James McDonald has written about the “Five Distortions of the Gospel in Our Day.” He describes the shallow substitutes for genuine New Testament proclamation and evangelization as the “cake mix gospel” in which key ingredients (e.g. repentance) are left out; the “cultural gospel” in which the main focus is to appear to be relevant; the “cool gospel” which attempts to be fashionable; the “carnal gospel” which emphasizes what Christ can do for you (health, wealth, happiness); and the “careful gospel” which masters the art of “almost saying something” but doesn’t say anything to offend anybody.
I like Mr. McDonald. With all due respect, I want to agree with his analysis while adding one more to his list. Let’s call it the “cloister gospel.”
I was working out at the gym and listening to 1 Kings on my mp3 player. When the narrator reached the following verses, a beeper went off in my mind. See if you can determine why. Here’s the text:
41 Jehoshaphat son of Asa became king over Judah in the fourth year of Israel’s King Ahab. 42 Jehoshaphat was 35 years old when he became king; he reigned 25 years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Azubah daughter of Shilhi. 43 He walked in all the ways of his father Asa; he did not turn away from them but did what was right in the Lord’s sight. However, the high places were not taken away; the people still sacrificed and burned incense on the high places. 44 Jehoshaphat also made peace with the king of Israel. 1 Kings 22:41-44 (HCSB)
According to dictionary.com, a cloister is “a place of religious seclusion, as a monastery or convent.” Zealous believers go to cloisters in order to escape the world and practice their religion without the interference of those who don’t think or act like they do. The theology of the cloister emphasizes personal and privatized spirituality without regard to the big, mean, ugly world around. The songs of the cloister ring out about “Jesus loves ME, this I know” and “MY soul has found a resting place.” Cloister Christianity retreats from the world and practices its devotions in seclusion without any attempt to influence the world for good and for God. For all its pretensions of piety, the cloister gospel may be one of the most prominent denials of the gospel in the church today. It professes to believe in the dynamic power of the gospel to transform lives, but denies the power of the gospel to transform culture. It retreats to the inner sanctum of the cloister and prays in the closet–out of sight and out of mind of the world.
Back to 1 Kings, it is impossible to miss the sacred historian’s emphasis on the positive character and commitment of Jehoshaphat. “He walked in all the ways of his father Asa; he did not turn away from them but did what was right in the Lord’s sight.” He was a good and godly King. Amen. Hallelujah. End of song.
Not quite. The next few words are just as important as the ones just listed. The inspired writer has carefully chosen his phrases to describe a huge area of neglect of this godly king. “However, the high places were not taken away; the people still sacrificed and burned incense on the high places.”
As king, Jehoshaphat had the political authority and the spiritual responsibility to remove the practice of idolatry from his kingdom. With the issuance of a decree and a word to his commanders, he could have destroyed all the shrines and images dedicated to pagan deities and he could have enforced a decision to cleanse the nation of the immorality and superstition associated with Baalism.
But he did not do it. We don’t know why he did not do it. Let me speculate.
Jehoshaphat somehow believed the misconception that religion is a purely private matter and that he should not attempt to influence the public morals or spiritual appetites of his subjects. Had he been a better historian, or had he merely read the historical accounts of Israel’s oscillating devotion to and consequent discipline by Yahweh, he would have known that the security and prosperity of the nation depended upon their breaking free from the chains of idolatry. He should have realized that, under the monarchy, he had both the responsibility and the authority to enforce sacred law. But he did not do it. He was a good and godly man who kept his religion to himself.
My point is not that we should use the force of law to impose our religious convictions on our nation. We are a democracy (actually, we are a republic). We believe in religious liberty. I would not lift a finger to coerce someone to commit to Jesus Christ.
But we do have responsibility that transcends our own personal devotion to Christ. Unlike Jehoshaphat, we cannot issue decrees and order commanders to impose our sovereign will upon society. We can, however, realize that Jesus did not come to establish privatized religion. We can understand that we have not done our duty when we have entered the closet and prayed or entered the chapel and worshiped.
We have been commanded to be salt and light in the world (Matt. 5:13-14). Like meat which tends to putrefaction, our culture is spoiling into moral rottenness. Our culture needs the salt of transformed believers penetrating every aspect of society. Our culture needs the light of biblical truth and the Christian worldview to contrast and contradict the hopelessness and meaningless of the secular and humanistic worldview that tends to pessimism, emptiness, and godlessness.
Cloister Christians are content to go to church and forget about the world. They are neither burdened for the world nor bothered by the thought that the world needs spiritual and intellectual transformation.
Rebecca Pippert wrote a book titled OUT OF THE SALTSHAKER AND INTO THE WORLD. Salty Christians will never be content to stay in the saltshaker. Genuine contemplatives—those who think critically about things—will not be happy staying in the cloister.
(copyright, Alan Day)
Alan Day (1948-2011): Dr. R. Alan Day was pastor of First Baptist Church, Edmond, for 25 years. He also previously pastored churches in Mississippi, Texas, and Louisiana. A prolific writer, Day is the author of two books, Lordship . . . What Does It Mean? and Family First, and a contributing author for Baptist Theologians. He served the Baptist Messenger as a columnist for several years, writing a weekly Baptist Doctrine series from 1999-2002, then an “I’m Glad You Asked” column in 2005.
Alan Day tragically passed away in February 2011 following a motorcycle accident.