Spiritual/Physical: A False Dichotomy?

It struck me yesterday that there exists a false dichotomy in Christianity.  Well, there are several, and not in Christianity per se but certainly in the Church in North America, particularly among Evangelicals.  Specifically, I saw three dichotomies: we see salvation as spiritual rather than physical; we see it as personal/individual rather than corporate; and we see Christianity as a spiritual movement rather than a social movement.

The first two sort of go together, so I’ll address them together.  We evangelicals see salvation as a personal, spiritual thing, but this does not necessarily reflect scripture very well.  In the Old Testament, there was not even a developed doctrine of resurrection, and teachings on Sheol are usually a bit vague but you can bet that they didn’t have our same hope of spending eternity in heaven with God.  When they spoke of salvation it was not salvation from sin or eternal punishment, it was about being saved from the enemies of Israel.  The central image of salvation in the OT is the exodus, in which Israel was delivered from physical captivity and slavery when they left Egypt, and saved from Pharaoh’s armies when they crossed the Reed Sea.  We like to spiritualize it and talk about how that physical salvation serves as a symbol of our spiritual journey, but as apt of an image as that might be, it wasn’t what they were talking about in the Old Testament.  Further, there is nothing about personal salvation in the story.  Yes, there were individual people who were killed because of their personal sin, but the reason they were killed for it was entirely because their sin affected everyone in the camp – that is, personal sin is not personal when you live in community.  Achan’s sin put all of Israel at risk, and I believe the phrase God described his execution with was “you must purge the evil from among you.”  Sin in the camp interfered with their physical, corporate salvation.  Even judgment is always seen in physical, corporate terms: the Assyrian invasion did not weed out the sinners from among Israel, and it was not just an image to represent a spiritual exile!

In the New Testament it gets a little more personal/individual, but not nearly so much as we may think.  Jesus’ message divides families and nations, with everyone having to make a choice for themselves about him, but that doesn’t mean that we’re suddenly all seen as individuals; those who believe and follow him formed a new family that was unified across the nations.  In the Church, individuality was even less of an issue than before, as all dividing lines disappeared (with no division between Jew and Gentile, male and female, etc).  The New Testament also gets more spiritual, but we need not think that means that it neglects the physical: Jesus’ miracles all expressed serious concern for the physical wellbeing of people, and when he told someone that his sins were forgiven it was to announce that person’s physical healing.  After all, which is easier to say: take up your mat and walk, or your sins are forgiven?  Should we dismiss the man’s physical healing just because Jesus said “your sins are forgiven”, or should we recognize that salvation is not separated into physical and spiritual categories?  Jesus’ declaration of forgiven sins when he healed the paralytic shows a holistic salvation.

Holman Publishing proudly proclaims in advertisements that they give Bibles to people who can’t even afford shoes, over an image of a shoeless child in the streets.  An article in “The Onion” talks about a church in Texas that worked hard and fundraised diligently in order to bring Bibles to the starving people of Niger, and several people I know didn’t realize that the article was a fake – because this kind of Christian ignorance is believable.  After all, in response to the earthquake and humanitarian crisis in Haiti, one church in the US sent thousands of solar-powered audio Bibles.  I guess the solar-powered option shows that they were sensitive to the lack of a working power grid in the decimated earthquake zone; I wonder if they thought to make sure the audio was in French?

This brings me to another dichotomy, pointed out in this month’s issue of Faith Today by Donald Posterski: we see Christianity as a spiritual movement, rather than a social movement.  Glen Beck (a mormon, apparently) was recently quoted as saying “If your church says anything about social justice, run; that’s code for communism.”  Implicit in my conservative evangelical schooling was the notion that the Social Gospel movement is actually a bad thing, because it puts people’s physical needs ahead of their spiritual needs.  Evangelical soup kitchens only serve homeless people who sit through a sermon first.  I used to work at one every week, and saw the same people every week staring blankly through the sermon they ignored just so they could get a hot meal.  A few years later I worked at a different downtown ministry, and saw the same people there that I saw at the first, listening to the gospel while they waited in line for food.  I met some truly wonderful people there, often even quite open to the gospel, but they sure weren’t in that lineup because they needed Jesus.  They did, and they recognized that, but just believing (as we often emphasize) did not get them off of drugs, or out of abusive relationships, or away from their pimp.   We evangelicals criticize the Social Gospel movement because they have watery doctrine, which is to some extent true: rather than taking a stand on orthodoxy, social gospel movements focused on bringing actual change to the lives of the poor.  They still include the gospel, but they just might give the meal first.  We all agree that people need Jesus and people need food, but we argue among ourselves about which of those has priority rather than recognizing that it’s yet another both/and situation.  To portray Jesus as nothing more than a social activist is blasphemy, but it equally misrepresents him (and ignores even more scripture) to say that he was not a social activist at all.

Ultimately, a fourth dichotomy comes into play here as well: faith/works.  Being a good protestant, I can say with Paul and Martin Luther that salvation is by grace through faith, not by works, lest any man should boast.  We apply that to…well, to everything.  Entire churches are terrified to make a difference in the world, for fear that they would find themselves relying on their “good works”.  We look down on Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses who try to earn merit by spreading the gospel and helping the poor; we scorn them for doing the right thing for the wrong reason, and meanwhile we don’t do the right thing at all for fear of doing it for the wrong reason.  Who is more justified, the ignorant person who obeys in their ignorance, or the knowledgeable person who does nothing?  Woe to us who do nothing.  We must recognize that Paul talked about not earning salvation through works in explicit reference to the Law, or Torah: salvation comes through Christ, not observance of the Law.  But what did Christ tell those who asked him what they must do to be saved?  “Sell everything you own and give it to the poor; then come and follow me” as he went about healing the sick, casting out demons, and challenging unjust social structures and institutions.  We cannot forget that context!  Luther had a context when he said it, too: in his day, sin was absolved through penance and indulgences, not through supplication to Christ.  Grace had been replaced by punishment, or bought through a system that extorted money from the poor by offering them their very salvation.  Grace and salvation were held by the Church, to be dispensed by the Church; they were no longer known to be free gifts from Christ available to all.  We cannot forget Luther’s context!

All of these false dichotomies work together to tear apart the Gospel and nullify the impact of the Church.  They bring division within the Church, and send different groups of us off to cover half of the gospel.  The evangelical gospel is that Jesus, who is God, wants to save them personally from a future torment that they’ve never seen, which will be inflicted by God unless they repent of their sins.  Meanwhile, we recognize God’s heart for the poor and deliver this gospel message primarily to them; but they’re already living in hell, usually as the victims of unjust social institutions that we in the first world support without even thinking about it.  Who cares about a future, spiritual Hell when every day is a physical hell right here and now, for themselves and their families?  The poor will listen to any sermon, and commit themselves to Jesus a thousand times, if it will feed their families.  In Luther’s time, the Church offered spiritual salvation to those who gave up their bread money and bought an indulgence; today, we withhold bread from the poor until they hear the gospel from us.  They starved people for salvation; we try to feed spiritual salvation to the starving.  Why can’t we get it together?

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One thought on “Spiritual/Physical: A False Dichotomy?

  1. Gnosticism is alive and well, Jeff!

    Great post. I particularly liked the bit about Luther’s context. For some reason I had never looked at it that way.

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