Have Christians in America “missed it”?
In other words, have we in the land of the free not fully grasped, appreciated, and embraced what it truly means to be followers of Jesus Christ? Francis Chan answers that question with an emphatic “yes” in his bestselling book, Crazy Love. It has caused quite a stir since its release in 2008. Better late than never, I decided to get a copy and read it for myself.
Chan’s critique boils down to this: “The goals of American Christianity are often a nice marriage, kids who don’t swear, and good church attendance.” In other words, not much else besides that. Rather, he sees American Christianity as all form and no substance with little emphasis upon service, especially towards the poor.
In the first two chapters, Chan talks about the greatness of God, and how He is far bigger, more holy, more loving, and more merciful than we realize. He then reminds us how short our lives are when compared to eternity, and hence how little time we have to do good works for God’s kingdom.
Following are the next two chapters, which are by Chan’s own admission the most controversial in the book. Here, he profiles the lukewarm–those who say they are Christians, but the way they live runs counter to their confession of faith.
Chan then describes what true love for God looks like–namely in acts of service towards others, especially those who are less fortunate.
In chapter nine, the author profiles several people who are his ideal–that is to say, they have lived in such a way to demonstrate their radical love for Jesus. And in the final chapter, Chan issues a final challenge to his readers to truly live for Christ.
On the One Hand…
Chan is right that in far too many instances, the lives of churchgoers are little different from their non-churchgoing neighbors, and that there is too little emphasis upon service and humility. He is also right that there is too little contemplation about the greatness of God.
The author also has valid criticisms of American churchgoers, whom he says “feel secure because they attend church, made a profession of faith at age 12, were baptized, come from a Christian family, vote Republican, or live in America. Just as the prophets in the Old Testament warned Israel that they were not safe because they lived in the land of Israel, so we are not safe just because we wear the label Christian or because some people persist in calling us a ‘Christian nation.’”
Chan is also very careful about his motives. He wants it to be clear that he is not attempting to bash Christians. Rather, it is because he loves Christ and His bride, the Church, that he writes what he does.
While Chan does make sweeping statements (more on this later), he tries to note that not everyone is called to the pastorate or mission field. But most importantly, he tries to stress that Christians should be doing more with a right motive: it should not be done out of fear, but out of a deep and heartfelt love for God.
On the Other Hand…
Crazy Love is not without its problems. Others have done a very capable job of probing the deeper theological issues (especially here), so I will limit my criticisms to five points.
1. Chan does not properly contextualize the Scriptures he quotes.
For instance, he quotes Luke 14:12-14 at least twice: “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”
The clear impression given is that this was a stand-alone command given to all Christians. But the context tells a different story: this is in the midst of a passage where Jesus was invited to dine with the pharisees–and the passage is clear that they had sinful motives which contributed to our Lord’s strong statement. Additionally, Luke 14:12 begins with, “And He said to the man who invited Him…”
In other words, this is a word of admonishment to an individual; since Christ is God, He knows the hearts of men, and so He knew that the host’s motives were not pure. Hence Christ rebuked him, and hence this is not a universal command to all believers.
Of course, this is not to say that this passage has no bearing on our lives; it is in the Bible, and so it certainly has much to teach us about proper motives for giving and generosity. But as with any passage of Scripture, it is critical to teach what it is saying without divorcing it from its original context.
Chan also makes the very common mistake of using Christ’s confrontation with the rich young ruler (Luke 18:21-25) as a proof-text for professing Christians who don’t serve others. In using this text, Chan commits a very common mistake: he assumes it’s teaching something that it’s not–i.e., that a rich man selling all that he has and giving it to the poor is in some sense a prerequisite to eternal life; rather, Jesus is confronting this man who had just said that he had kept all of God’s commands from his youth. When he walked away from Jesus’ challenge to give away all he had to the poor, he showed demonstrably that he could not even keep the First Commandment.
As the saying goes, a text without a context is a pretext. In other words, if you wrench a verse out of its original setting, as Chan does quite often, you can make the text say whatever you want it to. In quoting these and other verses out of context, the author places unnecessary guilt on the backs of his readers.
2. In his chapter on “Profile of the Lukewarm,” Chan makes some troubling, contradictory, and/or sweeping statements, and he uses some questionable teaching methods. Chan quotes Revelation 3:15-18: “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.”
Chan is emphatic that Christ is speaking exclusively to unbelievers; and given the above description, he may be correct that there were many in the Laodicean Church. However, he neglects to mention the very next verse, 19: “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.” In omitting this verse, Chan ignores a very crucial piece of evidence that Christ is also speaking to believers. This is so because verse 19 is consistent with Hebrews 12 and Proverbs 3, both of which speak of God’s loving discipline towards His children.
So then, perhaps this verse is speaking not just to unbelievers, but also to believers who have gotten stagnant. This would make sense, as we are going to find both in any local church.
But Chan will not acknowledge this. Instead, he offers the following explanation for why he comes to such an abrupt conclusion: “In an earlier draft of this chapter, I quoted several commentators who agreed with my point of view. But we all know that you can find quotes to support any view you want to take. You can even tweak word studies in your effort. I’m not against scholarship, but I do believe there are times when we can come to more accurate conclusions through simple reading.”
Setting aside his shallow caricature of scholarship, why does that “simple reading” not include Revelation 3:19?
To be clear, Chan may well be right about the state of Christ’s audience. But as a pastor, Chan is required to “rightly divide the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15), and patiently walk his reader through the passage, which he does not do.
He continues: “Rather than examining a verse and dissecting it, I chose to peruse one Gospel in each sitting…I attempted to do so from the perspective of a twelve-year-old who knew nothing about Jesus. I wanted to discover what reasonable conclusions a person would come to while objectively reading the Gospels for the first time.”
Granted, there is something to be said for the simple reading of the Bible. But a book targeted at a popular audience is not the place to do it.It’s obvious why: the author has no way of knowing how much, or if any, theological training his readers have had. Therefore, he should examine and dissect verses since he is purporting to teach what the Bible says on a vitally important topic.
Chan also makes sweeping statements about those whom he considers to be lukewarm. There are many examples that I could point to from Crazy Love, but I will limit it to two.
In one place, he states, “Lukewarm people will serve God and others, but there are limits to how far they will go or how much time, money, and energy they are willing to give.”
Never mind, apparently, that some people have busy schedules; perhaps some parents have to work two jobs to make ends meet, have small children to tend to, or have to care for a sick relative or a special-needs child, and so are only capable of committing so much time, money, and energy.
In another place, Chan declares, “Lukewarm people do not live by faith; their lives are structured so they do not have to. They don’t have to trust God if something unexpected happens–they have their savings account. They don’t need God to help them–they have their retirement account in place…They don’t depend on God on a daily basis–their refrigerators are full and, for the most part, they are in good health.”
If this statement isn’t legalism (and assuming that this is not merely a sarcastic comment which should have been edited out of the final manuscript), it comes perilously close to it. Why is it his business if people have a saving or retirement account, or even a full refrigerator? While we should heed Luke 12:16-21 (Chan’s proof-text), we should also heed 1 Timothy 5:8, which says that one who does not provide for his own “has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
While Chan is correct that Christians should be more giving of their time and resources, that does not mean that they shouldn’t save ahead for their future. Having a savings or retirement account does not mean lack of trust in God–rather, it is part of caring for one’s family, and easing the burden on one’s children when one gets older.
Simply stated, giving to the poor and saving for the future need not be an either/or situation for the Christian, as Chan seems to be saying; rather, it should be both/and.
3. There are confusing and possibly contradictory comments about grace. After spending nearly two chapters slamming “the lukewarm,” Chan suddenly backtracks and says, “I do not want true believers to doubt their salvation as they read this book. In the midst of our failed attempts at loving Jesus, His grace covers us.
“Each of us has lukewarm elements and practices in our life; therein lies the senseless, extravagant grace of it all. The Scriptures demonstrate clearly that there is room for our failure and sin in our pursuit of God…I’m NOT saying that when you mess up it means you were never really a genuine Christian in the first place. If that were true, no one could follow Christ.”
This statement would not be a problem except that earlier, he declared the following: “To put it plainly, churchgoers who are ‘lukewarm’ are not Christians. We will not see them in heaven.”
So then, which is it? Are they Christians, or are they not? How many times does a person need to veer into lukewarmness before we can begin to question their salvation? It is unclear.
Or, perhaps Chan was just being careless with his verbiage. But when one is writing a book–and especially on such an important topic–one ought to go out of their way to be crystal clear about what they are saying so as to avoid any unnecessary confusion. This is an unfortunate oversight that may have some readers scratching their heads.
4. I was troubled by some of the people Chan chose to spotlight as believers who should be emulated. For example, he writes approvingly of a man at his church who “donated his house to the church and moved in with his parents. He told me that he will have a better house in heaven, and that it doesn’t really matter where he lives during this lifetime.”
One wonders how that man’s parents feel about this.
Additionally, Chan highlights Shane Claiborne without mentioning his questionable teachings (see here). Granted, Chan does site some worthy examples for believers to consider as heroes. But citing Claiborne as an example of Christlikeness without examining his teachings shows an appalling lack of discernment.
5. There is not much Scriptural balance to the picture that Chan paints of the ideal Christian life. While he quotes verses about serving the less fortunate, nowhere is any mention made of 1 Timothy 5:16-25, which qualifies diaconal assistance–and even says that it should be denied in some cases.
Neither is there any mention of Galatians 6:10, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” While this verse does not teach that Christians shouldn’t help unbelievers, it does say that there should in some sense be a priority toward our fellow Christians.
Lastly, there is no mention of verses like 1 Thessalonians 4:11, which tell us to “aspire to live quietly, work with your own hands, and tend to your own affairs” (cf. 1 Tim. 2:5). In short, the call here is to live modest and unpretentious lives, work with excellence at our chosen vocations, and tend diligently to our own affairs. Further, it reminds us that rather than doing “something big” for God, Christian growth more typically takes place while doing the same mundane things over and over again: going to church to partake of the means that God has provided for growth, disciplining children–often on the same issue many times over, and working at your job to provide for your family.
These verses provide helpful correctives to Chan’s thesis. It is a pity that he does not mention them, and so not present a more balanced picture of the Christian life.
American Christianity does need to be awoken from its slumber. I had heard that Crazy Love might be the book to do that. But while it had its moments–some of which were useful, convicting, and humbling–I have a hard time recommending it for the reasons cited above.