Excellence and the low expectation church
When the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians to encourage their offering for the persecuted saints in Jerusalem he indicated something about the early church that has gone unnoticed in my thirty five years of pastoral leadership. He wrote---
But as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all
earnestness, and in our love for you—see that you excel in this act of grace also.
2 Corinthians 8:7, ESV
It's just another evidence that God's Word is "...living and active..." (Hebrews 4:12), the simple fact that in thirty-five years of reading, studying, and preaching through the Corinthian correspondence I really never grasped one of the truths so evident in this passage. Paul was commending the Corinthians for excelling in everything and challenging them to excel in the grace of giving. That he expected excellence from them in everything is the thing. Reading the letters we know they weren't actually excellent in their service or mission. Their church was a delicate admixture of faith, jealously, division, misunderstanding, and human folly. But, there was the expectation of excellence. Paul aimed them higher.
It was a mark of Paul's epistles, this call for excellence. For example, when he wrote to what for me was his favorite congregation, the Philippians, he mentioned excellence in two contexts--
And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge
and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure
and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that
comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
Philippians 1:9-11, ESV
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just,
whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any
excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things
Philippians 4:8, ESV
To Titus he added another dimension, still a call for a higher standard for God's people.
The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those
who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works.
These things are excellent and profitable for people.
Titus 3:8, ESV
In a world of slippery slopes, lowered bars, truth decay, and axioms that depict easier standards across the board, a scorecard defined by excellence is a rare thing. It's true at church too. Suddenly we're the generation whose dependence on grace gives us license to transgress God's expectations, whose admission of a sinful nature gives a wink and nod to erroneous living, and whose fear of offense recognizes effort but not attainment. With culture zooming past absolute truth the expectation of excellence is passe. Let's give God just enough to get us in. In fact, let's do just enough to get by.
C.S. Lewis' quote from The Abolition of Man, written in 1943, is appropriate and still applicable in our post-modern world. He wrote,
We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We
laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.
Lowering the bar of expectation in every venue of human pursuit takes away our need for God or belief that He will provide for us as we maneuver the complicated super-highways of life. Doing so in our spiritual lives, and as a result in our church lives, leaves us foundering in the dark waters of human depravity with little hope of overcoming the outcomes of a lowered bar. And, that bar at church seems to lower with the swinging pendulum of the times. Let me illustrate.
Several years ago there was an equation that marginalized many churches. It was this---
churches with high expectations = churches that abuse
A group of best-selling Christian books took aim at churches with strong membership covenants, behavior expectations of church members and especially those holding leadership positions, standards of modesty, attendance assumptions, participation in the mission of the church, and other requirements. All of these were abuses that took advantage of people striving for a spiritual life.
The result today? Low expectation churches. How about a low expectation world? What happened to the biblical ideal and spiritual discipline of excellence? As a reminder I love what Mark wrote about Jesus. "And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, He has done everything well" (Mark 7:37).
Well yes, that's Jesus as not me. Then again, there's this---
By this we know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk
in the same way in which he walked.
1 john 1: 5-6, ESV