ReVision

Functionalism

God's Work. God's ways. Period.

Ecclesiastical Winds (6)

But He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.”
Matthew 16.23

A tenacious root
Jesus’ rebuke of Peter might seem a little harsh. After all, He had just commended the apostle for his confession of faith. He emphasized the change of Peter’s name from “unstable” to “the rock.” He set him forward as the example of the kind of foundation on which Jesus would build His Church.

And now He’s in Peter’s face, calling him Satan, telling him to get in line behind Him, and humiliating Peter by exposing the folly of what the disciple surely must have considered a noble, even heroic, gesture. What’s going on here?

Jesus had just unfolded for the disciples the next phase of the work of God. He was going to Jerusalem, where He would “suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day” (Matt. 6.21). This was the work of God, and this was how it must proceed.

But that scenario didn’t sit well with Peter. Of course, Peter wanted Jesus to get glory. He wanted all the world to believe in Him and be saved. He wanted Him to be exalted as King over Israel and all the world. Peter sincerely wanted the best for Jesus, and for the world through Him.

What was so wrong about what Peter said?

Functionalism defined
Peter’s offense was to insist on doing the work of God in a manner other than according to the Word of God. The Lord had just told Peter what was going to transpire, but that did not seem “reasonable” to Peter. He certainly could not see how what Jesus had just described would accomplish Peter’s vision of what was best. Although clearly well-meaning in wishing to propose another course, Peter actually became an instrument of Satan by thinking a man’s way rather than according to the Word of God.

Peter needed to “get behind” Jesus and follow Him in faith, nothing doubting – not try to correct the Lord’s way of carrying out His work by proffering a more “reasonable” and efficient path.

Peter was wanting to do God’s work man’s way – the easier way, the more comfortable, convenient, familiar, and less troublesome way. The way Jesus proposed seemed difficult, even dangerous; and Peter could not see how that was going to accomplish the end they were seeking. Peter had not exactly lost sight of the goal; but he considered that his way of achieving that goal was better than what Jesus had clearly revealed.

Peter was not thinking according to revelation; he was thinking according to functionalism.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines functionalism as the theory that “the design of an object should be determined by its function rather than by aesthetic considerations, and that anything practically designed will be inherently beautiful.” Put in terms of Peter’s misguided suggestion, whatever Jesus had in mind accomplishing, He needed to do so according to more reasonable and familiar protocols and procedures. The way of getting Him to become King and Lord and Savior should be practical and agreeable, and not in any way difficult or inconvenient or fraught with suffering.

Whatever plan Peter may have concocted to replace that which Jesus revealed – and we don’t know what that might have been – was in his mind more to be desired for its ease, efficiency, and smoothness – its real functionality – than the terrifying scenario Jesus had just outlined. In Peter’s thinking, something other than what Jesus revealed would accomplish a better outcome.

We hoist the sails of our soul and our church into the ill wind of functionalism when we consider that the easy way, the less troublesome way, the smoothly functioning and more familiar way of doing the Lord’s work is the more practical way, and will lead to better results. Indeed, we choose what we’re willing to do, or what we consider ourselves capable of doing, and we make that the focus of our efforts, vaguely hoping that it will achieve a worthwhile end. Functionalism tells us to look around for the greased gears, the ordered means, the proven techniques, the familiar paths, and the agreeable forms, and then to pursue them earnestly. The result may not be exactly what it ought to be, but it will be the best we can do.

Problems with functionalism
The primary problem with functionalism is that it balks at the revelation of God concerning the ends He seeks and the means by which those ends must be sought. Instead, it proffers other means to realize outcomes which might not be exactly what God has in mind, but which will be good enough.

Let’s be blunt: The Scriptures teach that discipleship means laying down our lives for others, taking up our cross, and putting ourselves forward as living sacrifices for Jesus. All that seems rather extreme to many of us. So we define being a Christian in more familiar and acceptable terms: Believe in Jesus, go to church, be in a Bible study, try hard not to sin. Will that make us the kind of disciples Jesus has in mind? It will not; but we’ll settle for what we can get by those means.

The Bible offers a pattern for corporate worship – how it should proceed, what elements it ought to include, the forms that should be used, and the ends that worship seeks. In many churches today, we want to worship the Lord, but we prefer orders of worship and forms of worship that are more in line with what we think than what God has revealed. We like our worship the way we do it – whether formal or informal, traditional or contemporary – and it works well enough for us. We never consider whether such worship is what God wants and prescribes.

Or take the work of making disciples, to which we are all called (Matt. 28.18-20): Jesus said this should be done by an active ministry of shepherding – church leaders shepherding all God’s flock according to the example and teaching of Jesus, and church members shepherding one another as the natural overflow of their growing in the Lord. Instead of this, however, we run programs, and most of the programs we run are neither focused on helping believers grow as disciples – since we have not adequately defined that term – nor comprise all the disciplines and structures Jesus and the apostles taught as to how we should fulfill this calling. But running programs is what we know how to do, and it’s good enough for at least some “discipleship” outcomes.

In other ways as well, we try to do the Lord’s work our way, in familiar and practical ways that we find agreeable and efficient. And it’s no wonder that the outcomes we are realizing in our churches, while they may be good enough for us, continue to fall short of the promise of such passages as Micah 4.1-8, Psalm 48, Matthew 16.18, and Ephesians 4.11-16. It’s the functions we focus on, not the outcomes.

We must discipline our minds in all things to submit to the Word of God. It may not always seem the “reasonable” thing to do – because we cannot square its teaching with our experience or logic – but it is always the Word of God. Our duty is to get behind it and order all our steps accordingly. We must learn to think with God’s mind and not our own, and to keep the sails of our souls hoisted to the Wind of God, and not the wind of functionalism.

For reflection
1. Why is it only ever right to do God’s work in God’s way?

2. Can we hope to achieve the ends God has revealed for us, His Church, and His Kingdom, if we insist on pursuing those ends in ways other than what God has revealed? Explain.
  
3. What can we do to avoid coming under the ill wind of functionalism?

Next steps – Preparation: Spend time in prayer asking the Lord to reveal any ways the ill wind of functionalism is blowing in the sails of your soul.

T. M. Moore

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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT.
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