Monday, November 17, 2008

Faithfulness is failure (or looks like it)

As the world sees it, action which is faithful to God will always fail, just as Jesus Christ necessarily went to the cross. Such action always leads to a dead end. It is always a fiasco from the standpoint of worldly power. But this should not worry us. It does not mean that our action is in truth ineffectual. Efficacy measured in terms of faithfulness cannot be compared at any point with efficacy measured in terms of success. [...] The action we attempt will always be regarded by the world as a failure, and the more so the more it is authentically faithful. We cannot be successful or show the church to be effective in the world unless we adopt the world's criterion of efficacy, which means adopting its means as well."

- Jacques Ellul, The Politics of God and the Politics of Man
(trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley; Eerdmans, 1972 [1966]), 140.

Is this a profound insight into an age of frustration, in which the church lives in hope of the promise, that is, by faith not by sight? Or is it an excuse for failure?
Ten points for the name of the bay.

14 comments:

jessica smith said...

oh dear - I am finding this quite difficult at the moment in a concrete situation. Is it being most faithful to put up with an under performing worker in a church context for the sake of valuing the person and seeing them grow and do better, even at a cost of getting the job done and the time of others, or is that just ridiculous and not good for anyone and I'd do better to have us succeed by removing them quickly. Hope this dilema sort of makes sense and draws out the issues of the quote. Looking forward to talking about this issue in person. J

Plessey said...

Don't worry about being effective especially in a church situation providing you are doing all you can do.

Ellul says on pg. 197 of the book
"To be controlled by utility and the pursuit of efficacy is to be subject to the strictest determination of the actual world. To want to attain results is necessarily not to be a witness to the free gift of God".

This probably does not resolve your dilemma still I thought I just had to say it.

Name[d] said...

on the whole I think Ellul is right. We cannot be too concerned with the world's ideals about success and failure. We must be willing to look a fool and a failure. To walk as misunderstood or blamed and even, yes, ridiculous. So long as we are faithful this is how the world will often see Christ and his church. Things like turning the other cheek are neither utilitarian nor praised by a wold who often confront crises by exploiting the weaknesses of others. Contrary to the gospel way of life, self sacrificial living and giving equals death as opposed to life eternal.

gbroughto said...

To unpack Jess's issue: is the person "underperforming" in a less-than-optimal-efficiency way? or in a less-than-faithful way? I actually think Ellul helps you here.

His insight is that in the church, we musn't play by the 'rules' of efficiency. Nor should we value people's contribution. I recently heard someone who ran a small business plan for some inefficiency in her business, so that in a tight spot, the employee who had a sick child / elderly parent etc, could more easily leave early / arrive late without feeling like they would be "letting everyone down."

This person saw their practice of "inbuilt inefficieny" as a way of embodying the hebrew practice of not harvesting the corners of the field.

I wish we could have many more examples and experiments of "faithfulness" over efficiency.

Back to your worker: tell it like it is. You can cope with some inefficiency, but not with lack of faithfulness. Offer to work with them so they can be the most faithful worker, to see their work as their worship. If they can't respond to that invitation, then the problem is more than one of inefficiency, and your solution is clearer.

Chris said...

sounds like Hauerwas-style, church-as-protest, refusing to trade in its chips for the "neutral secular language" in the public square. Insofar as the church can work towards the common good, I would disagree with Ellul; Insofar as the gospel delegitimises any project in the secular age, I would agree. I think it's all part of the now & not-yet ambiguity.

Donna said...

Seems to me that the answer to your two last questions depends on your answer to the questions "what is success?" and "what is failure?" Can we talk of Christian "success" where God is glorified, truth is revealed, love is shown and people become more Christ-like? ... Or is that just the definition of faithfulness?

Anonymous said...

I was preaching last Sunday on the "letter" to the church in Philadelphia in Rev 3. The thing which struck me was that this is one of the churches about which Christ has nothing bad to say, but it is described as having "little strength". So, at the very least, outward strength/success is not the same as the faithfulness which pleases christ.

G said...

Interesting that you've almost all taken this passage in an ecclesiological sense. I think it rings true more closely on the question of personal piety.

byron smith said...

G - yes, that's true and thanks for pointing it out. Perhaps at least some of us were thinking ecclesiologically because that seems to be Ellul's primary concern in this book (which is a book about politics and the relation of the church and state).

Moffitt the Prophet said...

Ruschcutters Bay?

Anthony Douglas said...

No, it's definitely Rushcutters Bay. I don't know how you could have mixed the two up!

byron smith said...

Moffitt - ten points.

Anthony - two for your pedantry (who said pedantry is unrewarding? (There may be points for answering this rhetorical question. Then again, there might not)).

Matthew Moffitt said...

"[W]ho said pedantry is unrewarding?"

George W. Bush?

byron smith said...

:-)