Of Scribes & Prophets

With less to say about my own writing than I’d like, I’m going to be doing more blogging about books I’ve read or am reading. I’m starting today with a post about a quote from Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. (I’m reading Gilead because Jonathan Rogers recommended it highly to me while we were on the Motiv8 Tour.)

I won’t try to explain what is going on in the story, save to say that the main character has just read an article about religion in America. (It might help to say the story is set in the 50’s and the article is supposed to be from ’48.) I’ll begin quoting below:

The article is called “God and the American People,” and it says 95 percent of us say we believe in God. But our religion doesn’t meet the writer’s standards, not at all. To his mind, all those people in all those churches are the scribes and the Pharisees. He seems to me to be a bit of a scribe himself, scorning and rebuking the way he does. How do you tell a scribe from a prophet, which is what he clearly takes himself to be? The prophets love the people they chastise, a thing this writer does not appear to do.

I don’t know, out of the context of the story and the book, how this quote will strike you. It struck me as profound, as several things in the story have. Gilead is one of those books; it rolls along, veering here and there, and every so often it brings the world around you to a standstill with its poignant observations that make you stop reading and consider. This was one of those moments for me.

There are, of course, many differences between scribes and prophets. I say this to appease the literal-minded who might be looking to make of the quote something it does not intend to say. It is good hermeneutical practice for all of us to take a writer’s words in the spirit they are intended, as best as we are able, and Robinson clearly isn’t trying to give an exhaustive theological or historical summary of the difference between scribes and prophets. She’s saying, it seems to me, that many of those who would critique the church do not love the church they critique.

Again, to forestall objection, she isn’t talking about people outside the church critiquing the church. That’s to be expected, isn’t it? Those who don’t believe don’t see the sense of believing and tend to be critical of those who do. Those who believe, who are part of the church, are those she speaks about here, and her point is very important. Critically important.

There is much to criticize the church about. I don’t think that is at issue. Like each of us individually, broken and marred by the sins we commit and that are committed against us, the church as a whole is broken and marred. Again, what should we expect? Take a large group of selfish and sinful people and put them together, we could hardly think the result would be anything less than painfully disappointing at times. And yet the scriptures are clear that the Church is the bride of Christ, beloved of God and in the process of being redeemed, as are we. In short, while it is good and right to point out the failings of the Church in the hope that it may change its ways where it needs to, there is room for charity (in the older sense of the word) in the way we critique it.

If you find yourself with reason to chastise the Church as a whole, or your church in particular, consider carefully how you do it. There are undoubtedly enough self-righteous proclamations about what’s wrong with it already, so there’s no need to add more. Ask yourself, do you love the Church that you chastise, for Christ certainly does. If you find that you do not, or not as much as you feel you should – I find myself in this category, too often – then perhaps your time and energy would be better spent pursuing the correction of your own heart and leaving the correction of the church to those whose love for her shines in even the hardest things they have to say about her. (These people do exist – some of my former teachers, Lyle Dorsett and Jerram Barrs for example, come to mind.)

Undoubtedly it is true that the church has more than enough scribes and Pharisees still within its ranks – let’s not add our voices to theirs, compounding that particular problem. Let’s learn to take a different road toward the same end, the correction and growth of the church in holiness, for own sake as well as the Church’s.

6 thoughts on “Of Scribes & Prophets

  • Good points. I got thoroughly tired of all the church-bashing indulged in by Christians, although I probably did some of it myself. Yes, prophetic calls are necessary at times, but there’s a world of difference between that and a permanent hypercritical attitude.

  • Thank you for pointing that out to me. I have more of a tendency to criticize than to love, so I will try to remember scribes and prophets in the future.

  • LB–
    Great post. I ran across this prophet/scribe distinction somewhere else in recent days…maybe it was in Mark Bertrand’s “Rethinking Worldview” (which you recommended–thank you). No, now that I think about it, it was Tozer’s “Pursuit of God.”
    Here’s the quote: “Between the scribe who has read and the prophet who has seen there is a difference as wide as the sea. We are today overrun with orthodox scribes, but the prophets, where are they? The hard voice of the scribe sounds over evangelicalism, but the Church waits for the tender voice of the saint who has penetrated the veil…”
    But even if Bertrand didn’t use the scribe/prophet distinction, he could have. It maps nicely with his idea of moving from Critic to Contributor. If you haven’t written a post on that, you ought to.
    Thanks for bringing Gilead to your readers’ attention. What a book!

  • Jonathan – you’re right about the “Consumer/Critic/Contributor” idea in Bertrand – ie, it bears posting about! And thanks for the Tozer quote, it’s a good complement to the Robinson quote from “Gilead.”

    To everybody else, yes, we’ve actually read books the other one recommended – now that’s a sign of friendship!

  • Pretty late out of the gate on this one (what’s new?!?), but, well…

    I find myself very often critical of both my own church body and Christendom at large, but not because of some insidious, growing hatred for it; rather, it is a genuine concern that Law and Gospel be proclaimed with equal fervor from her pulpits,as well as a love for my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, that motivates me to animated (yet mostly civil) debates regarding the importance, application, and consequences of our ideas and theologies (both good and not so good). Many times, I am told not to be so judgmental, not to ‘hate,’ etc…but is this really what I’m engaged in? The same people who admonish me as such have no qualms whatsoever about taking a mouthful of steamed tripe from the pen of Pullman, Dawkins, and the like, so the all-too obvious double-standard is, regrettably in full effect.

    It is BECAUSE of that love which shines for Christ’s church that I do not remain silent in the face of such frequent and galling spiritual stupidity (in both the wide sense and the narrow sense), but I (and all of us) must certainly recognize and subsequently resist the temptation towards an attitude of complaint to the degree of bitterness, as this will affect both our walk with God and our fellowship with others.

    Such, I am afraid, is life lived with a foot firmly planted in each kingdom. And anybody who chooses to deny this tension or disguise it as walking as a ‘victorious, sold-out Christian ™, is either a one-eyed leader in a kingdom of the blind, or they are merely selling something (as Westley would say).

    Leave the spiritual navel-gazing to the cultists and false-religionists; our focus remains the finished work of Christ on our behalf!

  • Personally, I don’t think it has ever been or will ever be in doubt that there is much to criticize in the church – it is made up of sinners like you and me, after all. Still, my point was that biblical love is more than just pointing out what is screwed up with our neighbors. There is a corrective aspect to love, but there is also a “bearing with” aspect to love, and while that calls for discernment – when to ‘correct’ and when to ‘bear with’ – I do think compassion for Christ’s bride should be more prevalent among most of us than it is.

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