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Malignant on Monday
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Wednesday, June 22, 2011
Wendy Wippel

A Huffington Post commentator recently posted this opinion:  “Christianity is a cancer…, a malignant source of hate, lies, and bigotry.” With apologies to my readers that may ascribe to Arianna’s worldview (Anybody? ), on this I have to disagree.  Christians are not a cancer.  But we should be.

My field of study in graduate school was oncology, and even as a new Christian studying the intricate complexity of life at the molecular level was like looking at God.  And as the molecular events that lead to the development of cancer were unveiled to me, I saw a profound analogy for the church hidden in the biochemistry of carcinogenesis as well.

Normal cells have a pre-programmed limit to their lives. When they reach that limit, they undergo what amounts to cell suicide through a phenomenon known as apoptosis.  Occasionally, however, through exposure to ultraviolet sunlight, toxic chemicals, or just because replication of the DNA messes up, the cell undergoes transformation.  After the molecular event that causes transformation, the cell becomes immortal, creating a cell line that never dies. 

"Transformed" and "immortal" are the scientific terms.

So what exactly happens to these “transformed" cells that alienates them from their host?  What changes the cells from a happy part of the healthy body into an internal assassin?

Scientists have identified a few crucial events.

First of all, transformed cells “de-differentiate”.

The cells in a developing embryo are pretty much all alike and they all have the same job:  make copies of themselves.  The developing embryo just needs to grow, so every cell reproduces itself as fast as it can.  One cell becomes about 150 in just a few days, which become more than a trillion by the time the baby is born.

At some point in that process, though, what starts out as just a ball of cells begins turning into a human body, and cells become specialized to assume some specific biological function.  Some cells become brain cells, some become liver cells, some become bone, and they do this by brain cell, liver cell, and bone cell genes getting flipped on, while the “just reproduce” genes get flipped off.

When transformation happens, some insult to the DNA ends up turning off the specialized function genes and turn the cell back into a newborn cell whose only directive is to reproduce.  The adult liver or bone cell reverts back to an embryonic cell, and, thinking it is a newborn again, begins to just reproduce itself.  So it does, out of control, with (as yet) no real medical way of stopping it.

The second thing that happens to the cells is that they lose something known as contact inhibition.  Normal cells in culture don’t like to get too close to each other.  They keep each other at arm's length. They will reproduce in culture until they just barely touch.

And then they stop.

Cancerous cells, on the other hand, will keep reproducing until they touch and continue till they pile up on each other.  (This, in fact, is a hallmark of transformation in cultured cells.)

All transformed cells exhibit these two properties, and in a human body can produce some amazingly huge tumors!  I read last week about one unfortunate man with a tumor on his leg that weighed 180 lb, which I am sure distressed the man a great deal.

But it didn’t kill him.

Malignant cells (ones who represent a genuine threat to the body within which they reside) have two very specific characteristics:

  • the cells infiltrate the host tissues, replacing normal tissue with cancer cells
  • the cells break off from their original tumor and travel through the blood stream to plant tumors elsewhere.

Fascinating foray into molecular pathology aside, I do have a spiritual point to make, and hopefully you see some of it already.

This world, lost by Adam and Eve in an ultimately high-stakes game of chance (would she bite or wouldn’t she?) is now under the control of the victor, the devil. Luke 4:8-9   

We’re ambassadors to it. (II Corinthians 5:2--which has ramifications of its own which we might explore at some later date.  Ambassadors come from a place with one set of laws to live in a place with a different set  \with the goal of acting as a liaison.  They don’t expect the citizens of their host country to obey the laws of the place from which they came.  I suspect US ambassadors, in places like Saudi Arabia, may well look on the native population  with compassion, because they are harassed and helpless under the autocratic dictator that rules them. But that's a topic for another time.)

Back to my point: It’s the devil's world, and we’re the intruder.

But we're an intruder on a mission--to offer transformation and immortality to those around us. (John 5:24) And we may be great at being the beloved bride of Christ on Sunday, but are we any real threat, for the most part, to the reigning forces of evil?

So what does the church need to do to be the sweet bride of Christ on Sunday, but malignant on Monday?

First of all, we need to be a body truly transformed.  Sitting in church on Sunday doesn't make you a Christian any more than sitting in the library will make you Ernest Hemingway.  (Or J.K. Rowling).

Second, we need have a single goal: reproduction.  The church has become far too much about service projects and social functions, while soul-winning has become somewhat passé.  Do all things for the sake of the gospel--isn't that what the book says? ( I Corinthians 9:23)

Third, we need to lose our contact inhibition and be willing to share our lives.  Acts 2 describes the church being devoted to one another, sharing their lives and their resources (not doing service projects, notably) and says that the church, just being the church, was so attractive to their neighbors that people were added to their number every day.

Fourth, we need to invade and conquer.  That 180-pound tumor was benign and therefore no threat to the host because a benign tumor, although it can get huge, stays separate-- surrounded by a membrane that acts as a definite demarcation between itself and surrounding tissues.  We in the church may make little forays into enemy territory, but we basically surround ourselves with a Good Christian Lifestyle that keeps the lost world on the other side.  We invite them to church, or to a gospel-oriented event, but we don't open our lives up to real friendships.

Jesus called us to be fishers of men.

Funny thing about fishing. You have to go to the fish. I live in the south, where fishing is practically a sacrament, and I have never seen a single person fish by sitting in their house and saying, "Here, fishy fishy!" You have to go to the fish.

We have to keep both an audience and a testimony.  In the world but not of it.

Sweet on Sunday but malignant on Monday.  That's our goal.

About Wendy Wippel

Last week:  Darwin and the KJV

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