The Church is not the Market Economy
By Brandon Brown
Recently, I have been wondering why the work of the Cross (atonement) in predominantly Western white Protestant settings has been the metaphor of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). This is the predominant metaphor presented in reformed and Calvinist traditions that insists that Jesus was punished by God for the sins of humanity. This metaphor is made a centerpiece of "the Gospel" even in some contexts; so much so that many in the Neo-reformed movement questioned the recent Asbury Outpouring because they did not hear the message of PSA. While this is not the predominant metaphor within Wesleyan-Holiness traditions, the cultural Christian marketplace is filled with allusions to PSA such that many Wesleyans think PSA is the metaphor for atonement. I have mentioned resources for understanding the multitude of atonement metaphor in scripture; and especially recommend The Crucifixion by Fleming Rutledge and The Back Side of the Cross by Diane Leclerc and Brent Peterson. We can infer PSA from scripture, but as an overarching idea of atonement, it is lacking in scriptural support. The themes of substitution, suffering, payment, redemption, reconciliation, and liberation are all ideas used by the writers of scripture to explain what happened on the Cross. My thought is that we see words like payment and redemption which become informed by our cultural context rather than the what the writers meant by those words.
When we look at atonement as Wesleyans, the predominant ideas are relational in a move to reconciliation. We see the idea of recovering what is lost "in Adam" in recapitulation. So why does PSA capture the imagination of so many? My hypothesis is that the driving force of our world today informs our understanding of words used in scripture for atonement, like payment, substitution, and redemption. That driving force is the market economy. Because our lives, our countries, our politics, our vocations, and other pursuits are steeped in the market economy, it is difficult to understand metaphors that use similar terminology outside of the transactional nature of the market economy. I think Joerg Rieger captures this idea in his book Jesus V Caesar "What does it say that many Christians can imagine the end of the world but not the end of capitalism?" (Rieger) I would expand that to say Socialism, Marxism, or any other predominant system engaging in the marketplace. The ideas of marketplace so pervade our thinking that when we encounter words that appear legal or transactional, that is how we imagine the metaphor. Of course, that is not the culture and reality of the writers of scripture. They did not have a market economy; but an economy of empire very different from our own.
But Paul talks about the legal jeopardy of sin, you may say. Well, yes, and no. In Colossians chapter two, we see a discussion of legal demands. The context of legal demands in Colossians is in the law of sin and death. That legality is nailed to the cross and the rulers and authorities who dealt in that legality are made an example and triumphed over. The legal problem is not a personal problem; but the greater problem of humanity which is dealt with through the cross. Paul is accusing the old way and saying it is gone, dealt with, quit trying to live within it. Paul rejects external rules to live in authentic holiness. Sin accuses humanity legally, but God triumphs relationally. To the Wesleyan, our paradigm should be the relational, not the legal or transactional. This is hard, but the way of the Gospel is a changed heart and life which rejects the old life of transactional enslavement to sin.
What does this mean practically? It should drive the way we invite others into the Kindom of God (yes, Kindom or Family) as an invitation to relationship. This is contrasted with the general evangelical tendency to make Gospel invitations into time-share style sales presentations with an intent to "close the deal." The invitation to relationship is an invitation to deep and lasting discipleship and coming to be more like Jesus; the transactional framework is an invitation to buy into a system of getting to heaven or avoiding hell. Not all transactional analogies are this way, but many become shallow and easy to wander away from when the consumer finds a more interesting message within the marketplace. The Gospel is not a product to be peddled through slick marketing with closing style tactics. Too often I think we feel yelled at by Blake in Glengarry Glen Ross because we are not closers. That is because we are not selling a product, but inviting into relationship and discipleship with a God who is relational, not transactional.
Can we reject the commoditization of the Gospel and quit thinking of it within the framework of the market economy? I am optimistic as I see many within the Church calling for us to do this very thing. It may take the imagination to think outside of the market economy such that we recognize the deeply rooted relational nature of the Gospel. I invite you to take part and live into this paradigm rather than the one our culture tells us is reality.
Rieger, Joerg. Jesus vs. Caesar (p. 6). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.
My review of Back Side of the Cross: https://blog.parsonbrown.page/the-back-side-of-the-cross/