on earth, opening the door to heaven so that earth gets a taste of what God’s all about, what the future is going to be like, and if a man can’t enter that kingdom unless his righteousness exceeds mere externalism, mere “doing,” and the church doesn’t have a clue how to help a person grow in spiritual competency, in dispositions of holiness, then what’s the point?

If I were Aristotle, I might put it like this . . .

1. If the church is the body of Christ, then Christ is impotent—powerless to transform humanity.
2. Christ is not impotent.
3. Therefore, the church is not the body of Christ.

There’s a woman who doesn’t want to gossip, but she keeps gossiping. After a while, she stops the practice of gossiping due to social pressure, but she still wants to spread juicy bits of news! However, in those times wherein she feels she can get away with it, she whispers a rumor in an open ear. There’s a teenage boy who’s told not to have sex with his girlfriend because it’s fornication. Somehow he’s able keep from committing the act, but not because he doesn’t want to. He’s tormented because he wants to want what God wants—that is he wants to be as pure in motive as in action—just as Jesus taught. He obeys the command out of fear of an STD and pregnancy, or out of fear of burning in hell, not because he wants to be celibate until he’s married. His transformation is skin deep. He wears his righteousness like the Pharisees, learns to hide his inner lusts, knowing full well that Jesus says he can’t enter the kingdom of heaven. There’s a man who wants to help build houses for the poor, but he wants to do other selfish stuff more. He wants to want to serve others more than anything, but he doesn’t know how to increase his desire for the right thing while diminishing his desire for the lesser thing. He doesn’t want to just go pound nails, he wants to want to go pound nails for the poor! He builds for the poor, at times, because he feels obliged not because he wants to. His transformation is skin deep. He knows he’s like a Pharisee and the lovely sermons and classes he participates in don’t begin to deal with the real issue, the most pressing issue, of sanctification.

And in all the above instances, the situation doesn’t improve throughout life. The gossiper would gossip until the day she dies, the fornicator would fornicate as long as she could get away with it, the selfish person would serve only himself if it weren’t for the social pressure of a religion that demands external compliance.

Conforming and transforming are different. And the difference makes all the difference in the world. It should frighten us out of our skins that churches are quite prepared to enlist multitudes of scribes and Pharisess (those who do the right thing for the most part) rather than disciple people so that they become good, virtuous, and in the words of Peter, god-like. Test the validity of this criticism. Ask any church leader to elaborate on how the church is doing with simplicity, transparency, meekness, justice, mercy, purity, peacefulness, kindness, self-control, gentleness, love, faith, etc. Ask any leader how they know if the church is making progress, or if an individual is competent and becoming more so as time continues? How does the church test for competency? How does it specifically address the urgent need for spiritual transformation other than what Aristotle described as theorizing (shall we say sermonizing?)?

A final quote from Aristotle: “We must take as a sign of states of character the pleasure or pain that ensues on acts; for the man who abstains from bodily pleasures and delights in this very fact is temperate, while the man who is annoyed at it is self-indulgent, and he who stands his ground against things that are terrible and delights in this or at least is not pained is brave, while the man who is pained is a coward. For moral excellence is concerned with pleasures and pains; it is on account of the pleasure that we do bad things, and on account of the pain that we abstain from noble ones. Hence we ought to have been brought up in a particular way from our very youth, as Plato says, so as both to delight in and to be pained by the things that we ought; for this is the right education.” Ibid, Book 2, ch. 3.

Aristotle provides an index to test our virtue. Abstaining, when necessary, with delight indicates the virtue of temperance. Abstaining begrudgingly is intemperate. Judas did the right stuff for a long time, and we know he didn’t want to, and finally his innerness caught up with his outerness as he betrayed our King. Peter behaved like a saint in Antioch hanging out with his Gentile brothers. But there was something in his innerness that was not yet transformed and it showed itself when the Jews arrived in town. He was a coward and could do the right thing only when it was easy, never when it was hard. Cowardice was a habit in his life—as such it was a vice, a naturalized behavior. Before he’d die, he’d be transformed through discipline so that he was able to do the right thing when it was necessary, even if it meant being crucified upside down.

Transformation is a process. That we are not presently filled with all the virtue imaginable is excusable only if we are seeking the grace of God to make progress. Churches that are content to leave people “where they are,” or think they can preach virtue into hearts via some sweet Sunday sermons (or bitter Sunday Sermons for that matter), are as impotent as they appear and as they “feel” when we’re in the midst of them. What passes for discipleship today is a 13 week course on Discipleship theory. As Aristotle noted, there are plenty of people who like to theorize supposing that by exchanging conversation over theory, they’ll become virtuous. But it never happens. Virtue remains only a theory.

Discipleship is hard work. But God called people out of the world and into his kingdom so that their gatherings could be transformational—not just momentarily emotional. We are to come together to provoke each other to love and good works. That’s what the Hebrew writer wrote. If there’s any hope for me, any hope for any of us who want to be good, to be transformed, to learn to want the right things and despise the wrong things, to become congruent with an inner being that supports an outer being rather than the hypocrisy so prevalent in the religious world; if any of us is going to find both the grace of God and social support needed to do the hard work of discipleship, then it will be because we simply quit accepting the bland, romanticized form of Christianity perfuming our world today.

In Christ-communities, some are given by God’s grace to be teachers, some as pastors. The principles are taught to the sheep by teachers and the sheep are shepherded toward the goal. It’s pastors who are failing miserably at their vocation. After 15 years in ministry, I can say that the most disappointing thing I learned was how much we love pastors, elders, shepherds, who are CEO-types, who can build great structures, who can administer a professional meeting, who can oversee a budget, and who can delegate like nobody’s business. But there’s little appetite for the sort of people described by Paul as he instructed Timothy and Titus, men who could or can answer the question, How can I become a good person?

As we know, Jesus didn’t die so that we would conform to a set of laws and religious policies. He died so that we could find the power, the grace in Him, essential to being transformed into new creatures, a new humanness that is necessary in order to change the world!

New Wineskins

Ben OverbyBen Overby profiles himself – in part – in this way: “My name is Ben Overby. I’m a hope-driven child of God and servant of King Jesus. I’m in my mid-40’s, married to Kim for 23 years, have two great teenage boys – JT and Alex – and reside in western Georgia. For 15 years I’ve struggled with the message of hope. For most of that time I worked full-time with churches as a preaching/teaching minister. In 2007 I stopped preaching. In 2008 I re-entered the business world. My longterm goal is to continue to build pediatric clinics, expanding our business, while soon developing retreats/seminars for ministers and elders who want to learn better how to ‘set the captives free,’ how to use words to change lives almost instantly, or to free a person from depression, a compulsion, a hated habit. ” You can read the rest of his profile and many other fine posts at the site where he used to blog, http://hopefulliving.wordpress.com/.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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