Archive for July, 2011

Efficiency vs. Faithfulness

July 20, 2011

By most standards I am not an efficient person.  I am slow at thinking, and even slower at carpentry.  On my desk there is usually a backlog of items that should have been completed yesterday.  I have to work long and hard at preparing lectures, sermons, Sunday school lessons and newspaper columns.

I have often felt badly about my inefficiency, and thus I was most interested when a friend told me that Jacques Ellul dealt with this problem in his book, The Politics of God and the Politics of Man (Eerdmans, 1972). 

In this series of meditations on II Kings, Ellul explains why inefficiency is deplored today.  Ours is a technological society.  We value people, and even more, machines which can get a lot accomplished with a minimum of effort and energy.  Efficiency is also at the heart of capitalism.  The more efficiently and cheaply an item can be produced, the more profit can be made.  Generally we are governed by vision of what is great and powerful and effective.

Ellul goes on to show that efficiency is not necessarily a virtue.  With God it is not efficiency, but faithfulness that really matters.

There are two kinds of kings found in the Old Testament, according to Ellul – those who “did evil in the eyes of the Lord, as the house of Ahab had done,” and those who followed David and did what was right in the eyes of the Lord.  What is somewhat disturbing is that those kings who were faithful to God often met defeat, while those who were cruel and disobedient to God often were highly successful monarchs.  From man’s point of view, the disobedient kings must surely be rated the more efficient.  But God is strangely unimpressed.  He is more concerned with faithfulness, even though this leads to failure from a human point of view.

The account of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness also has something to say about efficiency.  Jesus is about to begin his ministry, and the tempter, who is well acquainted with efficient ways to get things done in the world, offers him some advice.  An efficient way to get a hearing from the masses would be to satisfy their physical needs – give them bread.  But, Jesus chooses a less efficient method – proclaiming the Word of God.

To do the spectacular, like throwing oneself down from the temple, would be an efficient means of getting people’s attention (how much more so if it could be televised!).  But Jesus prefers a less spectacular approach, and consistently tells those whom he has miraculously healed not to spread the news.  An efficient way to gain all the kingdoms of the world would be to bow down to Satan, to adopt his tactics, to exercise power, or to use forceful means. But instead, Jesus chooses the way of the cross, a way that seems foolish and hopelessly inefficient.

One of the greatest temptations of the church today is to be efficient rather than faithful to God and his Word.  It may be more efficient to run a church like a business corporation, but is this being faithful to God’s Word?  Hiring consultants to run a slick campaign to raise money for church projects might be efficient, but would our Lord be impressed?  The electronic church might be more efficient that the pre-electronic church, but is it faithful to the even more old-fashioned model of the church instituted by Christ?

Paul warns us to be careful how we build the church (I Cor. 3:10-15).  There are some methods that might be efficient but they might also be unworthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Only if the church is built by those means that are faithful to its foundation, which is Jesus Christ, will it survive.  Efficiency at the expense of faithfulness always falls under God’s judgment. 

(This blog first appeared as an article in “A Christian Mind” column, in the Mennonite Brethren Herald, March 12, 1982, and is here slightly revised.)