Whatever Happened to the Middle?: A Conversation

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45 Responses

  1. bob1 says:

    Good musings!

    I have a couple of thoughts on this.

    I don’t think we’re as divided as is the conventional wisdom. For the most part, people are still just people. I watched a PBS special narrated by the
    ex-CEO of Chipotle. He was interviewing folks at the Texas-Mexico border, and after interviewing many, he commented about how most people are getting along with their neighbors. The outliers seem to hog all
    the spotlight and are seen as the “norm.”

    Second, we live in a media bubble, more than ever before. That means our experience is mediated — and there are many groups pushing an agenda — much more than 20 years ago.

    A mediated experience is not the same as direct experience. In one article I read about the polarized church (setting was Michigan), a pastor said that in one hour a week at church, he can’t compete against the many hours his congregants spend with conservative (secular) media. I suppose
    that would include progressive media, too.

    My other observation is something I was struck with in the CNN interview
    with Philip Yancey. He basically said the church needs to get back to doing what the church does best — show love to the stranger, the outcast and those on the edges — as well as our neighbors. He said that in the rest of the world, evangelicals are known as those who do good things for others, like build hospitals, help with infrastructure, etc.

  2. Michael says:

    bob1,

    Based on my recent experience in the family…I’m not sure we are overstating the division. I do think there is room to reshape the middle if we try…but a large part of the church and the media are making big bucks on division.

    Yancey nailed it…

  3. Duane Arnold says:

    Saw an interview with Yancey this morning. He made the observation that while once in the past the word Evangelical had a theological meaning, it has morphed to being a political description. This is not the only example. When I express the opinion, based on fact, that there are conservative priests in the Episcopal Church I am constantly questioned as to my veracity. We are drawing up new descriptions and categories. Unfortunately they are mostly tribal and based on little more than our prejudices…

  4. Em says:

    Just read that a Russian sub with a “doomsday” weapon is missing from the arctic harbkr…
    Time to pray? I think so

  5. Dan from Georgia says:

    Time to stop reading your sources of misinformation Em.

  6. Dan from Georgia says:

    I see this division not only online, but even at my place of work where those with one point of view look down on with anger and disdain at those who disagree, or didn’t vote for so-an-so. This has caused some office friction. Usually the most vocal and intolerant are on the same side in our office, but in honesty it is only 2 or 3 individuals out of probably 8-10. Sure makes a reasoned conversation dang near impossible.

  7. Linn says:

    There are some beliefs that are so important to me (deity of Christ, attributes of God, inspiration of Scripture, for example) that I couldn’t take a middle ground. What I think is more important is how we respond to people, and that is where everything is completely messed up. Instead of reaching out in love, we scream at each other (I have yet to confronted someone over their sexuality. I’m kind, and if asked, politely share what I believe. If they are offended, that’s their issue, but I don’t go out of my way to be offensive). We’ve lost the ability to dialog on the things we disagree on, and to work together for those we do agree on. I can work with my colleagues with whom I have great differences on sexuality or politics because we agree on giving kids a good education. Maybe that’s a middle way?

  8. bob1 says:

    Em, maybe improve your mental health by ignoring the Russian govt.

  9. bob1 says:

    I believe there are millions of churchgoers who are in the middle. The issue: no one cares.

  10. Duane Arnold says:

    bob1

    …No one cares and no one listens…

  11. Dan from Georgia says:

    Linn,

    Good comments. Seems like some of our politicians these days have no interest in working across the aisle, but only pushing agendas and lies that they heard on the commentary programs the night before. People also seem to think that meeting at a common ground or compromise is tantamount to denying Christ, hence they’ll compromise “over their dead body”.

  12. bob1 says:

    Lots of problems with polarization, but one of the biggies is that if the parties of a country can’t agree on things and work together on behalf of the citizens, you’re ripe for extremism, fascism and authoritarianism. Nature and public life abhors a vacuum….

  13. Em says:

    Dr. Duane, @ 1:53
    Exactly, that’s why I quit posting
    Dan @ 12:21. sources of misinformation? You better hope it is!

  14. Linn says:

    Dan,

    Place yourselves under the authority of human governments to please the Lord. Obey the emperor. He holds the highest position of authority. Also obey governors. They are people the emperor has sent to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right.
    1 Pet. 1:13ff

    Peter wrote these words to believers who were being persecuted, and Peter was later killed by that same government. We are to obey and cooperate when we can. Obviously, when the government directly goes against Scripture and requires something of us that would lead us to disobey, we can’t.

    So, I work in a school that is very “woke”-but I have not yet been asked to do anything against my conscience. I had lunch today with a gay co-worker. Our conversation was limited to how we are working with our students. She knows I’m a Christian, and not supportive of her swinger lifestyle, but she also knows that we both equally care about our students. Just the fact that I can have a conversation with her has lead to opportunities to witness. I won’t compromise on my biblical convictions regarding sexuality, but there is also a commandment to love and witness. It seems to me that many Christians have forgotten why they are here.

  15. Linn says:

    bob1,
    I like Yancy’s musings! We’re almost to the point that “I’ll love my neighbor until I find out what his political position is.” I’ve never found that to be a qualification for loving someone in the Bible.

  16. Tim says:

    Great article. I agree that’s it’s the minority on both the left and right that are the loudest voices. I have hope that the middle will reappear, but I’m afraid it may be quite some time.

    Regarding the Russian Submarine (Belgorod). I wouldn’t get too concerned yet. It’s not expected to be operational until 2027, but it is actively being tested.

    Honestly, while Tissia could (and has) built some amazing military equipment, their overall performance in Ukraine, to date, has been very poor. Even their Navy (remember the Moskva?).

    While I don’t dismiss the possibility for Putin to escalate to nuclear weapons completely, I’m not too worried about it yet. He stands to lose much more than he can gain going down that path.

  17. Dan from Georgia says:

    Linn,

    I think that is exactly how we are supposed to do it. Your love and ability to look past some issues (while not compromising on those issues) is what opens those doors!

  18. bob1 says:

    Linn, you’ve got it! I’ve been a Yancey fan for a long time. A trustworthy guide indeed. Glad you’ve benefited from his writings.
    His assertion that the church should be a grace dispenser resonates with me deeply.

  19. jtk says:

    “In one article I read about the polarized church (setting was Michigan), a pastor said that in one hour a week at church, he can’t compete against the many hours his congregants spend with conservative (secular) media. I suppose
    that would include progressive media, too.“

    Dread has said that too, and i confirm it’s truth for so
    many in my church and other churches. Although i my church, it’s a much smaller crowd. But a high percentage of white surburbanites.

  20. Duane Arnold says:

    “I wish that when you say the word evangelical, people would still think of what Jesus said in his first sermon, that ‘I’ve come to free the captives. I’ve come to visit prisoners, to heal the sick and feed the hungry.’ I wish people thought that when asked, What is an evangelical?”

    Philip Yancey

  21. Corby says:

    The middle is often associated with being “luke warm” or compromise. Jesus Himself made many statement that were very black and white. However, those statements were usually made to those who were at an extreme and it was Jesus attempt to draw them back to the middle so as to embrace more the the truth that they were missing out on.

    The trouble with extremes is that they are often right in what they affirm but wrong in what they deny. In the middle there is room for nuance. This was the very word my wife used to describe what had been missing in our earlier spiritual lives; nuance. As we have invested in the Anglican way we are discovering more life, freedom, and intimacy with Jesus that we have ever experienced in our almost 30 years as believers and ministers.

    There is value in the extremes. They serve to pull us back from one side to the other back toward the middle. We need people who have a passion for (blank). But that doesn’t mean that (blank) is the thing the entire church should be focused on. Passion does not equal priority for all.

  22. Duane Arnold says:

    Corby,

    Well said, and I’m glad you found a home…

  23. Steve says:

    Corby, what was Jesus admonition to the Church of Laodicea all about?
    He said they would spew them out of his mouth since they where neither hold nor cold but rather Luke warm. I ask in all sincerity, what did Jesus mean? Is Jesus talking about the middle here. Some clarification could be very helpful.

  24. Michael says:

    Good Lord help me…

    What was the admonition of being either hot or cold in reference to?

    Was the Lord saying that to gain His favor one needs to be an extremist in all things?

    The admonition was a call to the centrality of the lordship of Christ and against compromise with the world for the sake of gaining and maintaining power and wealth.

    I suppose one could point to the compromise by some of the churches with the sexual mores of the world…or picking political champions who embody no Christian virtue whatsoever and baptizing them as our heroes…

  25. Michael says:

    15–16 The Laodiceans are neither cold nor not, but lukewarm. If some consider hot to be good, lukewarm to be mediocre and cold to be bad, why would Christ say He would prefer them cold to lukewarm? The answer reveals a different perspective on these levels of temperature. Laodicea had two neighbors, Hierapolis and Colossae. Hierapolis had hot waters which possessed medicinal effects, while Colossae had cold water, which was also thought to be healthy. Laodicea had no good water source, however, and had to pipe it in. By the time it arrived, it was lukewarm and dirty—fit only for spitting out. In fact, it was generally held to be true in the ancient world that cold and hot water or wine were beneficial for one’s health, but not water which was lukewarm. Likewise, the Laodiceans’ faith and witness did not have a healthy effect on the people who lived around them. We shall see that one of the main reasons for their ineffective faith was their compromise with idolatry.

    Christ now exposes the spiritual condition of the church to be no better than the city’s water by asserting that I will spit you out of my mouth. If the Laodiceans will not identify faithfully with Christ in their culture, then neither will Christ identify them as faithful witnesses together with Him.
    17 In contrast to Christ’s assessment, the church of Laodicea considered itself to be in good condition because of its material prosperity. Revelation uses the words rich and wealthy to describe those who have prospered by association with the corrupt and ungodly world system (6:15; 13:16; 18:3, 15, 19), and the charge is that the Laodiceans have allied themselves with the local economic forces linked there (as in the other cities of Asia Minor) to idolatry and immorality. The Laodicean idolatry is pointed to by observing that not only are the words rich and wealthy in this verse applied elsewhere in the book to unbelieving merchants who have intercourse with idolatrous Babylon (so 18:3, 15, 19), but also overtly to those who make gains by involvement with idolatry (so 6:15, alluding to the idolaters of Isa. 2:10–21; and 13:16). It is a consistent theme of Scripture that wealth has to be handled carefully and stewarded to God’s glory or it will consume its owner (Matt. 6:24; Luke 6:20–21, 25–26; 12:13–21; 16:1–15; Acts 5:1–10; 1 Cor. 4:8; 1 Tim. 6:5–10, 17–19; Jas. 2:1–9; 4:1–4; 5:1–6).

    Such an all-consuming pursuit of wealth leads to idolatry, as we will see is the case here. This is not an endorsement of poverty, for part of God’s blessing on Israel was its prosperity. The question, however, is how we use what God has given us. A Christian’s prosperity is measured by how much he gives rather than by how much he has. But the Laodiceans had fallen into the same trap the Israelites did, for the self-congratulatory words attributed to them here are quoted by Christ from Hosea’s prophetic condemnation of the Israelites, “And Ephraim said, ‘Surely I have become rich, I have found wealth for myself … they will find in me no iniquity’ ” (Hos. 12:8). Hosea exposes the fact that Israel has prospered through dishonesty (12:7) and engaged in idolatry (chs. 1–2), indeed assuming that it was the idols that brought this prosperity (2:5, 8). Hosea declares that God has in truth found them not rich but worthless (12:11).

    The Laodiceans were likewise prospering, probably due to their participation in idolatrous and ungodly business practices, but Christ, like Hosea, exposes the truth. Whereas the Christians at Smyrna, though materially poor, were spiritually rich (2:9), the compromising Laodiceans are materially rich but spiritually bankrupt, especially due to their compromise with idolatrous economic institutions. They judged themselves to be in good condition, but Christ reveals the truth that they are poor, blind, and naked—probably ironic references respectively to Laodicea’s well-known resources, in which they placed too much trust: its banking system, its school of ophthalmology, its famous eye salve, and its textile trade (representative of three areas of life in which the ancients placed too much trust: money, clothing, and health institutions, all of which were inextricably linked to idolatry).

    18 The solution to their problems is now given. To combat their poverty they must buy from Christ gold refined by fire (a biblical expression for purity: cf. 3:4–5 and more generally 1 Pet. 1:7). To overcome their compromise with the world they must buy … white garments to cover their nakedness (on white as signifying purity see 3:4–5; 6:2; 19:8, especially by not becoming stained by idols). Uncovering the shame of your nakedness is language employed in God’s accusation of Israel and other nations for participation in idolatry (so Isa. 47:3; Ezek. 16:36; 23:29; Nah. 3:5; probably also Isa. 20:4; cf. also Exod. 20:26). The prophetic idiom is repeated here also to highlight the idolatrous nature of Laodicea’s sin. To combat their blindness (lack of spiritual discernment), they must buy eyesalve, especially so they are not deceived about the lethal danger that idol worship posed for their faith. Notice how in the initial vision Christ was attired with a golden girdle, His hair was white like wool, and His eyes were like flaming fire, which correspond strikingly to the three products mentioned in this verse. The gold, the white garments, and the eyesalve all point to one thing—Christ. Their illness can be remedied only through a renewed relationship with Christ, by buying true spiritual resources from Him (cf. Isa. 55:1–3!). Only in Christ are true riches, clothing, and insight. Indeed, Jesus himself established the fount of all true wealth through His own faithful witness in the midst of the suffering of the cross. He is all the Laodiceans really need. Even if they lost all else, they would still have everything they really need, but without Him they have nothing.

    19–20 In spite of all this, Christ responds to the Laodiceans’ poor condition in a way that shows He has not given up on them. He stands at the door of their lives and knocks, inviting them to renew fellowship with Him. The tense of both verbs (stand and knock) points to a present, continuing action on the part of Christ. He is standing there reaching out to the Laodiceans, as He is always standing at the doors of the hearts of those believers who have become cold in their love and enmeshed in the pursuit of what this world has to offer

    Beale, G. K., & Campbell, D. H. (2015). Revelation: A Shorter Commentary (pp. 91–93). William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

  26. Corby says:

    Steve – great question. This is one of those passages that we modern people tend to overlay our own cultural meanings which means we are actually misinterpreting and misapplying the passage.

    Common teaching (which I used to teach): hot = good, on fire for the Lord, cold = bad, dead, against Jesus. But think about that. Does Jesus really wish that people be dead or against him? That’s contrary to other scripture (God wishes that none would perish) and yet it’s taught all the time.

    Original cultural context: Laodicea was on a hill, along an aqueduct. At the top of the hill was a hot spring in Hieropolis, the source for water for the aqueduct. Hot water has many uses. At the bottom of the hill and aqueduct was Collasea. The water was cold at then bottom of the hill which is also useful. Cold is therapeutic, and was used in the processing of the wool that city was known for. Cold is not bad.

    So, as the Laodiceans would have read it, Jesus is telling them to be hot or cold. Be something useful. Jesus didn’t reject the cold nor did he hold the hot over the cold. The only thing he rejected was the lukewarm, which would have been the temperature of the water in the aqueduct in Laodicea! Lukewarm is never refreshing, therapeutic, etc,.

    His admonition was not to be extreme as we would understand it or are talking about it in this thread, but to be something *for* him, not something useless like lukewarm water. It was never about compromise.

  27. Steve says:

    Corby, thank you for explanation. Yes, we do overlay our modern cultural understanding which makes it difficult to interpret. In addition, I have a Chinese wife and in China warm water is therapeutic.

    When you say it was never about compromise, I think you need to put qualifiers on that. Even the commentary Michael quoted said : “….was their compromise with idolatry.”

    I still am not sure exactly what Jesus is getting at here. Maybe it’s been taught so wrong for so long that it’s hard to read it correctly. That’s probably what CC did to me.

  28. Dan from Georgia says:

    And just think how many youth rallies and ministries focused on being “extreme for Jesus” based on this interpretation of this passage!

    Thankss Corby and Michael for shedding a huge amount of light on this passage!

  29. Duane Arnold says:

    Perhaps it would help if we renamed the middle and called it “normal”… and normal is in short supply.

  30. Corby says:

    Steve – good point on the qualifiers. The imagery Jesus is using is drinking water. His wish is that they were either hot water or cold water. Luke warm gets vomited out (more accurate vibe than simply spit out). I don’t think the idea of compromise is Jesus’ primary thrust. In other words, I don’t think Jesus is saying, “Don’t be compromised.” I think He is saying, “Be something that I don’t want to spit out.” The best word I have for the something is “useful” but that’s just my word. Like the commentary says, compromise is a factor. But I don’t think it’s the main point. It’s a good point. It’s a Biblical point. But I don’t think it’s the main point Jesus is trying to make.

    As this relates back to the point of the post, being theologically in the middle is something. In that sense I prefer the term “center.” One way we can be lukewarm is by being extreme in a view but taking no action on it. That isn’t useful. It might be comforting, but it isn’t useful to the kingdom.

    What I find to be a strength closer to the middle is that it embraces a bigger canvas for the Kingdom. Those who live closer to the edges tend to have a much more narrow version and vision of what the Kingdom is. A bigger canvas does not equal universalism in any way. It simply means that the Gospel has more room to breath, reach, and save.

  31. Officerhoppy says:

    Corny
    Good exegesis of that Revelation passage.

  32. Officerhoppy says:

    CORBY! SORRY!
    MAJOR TYPO

  33. Steve says:

    Corby, thank you for taking the time to give this explanation. I’m familiar with the compass rose in the Anglican Way which I think is what you are alluding to with the term “center”. It makes sense and is appealing. I do not really have a tribe right now so I’m doing a lot of investigation.

  34. bob1 says:

    I read Michael’s link about David French’s experiences with some liars on the Lying Right. How vile, sick and utterly repulsive.

  35. Corby says:

    Officerhoppy – Thanks. Don’t worry about it. Every time I have to break in a new phone I have to stop that autocorrection. It’s accurate though 🙂

    Steve – I’m working on a series of posts to describe how and why I migrated to the Anglican tribe. I’d be happy to answer any questions. I just found out that I’m going to be ordained a Deacon on the 30th so I’m excited.

    One of the most compelling things I find that is very relevant to this middle, is the expressed desire for a more Bible-centric, high view of scripture, in the ACNA. Bringing in my exegetical style/background has been most welcomed. They want to swing back from the low view of the Bible of the Episcopal background. I’m happy to bring that with me.

  36. pstrmike says:

    Normal is a setting on a dryer.

    I’ve always considered the middle as the most balanced place a person can be. I’ve never heard of it associated with lukewarm. Finding that middle place is difficult, and these days, it equally as difficult to stay there. And the question has to be asked, in the middle as compared to what?

    What I have found in my own experience is that I don’t find a home with any of what I consider to be the extremes, nor do I find they are very tolerant of me.

  37. Duane Arnold says:

    pstrmike

    “Normal is a setting on a dryer.”

    True, but sometimes I long for it nonetheless 😁

  38. pstrmike says:

    Duane,
    Reading this article reminded me of the one you posted a link for us. It’s hard to believe that was over five years ago. Time flies……………

    What I have observed is that if a person lives all their life within one set of presuppositions and framework, they will tend to believe it is normal, whether or not that is true is beside the point. I think that is part of the problem today. Too many have voluntarily entered some type of silo, and they only expose themselves to what they deem as agreeable. With that there is the inevitable checking of one’s brain at the door, so they no longer think critically.

  39. Muff Potter says:

    Great article Michael!
    I can remember when it wasn’t always like this, you (generic you) could pick and choose points from both sides of the divide without having to eat the whole enchilada from either side.
    What happened to us?
    What turned us into such strident zealots?

  40. Michael says:

    Thanks, Muff.

    A lot happened…and every day I’m less convinced it’s reversible…

  41. Linn says:

    Muff,
    I’ve heard from so many people that they don’t recognize the world we live in. They are confused and I think they go towards “easy” answers or find someone they can blame.

  42. Reuben says:

    pstrmike

    100%

  43. Reuben says:

    Even when I was a Christian, I referred to this phenomenon as inbreeding, and did so intentionally to underscore the end results of inbreeding. Many say “the echo chamber”. It’s DNA to American Christian Culture. And I hate to always bag on the Russian Orthodox Church, but this is a topic of great interest to me, it parallels with why they stood by Stalin.

    Context is a massive part of my life as it is with almost anyone. I was born to missionaries who became pastoral and even musical. My upbringing was radical evangelical right. Radical is not hyperbole. My fathers churches were defined by a zero compromise position on everything. This is dating back to the 80’s. My biggest transition spiritually as a kid was after my parents divorced and my father fled the faith, my mother walked us kids into a Calvary Chapel, sat us upfront, and the dynamics of everything changed. There was an emphasis on scripture, eschatology, soteriology, and a mild manner. Nothing like the hell fire hyper charismatic church of tens of thousands I was used to, where there were baptisms and slaying in the spirit, prophesy in different tongues, worship services that went as long as they went. As it turned out, the politics were the same. That common thread bound me up for decades. It showed me a militant god.

    Like Steve, I believed I had to cling to that based on the “I will spew you out” mentality. The problem compounded when I realized that total depravity is likened to death and taxes. There was no way to escape the stench you were, and that only by ultimate self denial and emulating Christ by taking on a new identity in all things is one’s only hope. The core of salvation became my nemesis. Created sick, ordered with the threat of eternal punishment to be well. This meant complete separation from the world, in word and deed, politics included.

    “Knowledge on loan from God” professor Rush Limbaugh, and the Mormon conspiracy theorist Glenn Beck somehow became the only way to think, and it that, it was only the church that demanded it.

    When that inbreeding becomes life and death, what choice does one have? The only answer to that is leaving and excepting that you are destined for eternal death. You are shunned, condemned, incapable of resurrection.

    I was hated more for my political changes than my rejection of salvation. I still am.

    In this season of relentless slanderous political adds, one topic is now the standard for why you need to cast your vote, and that’s abortion. We all know precisely where Christians must stand on that. The inbreeding abides because of this kind of sway the echo chamber has.

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