Luke 22:38 and Self Defense

In the many discussions of the “right to bear arms” and the “right of self defense” one passage of Scripture receives an amount of attention far beyond the weight it can support. This is increasingly true in the discussions generated by the recent terrorist attacks and the “right” of individual states to deny safe refuge to Syrians fleeing the unspeakable horror of ISIS (the Islamic State). That passage is Luke 22:35-38:

And he said to them, ‘When I sent you out with no purse or bag or sandals, did you lack anything?’ They said, ‘Nothing.’ He said to them, ‘But now, let him who has a purse take it, and likewise a bag. And let him who has no sword sell his mantle and buy one. For I tell you that this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was reckoned with transgressors’; for what is written about me has its fulfillment.’ And they said, ‘Look, Lord, here are two swords.’ And he said to them, ‘It is enough.’ (Luke 22:35-38, RSV)

I want to suggest to you that, first of all, this passage is enigmatic in that there are a number of interpretive issues involved, and second, that regardless of the clarity (or obscurity) of the passage, building one’s theology of the right to bear arms on one text is highly dubious. Using this text to defend a matter of constitutional law smacks of the worst kind of proof-texting. What is worse, if this interpretation of the text is, in fact, erroneous, it turns Jesus into something that he manifestly was and is not, therefore is dangerously close to blasphemy.

To begin, the interpretation that Jesus is in this text promoting the purchase and use of weapons for self-defense is to declare that Jesus is also completely rejecting his own words of comfort to his disciples. To illustrate, compare the last words of Jesus in John 14-16. At no point in this long message did Jesus ever hint or suggest that his departure would in any way limit the future work of the disciples. In fact, it was his departure, and the subsequent gift of the Holy Spirit, that would strengthen and embolden the disciples. If the interpretation of Luke 22:35-38 is that Jesus is encouraging the purchase of weapons for self-defense, the logic has to be that Jesus is telling his disciples, “Look, boys, I’m about to leave here, so you are all on your own. Better load up on the swords, ’cause your gonna need all you can get.” However, the words of Jesus as recorded in John flatly reject this logic. Jesus told his disciples the coming Holy Spirit would increase their work, and that his absence would be in their favor.

Second, the use of this text as a proof-text for the use of weapons for self-defense is in direct contradiction to the actions and words of Jesus that would take place in the garden in just a couple of hours time. We are familiar with the fact that Peter was only too willing to use one of those two swords (I wonder who the owner of the other was??), and Jesus rebuked him soundly, telling him, “Put your sword back in its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52, RSV) Not exactly a thunderous affirmation of the right of Peter to defend Jesus and himself with a sword. In fact, Jesus went on to tell Peter if he so wanted, he could call legions of angels down to defend him. Self-defense was not on Jesus’s agenda.

Third, some time later Jesus would yet again reject the idea that his disciples would, or even should, take up arms. In response to a political accusation by the Procurator Pilate, Jesus said, “My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world.” (John 18:36, RSV) This is somewhat ironic, as Peter DID take up arms to defend Jesus, but Jesus unequivocally rejected that Lilliputian effort. Once again, self-defense is not on Jesus’s agenda.

Please note that each of these examples comes after Jesus’s statement to “buy a sword.” So – if Jesus is clearly NOT interested in self-defense or the use of swords, what in the world was he talking about? I return to the concept of enigma – this is something that is clearly not an easy passage to decipher, but there are some clues in the text itself.

First, Jesus reminds the disciples of their previous mission and the ability for God to fully meet their needs. Now, unless we are willing to accept that God will somehow be unable to meet their needs in a future mission, we must ask ourselves why Jesus would suggest the carrying of a purse, a bag, and lastly, a sword. Was it because due to his repeated warnings of his impending arrest and death that the apostles were beginning to make defensive provisions? In other words, is it not fully reasonable to see Jesus using the rhetoric of irony here – “Remember how God has provisioned for you earlier, and now you are acting like a bunch of scared schoolboys??” I do not suggest that this is the only way in which these verses can be interpreted, but other clues lead me to believe it is at least a worthy option.

Second, Jesus quotes Isaiah 53:12 – but not the entire verse. Let us then examine Isaiah 53:12 –

Therefore I will divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out his soul to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” (RSV, emphasis mine)

Now, in the immediate context of those who heard Jesus’s words, who were the transgressors? Maybe those who were planning on an armed defense of their messiah? Namely, could it have been Peter and the unnamed apostle? Maybe it was the fog of exhaustion, or their basic inability to grasp what Jesus was saying, but the immediate retort was, “Look, Jesus, here we have two swords!” (a pitiful response to the armed legions of the Romans, and even the poorly armed police of the Jewish leaders). It is telling that as he was being arrested, Jesus made a special intercession on behalf of his apostles, at least one of which had just attempted an insurrection. Jesus plainly “made intercession” for the transgressors.

Third, Jesus words, “It is enough” are interesting. This is an idiom, and as an idiom is difficult to trace throughout the Bible, but a few references are illuminating. In Deuteronomy 3:26 the NIV (among other translations) render God’s rebuke to Moses as, “That is enough.” In other words, “Be quiet – the discussion is over.” In 1 Samuel 15:16, Samuel cuts King Saul’s excuse off with a brisk, “Stop!” In 2 Samuel 24:16, God stays the hand of the destroying angel with an emphatic, “Enough!” Interjections such as these have both a disjunctive and a corrective sense. They are used to stop the present flow of words or actions, and they indicate a different path of action or discourse will follow. Viewed in this manner, Jesus is simply telling his disciples to shut up; they have utterly misunderstood him yet again, but his last hours are drawing to a close and he does not have the time to enter into yet another time-consuming theological lecture.

Finally, we have to note the reaction of the apostles in the post-Pentecost age of the Spirit. Not once did they take up weapons to defend themselves. Not once did they advocate the use of weapons in the realm of self-defense. Not once did a disciple of Jesus take up a weapon to defend one of his peers. In fact, for the first three centuries one of the sharpest distinctions regarding the church of Jesus Christ was their unflinching and resolute avoidance of violence. To me, this fact is conclusive. The disciples may have misunderstood Jesus’s words in the upper room that night, but by the day of Pentecost they got it. They were transformed. And, with great courage and faith they proudly proclaimed the “right to bare arms.”

The argument is often presented that if a man’s family was being attacked, he has a right, and perhaps even a responsibility, to protect them at any cost. I cannot answer how I would face that situation, and I pray I will never have to make that decision. But one thing I do know: I cannot base my desire to purchase and use lethal weapons on Luke 22:35-38. To do so is an illegitimate use of Scripture. A man may have the right and duty to defend his family – but the scriptural defense of that right and duty must be found elsewhere (Exodus 22:2-3 comes to mind, although there are some problems there, too).

I began by saying this text in Luke is enigmatic. I do not suggest that the interpretation that I have proposed is the only way to interpret this passage, but I do suggest that it offers the fewest problems. It provides the greatest cohesion with the plain teachings of Jesus. It is in clear agreement with the words of Jesus spoken within hours, or perhaps even minutes, of the words recorded in Luke. So, while I may be incorrect, I choose to stand here, admitting my fallibility, but resting in the security that for centuries the early church stood on the same ground.

How to Fix a Broken Education System

Yesterday I added to an already oversized series of rants against our education system in the U.S. (I did not realize just how oversized until I reviewed what I had already written. Yikes). But I am passionate about education. I guess it is in my DNA. So, just so that I can not be accused of only being a complainer and not one who offers any solutions, I offer the following solutions to repairing our broken education system. Will any be implemented? Probably not, but I would love to see some, if not all of them at least attempted.

  1.  Get all politicians out of the education system. There should be NO elected officials higher than the immediate, local school board. School board members should be a part of district (or districts) that they oversee. They should shop in the same shops, eat in the same restaurants, attend the same churches and pay the same taxes. They should be held accountable by those who elect them, and terms should be short enough so that the weak and ineffectual can be removed. There absolutely should not be any county, state or federal level of education oversight. The higher the level of elected (or appointed) education officials the greater the mismanagement and damage done to the local classroom.
  2. Parents have to assert their authority in the classrooms. For far too long parents have abdicated their God-given role in the rearing of their children to the “specialists” and “professionals” in the education system. No – children have been entrusted to parents, not the state or the federal government, and parents should be intimately aware of what is being taught the classroom, and how it is being taught. Any time a “specialist” or a “professional” tells a parent, “I know more about what your child needs than you do” that person should be removed from the school or classroom as far as physically possible.
  3. All administrators, from the superintendent of the school down to the principal, and from the president of a university down to the deans and department chairs, must be in the schools and in the classrooms. That means that the administrators’ offices should be in the schools, not some separate “administration building.” NO! Put the office of the superintendent in the schools – and if s/he is the superintendent over a number of school campuses, then each school campus should have an administrative office and the superintendent should rotate among those campuses on a regular basis. Every administrator, including superintendents, principals, university presidents, vice-presidents, and deans should be required to teach one course every 3 – 4 school semesters or quarters. That’s right – if you are not teaching then you should not be considered a school “administrator.” If you are not dealing with intractable discipline issues, if you are not working with obsolete or incoherent textbooks, if you are not having to deal with leaky roofs and inoperative plumbing, then get out of your position. If you do not know the names of your teachers, and as many students as possible, then you are not an educator. And especially if you are not even qualified by the state or district in which you live to be in a classroom, then you are not qualified to be an administrator. We have far too many professional administrators who have forgotten, or perhaps who have never even been in a classroom. This is especially true of university presidents and vice-presidents. Get in the classroom or get out of education.
  4. Discipline must be re-established in the classroom. The unruly child cannot be allowed to hold the rest of the class hostage. Minor infractions should be dealt with swiftly and certainly. Repeated or more significant infractions must be dealt with by the principal or other duly empowered employee. After appropriate measures have been taken and the child is still unruly – kick them out of the classroom. Education is a privilege, not a guaranteed right. If a child, and especially if the parents of an unruly child, will not submit to the authority of a teacher (and higher school authority), then the child does not belong in the classroom, period. If necessary, create a special room with trained personnel to handle those with behavioral issues, but get those students out of the main-line classes.
  5. A college education is another privilege, not a constitutional right. Many children do not need to, nor do they wish to, attend college. Many professions do not require a college degree. College is not the place to “find oneself.” If you do not want to push yourself to the absolute extreme of your capabilities, do not attend a four-year college or university. Take a year or two and travel the world. Work in a soup kitchen or join the military. Dig ditches or clean sewers. Discover your life’s calling by actually getting out and trying a few things. Then, if a college or university degree is what you want, you will actually apply yourself and earn that degree.
  6. Let’s eliminate “guaranteed” school tuition scholarships and low interest loans. Free money is slowly killing higher education. A person’s birth does not entitle them to a bachelor’s degree. Let’s make a university education worth something again. That means raising, not lowering, entrance standards, and it means judging a university based on the quality of their graduates, not the quantity of students enrolled in their programs.

I could probably go on – but those are probably enough to get started. Our education system is broken: it is top-heavy, inefficient, caters to the disobedient and built on the idea that education is an entitlement and not a discipline. Parents have abdicated their primary role in education, and teachers have been stripped of their ability to maintain discipline in their classrooms. Teachers must be held accountable, but they must also be given the freedom to exercise their love of teaching.

And, for the love of everything pure and special about education – let us please get politics and politicians out of our schools!

Why America is Doomed (And it has Nothing to do with Homosexuality)

To begin, I am not an “expert” in the field of education. However, I have had more than the average experience both in learning and teaching. I just completed my Doctor of Ministry degree – not the highest peak on Mt. Academia, but it was a hefty hike. I have about 4 years (give or take a month or two) as a flight instructor, both on the ground and in the air, and that qualifies as some pretty unique educational opportunities. When you have a student and a classroom in which death is a very real possibility, you learn to teach effectively pretty quickly. I also have now been teaching in a community college or university setting for four years (one semester at a community college, 3 and 1/2 years at a university). So – Ed. D. I am not, nor am I a retired public educator. But – I have been around the block a couple of times. And, I have a daughter in elementary school – so I can see what is happening from the bottom-up, as well as the top-down.

Everyone is worried about the demise of America via the path of immorality. While I share everyone’s worry about the collapse of biblical morals in our country, I am not convinced that America will fail (or fall) because of lax morals. To be perfectly honest, during the “Roaring 20’s” the crime rate, examples of racial animosity, and, yes, sexual perversity makes our present age look pretty tame. I certainly would not want to be transported back to that time period. Granted, much of the sexual perversity was hidden, but I seriously doubt it was as invisible as many would have us to believe.

No, the reason I fear for America is because of our stunning – almost inexplicable – rejection of the basic concept of education.

I love my students, I really do. There are a few I would like to strangle, but in a good way. I just do not think they are working up to their potential. My frustration with the students in today’s university is that they have been so utterly and completely cheated. They have been told they are the most brilliant, smartest, and most over-achieving generation to grace the world stage – and many of them cannot compose a coherent sentence, let alone an argumentative paragraph or essay. They have been lied to, mass promoted, babied, and coddled ever since they entered kindergarten.

My wife hates it when I get on these rants because she is a substitute teacher, and she is all too familiar with the stresses of teaching. In no way do I want to disparage the well-meaning and hard-working teachers in today’s classrooms. As in any profession there are a lot of bad apples in the barrel, and they certainly give the rest a bad reputation, but 99% of the teachers in today’s classrooms are hard-working, dedicated, education professionals.

The problem with education today revolves around a group of people who, to borrow a phrase, should not even be trusted to be left alone with a pack of matches. They are called “politicians.” Their only job is to raise obscenely huge amounts of money and then to turn that money into votes. They know nothing about education, and except for the occasions when they must address the issue, could care less about education. Professional politicians have gutted the education system here in New Mexico – and they appear to be utterly oblivious to the fact.

Closely related to the politicians are the professional administrative staffs that, as with the politicians, know little and care less about classroom teaching. Those administrators who work their way up from the classroom are generally good administrators. However, those who have nothing more than a higher degree in “Educology” are disasters in the schools. All theory and no practical experience, they take what the politicians hand them and force the teachers to follow. If we had a few more administrators who were willing to stand up to the politicians, our schools would be so much the better.

I am intimately aware of a state university that has been told – get this – that its library holdings are too large. Yes, you read right. The university has to cut its library holdings by upwards of 50 percent because there was simply too many books and journals on the shelves. There must be room made for the foofy coffee and deli bar. And no library would be complete without a commons area where students can gather and plot their next demonstration against the administration. Oy vey. I guess you get what you pay for.

At its core, education is really a very simple process. You start with the absolute minimum that is necessary, and you add piece by piece, drilling and memorizing and practicing and rehearsing, until you have a principle or a concept mastered. Then you add another piece, and you drill and memorize and practice and rehearse until it is mastered – and on and on you go. There is something wonderfully egalitarian about the fact that in English subjects almost always precede verbs, and the fact that 5 x 4 = 20. The social issues faced in an inner city school in Baltimore cannot be compared to the social issues faced on the reservations of northwest New Mexico, but nouns and verbs and multipliers and divisors are always the same. For all the variables in social contexts, education itself is wonderfully fair. If you work hard, you learn. If you play all day, and if your teacher’s hands are basically tied behind their backs – you don’t learn. And that, my friends, is what is happening all across our beautiful fruited plain.

Employers are experiencing a greater and greater difficulty in hiring qualified workers. Simple tasks like writing a report or giving a public presentation are impossible when the employee is used to communicating with sentences like “y are u l8??” I have students that think Wikipedia is an academic cornucopia, except that they would not recognize what the word “cornucopia” actually means unless they “google” it.

America is at risk – and not necessarily from immorality. America is at risk because young Americans are not being pushed to be the most highly educated workers in the world economy. We are in the process of dumbing down our educational system to the point that our graduates will simply not be able to find good jobs, and those that do end up being employed are going to have to be re-trained and re-taught by their employers at a staggering cost. Those nations that insist on basic, fundamental education are going to pass by the United States like we were standing still, if they have not already done so.

The United States put men on the moon learning how to spell and cipher and speak intelligently using techniques that are now considered passé and, in some circles, even damaging. I wonder why that is? Are we actually afraid of success? Do we actually fear accomplishment? Why do we reward mediocrity? Why is everyone so content with this trend?

I give a huge shout-out to my peers who genuinely do care about their students and the process of education. I hope you serve long enough to see the trend reversed. I know you care – and I thank my daughter’s teachers who care about her and her classmates. I know how you are limited – and I see your frustration. Maybe, just maybe, sanity will return, and you can begin teaching the way your heart and your head tell you is the best way to teach. We can hope, anyway.

Speaking in an Echo Chamber and Totally Missing the Point

(Note: this should probably go without saying, but this is my reaction to a recent series of events, so, if you have another take on the discussion, good on ‘ya.)

Another “tempest in a teapot” amid a larger hurricane has erupted in the fellowship of the Churches of Christ. To summarize, Matthew Morine wrote an article in the Gospel Advocate excoriating those who advocate for gender egalitarianism in the Churches of Christ. Deeply offended, yet feigning magnanimity, Mike Cope responded in Wineskins, excoriating Matthew Morine and anyone who would dare agree with him. Together the two articles accomplished nothing but to establish that a deep division regarding this issue has already occurred in the Churches of Christ. Unless one side or the other experiences a major manifestation of the Holy Spirit, there will be no repairing it.

First, a little background for those who might be confused. Matthew Morine’s article in the GA was written as red meat for the most entrenched, conservative segment of the brotherhood. It was something akin to a warm-up before the key-note speech at a political convention. Was it thoughtful, carefully reasoned, and tactfully delivered? No, no and no. I’m not sure it was supposed to be. Morine is something of a wunderkind to the conservative right, and he is a favorite author in the GA fold. Mike Cope, on the other hand, is one confirmed miracle away from being canonized as a saint in the progressive left of the brotherhood. His writings serve as the red meat entree for the progressives. Politically speaking, Cope is Barak Obama to Matthew Morine’s Ted Cruz. It is matter, meet anti-matter.

The problem is that Morine has expressed (however provocatively) a concern that many – conservative or moderate – feel is a legitimate critique of the egalitarian left’s position: it is biblically and theologically weak, fueled mainly, if not exclusively, by cultural pressure. Cope, presented with an opportunity to take the high road and explain his position in clear biblical terms, totally wiffed, choosing rather to express his umbrage that Morine would dare attack his motives.

Well, at the severe risk of causing Cope and his followers even more emotional pain, a great many people do look at his conclusions and question his motives. Morine may have been too acerbic (actually, he was too acerbic), but his challenge was spot-on. I would say that my main problem with Morine’s content was that he misidentified the hypocrisy of the egalitarian left. It is within that element of the brotherhood that the loudest complaints about “proof-texting” a position can be heard. Yet, when it comes to gender egalitarianism, their entire argument is built on one single verse from the book of Galatians, and it is completely taken out of context, and twisted into something Paul never intended. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.

Neither Cope, nor any other egalitarian I have read, has adequately addressed Morine’s basic observation: their position is based on a misinterpretation and misapplication of Galatians 3:27-28, and in order to defend this misinterpretation, they must either excise or condescendingly dismiss several other passages of Scripture which contradict their position. Harrumph if you want, but throwing a temper-tantrum when your conclusions are challenged is not an effective apologetic technique.

The issue as I see it is that both Morine and Cope are speaking in an echo chamber and talk completely past each other. Morine could have been, and should have been, much more respectful. He, or someone at GA should have edited his article to be less acerbic and confrontational. Cope totally missed Morine’s point, choosing rather to express hurt feelings rather than address issues. I honestly have to ask why Cope was even concerned with Morine and the GA. Does he even think that his readers are going to care about the GA?

I said above, and I fully believe, that a schism equal to the instrumental music division of the last century has already occurred within the Churches of Christ. Just as it is impossible for two groups to worship simultaneously with and without instruments (however congregations try to paper over this division with “separate” worships services), you cannot worship simultaneously as a male-led congregation and a matriarchy. Just my opinion here, but it seems to me that there needs to be a clean break and we need to stop this illusion that we are all one big happy family. There needs to be a “Churches of Christ” and a “Churches of Christ / Instrumental and Egalitarian” (Funny, but the two “improvements” are virtually inseparable.)

One other observation about Cope’s response. He added that his “journey” from a male-led leadership to an egalitarian position was “painful.” That is a common thread in “journeys” from traditional convictions to progressive ones. I wonder why that is? If you move from a conviction that worship in song should be acapella to an acceptance of instrumental music, your “journey” is harrowing, painful and gut-wrenching. Why? It seems to me that if you can throw off the shackles of hundreds of years of bad exegesis and even worse theology, the process would be enlightening, exhilarating, and joyful. Same with egalitarianism. Why the angst? Why the pain? It seems to me that if you can scrape 2,000 years of encrusted barnacles of patriarchy off of your congregational cruise ship, why would that be so painful? I would think you would be ecstatic. The whole thing just sounds a little too “Oprah Winfrey” to pass my sniff test.

If someone can explain to me, using established methods of exegesis and hermeneutics, how Galatians 3:27-28 can have any association with male or female leadership in the Lord’s church, I am ready to listen (or read). If anyone can explain how Paul can be so clearly right in Galatians 3:27-28, but be so clearly wrong in Corinthians and Timothy, let me know. If someone can convince me that Jesus could overturn virtually every oppressive and Spirit-rejecting religious aspect of his culture but the one issue of male spiritual leadership – please enlighten me. But, be forewarned, my  obfuscation meter is set to high sensitivity – so don’t try the “Hillary Clinton” condescension trick or the “Bart Ehrman” re-write the New Testament trick. As the old saying in this part of the country goes, this ain’t my first rodeo, ma’am.

(Note: I have been informed that Matthew Morine was queried about the article by the GA editorial staff, and wanted the article to be published as it was written, and so I retract my comments about the editors at GA missing an opportunity here to help Matthew.)

How Have We Lost the Love of Bible Study?

Yesterday I shared how I almost came to hate the guitar – something that for virtually all of my life I have loved. I focused on how my instructors (who were undoubtedly good people, and who only had the best intentions, I am sure) almost drove my love of the instrument from me. I drew the conclusion that as teachers we have a tremendous burden, and responsibility, not to kill our student’s love of the Bible by promoting our own agendas. Today I want to look at the equal but opposite issue of a lack of desire and love of the Bible by many who would consider themselves faithful Christians.

Now, right of the bat I want to explain that I KNOW we are not supposed to worship or venerate the Bible. It is the word of God that points us to the Word of God – we are to love and worship God and his Son, not the message that teaches us about God and his Son. However, just as a musician loves the piece of paper that contains the notes that he or she will eventually transform into a glorious piece of music, so too we must love the medium that leads us to the author of our faith. And, for Christians, that medium is the Bible.

I understand my observations here are largely anecdotal, but in my half-century or so in observing the church I have noticed a decline in the interest in serious Bible study. I believe there are several reasons for this decline – some more understandable than others, but real never-the-less:

  1.  As I mentioned yesterday, I believe bad teachers drive a love of Bible study away from us. On the one hand are teachers that make it sound like they, and they alone, can climb Mt. Biblius, the great peak from which all spiritual wisdom is obtained. Only they can see the great truths of the subject at hand (which makes we wonder if that truth is even there, but that is another story). Everyone else in the class is just plain ignorant, and this teacher communicates that feeling in a number of verbal and non-verbal ways. On the other hand is the teacher who never comes to class prepared, quickly reads over the class text about 10 minutes before class starts, and then “teaches” a class that revolves around reading one verse at a time, and then asking that most penetrating of questions, “What do you think [insert author here] meant when he wrote that?” Brilliant discussion question, that.
  2. There is a pervading sense of anti-intellectualism among Christians, and I have especially seen and heard that mentality expressed among members of the Churches of Christ. It is almost as if class members prefer their teacher to be uneducated – that way if they say something that is incorrect (or even incomprehensible) they cannot be corrected. There is something intimidating about being the presence of someone who can answer virtually any question you throw at them, and when it comes to questions of religion, sometimes we do not want all our questions answered or statements evaluated. I find that this is ONLY in regard to the Bible, as NO ONE wants a surgeon who barely squeaked by with C’s or D’s on his transcript, or a lawyer that passed the bar exam on his 10th try by answering one question correct more than the minimum needed to pass. We want the best surgeons to open our bodies, the best lawyers to argue our cases, the best pilots to fly our airplanes; I would suggest we need to demand the best Bible teachers as well.
  3. With regard to full time ministers, we do not allow for the kind of study required to actually teach a Bible class. If uncle Bob goes in for a 6 hour surgery, we expect Bro. Jones to sit with the family in the waiting room for every minute of those 6 hours. Plus there is the Kiwanis Club meeting, the luncheon at the Senior Center, 15 absentees to visit and cajole, and the ever-present high school football game or drama presentation. Between phone calls and “drop-in” visits, the average preacher gets to spend maybe an hour or so on his Bible class lesson (the rest of his non-existent preparation time is devoted to his sermon or sermons). With our demands on his time, we are in effect telling the minister – “Hey, we really do not want in-depth Bible lessons – just give us the warmed-over re-runs from some lesson you prepared in the past. We are not going to remember what you say 15 minutes after class anyway, so why spend so much time preparing your lesson?”

And that leads me to my final point – and the bookend to my last post. Many preachers and teachers can get by with teaching pabulum simply because the audience does not care. In their mind they can check the box that says “Attended Bible Study” and that is all that matters. The actual content is inconsequential, and actually if the teacher makes demands of time and mental acuity, the response is emphatically negative. How dare the teacher demand that the students actually buy a study book? How dare the teacher demand that the student perform homework? How dare the teacher expect that the text for the lesson be read and studied before the class period begins? How dare the teacher expect that the student actually does something with the lesson (like put it into concrete, identifiable, practices)?

I stated yesterday, and I firmly believe, that teachers bear a tremendous burden. That burden is to nurture and support the love of learning that a student brings to a Bible class. It may be ugly, it may be messy, it may not fit the “technique” that a teacher has in mind, but the goal of education is the transformation of a life, and if a student comes wanting to learn, the teacher must find a way to help that student learn.

But there are some things a teacher cannot do – and chief among them is to create that love of learning. I have stood, Sunday after Sunday, in front of a class of uninterested, uncaring, and unmotivated church members whose only purpose in being present is to fulfill a legal requirement. They do not want to to be challenged in any way – mentally or physically. They verbally say “We are here for Bible study” but their hearts are far from God. (See Isaiah 29:13-14; Proverbs 17:16) They sit with glazed-over eyes, or they trim their finger nails, or they fumble absentmindedly with some object they happened to have discovered on the pew or in their pocket.

Bad teachers are responsible for a number of sins. But when we as God’s children do not demand high-quality, serious Bible study, we should not be critical when we get the kind of lessons that put us to sleep and kill whatever interest there might have been in any kind of profitable Bible study.

I mentioned yesterday that the Bible is accessible – it can be mastered, though not in the sense that we can know everything about it or can answer every question that can be posed to us. But every part of the Bible can be taught, and can be understood, if the heart to learn and the heart to teach are both there.

God, give us a heart to learn! And, God, give us teachers who will not quit until our thirst for learning exceeds their thirst for teaching!

How My Guitar Teacher Made Me Hate the Guitar (And How We Do the Same Thing With Bible Study)

I love the guitar. As long as I can remember I have loved guitar music. But there was a time that I did hate the instrument. Oddly enough, it was when I was trying to learn how to play it. 

Let’s just say my first two instructors were really accomplished. The first was a good salesman, and the second was a phenomenal player. Combined they made me hate the guitar. My first instructor was bent on making me learn possibly the only song he knew how to play. I did not know the song, and when he played it for me I hated it. I did not know how the song went so I never knew if I was playing it right or wrong. To be honest, it was such a bad song I could not tell if he was playing it correctly or not. Thankfully, he tired of me and recommended a classical guitar instructor. Great! Now I could go places.

The second instructor turned out to be the perfectionist from Hades. “Hold the guitar like this, bend your right hand like this, use your left hand like this, pluck the strings like this . . . ” I was not learning the guitar I was trying to placate a drill sergeant. The “pieces” he gave me to learn might have been great for developing his goose-stepping technique, but they had no musical value at all, and once again I had no idea if I was playing them correctly or incorrectly. They sounded just like random notes thrown on a treble clef. Yuck.

I finally quit taking lessons. I was wasting my parents’ money and I was growing to hate the guitar. I still loved guitar music, but actually handling a guitar was distasteful.

Several years later I needed to fill an elective slot in my schedule at college. A friend told me that the university had a fairly good guitar instructor, so I thought, “why not?” I could not do any worse than my first instructors, right?

The first lesson the instructor has me play of a couple of those unmusical, muse-foresaken practice etudes. Then he asked me something that I honestly had come to believe was illegal for any guitar instructor to ask. He said, “Paul, is there a piece of music you would like to learn this semester?” After I picked my jaw off the floor I kind of half-described and half-hummed a piece I absolutely adored, and gave him the name of the composer – Vivaldi. The next class period the instructor showed up with some yellowed, marked up music sheets – Vivaldi’s Concerto in D Major. I could have cried. For the next three months the instructor patiently worked me through fingerings, technique, and, yes, hand position and the importance of practicing scales. But I was finally learning music, not just making noise.

I fear that too many interested Bible students are turned into Bible study haters through the exact same sequence that almost made me hate the guitar. And, sadly, I fear my “technique” has been all too often that of the guitar Nazi that was more concerned about the angle of my wrist than if I was actually learning how to play the instrument. It is easier to critique method and technique and style and posture than it is to simply ask, “Is there something about the Bible you want to learn?”

One thing I have learned through my experience as a teacher is that if we give some control of the learning situation to the student the result is often messy – out of tune and off-key. It is just awful, sort of like my butchered rendition of Vivaldi. But my university instructor knew something no other instructor I had before or since ever acknowledged – if I loved the guitar and the music, I would pay attention to his instruction so that I would get the sound right.

This semester I am getting to teach the fundamentals of biblical interpretation once again – by teaching a senior level course on apocalyptic literature and the book of Revelation. How can you teach the basic fundamentals of Bible study through such a complicated theological minefield like Revelation? Actually, it is not that hard. First, my students love the subject, so the motivation to learn is high. Second, I constantly remind them that Revelation is an accessible book if they apply themselves earnestly. Then, I break the “piece” into manageable sections, and introduce tricky “fingerings” slowly and carefully: Old Testament allusions, Greek verb tense variations, grammar and structure subtleties. I get to teach the importance of some critical techniques, but the subject matter keeps the students focused and the results of their effort is immediate rather than some mythological day in the future when they get everything “perfect.” Slowly but surely we are constructing a symphony of biblical interpretive beauty.

I wish I could say that my university teacher was the last and best experience I ever had with guitar instructors. Unfortunately, I chose another instructor who taught with the same mentality of the technique Nazi. Luckily I had my previous experience to remember, so cutting the string with him was not too painful (pardon the pun).

I will never be a concert guitarist. I never really wanted to be. But I did, and I still do, want to play my favorite songs and classical pieces well. I often wonder how my guitar playing would be different today if my earlier instructors had capitalized on my love of the instrument and my love of specific music pieces instead of focusing on perpetuating their concept of proper technique and musicality.

I do not think every person in a pew on Sunday morning wants to be a professional theologian. I do, however, believe that many of them want to know how to read and understand the totality of Scripture. But, just like the guitar, the Bible is a complex and sometimes daunting instrument. It can be learned, even mastered although never perfectly, but only if it is not turned into an instrument of torture.

I wonder, “How many really interested Bible students I have discouraged because I was focused more on my agenda rather than their love of the Bible?” I think all Bible teachers need to honestly consider that question.

(P.S. – I went through and corrected a couple of errors, and thought I would pass along that it was only the second movement of Vivaldi’s Concerto in D Major that I was really interested in, or even remotely capable of playing – the second movement, “Largo.” Give it a listen on YouTube. It is absolutely gorgeous.)

The Statler Brothers – A Reflection

This post has nothing to do with theology – but not everything has to!

This weekend I was feeling somewhat nostalgic, and started playing a series of Statler Brothers songs on YouTube. The Statlers were my first musical crush – and to a large extent still are my musical heroes. I do not remember how I was introduced to them, but I do know what happened after that.

Like so many young men my age, I mowed lawns for spending money. If I was not saving up my money to spend on a girl, I was saving my money for a new Statler Brothers record (WAY more albums than girlfriends, I assure you!). At the going rate for new albums I could easily save up my coins by the time I made it to the record store to flip through the records to see which one I wanted next. My first album was “Sons of the Motherland.” I forgot how many I ended up with, but it is quite an impressive collection.

I was in awe of the harmony from the quartet. I loved the lyrics – there is a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) play on words in many of the Statlers’ songs. There is a great deal of humor in many of the songs. They honored their heroes, most notably Johnny Cash who hired the Statlers as a warm-up act for his concerts. Like most groups from the south (the Statlers were based in Staunton, VA) they had deep roots in gospel music, and their renditions of gospel songs sent goose bumps up and down my spine. Their Christmas albums are my favorite vocal Christmas albums of all time – and that is saying quite a bit.

There is also a dark side to some of the Statlers’ music – some interesting commentary on American life. “Bed of Roses” is a case in point. But they were deeply patriotic as well, hence “You’ve Been Like a Mother to Me.”

I suppose it was destiny that I would marry a young lady named Susan, after all, there has not been a girl like “Susan When She Tried.”

When I hear “More Than a Name on a Wall” I just weep. Their tributes to Johnny Cash, their dads (Harold and Don were the only biological brothers), Chet Atkins, their girlfriends and wives, and the things that made America great are priceless. Every girlfriend could be Mary Lou, or Elizabeth, or, Susan (but I’m glad I found my real-life Susan). Everybody lived on Maple Street. Everybody knows somebody from the Class of ’57. If you can answer the question to Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott you know why I don’t go to any movies anymore.

Like many groups, the Statlers changed over the years, but only one new voice was added. Lew Dewitt passed away, and was replaced by Jimmy Fortune. I though the composition of the group would change, but I don’t really think it did, and the sound remained the same, although you might could argue it improved. I like both groups equally. I think Jimmy’s songwriting excelled – and his love songs are among my favorites.

I honestly believe the Statlers paved the way for most country ensembles today. There would not have been an Oakridge Boys, an Alabama, or a Rascal Flats had it not been for Harold, Phil, Don and Lew, and later, Jimmy. They changed the way country music viewed quartets. They shaped an entire genre of country music. And they did it without sex, without gimmicks, without flashy stage productions, without a lot of hype and glitter. I only was able to see them in concert once – but it was a great show.

Just four pure voices, and a harmony that has yet to be equaled, and will probably never be equaled.

Not too bad for a group of young men that took their name from a box of tissues. (Honest – look it up).

Hey Statlers – you thanked the world for letting you belong, but it is the world that owes you the greater debt of thanks. It’s not too much to say that “I’ll Go To My Grave Loving You.”

Thanks for the memories – and for the dreams!

(P.S. – this post was written “spur of the moment” and entirely by memory – if I’ve made a mistake somewhere above I will correct it asap.)

Quantity, or Quality?

This is kind of a follow-up to yesterday’s post about the church becoming so focused on not offending someone that it loses its sharp message. Related to political correctness is a belief that the church is to measure its success based strictly on numbers. That is a false assumption, but it drives virtually every mission that the church seeks to promote.

I have been a part of the Church of Christ for all of my life – and a paid minister for much of that life. I can attest that whenever a new mission is being evaluated, or an old mission is being reviewed, one of the most important questions that must be answered is, “How will this help us grow numerically?” The question may not be asked in such bald terms, but whether it is blatant or more covert, the question is still there. If we are going to invest dollars in a mission, we want to see numerical results.

This eventually leads to the problem I discussed yesterday – if we want rear-ends in the pews we cannot preach or teach anything that might offend large numbers of our target audience. If we are a large, up-scale, predominantly white and affluent congregation the talk of greed, avarice and selfishness must be banished. If we are poor, lower-class and predominantly dependent on government aid we cannot discuss that issues of envy or resentment. If a large percentage of our congregation is borderline obese forget hearing a sermon on gluttony. If we live next door to a military base do not even think about hearing a sermon on the evils of military aggression and the need to obey Christ’s call to lay aside the weapons of destruction. The point is the overwhelming majority of the content of our sermons and lessons is determined not by the content of Scripture, but by the location of our church buildings and the make-up of our congregational membership rolls.

Believe me, I have been both perpetrator and victim of this mentality. Much of my job security has revolved around the stability, if not the growth, of the numbers of the ministry I have been associated with. I have been all too much a promoter of the “we have to have more and more people here” kind of thinking. But, I have also been burned by the same mentality. You are not invited to speak at all the brotherhood soirees if your only claim to fame is that you drive people away from your building.

I don’t think Jesus was all that hung-up about numbers. In fact, he was just as willing to see the slackers and the hangers-on turn around and leave him as he was to see the faithful follow him. He lamented the fact people would turn their back on him, but he never promised to bring in donuts and coffee if they would stay.

What Jesus was vitally interested in was the quality of the life of the disciple. If you said you were “in” with Jesus, he wanted to make sure you understood what that “in” meant. The cost of discipleship varied with the person, and Jesus would not expect the same effort from a 75 year old convert that he might expect from a 25 year old convert. But he would expect the same amount of love and commitment.

Churches of Christ are in a major quandary these days, as are congregations of virtually every religious stripe. Some of the issues confronting the churches have been created by our opponent, Satan. Some of the wounds we are seeking to heal, however, are purely self-inflicted. Part of the problem, although not all of it by any stretch of the imagination, is the fact that for several generations now we have been measuring success by the quantity of numbers in our pews, and not the quality of discipleship in those who sit in the pews.

In an odd sort of way, Jesus may be happier with us if we had fewer congregations made up of smaller memberships, if those members were fully committed Christians. The interesting thing is, if that were to happen, my guess is the numbers of the members of the church would grow exponentially. I believe people want to be a part of genuine Christianity. I think they are just sick and tired of the pseudo-christianity that is being peddled by so many number-hungry churches today.

Political Correctness is Killing the Church

It’s been a long time since I have had two spare minutes to put together in a sequence, but I just finally decided that I was going to sit down and write again. So much has happened (in the big world, and in my little world). Where to begin . . .

As an observer and sometimes participant in the development of thoughts and ideas of people around me, I have noticed something that increasingly bothers me. The old idea of “political correctness” is just killing the church. I say that as someone who is both guilty and who abhors the idea. As Walt Kelley said through the mouth of Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Have you ever stopped to consider how much time we spend worrying about and finding ways NOT to offend someone? I work with and around a lot of young people, and regardless of where I am or who I am with, one major consideration about the words or the images that are raised in a discussion is this: will what I say, or even the manner in which I say it, be considered offensive to someone around me? I am not speaking about flagrant obscenities or obvious insults. I am talking about normal, everyday speech in which we use images or ideas that, for whatever reason, have been deemed “off-limits” by some group or conglomeration of groups.

One particular issue that troubles me about this “politically correct speech” creep is that it is creeping into the pulpits of our churches. Ever since the decision by the Supreme Court that homosexuals should have the right to marry, virtually every speech, sermon, or piece of writing begins with the same tepid caveat – “I don’t want to be misunderstood, and we are all sinners, and I do not want to be judgmental . . . blah, blah, blah.”

I can’t imagine the apostle Paul apologizing for his convictions. The idea that any of the church fathers, or Calvin, or Luther, or Charles Spurgeon, or any great preacher for that matter, backing up before he even said a word is just ludicrous to me. Do we want to be intentionally offensive in our speech or response to outsiders?? No, and I do not know who would suggest that we should be offensive or vicious in our speech.

I just do not see how we can “welcome” homosexuals into our congregations “with the intent to change their hearts” unless we say straight-out and up-front – “homosexual behavior is a sin.” Personally, I am deeply suspicious of the psycho-babble about “same sex attraction,” as I think it is just a circular way to minimize the seriousness of homosexual behavior, but I am willing to be taught is someone can prove such an animal exists.

I just do not see how we can discuss “allowable” or “acceptable” forms of abortion if our goal is to protect the lives of unborn children. Either abortion is the unlawful and murderous taking of a human life, or it is not. To equivocate is to surrender the morality of the question. Do we excommunicate or burn those who have experienced an abortion (a female) or one who has caused or paid for an abortion (a male)? No, but neither do we soft-pedal the seriousness of the crime.

And, this – which hits me squarely between the eyes – do we wink and look the other way when we see a couple who is blatantly living together although not married so that we can “teach them the gospel when they are at church”? No – once again, to equivocate is to surrender. We have swallowed the politically correct pill, and it is killing the church. We have lost our backbone and our nerve to confront ANY sin, much less the big moral collapses of the 21st century.

Please, do not think I speak as a perfect example of rigid moral perfection. I have, for way too long, been guilty of turning aside when the issue demanded firm, but loving, confrontation. Stated more baldly, I’m a wimp. But that does not excuse me, nor does it give me any comfort. How many people have I given the impression that their behavior is acceptable to God simply because I am afraid I might offend them or hurt their feelings? Too many to count.

We must wake up. We must grow a spine. We must learn to confront – with the spirit of Christ, for sure – but we must learn how to confront.

Remember – he did braid a whip and drive the godless from his Father’s house. That, my friends, was politically incorrect.

Confession of an American Heretic

(some idle ramblings after meditating on a message that was presented last evening . . . and no, I am not picking on the speaker, but rather extending his thoughts and owning up to my own convictions)

I am a part of a small group of Americans. Talk about minority, I bet we do not even show up on the list of endangered species – because there has to be a certain number to be counted in order to even be considered endangered. We could probably hold a national convention in a broom closet. My closest ally and my greatest enemy might both be looking at me from my mirror. Call me a heretic, a traitor, a renegade, a scandalous lout – each probably fits some form of my rebellion.

But, I just simply refuse to accept that America is a Christian nation, that God has specifically chosen America for any purpose (other than to display his grace and his judgment), that any one single political party has a corner on righteousness, or that it is a duty, or even a good idea, that disciples of Christ get mixed up (polluted would be another word) in politics.

Barton W. Stone and David Lipscomb are my heroes – and that is probably enough to get my membership cancelled in most Churches of Christ – especially if they know anything about Barton W. Stone and/or David Lipscomb.

My aversion to politics can be summed up thusly:

1.  God gave Adam and Eve a specific law in the garden – and that law did not keep them from acting immorally. God gave Cain a specific law – and that did not keep Cain from acting immorally. God gave the Israelites very specific laws (over 600 if the number is to be believed) and that did not keep the Israelites from acting immorally, even at the site where they received those laws. God sent prophet after prophet to remind the people of Israel of the laws to which they had bound themselves. That did not keep the children of Israel from acting immorally. You cannot make a person, a group of people (even the church), or a nation moral by passing laws. Not even God could do that. Why can’t we learn this? Why do we put so much emphasis on trying to accomplish that which cannot be accomplished?

2.  The sum total of politics can be described as: money, power, and compromise. If politics was a noble effort once upon a time (as in a fairy tale) it certainly is not now. It takes a staggering amount of money to simply be elected to a state office, let alone a national office. The role of county dog catcher might be different, but money drives politics. Second, politics is all about power. Power as in I have it, you don’t, do you have to do what I tell you. What was it that Jesus said about power and service? Oh, yeah, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28). Third, to be successful in American politics means you have to compromise, because while power is intoxicating and polluting, it is never absolute. There is always someone on the other side of the political aisle who has equal power among his or her constituents, and the only way to move anything in American politics is to compromise. The art of compromise might be acceptable if you are debating the color of carpet in the living room or the price of eggs. But, could someone please tell me how it would be possible to compromise on a question of morals? How can you ‘compromise’ on the question of abortion, or the ethics of the Affordable Care Act (which is neither affordable nor caring)? To say that abortion is wrong after “x” time period, but acceptable before that time period is simply disgusting. To say that homosexuality violates your personal code of religious beliefs, but that you have to vote another way because of some court ruling is to declare that you really have no controlling personal code of religious beliefs. Compromise is the opposite of the gospel call to absolute surrender to the will of God.

3.  No matter how you try to wiggle out of this, you cannot vote for someone to do something GOOD, without out equally being responsible for the EVIL that person creates/perpetrates. You cannot applaud and share in the advances of the causes you advocate, and reject the negative consequences. I learned this the hard way with Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Regardless of the good each was able to accomplish, each man certainly violated core biblical principles in decisions they made or did not make. I cannot take pride in one part of their legacy and disavow the other. If I voted for them, I am “guilty” for both. I do not think most Christians stop to consider that fact.

4.  I could list many Scriptures which call the American system of politics into question. However, one will suffice: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” (Matthew 6:24, RSV). You cannot be a ‘little bit’ political and a ‘little bit’ Christian. You cannot split your allegiance 50/50. You are either going to believe that politics is the answer to the problems of humanity, or you are going to look to the Word (Christ) and the will of God. If you think America is a Christian nation, and that the constitution of the United States comprises some kind of 28th book of the New Testament, then you are going to put your faith ultimately in the power and process of the American political system. You will also never be content, and you will always be in a position of aggression and enmity with your opponents, because they believe you are the enemy and they will not begrudge an inch of political landscape to you. And, by the way, you will never find an acceptable candidate to support unquestionably. No human is perfect, and so you will have to compromise some of YOUR beliefs in order to elect someone who is the “lesser of two evils” in some aspect of your religious beliefs. Sell your soul to the devil and you find some nasty repercussions.

Or, you can stand with Joshua as he gave his final challenge to the people of Israel, “Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell; but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” (Joshua 24:15)

Many suggestions are made as to why the Church is so ineffective today, why so many people are leaving the church, why, despite the huge numbers of attendees, there appears to be so little conviction among those who profess to be disciples of Christ. While I believe many answers are a part of the answer, I think one major reason is that so many church leaders, and therefore church members, have equated Christianity with the American political system. And, because Jesus actually expects total commitment, (that nasty verse about taking up your cross and following him daily) it is far easier to sign a registration card as a Republican or a Democrat and worship the god of politics and power that way. Simply put, politics IS the religion of the vast majority of Americans.

That’s why I am a heretic, a traitor, and a pacifistic scoundrel. That’s okay by me. As I look at the first three hundred years of church history (up until the great Constantinian debacle), I find myself in some mighty fine company. I may be alone today – but, boy, do I have some awesome ancestors.


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