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New Wineskins: Why the Church Needs to Abandon Evangelicalism

04/02/2014 12:34 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2014

Last week was a bad week.

Not just for World Vision, but for the church.

The zeal with which so many Christians abandoned their sponsored children in the name of theological purity wasn't just embarrassing; it was repugnant and exposed the hate of so many that for so long has been hidden under the guise of "a difference of opinion."

In the time that has past since that epic fiasco, I've found myself returning over and over again to a verse I admit I rarely visit.

It's one of those odd, seemingly out of nowhere sayings of Jesus that are sometimes hard to understand and apply to modern life because they're full of archaic language and images that have little or no bearing on the modern world.

I'm talking about Matthew 9:14-17.

In the scene the gospel writer describes, John the Baptist's disciples have come to Jesus asking why he isn't more like them and the Pharisees who devote themselves to the ancient spiritual discipline of fasting. Jesus responds in his typical cryptic Jesus way, talking about the bridegroom and not mourning while he's around.

Then he starts talking about sewing and drinking.

Not your typical combo.

No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.

It's that image of wineskins that I haven't been able to get out of my mind for the past few days.

Now, if you didn't grew up in the church or you're not a time traveller from the Ancient Near East, that metaphor may not make a bunch of sense. After all, if you poured wine back into the bottle or into an old glass neither of them would break.

Unlike today, in the Ancient Near East wine was sometimes carried in leather bags made of animal skins. These leather bags, as you probably guessed, were called wineskins. If you've ever had anything made of leather and kept it around for very long, you know that it can very easily become dry, brittle and cracked.

That's not a good thing when you're trying to transport wine.

Because wine breathes.

It's not quite alive, but as it ferments it gives off gases. A new wineskin has the ability to expand to make room for the breath of the spirit. But the days of expansion have passed for an old wineskin. If you pour new wine into it, the gases will expand, pressure will build, and the wineskin will burst, destroying it and ruining the wine.

I believe the church is in need of new wineskins.

As the past few years have hinted at, and last week made crystal clear, evangelicalism is an old wineskin that is long past its expiration date. It was a new wineskin once and served the church well for a time, but it has become dry, brittle and broken.

The Spirit is alive and needs room to breathe in the church, to expand the gospel to people who desperately need it. But evangelicalism is a old wineskin that clearly can't handle the expansion of the Spirit.

So we must let it go.

Two years ago, I wrote a series of posts entitled "Abandoning Evangelicalism." Today, I'm convinced the need to abandon that culture is more pressing now than ever before.

But let me be clear.

I am not at all calling for the abandonment of the Christian faith.

Too often we confuse evangelicalism with Christianity as if the two were one and the same. As the hundreds of millions of non-evangelical Christians in the world would be quick to remind us, that is simply not true. In other words, evangelicalism may be an expression of Christianity, but it doesn't exhaust Christianity as if there were no other way to be Christian.

Broadly speaking, the problem with evangelicalism is that it has become a culture unto itself with central values and concerns that are not actually central to the gospel, despite claims to the contrary. These central commitments are not to the way of Jesus, but to a fetishized list of beliefs.

This addiction to dogmatism is expressed in manifold ways -- marriage to politics, radical personalization of the faith, the pursuit of converts rather than disciples, an apparent inherent anti-intellectualism, a hyper focus on the next life to the detriment of the present, adoption of business practices as guiding principles for the church, and a glaringly un-Christlike valuing of orthodoxy over people.

But perhaps most problematic of all is evangelicalism's dangerously high view of scripture that disingenuously acts as if interpretation is not involved in the reading and application of the Bible. It's a move that allows those in power to invoke the name of God in order to control, marginalize and oppress those without any power.

It's the path of the Pharisees, not the way of Jesus.

If Jesus had held this same view of scripture, there would be no gospel because his "you have heard it said, but I say" ministry would never have been able to get off the ground. If Peter and the apostles had held this same view of scripture, there would be no church. The sheet that fell from heaven would have been completely rejected and the Gentiles left unadopted.

Now, it's true that not every person who identifies themselves as an evangelical believes in the inerrancy of scripture or votes Republican or is counting down the days to the rapture.

But even if we ignore all the problematic beliefs that characterize so much of evangelical culture, there is a more fundamental and glaringly obvious reason why evangelicalism should be discarded like an old wineskin.

We need to abandon evangelicalism because it has no credibility left with those outside the church -- the very people we're supposed to be evangelizing.

Why does that matter so much? Because the fundamental mission of evangelicalism, the source of its name and the reason for existence is evangelism. But when you've lost all credibility with the people you're supposed to be evangelizing, evangelism becomes impossible.

Like an old wineskin, if evangelicalism can no longer be the vessel it was created to be and do the job it was meant to do, it should be discarded.

It doesn't matter if the rest of the world is wrong in their judgment of our credibility. The endless dismissals of accusations that evangelicals are hateful/anti-science/bigoted/compassionless/manipulative/arrogant/[fill in the blank] are simply no longer enough. Perception, as they say, is nine-tenths of reality and in our case, often times it's just reality because no matter how defiant we may be, it's not just a difference of opinion when we let the innocent suffer -- it's hate.

And therein lies the misstep of evangelicalism. The gospel was never about opinions and beliefs to begin with.. The gospel has always been about people and that's what evangelicalism has allowed us to forget.

Jesus calls himself the way, the truth and the life, because the truth he embodied was a particular way of life, a life we are called to embody in our lives.

That is our true evangelism.

And that is the new wineskin we need.

It's a vessel for the gospel that's flexible enough to accommodate the moving of the Spirit, because life, unlike fixed proposition, can move and expand to adjust to the changing circumstances and needs of real people.

Fixed propositions can't make those sorts of life saving moves, which is why evangelicalism - a culture built around fixed propositions -- needs to be tossed away like the brittle, old wineskin that it is.

But this is not a call for simple rebranding.

The church needs real change.

We need to recapture the way of Jesus.

Which is why it's so important to catch where Matthew places his story of Jesus talking about new and old wineskins. It's proceeded immediately by a story about Jesus eating with sinners and before that by an account of Jesus miraculously healing a paralyzed man. It's followed by more of Jesus' miracles -- the resurrection of a dead girl and the healing of both a mute man and a man who could not hear.

The placement of the wineskins, then, is no accident.

It's almost as if Matthew has constructed his chapter with today's church in mind.

We have become a people paralyzed by the fear of impurity, of having sinners in our midst or being seen in their company. And so we've become like the Pharisees, old wineskins rigid and inflexible, unable to accommodate the moving of the Spirit.

What we need is resurrection. We need to have our eyes opened to the radically changing world around us, so that we can start to see where and how people are hurting and begin to speak to their needs.

Unfortunately, as Jesus reminds us at the close of this chapter, the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. It's far easier to stay behind and enjoy the comforts of the familiar, than drop our nets to follow Jesus into the unknown.

But that is the sort of courage the church needs right now.

The church is desperately in need of brave disciples, courageous enough to stand up to the Pharisees in the church who bully and blackmail to get their way and keep the unclean at arms reach.

She needs fearless followers of Jesus ready to cross uncrossable lines to embrace the unclean in order to offer them the hope and healing we all need.

The church needs people like you.

But that sort of radical movement of the Spirit can't happen in old wineskins.

So, let us be faithful to the calling of Jesus by casting aside the old wineskin so the Spirit can breathe new life into the church.

So the gospel be heard and seen anew.

And space be made for the kingdom of God to dwell on earth just as it is in heaven.

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