A Man of His Times

I was interested in what a former pastor of mine had to say about some things I had read that John Calvin had done that did not impress me. This pastor is an enthusiastic Calvinist and had recently written a tribute to Calvin, in honor of the day of his death (May 27, if you’re interested).

Now, the details of what Calvin did aren’t relevant to my discussion; my pastor’s response is what I want to focus on. His explanation, or perhaps excuse, for Calvin’s behavior is this: he was “a man of his times”.

I found this to be a surprising response. To paper over someone’s behavior with “everyone else is doing it” is hardly the defense I was expecting. Especially when dealing with a hugely popular and respected Christian patriarch (he has a whole theology named after him!), I was hoping for something a little more substantive.

Perhaps a little more about the particular incident would be helpful. I had written my pastor to ask about some oppressive practices I had read that Calvin participated in while in Geneva. His response included this statement: “People forget that virtually everyone in those days, especially those in the Roman Catholic Church, supported the execution of heretics. Calvin was a man of his times.”

Let me tell you my first response. I’d hate to be standing before the white throne on Judgment Day (assuming that’s not all some literary analogy) and tell Jesus, “everyone else was doing it.” Being a man of my times here in the 21st century is hardly a cause for boasting, and I can’t imagine it was any different in the 16th century.

Why, if I were a man of my times, what would I be doing today? Well, over 20% of us men commit adultery (some studies say 60%!). Half of us divorce. We cheat on our taxes and spend the profit on pornography. I need not go on.

I would hate to be called a man of my times. This would be the worst epitaph I can imagine. So now I’m thinking, what about my life, my morals, my behavior demonstrates that I am a man of my times? I’m afraid that these beliefs and behaviors are so much a part of me that I can’t identify them.

Here’s my hope: if I can act as much like Jesus as possible, then maybe I won’t need to worry about whether I am being a man of my times. I’ll be a man with eternity in mind, not current social custom. And perhaps, I’ll be one step ahead of John Calvin.

7 thoughts on “A Man of His Times”

  1. Calvin is at a disadvantage not being able to respond in person. He may not have picked that explanation for his actions.

    This is interesting as we think about where the church is heading, both at large and at home. Are we trying to be “of the times” in a way that’s going to hurt the message, or is it just reasonable to use a projector if you have it?

    Images of Jesus in a robe and sporting a long beard seem to trap him in a time (that we’re guessing at, anyway), but “updated” images of him seem wierd, too.

    I don’t believe, anymore, that the Willow Creek model is really a change in very much. I think it’s “of the times” in a harmless way. But because of that, I’m not sure it’s going to address postmodern needs. That might require more challenging changes, more fundamental if you will.

    Wow, is this off your point!

  2. Good point. Calvin might be disappointed that someone chose to explain his actions as being because he was a man of his times.

    True, the Willow model is not dramatically different than non-seeker churches. The postmodern approach is probably going to be fundamentally different. Here’s an example: I attended a church a couple of weeks ago (on vacation) that was intentional in reaching postmoderns. In the service was a music video, created by a staff member. The words to the song asked questions like “What are we doing here?” and the like. The images were disjointed and did not tell a story (a boy chasing butterflies, a windmill, people walking). The video ended with the questions unanswered and the “story” not resolved. My understanding of postmoderns is that they value the asking of questions over the answering of them. This “unanswered question technique” is hardly popular in most churches across the country (world?), so maybe this is part of the fundamental change we need to have to reach this group. Thoughts?

  3. I also attended a different church recently on vacation, and it was a very good execution of the Willow Creek model. So good, in fact, that it almost made me forget my conviction that this is not the way of the future.

    I know of a family heading to Chicago this weekend and they plan to go to Willow because, “the kids want to experience it”. While I’m sure they’ll dig it on some levels, I’m not sure they’ll see it as any more than a very efficient way to do what’s already been done.

    Do you have any way to gauge the efficacy of this post-modern church you attended? And for that matter, are our gauges accurate? I’m not sure what we have beyond attendance, budget, and buildings.

  4. The two measures church folks tend to use to determine success are attendance and income. The one measure Jesus seems to have suggested is disciples (the great commission). But how do we measure disciples? What does a disciple look like? How do we know when we have one?

    So I think that churches tend to revert to easier measures, like the ones I mentioned. So we talk about how many people are coming to their services, and what the giving is like. We do talk about “lives being changed”, but that’s a very nebulous statement and extremely unmeasurable.

    Do you have any ideas on a good measurement?

    By the way, this postmodern church has grown from 300 to 3000 in the last few years, built a new building, increased staffing, etc. I believe they are even “changing lives”.

  5. My Dad used to say, “we don’t count people, but people count”. While it’s clever and I’m sure he meant it in a sincere way, I’m still not clear on how we can record life change outside of #s.

    Likewise, it’s difficult to look at 300 to 3000 growth and not say they must be doing something right. What we mean is that the #s indicate that, unless we know of some anecdotal stories.

    Those stories, while compelling, would be hard to come by outside of numeric growth.

    As long as we have staff that needs to be paid and a building that needs to be paid for, we’ll have budget drivers that make us # conscious. I don’t see any way around that. It’s intrinsic in the model, isn’t it?

  6. I agree that it seems impossible for a church staffer to avoid considering the numbers. That is, a pastor knows that a typical giver donates about 2.2% of his or her income to the church (Barna). In a community that averages about 73k per household per year, this is $1600 per family. So, a Johnson County pastor can’t help but think, how many $1600 families do I need to retain in order to continue to minister? It HAS to be grinding on a pastor, to want to serve God and not worry about this kind of thing, yet to have it constantly haunting him.

    The alternative seems to be patronage. That is, some rich person believes in a particular ministry, so he’ll support it regardless of how many attend. Of course, this is the model many parachurch ministries (like Freedom Fire) use.

    Did you see the movie The Bishop’s Wife? It was recently remade with Whitney Houston, but the original (with Cary Grant as the angel) was vastly superior. The bishop in that movie had this problem: a rich patron whose continued patronage meant he had to sacrifice his integrity. So maybe there isn’t a good solution after all.

  7. You’ve got the Barnabas example where he sold a field and gave money apparently with no strings attached.

    I recently heard this about the North American Christian Convention (held in Louisville, KY this year and KC next). A friend of ours who is working with the music said that the guy who’s President of the Convention is bringing in his own music guy to lead the evening services (seen as the bigger deal) and local people will lead the daytime services. So there are politics and patronage in the “non-denominational” church, much less the more overtly organized ones.

    Even beyond the budget issue (admittedly, a huge issue) is the very model of what we think of as the church. How does the church in Korea measure success? In China, what do they call success? What do they call success in Pascagoula, Mississippi? Certainly it can’t be attendance, or a budget.

    Both of the versions of that movie dealt with some of these things in creative and insightful ways. I think sometimes “outsiders” have a perspective that can be valuable to those of us who may be looking too closely at the trees.

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