Monthly Archives: February 2012

The Bondage of Ignorance

Plumb bob suspended on a string, photo cropped...

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I have never learned anything from someone dumber than me.

That sentence is short, but please do not dismiss it too quickly.  Think about it. If you have ever learned something from someone they had to have been more intelligent or more learned in at least one aspect of life than you were. By definition you cannot learn something from someone who knows less than you do.

In every flight school that I worked with we either flew with multiple instructors (as students) or had our students fly with other instructors. Every instructor added something to my knowledge of flying airplanes, and my peers helped me shape my students. In one flight school the management gave each instructor one free hour in a plane per month to fly with another instructor so that we could hone each other’s skills. The results were always enjoyable, and valuable.

I point all of this out simply to illustrate the folly of a life that is content only with maintaining a level of knowledge that was obtained in the last century, the last decade, or last year, or last week. I am always shocked to hear someone say that they do not need to research a particular issue or question because they already have the answer. I don’t know why that shocks me, I hear it so often. I cannot help but wonder how empty that person’s intellectual life must be. Already have the answer to so many questions?? Good grief. I don’t even understand all the questions, let alone have all the answers.

I will provide just one arcane example. I am working my way through the book of Amos, trying to translate the book from Hebrew. This past week the passage for my study included 7:7-8. In these two verses God shows Amos something, in English the letters would be ank. For centuries the classic translation for this three-letter word has been a “plumb line.” Now, to get there you have to do some fancy linguistic work combined with some conjecture, but it made sense in context and led to many graphic and moving sermons. How much more picturesque can you get than to visualize God standing next to a tottering wall with a plumb line in his hand? The visual image is striking. The problem that lies behind this interpretation is that you really have to do some fancy work to get from one three-letter word in Hebrew to a phrase such as the NIV – “that had been built true to plumb.” There is no such indication in the Hebrew text. God is simply standing next to a wall of ank. A related problem is that these two verses are the only two verses in which this word appears. There are no other examples to help us define it.

However, in recent studies the linguistic work and the conjecture that moved from ank to “plumb line” has been proven to be false. The word means “tin.” The Lord is standing next to a wall that is weak, that is useless, and that will fail to protect. The Lord is about to unleash a storm that would blow away the mightiest of walls, but a wall of tin? Fuhgetaboutit.

The image is not as picturesque nor as arresting, but it is much more true to the text. Now, if I had just read a couple of translations I would have never picked up on the whole journey from ank to plumb line to tin. However, time spent with two recent commentaries, new enough to incorporate recent linguistic studies, provided me with a new window on an old text. I still had to wrestle with the text itself – are the commentaries blowing fancy philological smoke, or are they giving good, solid information? Does the “new” meaning fit with what I know of Hebrew grammar? Does the “new” meaning fit the context of the passage? Does the “new” meaning fit the context of the larger section, and ultimately the entire book? The answer to all of those questions was “yes,” at least in my mind. Much better, in fact, than the old translation of “plumb line.” As one  commentator pointed out, the Lord has already found Israel to be wanting, he has no need to measure them. What he is showing Amos (as befits the entire book!) is that the Lord’s judgment is certain and there will be no avoiding it.

Okay, arcane example concluded. The point is every year, sometimes every month, our knowledge of the Bible and ancient cultures is being expanded. We learn more about ourselves, our past, and how God has worked in that past. To quit learning and to rest on the laurels of some bygone generation is foolish. Worse, it is contrary to the will of God. We are to continually “study” to “transform” our lives into the perfect will of God. We certainly are to “test the spirits” as it may be, but that does not mean that we compare what we learn to some standard of understanding that was true a century ago. If that were the case, how would we have learned that the earth revolves around the sun, and not the reverse? How could we have discovered penicillin? How could we have placed a man on the moon?

Just think about it. If you use a crooked ruler as a standard, even a plumb line is warped.

Wolves That Wear Wool

Judas IscariotI don’t know why it is exactly, but I tend to think in dialectic terms. That is to say I will think of something and write about it, and no sooner than I complete the post I think of how the post could be taken to extremes and misused. So I come up with my own counter-point, or a post to balance the sheet, so-to-speak. So, this post is really a follow-up and extension of my last post, which is basically a lament that (within the Churches of Christ especially) we hire men to do our preaching and teaching for us, and then reject and ridicule his efforts because everyone in the pew is just as qualified as he is. Except, of course, they are not!

What is the reverse of the situation in which a preacher is accorded no authority at all? In my mind it is the man who is granted the authority that comes with education, age and experience and then abuses it by denying the fundamental doctrines that define the congregation for whom he works. He is, in the apostle Paul’s words, a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

This can be manifest in many different ways. I do not want to join the chorus of reactionary minds who reject the concept of “change agents,” because I believe our history is full of change agents, beginning with Jesus himself and continuing through Barton W. Stone, Alexander Campbell, David Lipscomb and a whole host of others. But, though I may not denigrate the term, I will say that there are individuals within our fellowship that should have the courage of their convictions and they should leave it. They do not believe in the vision or the principles of the Restoration Movement, they denigrate our past with their sarcastic speeches and books, and they actively attempt to lead others away from this spiritual movement.

I would even go so far as to say that a substantial number of them do not believe in the basic truths of Christianity: the virgin birth of Jesus, the resurrection, the miracles, the proclaimed second coming of Jesus. They may say they believe in the inspiration of Scripture, but to read their books you come away with the feeling that they believe Scripture is inspiring but a long way from inspired. Many have accepted without reservation the “assured results of scholarship” which need to be revised on a continual basis because the scholarship on which the results are based is flawed and the results are anything but assured. In short, many are obviously brilliant scholars and simply bereft of the Christian faith.

It is one thing to love someone or some group of people and work tirelessly to change and improve them. I know a host of ministers and elders who deeply love the church and who work tirelessly as “change agents” because they see their congregations and the members that make up those congregations as losing their first love and their devotion to Christ. My life has been a roller-coaster of emotions as I have loved, then hated, then loved, then hated the human manifestation of God’s chosen people on earth. I love the church with all my heart, and at the same time it drives me nuts. Anyone who feels called to ministry feels the same way.

However, it is another thing entirely to no longer hold to the basic beliefs of a group of people and yet continue to receive your living from those people and at the same time try to turn those people from their beliefs. I would say the same thing to a Catholic who no longer believes in the Magisterium, a Baptist, Presbyterian or Reformed who no longer accepts Calvinism, and the Lutheran who can no longer support Lutheranism. If you can no longer hold to your confession of faith, however formal or informal it is, you need to stand up, declare your independence, and leave that fellowship. The  path of staying in your fellowship and masking your true feelings and intentions is the path of a coward, a traitor, a Judas.

In my opinion, within the Churches of Christ we have entirely too many Judases. We are paying men who no longer believe what the members in the pew believe and who no longer accept our vision of the church nor our vision of Scripture and the damage that they are causing is irreparable. If they stood in the pulpit and spoke their most heart-felt convictions they would be fired on the spot. They know this, so they preach just enough of what the congregation wants to hear to be kept on the payroll, but just enough of what they believe so that they can go to sleep at night.

Once again I want to thank the congregations where I have served. They have given me tremendous freedom to express my convictions, and in return I try my very best to give them every bit of evidence that I can for the conclusions that I hold. At times we have had genuine disagreements. Because of my education I cannot hold every teaching that was considered rock-solid certain back in the 1950’s and 1960’s. My (admittedly limited) knowledge of Hebrew and Greek has opened doors of understanding to the text that I realize few will have the opportunity to walk through. But I do try my best to explain difficult concepts and my changing point of view. And one thing I do repeatedly: I am up front and very vocal about my understanding of the inspiration of Scripture and how my role as an exegete and theologian is to stand under that text, not to stand over it. My audience may disagree with me about some fine points about the text, but I hope that none have the idea that I doubt any of the truths recorded in the text.

So, my dialectical view of the position of authority and education within the church is this: One, if we are going to hire a man with a set higher degree of education we need to give him the freedom to share that knowledge. In fact, we should encourage him to obtain more. But two, if that man no longer believes what he knows his congregation believes he should confess that lack of belief and pack his bags and get out. Judas betrayed the Son of God, and then at least had the courage to kill himself.

We are plagued with church members who disparage education and do all they can to make sure the men who preach for them are only educated in a few narrowly selected “sound” Bible schools that only seek to promote a level of learning that was meaningful a century ago. On the other hand we are plagued with men who do not even have the courage to resign an affluent position as pulpit minister for a church they no longer love, believe in, or seek to promote.

I am really not sure which is worse. I do know the solution: we need highly educated men who are totally dedicated to Jesus Christ as their Lord and to the inspired Word of God, and to the Church of Jesus Christ as his very body here on earth. It has been done before, it can be done again. Do we have the faith to see that it is done?

(sorry for the length of this post – I guess I got a little preachy!)

The Role of Education and Authority In the Church

David Lipscomb (1831-1917) co-founded the Nash...

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The scene unfolds something like this. The young minister arrives at his first congregation and begins a textual study of a book of the Bible. This Sunday’s lesson is a little more involved, as there are some textual variants to deal with, a couple of translation issues that are reflected in the differing English translations, and of course some interpretation and application questions. The young man has done his homework well, however, and he enters the auditorium confident and excited. His confidence and excitement are destroyed within about 10 minutes as somebody sitting three pews from the back raises his hand and his voice in objection. “I disagree with you” he starts out. “I can read my Bible as well as you and it says…” He has read the text maybe all of three minutes ago, in a Bible that he only opens on Sunday morning, and which he leaves on his assigned pew so he will not forget to bring it each Sunday. All of those who have entrusted  him with their emotional support as the defender of their faith nod in complicit agreement.

After a few months the minister resigns and moves to another congregation. After a few years of the same treatment he decides he has had enough and leaves the ministry all together. There is even a likelihood that he may leave the church. No one likes staying in a place where they are ridiculed for something that is precious to them.

I do not know if the above scenario would or could take place in a congregation where the minister receives a specific “ordination.” My uneducated opinion is that if a group of people invests a certain authority in their minister through a formal “investing procedure,” whether it is ordination or not, they would grant him a measure of authority that would extend to all aspects of his ministry, teaching included. Within the Churches of Christ, however, there is very rarely any “investing procedure” as we believe we are all a “kingdom of priests” and that each and every member is a minister of the Lord’s church. Equality, however, has led to an anti-authoritarian sentiment, and very specifically an anti-education one.

My question is this: why do we advertise for someone to hold a minimum of a bachelor’s degree and then hire the man only to ridicule his achievement and destroy what little authority he might have? In ministry there are only three ways to obtain authority: education, age, and experience. Okay, so if we hire a young man (and job posting after job posting indicates that a man over 40 is last week’s newspaper, as far as Churches of Christ are concerned) with no experience or maybe just a few years of experience as an associate minister, the ONLY authority he has left is his education. Ridicule that, belittle that, minimize that and he is a ship without a sail. He is utterly worthless behind the lectern or the pulpit. Why do we do this to our young ministers and ourselves?

I cannot tell you how many times I have heard the joke about the scatological meaning of the initials “B.S.,” that “M.S.” means “more of the same” and “Ph.D.” means “piled higher and deeper.” For a man who has spent countless hours and even more money trying to learn all he can in order to more effectively serve a congregation these jokes are cruel, and they hurt. It is a “humorous” way of a congregation saying, “listen, you may be a nice guy, but we know as much as you do, so don’t try to snow us with all your book learning.”

The most distressing thing to me is that we have ministers who promote this very anti-intellectualism! I know why they do it. It is uncomfortable to hold an opinion, or to be convinced of the correctness of an idea, only to have someone prove you are wrong. Humility demands that once you learn you were wrong, that you change and hold the true teaching. However, it is simply far easier to condemn the one who challenges your conclusions as being a stuffed-shirt educated liberal than it is to actually do the research to see if that person is indeed correct. Maybe he or she is right, maybe he or she is wrong, but you will never know unless you find out. Sometimes that means you must actually know Hebrew or Greek, or that you read more broadly than your circle of friends. Preachers, of all people, do not like to be shown to be less educated than they think they are. So, the fear of having someone more educated than they are confront them is in many, many preacher’s eyes.

For those of you who are wondering, this post is only partially autobiographical. I have been blessed with wonderful congregations who have been willing to listen to someone who values education very highly. However, I have had more than my fair share of individuals who have crossed over from the “ignorant” section to the “stupid” section. We are all ignorant of a great many things, myself included. The huge difference between ignorance and stupidity is that ignorance recognizes its limitations and seeks to improve. You cannot teach, or argue, with stupid, as the saying goes. Ignorance says, “I didn’t know that, show me where I was wrong or what I need to learn.” Stupid says, “My mind is made up, quit trying to confuse me with relevant and meaningful facts that contradict my prejudices.”

How many of us would go to a doctor who only had  two years of medical school? How many of us would trust our life’s finances to an individual who had only taken two years of accounting at a junior college? How many of us would get on an airplane knowing that the engineer that designed it had spent two years or less studying physics and the complexities of aeronautics? And yet we routinely make fun of our spiritual leaders if they have committed themselves to a four year college or university, and we really make fun of them if they have earned a graduate degree.

I just don’t get it. Why do we do this to our young ministers and their families? We need good men behind our pulpits and in our classrooms. But every time we tear down someone because they have a greater education than we do we tear down that part of the body of Christ. Not only that, but we tear down our future. We guarantee that our sons and daughters will choose fields of expertise other than Bible and theology, because everyone knows you can’t be a good Christian and be smart at the same time.

Can somebody help me here? What is it about ignorance that is so appealing? If it is not ignorance that is appealing, then why do we disparage 4 year degrees and graduate studies? Why did we get here, and what can we do to change this anti-education and anti-authority attitude within the church?

Uniformity in Christian Worship and Practice?

Symbol of Christianity, white version.

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Several issues/questions have prodded me to think about this particular topic. At the risk of perhaps giving too much or too little background, allow me to set the stage just a little bit.

It is not at all uncommon today to hear the argument being made that one’s culture can be suggestive, if not determinative, in the ways in which one practices Christianity and/or worships within a Christian community. To a certain degree I am in full agreement with that argument. For example, the American church has done great harm by exporting an American, and in particular a “southern” American concept of church when a missionary moves to a foreign culture and establishes a congregation. What might be perfectly normal in a congregation in Texas or Alabama just seems comical to impose on a church in Africa or India, or Germany, for that matter. However, worse that being comical it can be and often is detrimental to the vital faith of that culture. We must be wiser than that as we seek to grow self-sustaining indigenous congregations.

Now to the part of that argument with which I disagree. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian congregation(s), four times he specifically mentions that what he is teaching them is indeed what he teaches in every congregation in every place (4:17, 7:17, 11:16 and 14:33). I will let you read these passages in your favorite translation, but the message is clear: there are certain doctrines or practices that Paul teaches or are commonly accepted in “every” or “all” churches. The context indicates the teachings include a variety of subjects, but whether the culture is Jewish or Gentile, whether the language is Aramaic, Greek or possibly even Latin, whether there was a history of synagogue worship or no worship at all, some things were so important to Paul that he insisted on a uniform behavior.

That is shocking to many people today. Whether the issue is “contemporary worship music” or the question of women assuming leadership roles within the congregation or the acceptance or non-acceptance of practicing homosexuals, a common argument is that we live in a different culture from that of the 1st century Palestinian world, ergo the biblical message must be “culturalized” to our modern way of life. Stated gently, it is said that Paul wrote in a different world in a different time and we must not allow his culture’s shortcomings to affect ours. In reality what I hear and see is this: “We live in such an enlightened and intellectually superior world that we cannot possibly expect to behave like that backward, patriarchal, homophobic culture” (said with a rolling of the eyes and a condescending wave of the hand).

If Paul could write to a thoroughly Hellenized, blue-collar pagan city like Corinth and tell those Christians that he expected them to act in certain ways like the cultured intelligentsia of Athens and the  devout Hebrew religious of Jerusalem, then yes, I think it is absolutely certain that Paul would expect a certain uniformity among congregations today, and across the intervening generations.

If we are to read the Bible in context, and if we are to place ourselves in a position of humility under the text and not a position of arrogance over the text, and if we follow the message of Paul’s writing within the letter to the Corinthians then I will stake my claim that we must conclude that while some cultural differences are allowed, many others are not.

Let me be clear here. I am NOT arguing that other passages such as Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 do not exist. Yes, there are matters of indifference just as there are matters of irreducible faith. And, NO, Paul would not allow us the opportunity to impose our opinions where another’s faith is at stake. But in Paul’s mind there was a clear “both/and” involved here. There are some things that cannot be accepted just because one’s culture would seem to indicate that doctrine or practice is permissible.

The way is narrow here, and the air is thick with fog. As Paul would say, in the contemporary church we see as in a mirror darkly. I think we need to proceed with all due caution. We need to do our exegesis thoroughly and fairly. We need to listen as intently as we speak. But, that having been said, we cannot alter the text simply because it disagrees with our personal inclinations.

I believe those four passages within the context of the first letter to Corinthians communicate volumes to our contemporary situation. Read them carefully. Look at the context in which each was written. Then ask yourself, if Paul was so adamant about the behavior of the Corinthian disciples matching the behavior of the other congregations that he taught/established, what does that say about our walk of discipleship today?

I believe that is a question that must be asked and answered in the contemporary church.

Preaching Jesus, or Defending Him?

English: the tetragrammaton

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As I work my way through the life of Moses for my Sunday morning sermon series I spent a lot of time this past week thinking about the excuses Moses gave to God as to why he was NOT the one to do what God wanted him to do (see Ex. 3-4). I want to share just a few thoughts on the second excuse in particular.

In Exodus 3:11 Moses begins by asking God, “Who am I?” He then moves on to #2, and I think we do not spend enough time thinking about the question because we are (correctly, I think) focusing on the answer. But, the answer means a whole lot more if we would spend just a little more time thinking about the question.

Moses asks God in Ex. 3:13, “What is your name? If I go and tell the Israelites that God sent me to you, and they say, ‘Which god,’ what exactly am I supposed to tell them?” (Paul Smith paraphrase). As Americans we do not give the significance to the “name” of a person that the ancients did. For us it is a mark of individuality, of identification. In another time a name was a true reflection of a person’sbeing.Therefore, when Moses was asking for God’s name, he was really saying, “who, in the whole scheme of things, are you really?” It was, in a veiled sort of way, a challenge to God’s authority and power. That helps us understand God’s response.

God answers Moses, “I am who I am.” The great “tetragammaton,” the four letters of God’s “name” that was so holy to the Israelites that they never pronounced it, lest they take his Holy Name in vain. But it was, and is, so much more than a “name.” It is a statement of presence, of power, of existance, of eternity. God is not just giving Moses an identifier, something that separates him from the so-called gods of Egypt. He is telling Moses, “Listen, you don’t have to worry about identifying me, just tell the people that I AM and I will take care of identifying myself. If they don’t get who I am after I am through, they never will listen to you anyway.”

Now, if we would hear God in this passage I believe we would change our approach to evangelism significantly. So much of our evangelistic approaches are focused on defending God and Jesus rather than simply proclaiming God and Jesus. We let our culture have the upper hand in setting the rules of the debate, and we spend all our time in playing defense. We come up with all kinds of scientific, historical, or even philosophical reasons why belief in God is reasonable, and all the while we are cedeing the higher ground to our opponents. If we try to argue using science we make some white coated human the final arbiter of our faith. If we argue using archaeology we make some pile of dirt the final arbiter of our faith. If we argue from philosophy we  turn the game over to Plato or Arisotle or Immanuel Kant. But listen to this: GOD NEVER SAID PROVE THAT I EXIST! GOD SAID BELIEVE I AM WHO I AM AND DO WHAT I SAID DO!

On one level I enjoy reading such books as “Evidence that Demands a Verdict” and participating in seminars such as John Clayton’s “Does God Exist?” But on the other hand, there is a very real and present danger when we become so focused on our human capacity to prove God that we forget that God does not need proving. God is God. God is the great I AM. We don’t have to prove him. In fact, we can’t “prove him.” All we have to do is believe him.

That takes so much pressure off of me! I don’t have to play the world’s game any more. I don’t have to be a scientist, an archeologist, a physicist, a molecular biologist and a philosopher all rolled into one. All I need to be is a believer, a disciple.

God, and Jesus, do not need defending. They always have been, they are, and they always will be. And that is what we are to preach to this world.

Discipleship and the Contemporary Church

(Continuing a theme here…)

English: Waterfall near Lepena, Slovenia Slove...

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When you explore the concept of discipleship as taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount you are led to an inescapable conclusion: Jesus’ discipleship is a radical discipleship. Everything within the Sermon on the Mount challenges the contemporary view of life. Nowhere is this distinction any more radical than in the area of the church.

To begin with, let us remind ourselves that in studying the gospels there are three separate contexts. The first is the original proclamation or event in the life of Jesus. So, in regard to Matthew 5-7, this would be the actual sermon that Jesus gave to his disciples, and which was overheard by the crowd. The second context is that of the audience to which Matthew was writing. By all accounts this was a church or a group of churches that existed approximately 30 years after the ministry of Jesus. And, finally, there is our contemporary church situation. So we have one message, but three sets of “ears” that are called to hear it.

Of the three contexts the first and second are the most closely related in time, and so therefore we can get a pretty good idea of how Matthew’s church heard Jesus words by noticing the reaction of the crowd at Jesus’ feet. And that reaction was one of astonishment. Jesus taught with authority. Jesus taught directly, not by quoting the religious masters. Jesus said, “You have heard, but I say to you.” And his message was profoundly counter-cultural (to steal the title of John R.W. Stott’s great commentary on the Sermon on the Mount). What Jesus taught contradicted the first century Jewish concepts of “community,” of ethical behavior, of the relationship of marriage, of worship, of the courts – in short – just about everything. That gives us a fairly substantial clue as to why Matthew recorded this sermon as the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in his gospel (Luke places it some time later!). It would appear that the Matthean church is having problems with the concept of discipleship. They love the idea of being chosen, they have just lost the sharp edge concerning what that “chosenness” means. Matthew places the Sermon on the Mount front and center: “This is what discipleship is all about. Now, for the rest of the story…”

Enter the contemporary church. If you read the latest issues of the “Christian” press, what issues would you discern would be the main focus of our discipleship today? Let me give you just a few: whether the earth is a toddler or a senior citizen (geologically speaking), whether Adam was a real human or a metaphor, whether women can act like men in the church or not, whether you can read from a modern translation or not, whether you can take one single sip of wine or not, whether you can pluck a guitar string in worship or not, whether a preacher can wear blue jeans or not (assuming he wears at least something). Now, read Matthew 5-7. How many of those issues are covered by Jesus (and Matthew) in this foundational sermon? Exactly: none.

Jesus talks about moral purity, about single-minded devotion to God, about transforming love, about the surrendering of one’s rights, about God affirming worship, about radical obedience to the intent of the law, not the Pharisaic interpretation of the law. Sadly, very little if anything of what we are fighting about even concerns the message of the Sermon on the Mount.

I do not want to suggest that any of our current discussions are meaningless. I happen to believe that all of the issues I identified are important, in varying degrees. But I do not believe that any of them approach the critical aspect of discipleship that Jesus proclaims in Matthew 5-7.

Among many groups in “Christian” America there is a deep-felt concern for the shrinking number of members in our churches. This is certainly true among Churches of Christ. We look back to the “golden age” of the 1950’s and 1960’s and wonder where all of our enthusiasm and members have disappeared. To that question I have an observation and a rather pointed question. The observation is this – truly converted disciples do not leave Jesus completely. They may run from the cross on the day of the crucifixion, but when they are gathered as an assembly and the Holy Spirit is given to them they are re-constituted as a group and will from that point on march out to meet their fate with an entirely different frame of mind. Today when we see our pews gathering larger amounts of dust we can conclude one of two things. One, the people who used to occupy the pews never were converted disciples to begin with, so their absence should mean nothing more than they have returned to the pig sty from which they never really left. Or, two, they really were converted to Jesus and their leaving is an indication that Jesus has left the building as well and they are the only ones who can see it.

Which brings me to the pointed question: Are we preaching discipleship of and to Jesus? Either the church is teaching discipleship or it is not. If we preach and teach discipleship the other issues facing the church will be dealt with, albeit in an indirect manner. However, if we do not preach and teach discipleship we will only continue to witness the erosion of our numbers and the depth of the faith of our remaining members.

If you are concerned about the direction of the contemporary church, then I beg of you: let us return to the fountain of the Sermon on the Mountain. Let us drink deeply of those principles, those concepts and those disciplines that Jesus, (and Matthew and Luke) thought were so critical to the life and ministry of the early church. Let us reject this return to blatant secularism into which the contemporary church has fallen.

Then, perhaps, we will see our numbers explode again.

An Assembly of Disciples

Jesus is considered by scholars such as Weber ...

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(Note: This is a follow-up to my last post)

What would an assembly of disciples look like if we saw one? Would we recognize them as being different? Can we say that any “church” is an assembly of disciples just because they claim to be? These are serious questions, and if we take discipleship seriously we must ask them.

After about a ten year time period of studying and preaching and lecturing in a university and teaching in a seminary, Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed he had an answer: the Sermon on the Mount. It as those three chapters in Matthew that proved to be Bonhoeffer’s polar star that gave him so much strength for the two major battles that he fought during his lifetime. The first battle he fought was the “church struggle” in the early years of the Nazi regime, when he felt like the church in Germany was losing everything that it had stood for since the days of Martin Luther. The second struggle was the conspiracy to eliminate Adolf Hitler. Two very different struggles, yet the same message guided both – Jesus’ first recorded sermon in the gospel of Matthew.

Taking that cue from Bonhoeffer, I believe it is not only possible to imitate Jesus through his words given on the mountain, but I believe it is imperative that we do so. So, this is what I believe an assembly of disciples would look like:

1.  They would be a group of individuals committed to a radical counter-culture. They would give up all the trappings of power and prestige, and would instead rely utterly and completely upon their God. This means they would also give up everything that proclaimed they were a “church,” if those marks ultimately meant they lost their relationship to Jesus. The first century church was not identified by name or creed or political party. They were known simply as disciples of Jesus. So should we.

2.  They would focus on purity of the heart, and the true exercise of faith, not the outward display of religion. Bumper sticker evangelism and FaceBook petitions might be big hits, but they reveal nothing of the devotion of the disciple. Public opinion polls mean nothing to the disciple: pleasing Jesus means everything. (Read Psalm 51, see also Matthew 25)

3.  The key principle in discipleship would be obedience. The defining mark of discipleship is action. Discipleship is a journey, not a destination. If a person is not growing, learning, striving, then he or she is not a disciple. Discipleship is more than just studying to score 80% or higher on the final correct doctrine exam. It is not having the right name, the right procedure, the right translation. If orthodoxy (right belief) does not lead to orthopraxy (right action) it is just a collection of vain human precepts.

4.  Discipleship is not a right guaranteed by some declaration in a constitution. It is a free-will choice; but once made it has life time responsibilities. Jesus watched the rich young ruler walk away from him, and he actively challenged those who followed him just to get a free meal and to see a miracle show. We do people no favors by constantly bending to their whims just so they will remain a member of our congregations. The only person who cannot become a disciple is the one who does not wish to surrender to Jesus. Sometimes we have to tell people that they are welcome to stay and become a disciple, but we are not going to spoon feed them to mollify their insecurities and never-ending list of demands. It is harsh medicine to be sure, but our Lord had to use it on occasion.

5.  It is not just possible that true discipleship will generate opposition and persecution, it is likely to the point of certainty. The allure of the crowd is just too strong for many people. When their insecurity is challenged by the counter-cultural message of the gospel they strike back. They want to feel comfortable, so they seek to bend the radical message of the Sermon on the Mount to be a few general suggestions from the crowds. But disciples do not bend. Innovations and alterations will not be accepted. Some religious battles are actually worth fighting! Once again, this is a harsh truth, but Jesus saved his most specific denunciations for the religious leaders of his day. Unfortunately, the church is often the first place of persecution for those who seek to be disciples.

I do not believe that a group of religiously minded individuals who call themselves a “church” is necessarily a group of disciples, even if they have the right “name” and have a few other points of doctrine correctly lined up. The names on a church roll, or  the latest statistics from the Barna research group do not tell the true story of discipleship. The world may be fooled, and people’s consciences may be salved, but only God knows who is a true disciple. Jesus said, “many” will come to him at the end, and he will say to them, “depart from me for I never knew you.” 

I also believe with all my heart such an assembly of disciples is possible. All it takes is a group of individuals who are willing to submit everything to the Lordship of Jesus, and who are willing to take the principles as taught in the Sermon on the Mount and obey them with simple devotion. Bonhoeffer proved it could be done in the most repressive of economic and political environments. I am convinced it can be done today in the most of permissive and decadent of environments.

But it is going to take the courage of our convictions. We may have to leave a group that claims to be a church but is only a group of crowd pleasers. It may mean we have to leave family and old friends. It may mean we have to re-orient our lives to a new polar star. It will definitely mean that we have to make sure that our tiny little feet fall within the footsteps of Jesus our Messiah.

That will be true discipleship.

Discipleship

Luke 14:27

Luke 14:27 (Photo credit: pastorbuhro)

Every once in  while I am asked for the title of a great book to read, or perhaps what my opinion is concerning the greatest issue facing the church today. The answers to those questions vary somewhat, depending on what I am currently reading or perhaps the mood that I am in that particular day. But, since the law of averages weeds out the extremes I can with some degree of certainty say that in my heart of hearts I believe the answer to both questions is the same. Discipleship.

If I could only have one book with me in addition to the Bible I would choose Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship. The book begins with an expose of cheap grace and moves through a commentary of the Sermon on the Mount and also of Matthew 10. Then there is Bonhoeffer’s exposition of how those passages relate to the church. All of his thoughts and conclusions have to be kept in their proper context – that of the pre-war Germany of 1930-37 – but the richness and depth of Bonhoeffer’s theological insights continue to challenge the current church setting. Later, in his writings from prison, Bonhoeffer would express that there were some dangers associated with the book, but that he still stood by what he had written. I believe those “dangers” are associated with Bonhoeffer’s growing interest with what he termed “the world come of age” and “religionless Christianity.” These are theologically dense terms that Bonhoeffer himself was not able to fully explicate before his untimely death in 1945.

The greatest issue facing the church? In a word, discipleship. Every question that is occupying our hearts and minds today is, at the very core of the issue, a question of discipleship. Jesus himself said as much when he said, “No one can serve two masters.” (Mt. 6:24) In Luke 14 the choice is even more stark. It is either Jesus or it is family, friends, possessions or self. It cannot be both/and. This, I am coming to understand, is the greatest issue facing the church. But it has always been the greatest issue facing the church. There is nothing new under the sun, says the Preacher (Ecc. 1:9), and that is certainly true here.

Name one single issue that is causing conflict in the church today and at the root will be a question of discipleship. Gender/sexual issues, what is done or not done in worship, the battle over the Bible and science, the struggle between church and state, the ongoing battle over life vs. abortion – the list is long and disheartening. But, at the risk of repeating myself, at the most fundamental level of each of these discussions is the primary question of allegiance. Who is the Christian going to follow? Jesus or the world? Jesus or science? Jesus or culture? Jesus or power? Jesus or the prince of the world?

Many people will object to my categories here and say that I am over-simplifying, that I am making everything a matter of salvation and leaving nothing to opinion or discretion. I certainly do not want to suggest that whether one sings with a guitar in the worship assembly is equal in significance to the taking of a human life. Contrary to what some teach, I do believe that there are levels of seriousness as to how God views human obedience and disobedience. I just do not see how God would equate a speeding violation with the same seriousness as a pre-meditated murder.

But, stay with me here. If I base my worship practice on the fleeting whims of a constantly changing culture, at what point can I say that I am worshipping God, and when does it cross over to worshipping man as the creator of culture? If my moral compass regarding gender and sexual issues is based on the latest issue of the journal  Psychology Today, then where does the concept of “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today and forever” (Heb. 13:8) come in? If I can prove beyond any shadow of any doubt that dinosaurs and humans walked the face of the earth together, or that dinosaurs were extinct billions of years before Adam was created, what exactly have I proved? Or, to phrase the question in slightly different terms, if I walk by sight, why do I need that useless appendage called “faith.”

Regular readers of this blog will recognize a common theme here. I sense in all of these debates (or “wars” if you so wish to label them) a dichotomy between the human mind (including our emotions) and a pure faith in Jesus. We either walk in absolute faith in God our Father and Jesus his Son, or we walk by the sight of our constantly changing human mental capacity, with all of its weaknesses. Yes, God has given us our mental abilities. But, those abilities were distorted in the fall in the garden of Eden, and until we are fully restored in our communion with God we should never place more emphasis in our mental acuity than in God and Jesus.

Just today I was reading in Discipleship and I came across this quote, one of the hundreds that I have underlined in my increasingly worn-out copy: “If I look at the danger in what I am doing, if I look at the path instead of at him who is walking ahead of me, then my foot is already slipping. He himself is the way.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 4, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001, p. 176).

I see a lot of construction experts examining the roadbase on the path. We have scientists and archeologists and anthropologists and sociologists and linguists and grammarians dissecting the signs that are posted along the path. We have safety engineers deciding whether the path is passable or not. We have philosophers trying to determine the origin and the destination on either end of the path. We have ethicists trying to determine if it is morally acceptable to walk on the path. We have politicians fighting over whose territory the path is supposed to cross, and who will get the taxes that are generated from the construction of the path.

It just seems to me that we have fewer and fewer people who are focusing on Jesus, and trusting that if our footprints are within his, then the path is a secure one.

Even if it means people leave our congregations. Even if it means people don’t like us. Even if it means people laugh at us and say and write all kind of mean, nasty ugly things about us. Even, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer showed us, if people persecute us, imprison us, and ultimately kill us.

And that, dear friends, is discipleship.

Necessary Inference, Or, Is Thomas Rolling In His Grave?

"This is the front cover from the book De...

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Confessional disclaimer here – if you are not a member of one of the congregations associated with the American Restoration Movement (Churches of Christ, Christian Church of Disciples of Christ) or if you do not have any close association with someone who is, the following post may be totally confusing to you. The terminology used and the battles that have resulted are truly intramural, but if you are curious you may continue reading.

In my last post I quoted proposition #3 from Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address,the landmark publication upon which so much of our language is based. I pointed out that Campbell stressed the “express terms or by approved precedent” whereby he urged Christian unity. These terms have been shortened to the “Command and Example” part of the “Command, Example, and Necessary Inference” (CENI) hermeneutic that entire generations grew up hearing about, but very few truly understood. What I did not quote was proposition # 6, which would have opened another can of worms entirely, and that I will do now:

 

That although inferences and deductions from Scripture premises, when fairly inferred, may be truly called the doctrine of God’s holy word, yet are they not formally binding upon the consciences of Christians farther than they perceive the connection, and evidently see that they are so; for their faith must not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power and veracity of God. Therefore, no such deductions can be made terms of communion, but do properly belong to the after and progressive edification of the Church. Hence, it is evident that no such deductions or inferential truths ought to have any place in the Church’s confession.

I have SO much to say here, but for the sake of space I will attempt to limit what I would like to really say!

First, Campbell is not dismissing the practice of drawing inferences from Scripture where the plain meaning of the text is obscure. What he emphatically does say is that those inferences, even if they are true and correct, cannot be made binding on someone if they cannot see the connection! My deduction may be absolutely brilliant, but if another cannot see my logic I cannot bind my conclusion upon them. Now, understand, he is not talking here about the “express terms or approved precedents.” He is not talking about direct commands, or examples that the late first century church and early second century church obviously considered to be binding. He is talking about what I or you or someone else deduces from a text that is not expressly there.

Second, and this is huge: Campbell clearly saw that if we make inferences binding upon another’s faith we have made their faith dependent upon our human mind, not the word of God! This is a point not often made, or if it is made it is not clearly understood. When we make the human mind the arbiter of divine revelation we have become the most theologically liberal of all biblical interpreters. Here is what I see as the most astounding reversal of concepts in our discussion of so many issues. Many claim to be theological (or biblical, if they eschew the term theology) conservatives, but in their binding their logical deductions upon the church they have become theological liberals in the classic meaning of the term. In other words, just as the (true) liberals at the turn of the century wanted to overturn the literal meaning of many texts because of the “assured results of critical scholarship,” so these modern liberal wolves in conservative sheepskins want us to accept their human deductions above what is in the text. They have elevated human understanding to a position equal to, or even above, the word of God written. It is irony to the nth degree.

English: Thomas Campbell, (1763-1854) American...

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Third, “necessary inferences” can be used in the “after and progressive edification of the church.” That is to say, if I deduce something that is not clearly in the text, but is fairly derived from the context and other aspects of the text, I may teach that to further build up and edify the church, so long as I do not make it binding on the faith of another. And, in the current discussion of instrumental music and “praise teams” that is exactly what I am attempting to do. I am absolutely convinced that the use of instruments and “praise teams” actually diminish the corporate worship of the gathered assembly, and I believe that, fairly heard, I could convince others of my convictions, but I cannot bind that conclusion upon their faith. Now, hear me at this point as well…I cannot and will not worship where such performances are practiced, but that is my choice and is based on my faith. For another to attempt to bind their conclusion on me would be sinful. I simply cannot find the entry for “electric guitars in worship” in my concordance.

That makes it kind of difficult in terms of sharing communion with some of my brothers and sisters. Because they insist on the use of instruments, or a performance group at the front of the auditorium, my fellowship with them is not possible. However, the same is also true of myself and the congregation where I worship, because we have a kitchen in the building and we regularly have congregational meals in the building, and we use multiple cups for the service of the fruit of the vine during the Lord’s supper, and we have separate Bible classes for our youngsters and even our adults, and we support missionaries and children’s homes through the church treasury. These are practices that others cannot accept due to their understanding of certain passages. I regret those conclusions, for in my mind I believe they are making false conclusions, but once again, we are back to the question of hermeneutics and how we fairly derive conclusions that are not “expressly” clear in the text.

How we have elevated “necessary inference” to a level equal to the written text is one of the true tragedies of a movement that was founded on the twin goals of the restoration of pure Christianity and the unity of all who profess Christ and Lord and savior. I do not know of a way out of the current impasse, short of some real soul searching and honest conversation on the part of all involved. But, as with every issue, with man nothing is possible, with God all things are possible. We can do better. We are surrounded by better angels. We should be working to do better!

The Hermeneutical Impasse

 

As I have been carrying on a delightful conversation with several others regarding music in the worship service, it occurred to me that there are two issues behind the current discussion of worship styles. One is the visceral attachment we have to the form of worship we feel is appropriate. This is true whether you are speaking to a high church Catholic or a low church Pentecostal. How we worship has become every bit as significant to us as who we worship. I am not saying this is right or proper. I am just making a statement of fact as I see it. If you doubt me just erect a crucifix (a crucifix, not a cross) in your church building and note the response. If you are “high church” it probably is already there. If you are “low church” you will probably be looking for a new place to worship next week.

Deutsch: Kreuzgang des Essener Münsters, Essen...

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But the second issue that I feel is lurking beneath the surface of this discussion is the complicated topic of hermeneutics. For the uninitiated, I am using that technical term to denote “the manner in which we derive and apply the basic meaning of a passage of Scripture.” (Paul Smith definition). Hermeneutics differs from exegesis in this regard – exegesis is the process by which we determine what the text meant. We use grammars, word studies, and historical notes to figure out to the best of our ability what the author was saying to his (or her) original audience. Hermeneutics moves to the question, what does the text mean? Two individuals may agree in essence about the exegesis of a passage, and yet have profound differences of opinion about the hermeneutics of the passage.

The impasse of hermeneutics is the reason I believe so many people talk past each other and not to each other in this conversation. It is almost like we are using the same words, but we are using two different dictionaries to define those words. If that is the case no wonder we cannot come to a common point of departure, let alone a common final understanding.

Those who have been raised within the Churches of Christ are used to hearing a “command, example and necessary inference” (CENI) form of hermeneutics. This language basically comes from Thomas Campbell‘s Declaration and Address, where he states in his proposition #3,

That in order to do this, nothing ought to be inculcated upon Christians as articles of faith; nor required of them in terms of communion, but what is expressly taught and enjoined upon them in the word of God. Nor ought anything to be admitted, as of Divine obligation, in their Church constitution and managements, but what is expressly enjoined by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ and his apostles upon the New Testament Church; either in express terms or by approved precedent

Campbell was painstaking in his discussion that it was only by “express terms or approved precedent” that decisions ought to be made. Throughout the years the “necessary inference” idea has crept in, and now it ranks as high, if not higher, in some minds that the direct command and approved example. Such is the problem with any hermeneutic. It starts out as a human construct, and within a few decades it is equated with the word of God that it is supposed to interpret.

English: Thomas Campbell, (1763-1854) American...

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I would like to suggest before we enter into discussions that carry such heavy emotional baggage that we first sit down and discuss the question, “What is your view of Scripture, and how do you apply that Scripture to current issues?” If we can create a common “dictionary” by which to define our words, we might stand a lot better chance of coming to a mutually agreeable conclusion. Maybe not. Maybe I am living in a dream world. But I know for certain that starting the conversation with bullets and hand grenades has not provided a very healthy environment for solving complicated issues.

Within the New Testament we can see several types of hermeneutics – Matthew’s use of prophecy/fulfillment, the Hebrews author and his use of the “greater than/much more than,” and the apostle Paul’s use of typology seen especially in Galatians 4:21 and following. Jesus himself used the story of Jonah as a “prediction” of his time in the grave (Mt. 12:39-40). Personally, I would not feel comfortable in making any of those conclusions. But, that is where the inspiration of the Holy Spirit comes in, in my understanding of inspiration. In the intervening years there have been many attempts at arriving at a universal hermeneutic. The medieval scholars arrived at a four-fold hermeneutic, stating that each passage of Scripture had a literal meaning, a symbolic meaning, a moral meaning, and an anagogical meaning. Whew! And I thought CENI was confusing.

For my own part, I have wrestled with the idea of the interpretation of Scripture, and my own feeble attempt at a “hermeneutic” can be seen in my “Fourteen Truths of Theological Reflection” on a separate page of this blog. It is by no means binding,  but it lets folks know where I am coming from, and if they want to engage me in conversation I am up-front with how I view Scripture, and how that Scripture is controlling for me. I am deeply indebted to the Christological hermeneutic of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (See his Creation and Fall, and Christ the Center). But I am a mere human, and I know that ultimately it is not what I say that matters, but it is what the Scriptures say. It is my duty as a theologian, however, to make that message as clear and understandable as I can.

If you have been confused about my posts on music, or any other post for that matter, I hope this helps you understand at least a little more of where I am coming from, and where I want to go. After all, any pilot who will be flying in the fog had better have a very precise idea of how he plans on navigating to his destination and landing once he gets there, or it is downright suicidal to take off. Having survived some real scares in the aviation world, I don’t want to do that in the world of theology.

(Next Post – the use of “Necessary Inference” and the problem of binding human deductions upon others).

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