Author Archives: Paul Smith

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.

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.

What do Lions and Babies Have in Common?

There has been an incredible uproar (pardon the pun) over the killing of a beloved black-maned lion, Cecil. Actually, Cecil was not just killed – he was lured to his death from a safe game preserve, then shot with a bow and arrow. He suffered for 40 hours before the poachers managed to find him and finish the kill with a rifle. The supposed “hunter” was a rich American who paid $50,000 for the privilege to “hunt” a lion. This was not a hunt. This was an act of barbarism.

What has upset many others is that there appears to be more people upset over the killing of Cecil than the revelation that Planned Parenthood sells the harvested parts of aborted babies to medical labs and transplant clinics. The logic is that an unborn child is of far greater value than an African lion, so why are people not more upset over abortion? I am not sure that question is valid. I do strongly believe a human life is more valuable than that of a wild animal. But I also have a somewhat different take on the difference between the reaction to the killing of Cecil and the Planned Parenthood fiasco.

I think the two are actually related, and the furor over the killing of Cecil points to a fundamental crisis of the human spirit that is also demonstrated through abortion.

The killing of Cecil is so raw – so blatant, and the greed of the killers is so easy to spot. The greed of the abortionists is more obscure (indeed, to listen to their defenders, it does not even exist!). But there is another commonality between the lion poachers and the abortionists: arrogance.

What is it about a man who would pay $50,000 to kill an animal? Conservationism? Give me a break. If you want to preserve wild animals, you could donate the $50,000 to an animal preserve and take a picture. No – these people (and there are more than you might think, of both sexes) believe that because they have the money, and because the have the right equipment, and because they have the “right” to kill an animal, that those things justify these supposed “hunts.” What is it about those who believe it is perfectly acceptable to kill an unborn child? These people (once again, of both sexes) believe that because they have the money, the technology, and because the Supreme Court has discovered the “right” for them to take the lives of these unborn children, that they are justified in their murderous actions.

In both situations the commonality is arrogance – the same arrogance that was on display in the Garden of Eden and is on display every time we as humans decide that we are smarter than God. It is rebellion against God’s will. In the words of the Word of God – it is sin. And sin, whether the poaching of a majestic lion or the murder of an unborn child, has its root in the heart of the human being. We wantonly destroy because we believe we are gods, or perhaps that we are better than gods.

There was, and is, no excuse for the poaching of Cecil. I was sickened as I read the story. I hope the individual responsible for this travesty is held accountable in some form or fashion, and that the process of these “trophy hunts” is ended. I am equally sickened by the actions of Planned Parenthood. I would like to see all abortionists punished for the murders they commit. I do not have to choose between outrage over one or the other. Both reveal the depths of the emptiness of the human soul. When we decide that our ability to destroy God’s creation (for no other reason than to magnify our own importance) is more important than our responsibility to protect and maintain that creation, it does not matter whether the life is human or not. Once again, I am not saying the life of a lion is equal to the life of a human being. That would certainly not be biblical or moral. What I am saying is the disregard for God’s creation is equal in both situations.

As I know many hunters, and have hunted big game myself, I feel I must draw a distinction between fairly hunting for food and what these “trophy” hunts project. Many thousands of honest hunters harvest what God has given to man in order to eat what they harvest, and also to manage game herds and bird populations. This is what I refer to as “husbanding” or nurturing God’s creation. Paying $50,000 to kill an animal that is lured to you is not a hunt, it is not husbanding God’s creation – it is killing for the sake of seeing an animal die. There is no justification for such action. That people even attempt to defend this shooter disappoints me.

Just a thought for those who think that we can give the poacher a pass while focusing entirely on the abortionists – until we come to the realization that ALL of God’s creation is our responsibility to protect, we will NEVER be able to effectively end the scourge of abortion. In other words, we are going to have to come to grips with what God told Adam in Genesis 1:26-31 – God’s very first command to humankind. If we are to have dominion over God’s creation, we must humble ourselves and recognize that it is God’s creation, he created it to be good, and we are not permitted to destroy it for our own selfish, arrogant, desires.

Book Review – Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ (Schreiner and Wright, eds.)

As promised, a review of the book that spurred my last post. Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, eds., (Nashville: B&H Academic Publishing Group, 2006) 352 pages.


I admit that the purchase of this book was more title and cover than anything. I knew nothing about the editors, or the authors. I soon discovered that the editors and authors of the individual chapters are committed Baptists, and they repeatedly made that point obvious throughout the book. That should be of little issue, unless you have a passionate dislike for Baptist authors. I try to be as eclectic in my reading as I can. My favorite (and the best academic book, IMHO) on the subject of baptism is by another Baptist, G.R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament. My favorite book on prayer was written my a Jesuit priest. So, I do not judge books by the authors, although I will sometimes buy one if the cover strikes me as interesting.

This book is a collection of 10 chapters, each written by a different author. The first three chapters cover the topic of baptism in the gospels, Luke-Acts combined, and the New Testament epistles. There follows chapters on Baptism and the Relationship between the Covenants, Baptism in the Patristic Writings, Confessor Baptism (the Anabaptists), Baptism and the Logic of Reformed Paedobaptists, Meredith Kline and Suzerainty, Circumcision, and Baptism, and (very interesting to me) Baptism n the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, and concluding with a final chapter on Baptism in the Context of the Local Church.

Because this is a collection of works in one volume, it is to be expected that there would be some unevenness among the chapters, and that is most certainly the case. In my estimation the chapters ranged from the simply dreadful (and academically suspect) chapter on the Patristic Writings to an outstanding demonstration of proper academic writing in the chapter on Baptism and the Logic of the Reformed Paedobaptists and to a lesser degree in the chapter on Baptism in the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement (unfortunately, the author focused entirely on Campbell, which seriously affected his work. He should have named the chapter, “Baptism in the Writings of Alexander Campbell” as that is what he discussed.) The chapter on the Patristic writings was full of summary statements that had no documentation and other statements that were questionable as to whether the author took the quoted passage out of context. In contrast, the chapter on the the Reformed doctrine of paedobaptism provided adequate documentation and allowed the reader to decide (at least I believe it did) whether the passage was in or out of context.

The volume is valuable primarily as a defense of believer’s baptism (or, confessor’s baptism, as one author suggested). That is its intended purpose. It is not, and should not be used, for a text defining the purpose and meaning of baptism. For that purpose I suggest the aforementioned text by Beasley-Murray, or Baptism and the Remission of Sins: An Historical Perspective by David Fletcher, or Baptism: A Biblical Study by Jack Cottrell. This volume is devoted specifically to the question of whether paedobaptism (infant baptism) is biblical, and seeks to explain the practice of paedobaptism especially within the Reformed (Calvinistic) evangelical churches. Very little mention is made of the Roman Catholic or Lutheran practices.

I genuinely enjoyed several of the chapters, especially the one on the Anabaptists. This chapter was among the strongest, and one that provided me with the most food for thought, both positively and negatively. I am becoming more and more convinced that the Churches of Christ should be paying more and more attention to the Anabaptist movement (with which we have tertiary connections), both for doctrine and especially for praxis.

The chapters covering the biblical texts were uneven, with some good insights and some aggravating defenses for the sake of denominational ties. On the other hand, there were examples of significant diversion from “standard” Baptist theology, with several examples where the authors stated that baptism is indeed inseparable from the forgiveness of sins (although, to be sure,  each and every one of them rejected “baptismal regeneration” and salvation ex opere operato, salvation simply by the administration of baptism.) I found the chapter on baptism and the Restoration Movement to be extraordinarily even handed, and it was valuable to see the writings of Alexander Campbell through the lens of a Baptist theologian. I reject his suggestion that anyone should follow the lead of Oak Hills church in San Antonio Texas, because from my perspective that congregation has completely forsaken biblical teaching concerning baptism (among other things) and their heritage within the Churches of Christ, and I reject that they speak for anyone who wants to remain faithful to the Restoration plea.

One other note in passing. I wrote my last post before I read the concluding chapter, and in that chapter the author discussed the very question I raised among Churches of Christ. In that chapter he provided a statistic that among Baptist churches between the years 1977 and 1997, the numbers of baptisms of children under the age of six increased 250 percent! According to a doctoral dissertation that examined this phenomenon, one of the leading causes of this trend was, “social pressures on the pastor.” (p. 347). In an immediate classic turn of phrase, the author who reported the statistic referred to the practice as “infantile baptism.” (see page. 346, note 23. The title of the study is “The Practice of Infantile Baptism in Southern Baptist Churches and Subsequent Impact on Regenerate Church Membership” in Faith and Mission, vol. 18, no. 3 (Summer 2001): 74-87).

Overall this was an enlightening book, and one I can recommend for the express purpose of the discussion of infant baptism. As I mentioned earlier, if you are looking for an exposition on the meaning and purpose (theology) of baptism, you would be better advised to read Beasley-Murray, Fletcher or Cottrell. Fletcher’s book is particularly strong in examining the question of the relationship between baptism and the remission of sins. Beasley-Murray simply set the standard in terms of New Testament passages on baptism, and although the book is older, it is still well worth the purchase price.

Churches of Christ and Baptism

I have been reading a book on believer’s baptism (note: review upcoming), and because of that I have been evaluating what I have heard taught in the Churches of Christ, and what I have taught myself as a minister within the Churches of Christ.

A little bit of background – for my first graduate work I wrote a paper on the topic of baptism in the early days of the Restoration Movement. I wish I still had that paper, but alas, it was consigned to the landfill many, many years ago. What I learned was equal parts fascinating, reassuring, and troubling. Speaking as a whole, the views of baptism within the Churches of Christ have not been monolithic, and, sad to say, not always biblical.

Cut forward to the book I am reading now. The book is primarily devoted to refuting the theology and practice of infant baptism, and it is written by a group of Baptist scholars. This second fact is made obvious by the many references to the manner in which Baptists have historically believed something, or believe something today (I wonder if the authors/editors think that Baptist thought is really that monolithic?) So, the book is not genuinely a theological exposition on the meaning of baptism, although that is a major component of the argument for believer’s baptism and against infant baptism. As I will discuss in a future review, I have learned much about the practice of infant baptism, and serendipitously, I have learned much about my belief in baptism for the remission of sins.

However, in this post I want to share some concerns I have about the teaching of baptism as I hear and read in various reports concerning Churches of Christ. I write as an insider, and a concerned (but hopefully not negative) critic of our words and our practice. Here are some things that have occurred to me as I have been forced to review what I believe about baptism:

1.  Churches of Christ claim to disavow infant baptism, but as I have witnessed, toddler or young children baptism seems to be increasingly the norm. We cannot claim to profess “believer’s baptism” or “confessor’s baptism” when the subject of the baptism is barely in elementary school. I have to confess – I too have been a perpetrator of this practice. I baptized a young person who then frequently showed up at church services with a toy in hand to occupy the time during the sermon.

We baptize little children for a variety of reasons – and none of them are especially attractive nor defendable. A child wants to be baptized so they can take communion. Or they are baptized because an older sibling has been baptized, and they want to have the same attention shown to them. Or, they are baptized because their father is being considered for the role of elder or deacon, and Dad will not be confirmed if a child is not a “believing member.” Or, a child is baptized because he or she is the last one is his or her class to be baptized, and peer pressure is just too great. We make all kinds of good sounding excuses – “He has reached the age of accountability, and we do not want him to go to hell if he dies.” “She knows everything there is to know about baptism – we cannot deny her this request” (excuse me, who knows everything there is to know about baptism?) “Her grandparents are here and we want them to be able to share in her baptism.” Perhaps the worst reason is that multiple baptisms make the resume of ministers and youth ministers look really attractive when they want to move on to a higher paying ministry position somewhere.

The point is we are baptizing younger and younger children. We may say we do not believe in infant baptism, and I have not seen an actual infant being baptized (yet), but what about 6, 7, 8, 9, or 10 year olds? Let me ask you a quick question: would you allow an 8 year old to decide he or she is old enough to drink wine or beer? Would you allow a 10 year old to take the family car and stay out until 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning? Would you allow a 9 year old to decide who she can date, when and where her dates will be, and if she wants to have sex with her partner, would you allow it because she is now an adult and can make her own decisions? Why is it that youthful offenders are categorized entirely different than adults in our judicial system? It is because the young brain is simply not advanced enough to fully understand actions and consequences. And yet, young (and younger) children are being baptized in Churches of Christ by the dozens, if not hundreds.

This, my dear brothers and sisters, is a refutation and rejection of what the Bible teaches about the importance of faith, repentance and commitment that is demonstrated in the event of baptism.

2.  Related to that last point, I fear many members of the Churches of Christ function with what the authors of the book I am reading describe as an ex opere operato understanding baptism. That is a Latin phrase meaning that the practice of baptism is efficacious in and of itself, regardless of the subjective beliefs of the recipient. Thus, in baptism, the child may not know anything at all about baptism, or may hold entirely erroneous beliefs about baptism, but the very fact that they are baptized (especially if the right words are used and it is in a Church of Christ baptistery) then the child is “saved” because of the rite itself. This is what has been communicated to me, although in not so Latiny language. When I express my uneasiness about baptizing a child, the response is usually, “Well, even if he/she does not know everything, at least he/she will be baptized, and then he/she can learn.” So, let me get this straight – we will not accept the baptism of an infant that was baptized in a church that practices infant baptism, but we will baptize an 8 or 9 year old for exactly the same reason?? What is it about hypocrisy that we do not understand?

3.  I do not want to make this post too long, but I will add here that I believe Churches of Christ need to “restore” (to use a good word we are all associated with) a healthy, biblical understanding of faith, repentance and confession when it comes to baptism. But none of these concepts have any meaning unless we restore a biblical concept of sin. A couple of very simple questions to conclude this paragraph – how can we teach that baptism is for the forgiveness of sin, when we routinely baptize children who cannot have a mature understanding of sin, let alone have any experience with that sin? Are we really so callous as to believe God would send the soul of a deceased 9 or 10 year old to hell for sassing his or her parents? Is our concept of God that grotesque? Heaven help us if it is.

I have much more to say, but this post is already well over 1,000 words. The Churches of Christ have been accused of over-emphasizing baptism, even to the point that others accuse us of works salvation. Nothing can be further from the truth – that is biblical truth. Whether we have been guilty of preaching “salvation in the water” is up to God to judge – I am sure that many within the fellowship of Churches of Christ do stand guilty of that charge.

What is sad to me is that I am witnessing in a fellowship that has for over two centuries stood on the claim to teach what the Bible teaches and only what the Bible teaches a refutation and a rejection of that basic principle.

I care not what others accuse us of, unless what they accuse us of is being unbiblical and that accusation is true. I read, and hear, far too many members of the Churches of Christ who are rejecting the biblical teaching of baptism.

And, for whatever it is worth, that really bothers me.


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