Gospel Substitutes Part 5: Socialism

(Eds. Note: Today, Sheree Phillips covers the fifth topic of our "Gospel Substitutes" series, Socialism.  As always, we are indebted to Dr. Tim Lane of CCEF for the outline of our series.  Our first four posts covered Formalism, Activism, Mysticism and Legalism).

Last Friday it finally happened – I achieved popularity! Actually, I’ve been popular for about three years but I just didn’t know it. That wonderful morning I learned that the average number of Facebook friends people in my age bracket (55-64) have are just 129. 129??? I have 642 friends! That’s almost as many as the average 18-24 year olds who have 649 friends.

This may be the first time in my life I’ve been so loved and friended! In high school I was one of the not-quite-nerds. Mom didn’t let me wear anything but pant suits and skirts to school – well, except for that day I snuck out wearing a pair of jeans. 45 years later I remember how cool I felt that day. My friends were fellow choir members and smart kids; but I successfully made friends with enough jocks and cheerleaders to feel popular by association. But I was never voted onto the homecoming court or got the lead in a musical or was asked out by any of the football players. Well, now that I think about it, Benny was on the football team when we started dating. He was the punter (Eds. Note: hahahahaha!) (Pastor’s Note: But I was also a backup WR, and I could have been QB1 if I hadn’t switched positions because the coach didn’t recognize that I….<Eds. Note: ok that’s enough>). But at least he was adorable.

So finding out last week I had so many friends made me realize it’s never too late to become important to a lot of people. And a couple of my Facebook friends are influential folks, which bumps me up on the popularity list, right?

My tongue is only partly in my cheek. The fact is I didn’t completely leave my craving for significance and “popularity” behind in high school. A few years ago I was attending a Christian conference talking with a small group of ladies when a speaker at the conference walked by and greeted me. After she walked away I got some serious carnal pleasure from the “Wow, you know her?” comments from my friends. It felt too much like sitting next to the homecoming queen in a crowded lunchroom when I was 16.

Tim Lane defines Christian socialism as “fellowship without any real sanctification agenda.” And it’s a gospel substitute.

Remember when James and John’s mother asked Jesus if her boys could have important seats next to Him in heaven (Matthew 20: 20-28)? No one can be certain of what was motivating her, but it’s pretty likely that she was wanting James and John to be noticed and important throughout all eternity due to their proximity to Jesus.

Relationships are crucial. We know this because God operates in community. Father, Son and Holy Spirit engaged in sinless fellowship for eternity, then decided to create humans. I love Genesis 1:26: “Let us make man in our image.” As image-bearers we’re called to reflect the intense joy and mutual love of the Godhead. But sin distorts, weakens and creates a mess of things…including relationships. This happens in the best of relationships; how long does it take before friends or spouses or co-workers or family members move from closeness to brokenness?

God’s intent for relationships is the same as His agenda for everything else in our flawed, sin-tainted and broken world: to help us grow to become more like Christ (sanctification). When relationships don’t bring growth they become gospel substitutes: a mirage in the desert of me-centered cravings for the security, comfort, worth and significance that Jesus Christ already granted to us on the cross.

How do we know when Christian socialism might be a gospel substitute?

  • Does my personal pursuit of God take second place to my pursuit of people? (Ugh…I still too often do a “quick” check on email or Facebook before I start my morning devotions.)
  • Do I regularly invite others to share constructive input about my character, marriage, friend skills, etc. to help me grow? Or do I interpret correction as rejection?
  • Is anyone close to me aware of both the strongest temptation and the area of growth I am currently experiencing?
  • Do I find significance and importance in who I know rather than Who knows me? Do I look for opportunities to be close to or drop the name of the influential people in my life (church, workplace, social settings)?
  • Do I struggle with feeling unloved, insignificant or slighted when the people I respect most don’t notice, greet or reach out to me?

Relationships are important and God wants us to have them. But the point isn’t to make us popular; the point is to make us holy. It’s humbling to feel unimportant to that person whose attention I crave until I remember that the One who said, “Let there be light” chose me. Notices me. Pursues me. And loved me to death.

Of course, a pursuit of relationships does not mean that every social interaction must include bible studying, confession of sin and a requisite number of John Piper quotes (although we could probably use more of all three in our relationships). Sanctification can, and often does, result in normal, fun interactions of watching a game, playing board games, or discussing important cultural or political events. But even in those interactions, there is a danger that the topic of our relationships and conversations will become the end rather than a means by which we pursue and glorify the One who looks at all of creation and says “Mine.”

Do you want relationships that move you toward Christlikness? Me, too. But the hard work of cultivating these kinds of friendships can only happen by God’s power. Left to ourselves, pretty soon after the relationship sours or we feel dissed or conflict sets in, we run. It’s easier to find relationships where we are constantly affirmed and never challenged or confronted rather than committing to those relationships that help us grow.

On the cross fellowship between the Father, Son and Spirit was shattered by our sin. For the first and only time in eternity Jesus shouted to His beloved Father with whom He has never fought, disagreed or experienced even the slightest angst, “Why have you forsaken me?!?!” The resurrection demonstrates to us that even our most broken relationships can be restored.

And because Jesus didn’t view relationships as a way to get ahead or feel important or feed idolatry, by His power we can too. For me this starts with recognizing vestiges of sophomoric craving for significance that still lives in my heart.

The truth is there are 157 million people in the US and Canada on Facebook and only .00044792% of them want to be my friend. How amazing, then, that Jesus Christ calls me “friend” (John 15:15)


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