“Sir, This Is a Local Church”—Or, How an Absurdist Meme about a Roast Beef Shop Might Help Heal Your Church
I wonder if you’re familiar with the “Sir, this is an Arby’s” meme. Let me illustrate it for you:
Person A [with aggressive aggravation]: Can you believe it? The other day, I heard someone refer to the book of Genesis. Surely you KNOW that Genesis is not just “a book,” but the first part of the Pentateuch, and the Pentateuch is a five-fold book, not five books. Do you know what the first word is in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy? It’s and. BOOM. What did Jesus call the Torah? “The book of Moses.” Not the books of Moses.
Person B [laconically]: Sir, this is an Arby’s.
That’s it. That’s the joke. The point of the punchline is simple: Arby’s isn’t the place for unhinged ramblings about the Torah, and an Arby's cashier is only there to take your order and ask if you want horseradish or not.
As the managing editor of 9Marks, it’s kind of my job to trawl the Christian Internet. Please notice I said to trawl, as in “to sift through,” not to troll, as in “to be a jerk.” Over the past few months of quarantine and political unrest, I’ve thought about this Arby’s meme a lot—partly because I tend to defuse tense and fractious situations with humor, and partly because this meme offers an absurdist rendition of what’s going on in churches across the world.
Let me explain. While I’m trawling, lots of folks are trolling. They’re angry, incredulous, fed-up, distraught, galled. About what? The manipulation of COVID-19 stats. The hypocrisy of state-celebrated protests. The uselessness of masks. Police brutality. Black-on-black crime. Vice President Biden’s flaws or peccadillos. President Trump’s flaws or peccadillos. How 9Marks is too “woke.” How John MacArthur has blood on his hands. How closing a church is cowardice. How opening a church is courage.
Worse than trolling on Twitter is how they pillory their pastor. Some are mad because their pastors haven’t done enough. How could you stand idly by when racial injustice is everywhere? Others are mad because their pastors have done too much. How could you say that in your pastoral prayer? You don’t know the facts!?
Many church members are happy and content. But many are aggrieved.
- Some are legalists. They demand that their pastor use his platform to decry everything they themselves want to decry. They want to use him to boost and legitimate their personal opinions.
- Some are conversationalists. They want their pastor to broker conversations within the church about various issues of the day. When their pastor elects not to host that forum or teach that Sunday School class or start that reading group, they can be tempted to assume the worst—he doesn’t care; he’s privileging one view over another.
- Finally, some—perhaps most—are quietists. They say nothing at all, yet they silently wonder why the pastor isn’t saying anything either—about the issues themselves, or about the way other members talk about the issues online. Because of this, they're tempted toward distrust. Some of course appreciate their pastor’s silence. After all, they used to go to churches that lurched after every headline like a cat after a laser pointer. It was fun for a while, but eventually the whole exercise became tiring and even a bit sad.
So what do we do? How do we respond to all three types and more?
I have an idea. It’s inspired by my beloved meme, and I think it would work in nearly every situation. Rather straightforwardly, we can say, “Brother . . . sister, this is a local church.”
The point of the punchline is simple: your church isn’t the place for such activity, and your pastor isn’t the one who should celebrate all your political inclinations, setting them alongside God’s Word. Helping your people understand “This is a church” will release some of the pressure and make our churches happier and healthier.
As my friend Adam Sinnett recently wrote:
So, while there are many things the church could do, what it must do is faithfully proclaim the gospel and cultivate worship-full disciples as God’s new humanity in Jesus. While the church cares deeply about politics, it is not a partisan organization. While the church cares deeply about justice, it is not a social justice organization. While the church cares deeply about current events, it is not a news organization which offers ongoing cultural commentary. While the church cares deeply about virtue, it is not responsible to signal its virtue to merely appease the culture.
The church is a local expression of God’s new, diverse, redeemed people with a specific purpose: to faithfully proclaim the gospel and cultivate worship-full disciples for God’s glory. While there are many things we could do, this is what we must do. This is the heartbeat of every faith-filled, Bible-saturated, Spirit-dependent, God-centered, Christ-satisfied local church. This is where our primary energies should be directed. This is what we should expect from a healthy local church, whether gathered or scattered.
I believe he’s right. To that end, and with some aid from the book of Ephesians, here are three things you want your members to know for the sake of our gospel unity in politically divisive times.
First and foremost, a church is a people.
And let me tell you the most important thing about these people: God chose them in love before the foundation of the world. They’ve been redeemed by the blood of Christ and therefore stand holy and blameless before a holy and righteous God. These chosen-and-redeemed ones have heard the gospel, recognized it as the word of truth, and believed it (Eph. 1:1–14).
It’s absolutely vital that we remember this. A church isn’t an agenda-setting or landscape-altering religious think tank. It’s a redeemed people. It’s the culmination of an eternally purposed Trinitarian plan that centers on the glory and wisdom and grace of the Godhead displayed in the redemption not of ideas, but of individuals.
So the next time you’re tempted to rail against or assume the worst of another Christian—whether in your church or elsewhere—just remember: you’re blood brothers. The same blood that bought you bought them, the same blood that made the forgiveness of your trespasses possible made the forgiveness of their trespasses possible, the same blood that made you holy and blameless made them holy and blameless. You’re sealed siblings, awaiting the same glorious inheritance. Might dwelling on this change how we address our disagreements, even about the important stuff?
So brothers and sisters, remember: this is a local church.
Second, a church is not a war-zone, but an already-won territory of peace.
In Ephesians 2:1–10, Paul explains how individual Christians are saved—by grace, through faith, not by works, so that no one may boast. We are his workmanship (2:10). Then he goes on to explain what kind of work he’s building. If Ephesians 2:1–10 describes the individual bricks, then Ephesians 2:11–22 describes the building—and it’s a spectacular one. Consider:
- Christ has brought us near (v. 13).
- He is our peace (v. 14).
- He has created in himself one new man, where there were once two (v. 15).
- Where there was once hostility, he has made possible peace and reconciliation (v. 15–16).
- He has made us fellow citizens of a new territory: the household of God. This house is built on a foundation of true gospel doctrine, and its cornerstone is Christ himself (v. 19–20).
- This house Jesus is building is growing into a holy temple, where God dwells with man by the Spirit (v. 21–22).
Now, think about the person in your church whose opinions make you the most angry—you know, that guy or gal who spouts off about this or that and in the process assumes everyone who doesn’t agree with them is not only stupid but unspiritual. Is your blood boiling yet? A little warm around the collar? Then look at these bullet points again. Yes, Paul is describing the healed rift between Jews and Gentile, but his words also apply to you and that guy. Yep, that guy.
Why did our Triune God do all this? Because he’s had an eternal purpose since eternity past (3:11). He had a mystery, yet he hid it and hid it and hid it—that is, until the Light of the world came to bring it to light (3:9). What is this mystery now-revealed? It’s the church as the people of God! It’s your church that will make known to all heavenly rulers and authorities God’s manifold wisdom.
Brothers and sisters, this is a local church.
Third, a church’s primary assailants are supernatural, not personal—and its primary weapons are spiritual, not political.
Paul ends his letter to the Ephesians by telling them to get ready for war. Now that sounds like a message fit for 2020. But did you notice how he describes the enemy?
Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Eph. 6:11–12)
Our greatest enemy in an election year is our greatest enemy in a non-election year. Our greatest enemy in a democracy is our greatest enemy in a dictatorship. That enemy is not the other, but the Adversary. He’s not an elephant or a donkey, but a lion on the prowl, looking for someone to devour.
But here’s where it gets tricky though. Some Christians think the Republican Party’s support of President Trump is demonic; others think that the Democratic Party’s support of abortion is demonic. What do we do about this?
We ought to remember precisely what Paul tells us to remember: that we’re not warring against flesh and blood. Our brothers and sisters in Christ might be misguided or naive or even worse—but they’re decidedly not our adversaries. Satan is. And whatever machinations he’s got going on in the halls of government are far less relevant than whatever he’s up to in the pews of your church.
I’m not sure exactly what the devil thinks of the election, but I know he cares immensely that Christians hate the people they’re supposed to love. Because when we do, we dim our witness to the watching world (Eph. 3:10). We rip out the beating evangelistic heart that’s supposed to typify every healthy local church: its members’ love for one another (John 13:35).
For some, the world seems to have lost its ever-loving mind recently. For others, the world has ignored an endemic sickness for too long and is finally taking its medicine—yes, we’re gagging as the Robitussin goes down, but we know it’s good for us.
How are Christians supposed to respond? Consider Luke 21. While I can’t explain everything in this chapter in this article, Jesus’ words about the posture of his people are straightforward:
“And when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified, for these things must first take place, but the end will not be at once.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences. And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven. (Luke 21:9–12)
Alright, that’s the confusing part. But here’s where it gets simple. Before all this weird and wild stuff happens:
They will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name's sake. This will be your opportunity to bear witness. Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name's sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives. (vv. 12-19)
Did you catch it? All this craziness, Jesus says, will be our opportunity to bear witness. How? By enduring. By showing solidarity over and against even the deepest worldly relationships: parents, siblings, relatives, and friends. By trusting that the Lord will provide us with everything we need—that even if we die, we’ll never perish.
We need to remember who our enemies are. We also need to remember the weapons Jesus authorizes us to use. In Luke 21, Jesus ends his ominous predictions with an exhortation. In short: stay alert and pray (21:36). That’s what we should do.
We want to do more, of course. We want to fight fire with, well, fire. We see people rejecting Jesus so we wonder, like James and John in Luke 9, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” In these regrettable moments, I suspect Jesus responds to us as he did to them: he turns around and rebukes us.
Ephesians 6 sounds a similar note. Paul tells us to keep alert and to pray (6:18–19). He tells the church to take up the armor of God—not to unleash the arsenal of God. We’re given details of a defensive wardrobe, not an offensive war-chest. But there is, of course, one exception: the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God (6:17).
A few implications from this: first, Christians ought to be marked by their alertness and their prayerfulness. We ought to pay attention to our world—not so that we can grouse at the latest idiocy or injustice, but so that our prayers will be full of both informed hopefulness and particular concern.
Second, when we go on the offensive, we must only do so when we’re prayed-up and when we’re able to specifically and unambiguously apply the Word of God. Put another way: don’t go on the offensive about your opinions.
Our churches should be the first place we see Isaiah 2 coming to fruition:
It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the Lord
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be lifted up above the hills;
and all the nations shall flow to it,
and many peoples shall come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth the law,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.
Brothers and sisters, remember: this is a local church.