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>The Branding and Commodifying of the Gospel

>Although I am quite unfamiliar with the infamous “Godblog wars” that Jeff addressed in a well-articulated post last week, his thoughts on that subject stirred up some thoughts regarding the tendency in our culture to brand and commodify everything, including the Gospel.

Jeff described the phenomenon in the Godblog wars by which factions develop around certain ideas, and more often around a certain zealous and charismatic (a description of one’s personality, not theology) individual. Then, as Jeff describes it, “fanboys” rally around “their guy” and basically become proponents of his ideas, seeking to spread those ideas to as many people as possible and defending them from anyone who questions or criticizes them. In essence, they become disciples of that individual or group’s brand of the Gospel. What is worse, they grow myopic and begin to view their group’s brand as the only legitimate one.

Observing a similar pattern throughout the Church in general, I’ve been amazed and saddened at the number of people I’ve met who can enthusiastically parrot what their leader or group of choice says about the Gospel but have no idea how that view squares with the Bible. It’s too much trouble to do the heavy homework like the Bereans, so they go with whichever brand of the Gospel most appeals to their consumerist mentality, which usually means the brand that has the most engaging spokesman or presents the message in the newest and sexiest way.

And this is far from being a new trend. Paul was compelled to address a similar situation in his first epistle to the Corinthian believers:

”Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment. For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you.” [I love the irony that Paul was informed of the presence of factions by what appears to be a faction! Of course, it must have been a rather non-antagonistic faction, as no self-respecting fanboy would be caught dead in a group called “Chloe’s people.”]”Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, ‘I am of Paul,’ and ‘I of Apollos,’ and ‘I of Cephas,’ and ‘I of Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized into the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:10-13)

Imagine the scene. The young church at Corinth was genuinely seeking to impact that notoriously wicked city with the Gospel. And in the context of doing so, divisions arose. I don’t know if these divisions were over significant theological differences (I’m inclined to believe they weren’t, otherwise Paul would have addressed the bad theology, wouldn’t he?), or if they were simply the result of our human tendency to gravitate towards and follow people that we like. The context seems to indicate that the factions may have had something to do with who people were baptized by. If so, this statement from Paul must have been a stinging rebuke to the factious Corinthian believers: “For Christ did not send me to baptize [to initiate into a particular group], but to preach the gospel.” Regardless of the root, the result was that the Body of Christ began to fragment, which had a stifling effect upon the spread of the Gospel in that city.

I’m not suggesting that there is no room for differences in theology or for arguing those differences. The fact that we all see “as in a mirror dimly,” as Jeff pointed out, means that none of us can make a claim to having a monopoly on the understanding of truth. It follows, then, that rigorous debate is one of the best ways for us to mutually refine our understanding of truth. However, when we become so committed to a particular brand of doctrine that we cannot recognize that it is simply that, one of many brands, then any such debate becomes disingenuous and unfruitful. When we are more committed to defending a brand of doctrinal belief than we are to mutually growing in our understanding of truth, we cease to be partners in the Gospel of Truth and are reduced to being competing salesmen of a mere religious commodity.

When this happens, it not only has an adverse effect on the spread of the Gospel. It reveals a profound spiritual immaturity in those who so rigidly cling to their brand. Speaking in this same context of divisions in the church, Paul wrote:

”And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able, for you are still fleshly. For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men? For when one says, ‘I am of Paul,’ and another, ‘I am of Apollos,’ are you not mere men? What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one.” (1 Corinthians 3:1-5)

Brothers and sisters, let us strive to be distinguished not as defenders of a particular brand of doctrine, but as “servants” through whom many will believe in the glorious Gospel of Christ as the Lord gives opportunity to each one.

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Discussion

17 thoughts on “>The Branding and Commodifying of the Gospel

  1. >George Bubbaya Wush?

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | August 2, 2007, 3:33 pm
  2. >”Pot. Kettle.”One of the greatest come-back lines of the Godblogosphere wars. Or not. ;)Godblogosphere wars is a little cumbersome. Maybe GBW?

    Posted by Jeff Wright | August 2, 2007, 2:07 pm
  3. >You know Jeff. Pot. Kettle.Those Emergents rally around Brian McLauren, Rob Bell, etc. So who are they to accuse others of branding Christianity.Pot. Kettle. Or something like that.

    Posted by David Cho | August 2, 2007, 1:41 pm
  4. >Another thing you see is people throwing labels around as hammers against their opponents. There are the dangers that we need to watch out for concerning our own brands & labels but we have to be careful about how we are using them towards others as well. The same people who don’t like to be called fundamentalists because its not properly nuanced tend to be the same ones who call people “emergent” or “ECMers” and vice versa. Our labels and brands are useful, as you said, we just need to be careful with how we use them with ourselves and with others.

    Posted by Jeff Wright | July 31, 2007, 4:22 pm
  5. >Absoletely Jeff. I think attempting to avoid all manner of “branding” in doctrinal matters would be about the same as going to the grocery store and refusing to buy anything with a brand. Even the generic stuff these days has a label and name, thus a brand. The problem I see is when the brand becomes paramount; when, as you point out, we can’t or won’t question the propositions of our camp either from laziness or blind loyalty. Labels, and thus brands, are useful tools for helping us to know what we’re getting. We trust in the quality of certain brands, and usually with good reason. I think it’s the same with doctrine. We trust certain brands of doctrine because they do have a good track record. But in the end, we have to keep in mind that every brand of doctrine out there is simply a construct of men, and thus open to fallibility. That which could be wrong MUST be questioned.

    Posted by Dwight | July 31, 2007, 3:02 am
  6. >I’m good with defending a particular brand of doctrine within limits. Dwight brought out one of the problems that can come with this, though. It can lead to laziness and an excess of parochialism. Sometimes we tend to give people in our “camp” a free pass without examining them as closely as we would others. Its definitely a problem if we shut our brains down to the point that we “go with whichever brand of the Gospel most appeals to their consumerist mentality, which usually means the brand that has the most engaging spokesman or presents the message in the newest and sexiest way.” This can come about either by being lazy, as I mentioned above, or by becoming a fanboy. Good stuff, Dwight. Thanks for the exhortation.

    Posted by Jeff Wright | July 31, 2007, 2:10 am
  7. >Dwight, while I appreciate you shifting the blame to yourself, there is one thing that I would like to raise. Teaching “titans” need to be aware of having legions of sycophants who have long stopped thinking for themselves. But I see most of them revel in the adoration do very little to guard themselves against the perils of becoming greater than life.I can only speak for my own circumstances, and only take blame for what I feel personally responsible for. I agree that many leaders have achieved some manner of celebrity status, and many others seek and covet that status. Those who have it certainly need to be aware of both the personal pitfalls it exposes them to as well as the near cult-leader power it gives them over many other people. Even when these men are aware of the dangers and take measures to minimize them, as my former pastor and mentor certainly does, some people still choose to unquestioningly follow them.

    Posted by Dwight | July 28, 2007, 12:25 am
  8. >Teaching “titans” need to be aware of having legions of sycophants who have long stopped thinking for themselves. But I see most of them revel in the adoration do very little to guard themselves against the perils of becoming greater than life. He-he-he-he.Sadly this is too true. At Moody we had chapel speakers come who were treated with Rock star status (not by the school – but some students got goofy). Even some (few) professors copped an attitude that attracted small bands of eager followers.

    Posted by Jacob | July 27, 2007, 8:49 pm
  9. >Dwight, while I appreciate you shifting the blame to yourself, there is one thing that I would like to raise. Teaching “titans” need to be aware of having legions of sycophants who have long stopped thinking for themselves. But I see most of them revel in the adoration do very little to guard themselves against the perils of becoming greater than life.

    Posted by David Cho | July 27, 2007, 8:33 pm
  10. >Critics have accused our church of being spoon fed by Pastor MarkConsider the source…I’ve observed Mars Hill, albeit from a distance, for some time. One thing I can say is, that is not Brand Name Christianity going on up there! You guys are one of the best discipling churches I’ve come across. You’re blessed to be there, but I know you already knew that. 🙂

    Posted by Dwight | July 27, 2007, 6:38 pm
  11. >I think there’s value, for many, in Brand Name Christianity. I wouldn’t suggest that this is ideal or a goal, but there are many who just can’t process subtle concepts without great confusion.I don’t deny that there is some value in Brand Name Christianity. For example, the labels that we use are certainly helpful in our dialogue because they help us to have a grasp of where each other are coming from without having to lay out our entire theological schema as a foundation to every discussion. My discomfort arises when defending and promoting the Brand becomes the goal, whether consciously or unconsciously.

    Posted by Dwight | July 27, 2007, 6:35 pm
  12. >I’m really grateful for the way our church studies the Word. Our preaching pastor is very gifted, but he always challenges us to test everything he says by opening the Bible for ourselves. We have a ton of community groups that devote each week to pouring over that week’s sermon & text to hash out any questions or confusion. We have a members message board that is open to questions that people have. Responses are from our many pastors, deacons and fellow members, so it’s a very balanced discussion. Critics have accused our church of being spoon fed by Pastor Mark, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. I pray all churches would be more committed to studying the Word and discouraging lazy participation.

    Posted by Judy | July 27, 2007, 5:00 pm
  13. >I think there’s value, for many, in Brand Name Christianity. I wouldn’t suggest that this is ideal or a goal, but there are many who just can’t process subtle concepts without great confusion.For most believers who grow up in a Bible preaching church, I doubt that serious questioning of the teacher’s position occurs before they move on (to college, another church, etc.). It begins when they hear from a source that they consider authoritative which contradicts something they previously were taught.BTW…”Moody, the name you can trust” 🙂

    Posted by Jacob | July 27, 2007, 4:04 pm
  14. >Discipleship is required if you’re going to break free of the brands and follow Jesus.Amen. Another reason why I stuck with the “brand” was because Dr. Smith’s frequent warnings against the evil of heresy and it unfortunately created an atmosphere of paranoia. You just stay with me and you will be alright.Certainly we should be warned against bad theology and we ought to study God’s Word. But the key is studying GOD’S WORD, not your Titan’s sermons and books.

    Posted by David Cho | July 27, 2007, 3:52 pm
  15. >David,I can really relate to your experience. Growing up under a similar theological and teaching “Titan,” I found it easier and, perhaps more importantly for me, safer to simply co-opt all of his theology. Then it hit me, I was not taking from my mentor (and this was my fault, not his) how to think, but what to think. Whether I did it for convenience or for safety, by my own choice I was indoctrinated rather than discipled. Indoctrination works as long as you’re happy with a brand. Discipleship is required if you’re going to break free of the brands and follow Jesus.

    Posted by Dwight | July 27, 2007, 3:25 pm
  16. >Your statement about squaring your doctrines and attitudes with the bible resonates. Sound, dedicated, prayerful bible study will cut off any spiritual malignancies, kind of like accountability sessions with the Lord Jesus. Good words.

    Posted by DW | July 27, 2007, 1:51 pm
  17. >Amen.I parroted my pastor, and here is why.Dr. Smith (not his real name) is a very learned man. Despite decades of study under his belt, he still spends 30-40 hours a week studying Scripture so he can feed his sheep.So I am going to stick with Dr. Smith 100% of the time. He may be wrong in some areas, but I bet his batting average is around .987 or more. That is astronomically better than I can dream of achieving if I were on my own. So I decided that thinking for myself was a bad idea. I convinced myself that I was striving for truth, when it fact I was buying a brand. A man-made system.

    Posted by David Cho | July 27, 2007, 7:02 am

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