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Evangelical Macular Degeneration

Posted By on March 29, 2010

by Teri Ong

My “Biographies I” class that meets on Wednesdays has been reading 25 Surprising Marriages by William Petersen. It is a wonderful book about well-known Christian leaders of the past (mostly) and how their marriages helped or hurt their ministries. One story in particular set off my class rather explosively. It was the story of William and Dorothy Carey.

In case you don’t know much about them, I will recap briefly. William was a man of humble beginnings, a cobbler by trade, who felt called to India as a missionary. In spite of the fact that he had to maintain his family by manual labor, he was a brilliant man and a true scholar with a burden to translate the Bible for people who did not have it in their own language. Sadly, his wife was illiterate and had no inclination to go to a mission field, any field! When the time came to leave for India, William changed his mind about going ahead of the family the prepare the way. Through circumstances which delayed his departure by a few days, he was able to convince his wife that she should go with him immediately.

She obeyed his wishes, even though she did not want to go at all. Dorothy was of a fearful temperament and longed for the stability and security of life in her home country with a husband to look after and provide for her and her children. She got none of what she craved. William did love her; he even taught her to read after they were married. But once they got to India, he became bogged down in failed schemes for settling his family and getting on with translation work. Nothing seemed to work out for them. In the first few years, they moved several times, each time to places and circumstances that were increasingly exotic and difficult for Dorothy.

Eventually, she lost her mind, and instead of being a suitable helper to her husband, she was a millstone around his neck. Carey was drained emotionally with having to care for his wife while trying to advance the cause of the gospel in a dark land. He didn’t handle the situation well. His wife was all but abandoned in terms of familial care. Neither did he raise his children adequately. Two co-workers compassionately took charge of the Careys’ wayward children and literally saved them from physical and spiritual ruin. Poor Dorothy died in lunatic despair far from home and far from the security she ached for.

Their sad story caused my class of homeschooled students to rise up out of their seats in righteous indignation. How could William Carey even call himself a Christian and be so insensitive to his wife and children? Where was his heart? Didn’t he think it was important to provide for the needs of his family? Etc . Etc.

After discussing the cultural setting of their marriage, one in which the social suitability of a match was more important than romance, we discussed possible reasons why Carey had such a blind spot; he obviously did not see his failings as a husband and father in the same light as we do from our vantage point in the Christian family movement in 21st century America.

It is quite likely that Carey saw his domestic problems as a cross he had to take up and bear daily in service to Jesus. They were just an obstacle that had to be overcome to complete the task of getting the Bible into millions of hands that had never had one before. His own domestic happiness was something to be sacrificed for the greater good of the Gospel. He was undoubtedly interpreting his domestic life in light of Luke 14:26-27:

If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters– yes, and even his own life– he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.”

Do I think he was insensitive? Yes. Do I think he was wrong to ignore the needs of his wife? Yes. Do I think he sinned in neglecting his children? Yes. Do I think that “that man” (as my class began calling him) “really thought he was a Christian and was serving the Lord?” (My class had their doubts.) Yes! I think he truly was a Christian and truly was serving the Lord. I also think he had a cultural blind spot about as big as an Indian elephant which prevented him from seeing the error of his ways.

C. S. Lewis held that “every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.” That was why he advocated reading old books. “Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes.” (p. 598)

We can see so clearly the gaping holes in Carey’s spiritual life as evidenced by the probably unnecessary destruction of his family. But what are the gaping holes in our 21st century spirituality? I think I might know of one. I think I might know of one because I consider myself, like Lewis did, to be an “old dinosaur,” that looks on the modern age with something of an ancient viewpoint.

I believe the gaping hole on our spiritual retinas is inconsideration for the importance of the church in God’s plan for mankind. In fact, the problem is so serious that denegration of the Bride of Christ has become a point of pride in our generation. An “I don’t need the church” attitude often stems from a couple things: 1) “I was in a church before, but I was really hurt there, so I won’t be hurt in a church ever again” or 2) “I believe in the ‘priesthood of the believer,’” which means “total spiritual autonomy at all times.” Sometimes #1 and #2 run concurrently in the same person.

When I hear these sorts of things from the mouths of otherwise sound Christian folks, my spirit rises up as vehemently as my class did in response to William Carey. Do these people think they are really loving the Lord when they forsake assembling together? (Hebrews 10:25) Do these people really think they are being effective members of the Body of Christ when they won’t use their spiritual gifts to benefit the local Body? (Ephesians 4:1-16) Do these people understand that God has given some pastor the duty to “watch over their souls” and that they are causing grief to that pastor by being unfaithful, or are causing the Lord grief by being sheep without a shepherd? (Hebrews 13:17, Matt. 9:36)

One sweet lady that I consider a friend as well as a sister in Christ has given up on “church.” She has also told me more than once that when someone comments on her Christianity, she replies, “I try to be a good Christian, but I’m not always good at it.” I am sure that all Christians have that sense about their spiritual walk, but what has God ordained to help us be better at it? Life in the localized body of Christ! One of the benefits of “not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together” is that we can stir each other up to love and good works– we can stir each other up to be better at being Christians. And the writer of Hebrews tells us that this factor is even more important as we get closer to the second coming of the Lord. (Hebrews 10:24-25)

I am sure that Christ today is still looking with sad eyes on multitudes of American sheep scattered abroad and fainting because they have run off from the safety of the fold and the watchful care of their under-shepherds. (Matthew 9:36) That is not His plan or His best for us. He died to redeem His bride– the church– which He loves and cares for as His own body. (Ephesians 5:21-27) He wants to make His bride holy and pure through His Word so He can someday present His bride without spot, wrinkle, or blemish. He wants every bit of the whole body of His bride to be perfectly knit together and be healthy and growing to maturity. (Ephesians 4:15-16)

The part of His bride that lives in America today looks more like crazed sheep rushing from amusement to amusement looking to graze on pastures of pink cotton candy. Or it looks like a maimed stump of a body with dismembered parts strewn about, which is still jerking about like the proverbial headless chicken. Neither of these pictures look wholesome or healthy.

I pray that God will touch the maimed stump of the American church and bring us to our senses– heal us and make us whole and beautiful. Otherwise, I am afraid that we will be old and writing our testimony for successive generations, and we will have to say, “Children, beware! We tried to do the Christian life on our own. It doesn’t work!

Reference:

C. S. Lewis, “On the Reading of Old Books,” in The Great Tradition (ed. Richard M. Gamble), Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2007, pp. 595-600.

The cartoon is from Lies Christian Parents Teach by Teri Ong, Greeley, Colorado: Chambers College Press, 2009.


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