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The Importance of Being

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Date April 1, 2010

Many years ago I was taking a class with Dr. R.C. Sproul. He said that most people find their identity either in ‘being’ or ‘doing.’ He pointed to his wife Vesta, who was sitting in the class, and said, ‘If you ask her what she does, she’ll answer, “I don’t do anything, I be.”‘ My best friend, who was sitting next to me, and who knows me all too well, turned and said to me, ‘You’re a do-er; I’m a be-er.’ (That is one who ‘be’s’, not a beer.)

Many Christians are caught up with the idea that individuals and churches have to do something to justify their existence. Yet, while we all ‘do’ things, I think we make a serious mistake when we get doing ahead of being. Think about the way Paul teaches us about the Christian life. The imperative (what you should do) follows the indicative (what you are). It is because you already are joined to Christ in his death and resurrection that you can do something about putting sin to death and living a new life. What you are always comes before and takes precedence over what you (try to) do. Your identity is complete; your performance is at its best always much less.

I think this principle applies to the whole of life. Think about the majority of Christian women. If you ask her, ‘What have you accomplished in your life?’ she is not likely to point to what many consider great accomplishments – making a scientific discovery, building a great company, exercising political power, and such.

Her real accomplishments most often have much more to do with being than with doing. She is a loving helpmeet, a nurturing mother, a faithful worshipper. What she does flows from what she is, and often does not look very important – cooking meals, changing diapers, running a household, driving carpools, showing hospitality, etc.

Now, please understand that I am not saying that women are so limited that this is about all they can do. I am saying something very different. I am saying that Christian women show us that being is far more important than doing. I am, for instance, using them as an example to men, who need to learn more about how important it is to be husbands, fathers, and worshippers and not to focus just on working, producing, and ruling things.

The mistake Christians make thinking about themselves as individuals we can also make thinking about the church. We can think the church has to do something to justify its existence. It is interesting that today evangelicals are tending to repeat what, I personally think, was a mistake early in the last century.

Both liberals who had lost confidence in the Bible and a supernatural Christ, and evangelicals who still believed in things like evangelism and missions, came to promote the ‘social gospel’ because simply holding and proclaiming the gospel did not do anything for society. So the church needed to support all kinds of social goods, such as promoting temperance and prohibition, working for peace (or, as in the case of Woodrow Wilson, making war to try to make the world safe for democracy), trying to improve the lot of tenement dwellers, etc. (I am not criticizing efforts to make society better. I am questioning the thinking that motivated the church to put such an emphasis on doing something to show its relevance.)

Today, it is almost a given that the church needs to do something besides preach the Word, administer the sacraments, nurture covenant children, shepherd the saints to heaven. These things that have more to do with being than with doing are often seen as only half the work of the church or as being quite insufficient if the church does not change the here and now for the good of people. This doing may take the form of the deed part of what is called word and deed ministry. Depending on an individual congregation this may mean community economic development, political activism, financial counselling, or a dozen other things. (Again, I am not criticizing these activities as such, but rather asking if Christ and the Apostles taught that the church should do such things.)

I think we can sell very short the power of the church being God’s people, Christ’s body, the Spirit’s temple. The church at worship, being the church, may not impress the world or even some Christians. But, it is all about things that are substantial and eternal.

Not too long after we got out of seminary, one of my classmates commented on the value of what he had learned from the pastoral care courses. He said that his experience had affirmed ‘the power of presence’ when people were in crisis. That is, when people experienced sickness, death, and the great trials of life, a minister’s being there counted for much. It was not so much what he did but that he was there as a minister of Word and sacrament that mattered most.

Don’t underestimate the temporal and eternal significance of the church’s being there in this world that is passing away.

William H Smith is Pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Louisville, Mississippi.

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