Author Archives: Paul Smith
Tom Olbricht, Hearing God’s Voice: My Life with Scripture in the Churches of Christ (Abilene: ACU Press,1996).
I just finished writing my dissertation for my Doctor of Ministry degree. I learned so much in writing that paper. One of the things I learned was that no matter how much information I thought I had gathered on a particular topic or sub-topic, there was always one more (or a dozen more) reputable sources to consider. When men have been thinking and writing about the Church and Christian topics for almost 2,000 years it is just impossible to be original.
One of the sources that I discovered in the process of writing my paper was Tom Olbricht’s, Hearing God’s Voice. I have been vaguely aware of Dr. Olbricht – he was at ACU when I started my undergraduate program there. I was always intimidated by Dr. Olbricht. He was a large man, and it would be kind to say that his suits were never impeccably tailored. Scuttlebutt was that you only took Dr. Olbricht’s classes if you had a suicidal wish to blow up your GPA, or if his course was required. Because he was primarily in the grad program, I never had to make that decision. When I did finally enter ACU to earn my Masters degree, Dr. Olbricht had moved on to Pepperdine University in Malibu, CA. By that time I was not so easily led by whispers and gossip, and I took every course I could from Dr. Everett Ferguson. Since that time I have regretted not having had any classes with Dr. Olbricht. After reading this book I regret that lack even more.
Hearing God’s Voice is a book about hermeneutics within the Churches of Christ, but it does not read like a typical book on hermeneutics. It is mostly an autobiographical journey through Dr. Olbricht’s life, showing how hermeneutics (or how a person interprets the Bible) both shapes and is shaped by life experiences. It is a fascinating story, and if you are interested in the history of the Churches of Christ in the mid to late 20th century, you will want to get this book and read it. The book is part “who’s who” within the Churches of Christ, part pedagogy on how to obtain advanced academic degrees, part critique of the Restoration Movement, and, finally, part hermeneutic.
You have to get to the end of the book before Dr. Olbricht explores his hermeneutic in any great depth, except that you have to really read all of the early parts of the book, because his hermeneutic is inseparably connected to his life’s story. He did not just get his hermeneutic out of a book, and he does not want anyone to try to get their hermeneutic out of his book. At least, I do not think he does. I think, in perfect professor fashion, Dr. Olbricht would say, “Now that you’ve read my book, go forth and discover the art of hermeneutics!”
Dr. Olbricht is certainly one of the premier theologians within the Churches of Christ. Few men have attained the level of expertise, both theologically and in rhetoric, of Dr. Olbricht. I think I would still be intimidated by Dr. Olbricht, but having challenged myself with Dr. Ferguson’s classes, I think I would have greatly enjoyed listening and learning from Dr. Olbricht.
I do not agree with everything Dr. Olbricht says in this book – especially with his understanding of hermeneutics. After all I have said in praise of Dr. Olbricht, that may sound heretical, but no man is perfect, and, while I deeply appreciate many of the moves that Dr. Olbricht proposes in this book, I also identify some significant weaknesses in his approach. Perhaps the greatest is that I sense Dr. Olbricht’s approach is simply too open-ended. To use a sports analogy, he has an impressive wind-up, and the pitch leaves his hand in a blur, but by the time the ball gets to the plate it is barely rolling across the ground. I appreciate the emphasis that Dr. Olbricht places upon the reader (or auditor), but in the end it appeared to me that the reader/auditor had a greater place in Dr. Olbricht’s hermeneutic than the Scripture did. I believe his two examples illustrate that. And, today, approximately 20 years after the book was written and published, I believe that the steady march of same-sex relationships and gender-bending would support my contention.
Any hermeneutic, if it is to faithfully transmit God’s word to a new generation, must begin with the full and unquestioned authority of Scripture. We need to make sure the message of Scripture is heard in new and fresh ways, but the reader NEVER is to be allowed to determine the meaning of Scripture. The reader/auditor is to discover the meaning of the text, but the skill of discovery and the power of determination are two completely different concepts.
Oh well, sorry for the sermon. Bottom line – if you are interested in hermeneutics, and especially if you share a love for the Restoration Movement and the Churches of Christ, I highly recommend this book.
Election day 2014 is a week away, so this coming Sunday in pulpits all across the country there will be impassioned pleas for civic obedience known as voting. Some statements will be simple announcements of locations where a person may cast a ballot. In others there will be impassioned pleas for a specific cause or political party. Some preachers will no doubt name names. All of this will be done under the guise of obeying a biblical mandate to vote.
Except, there is no biblical mandate, command, example or necessary inference to vote. None. Nada. Zip.
The closest thing the New Testament authors get to endorsing Christian activity in the affairs of the state are encouragements for Christians to pray for all leaders. The end is not so that “our side” can win an election, the goal is that there be a peaceable existence for all so that the gospel can be preached without hindrance. That’s it.
But you will not hear that from the pulpits of most Christian churches this Sunday.
As a preacher I can think of at least three reasons why Christians should be leery of voting. But, just for good measure I will throw in a fourth for free:
1. There is not a single book, a single chapter of a book, or a single verse of a chapter that dictates a Christian must cast a ballot in an election. You simply cannot find one. The only way you can build a case for voting is to take the passages to pray for secular rulers and twist them out of context to include the concept of voting (a concept that was completely foreign to the New Testament authors).
2. Elections specifically and politics in general are all about power and coercion. The way of Jesus is about humility and service. Elections are about getting my guy (or gal) elected so that they (we) can beat up the other guys and make them toe our line. When was the last time you saw a publicly elected official willingly submit to the views of the opposing party? Jesus and the apostles willingly submitted to their accusers and antagonists, with nothing but the power of the God’s grace and gospel to protect them.
3. If you buy the cow, you get all four hooves and the tail. You cannot say that you voted for the good things your guy or gal proposed, but you disagree with the bad things. Nope – you vote for the whole package. I learned this the hard way after voting for George W. Bush. For all the good he may have accomplished, he is still the president that ordered our troops to attack Iraq with absolutely no provocation by Iraq – only some vague “potential” to attack the US. The results in the mid-east and to thousands of families of killed American troops has been devastating. If you vote for a war-monger, you have blood on your hands. Good intentions are a lousy excuse.
4. The art of politics is compromise. Compromise is, however, the death of Christian influence. Compromise meant the destruction of the nations of Israel and Judah. God never said, “Do the best you can and settle for what you can get.” Jesus did not say, “Anyone who wants to follow me can do so as long as you don’t follow other gods too much.” I’ve never understood how a Christian can support the passage of certain laws because “we get more than we give up.”
I cannot say with absolute biblical certainty that casting a ballot is a sin. However, for these and other reasons I know that I cannot cast a vote in good conscience. David Lipscomb was right about one thing – if you participate in the kingdom of the world you share in the guilt of that kingdom. You cannot use the tools and methods of Satan to defeat Satan. I was thrilled beyond description when Ronald Reagan won the presidency. But Ronald Reagan gave us Bill Clinton, and Bill Clinton gave us George Bush and George Bush gave us Barack Obama. You see the progression here? Who is next? I see no individual who will lead this country in Christian principles.
So, dear Christian, if you vote, vote with the clear understanding that you are participating in a system that is driven by every malevolent intention and power of Satan. Cast your vote with the clear understanding that if your candidate wins, you share in every outcome of his or her decisions. Cast your vote with the clear understanding that you cannot wrestle in a pig sty and come out smelling like a rose. Cast your vote knowing that it is your privilege in America to do so, but also understand that there is no mandate in Scripture for you do do so.
Have you ever watched a puddle of water evaporate? It seems like nothing is happening for the longest time, and then it is gone. Slowly, inexorably, the water just becomes vapor, then a damp spot, and then, nothing.
I feel like I am watching a puddle disappear, and that puddle happens to be the only church I have been a part of, loved, and occasionally argued with. The vast center of the Churches of Christ is simply evaporating. More quickly in some places, more slowly in others – but the tide of change is undeniable.
When I was a child, then a young man, and even into my young adult years certain things could be counted on. Death and taxes were two of the more unpleasant, but there was a definite comfort in knowing my faith family was solid. Oh, we had our crusty fundamentalists and our wild-haired “digressives,” but like most families the outliers were pretty much used for illustrations and family reunion jokes.
Now, the joke is on the middle.
The fundies and the un-fundies have long been sharpening their knives, and now the hostilities are fully engaged. The more progressive the one side gets, the more reactionary the other side becomes. This just infuriates the progressives (who steadfastly protest that they do not care what the fundies are doing) and so they "push the envelope" even further. Anyone who just wants to follow Christ and wear his name is accused on the one hand of being "soft" on doctrine and of being a cultural coward by the folks on the other side of the aisle.
I used to stand comfortably in the middle of this grand, varied, and sometimes confusing assembly. Now, I am not even sure where the middle is. I fear it is gone.
- I cannot believe in a 6,000 year old earth because I studied and learned how that number was ciphered out. I must be a liberal.
- But, I believe in the inspiration and authority of all of the Scriptures – even the ones that claim Moses wrote the greater part of the Pentateuch, and that Isaiah actually did write all of the book that bears his name. So, that makes me a reactionary.
- I have received multiple degrees from ACU and now have my Doctor of Ministry almost complete from Fuller Theological Seminary. By virtue of guilt by association, color me a flaming progressive.
- Except that I believe there is firm scriptural and theological evidence for such issues as baptism for the forgiveness of sins, acapella congregational singing, and male spiritual leadership. Avast, I’m a knuckle dragging troglodyte.
- I believe in the necessity of a highly trained, deeply educated “professional” ministry staff. Hefty lefty, am I.
- Except that I also know all too well the intoxication that comes with an advanced education that is divorced from reality. An education is only as good as the grounding of those who provide it – and a thermometer is not the only thing in this world with numerous degrees and no intelligence. I must be a tighty righty.
- I believe in the power and strength of a solid, healthy tradition to anchor our peevish human ways. Way out in right field! But I despise a stifling traditionalism that squelches the moving and leading of God’s Holy Spirit. So I’m so far out in left field that I’m selling popcorn and hot dogs.
I know I am introspective by nature. When I take one of those psych tests I raise the “melancholic” bar to impossible heights. It’s not fun always seeing the dark clouds behind the silver lining. If I sound like a bucket of cold water – well, that’s me. But I used to find solace in knowing my church family had my back.
I’m sorry, but the only thing I feel now is that one side or the other only wants to bury their knife in the middle of my back.
It’s not only lonely trying to be in the middle, now it is emotionally and spiritually dangerous.
I’ll give you two quotes, you decide which one is acceptable and which one is unacceptable.
“Infidels in the region have three choices: convert to Muhammed, pay a tax, or die.” – The Islamic State to non-Muslims in their territory.
“The time has come that we need to either convert them, which I think is next to impossible, or kill them.” Phil Robertson, patriarch of the “Duck Dynasty” family and elder in the Church of Christ, speaking about the Muslim extremists on the Sean Hannity radio show.
Okay, have you figured out which one is wrong? I’ll give you all the time you need……
Here is a hint. Both statements are reprehensible, and for the same reason. Both are born of a far right-wing ideology that replaces faith with fanaticism. “If you do not agree with me, you deserve to die, no questions asked, no quarter given.”
The first statement is reprehensible enough coming from practitioners of the “Religion of Peace.” The second is even far more reprehensible, coming from a follower of the Prince of Peace, who sacrificed his own life so that all men could have the hope of a reconciliation with a Holy God.
How is it that men can replace religion with such hatred? Especially coming from one who claims to follow the Christ who said, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” Somehow I do not see how, “Convert or we will bomb you into eternity” is much of a loving or prayerful statement.
Tonight in our college Bible study we read and discussed the book of Jonah. The college kids got it. God loves all people. Even the people of Nineveh, the capital of the nation of Assyria.
As in, the capital of the proto-nation of Iraq, the modern day nation of all the Muslims Phil Robertson wants to convert or kill.
God actually loved the Assyrians enough to send a prophet to them to warn them of their sinful ways. Yes, the message was, “repent or perish,” but that message came from a God that is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”
I think Phil Robertson needs to read his Bible a little more carefully. I think he needs to read the Sermon on the Mount, and I think he needs to read the book of Jonah.
And I think that anyone who agrees with the kind of faith that would rather bomb someone into damnation rather than pray for them a path into glory should really, really re-examine whether they are following the Prince of Peace or a hate-filled creed that is as damnable as the ideology they seek to destroy.
Taking a break from writing to do a little writing...and it's been a long summer of writing!
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Another example of the inability of America to move beyond its racist past has embroiled the country in a racial stare down. The major media outlets are full of articles and stories and editorials about how we can fix this problem or that problem. The biggest problem is, the solutions offered will only serve to make the problem (racism) worse. Every solution involves the distinction of races, making racism the measuring tool for the elimination of racism. It just won’t work.
For example, the overwhelming majority of articles, and editorials I have read over the past several weeks pontificate that “white people are going to have to…” or “white Christians are going to have to…” or more generically, “the white Church is going to have to…” When you identify a group of people by their skin color or some other ethnic identification you have become part of the problem. You are a racist.
I have noticed a glaring absence in all of these articles and editorials and blogs. Nowhere have I read, “the problem with black America is…” or “black Christians must…” or “the black Church must…” According to the overwhelming majority of mainstream media, “Christian” bloggers and preachers, the only people who have a race problem are white people.
That is simply racist, and you probably think I am racist for thinking so.
In this latest example of racial unrest, a young man was killed by a police officer. Oops, I forgot to mention those two adjectives: a young black man was killed by a white police officer. What would have happened if the officer was. . .black, or Latino? What if the officer was female instead of male? Would there have been riots? Where would Al Sharpton be?
You see, there is a huge racial problem in America. There can be no denying that fact. Deniers in this case are not only ignorant, they are stupid.
There may have been a racial component in the shooting of the young man in Missouri. Only an unbiased search for truth will bring that out. If the officer is guilty of a racial bias he needs to be punished appropriately. If there was no racial bias, and if, as has been suggested, the officer was fighting to save his life, then he needs to be exonerated.
But, this also needs to be said… Every day dozens of young black men are killed as the result of gangs, drugs, and other criminal acts. There are no riots, there are no marches, no caravan of satellite TV trucks show up, there is a glaring absence of the politicians crying out for justice and equality. The difference is that in Missouri the black man was killed by a white police officer, and in Chicago and New York and Los Angeles and Atlanta and in virtually every other major metropolitan city, when a black man dies at the hands of another black man no one seems to notice or care.
In God’s kingdom there is no such thing as race. Every human is equal. Every death matters – God does not wish that any should die (Ezekiel 33:11; 2 Peter 3:9). God certainly did not desire the death of the young man in Missouri. And God does not wish the death of any police officer who is killed in the line of his or her duty to protect the lives and property of the citizens he or she is sworn to protect.
The reality is, until we can learn to see past race and view each death as the death of a human being, without any attachments, we will never move beyond the issue of racism. As long as we use race as the measuring stick, we are doomed to be a nation of racists.
As Martin Luther King Jr. once so famously and correctly said, let us move toward the day when all young men and young women will be judged, not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
I have not often reblogged or suggested that people read other blog posts without adding some of my own comments. But I am today: please go and read Tim Archer’s important post:
Tim is an experienced missionary and I could not add to his wisdom if I wanted to, which I don’t, because I don’t want to look any more foolish than I already do.
One caveat, Tim is from Texas, and is a San Antonio Spurs fan, and if I am not mistaken, also supports the Dallas Cowboys. So, while his theological insights are often spot-on, his sports acumen is questionable.
Over the past couple of months I have gained two things: a deeper and more profound respect for those who have earned the Doctor of Philosophy degree, and an increasingly negative opinion of those who disparage education.
It takes hard work to achieve any goal of value – and that includes a professional sports contract or a terminal degree in any field. We worship our sports heroes, and we laugh at “egg heads” and “ivory tower intellectuals.”
I will be forever grateful that the surgeon who cut my back open and fixed my nerve damage was among the most highly trained and educated physicians in New Mexico. I will be eternally grateful that my Bible professors had the intellect AND the drive to achieve the highest goals of research.
I am just really, really becoming fed up with people who do not have the foggiest idea of what it takes to excel in academia and yet who make fun of those who make the sacrifices necessary to excel in any academic field.
So, for those of you who think it is funny to belittle those who devote their lives to biblical scholarship – the next time you need a doctor, go schedule an appointment with someone who thinks that obtaining an M.D. is a waste of time, and that if he spends 8 years or more in pre-med and medical school he will lose his belief in how the body works.
Yeah, I thought so.
I have not been posting much this summer (and probably will not, except for a stray column now and then). I am working on finishing my dissertation for my Doctor of Ministry program and I am up to my armpits in writing crises. I just have not had time for this space this summer.
But, some things are just too good to pass up.
As a part of my dissertation I was reviewing some material from earlier classes at Fuller Theological Seminary. I came across a book that I did not realize how important it was the first time I read it, but now after the passage of some time and the focusing of my dissertation I have an entirely new appreciation for the material.
The book is titled, Dissident Discipleship: A Spirituality of Self-Surrender, Love of God, and Love of Neighbor by David Augsburger. It is published by Brazos Press out of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and has a 2006 publication date. In a sentence, the book is a description of the Anabaptist view of discipleship.
I don’t want to spoil anything for those of you who are curious about my dissertation, but finding this book on my shelves again was huge. Augsburger works through eight core practices of discipleship: Radical Attachment, Stubborn Loyalty, Tenacious Serenity, Habitual Humility, Resolute Nonviolence, Concrete Service, Authentic Witness and Subversive Spirituality. Augsburger then concludes with six appendices, the most valuable to me was the seven “Core Convictions” of the Anabaptists. As you can tell from the chapter headings, this is not fluffy reading. Although Augsburger works through some heavy theology, the book is not written in “technical jargon” and is easily accessible, if the reader will simply devote some time to absorbing the material. The content will challenge you, regardless of whether you accept Augsburger’s conclusions or not.
Coming from a tradition that values reason and logic above all else, there was much in this book that was difficult for me to understand. I do not agree with everything that Augsburger says in the book – I never agree whole heartedly with any author (well, almost never). However, after the passage of several years, a whole heap of a lot of study, and the focus of my dissertation, all of a sudden I think I realize just how important, and how powerful, this book really is.
The fact that the book is based on the “radical” Anabaptist tradition will, no doubt, be distressing to many. If you judge a book, or an entire movement, by the fly-leaf of a book review or by the shallow lecture of someone who knows nothing about the tradition, then this is probably not the book for you. It would rattle your cage to the point you would probably lose your sanity.
However, If you are serious about learning about an often misjudged and abused people, then by all means buy and study this book. If you are serious about learning about what it means to be a disciple of Christ, then by all means buy and study this book. If you are interested in deepening your walk with God and your service to the church and world, then by all means buy and study this book.
But be careful, you just might end up becoming a dissident disciple.
I apologize to my out-of-the-U.S. readers, but this is where I live, and if you do not have this problem consider yourself extremely blessed.
Yesterday I wrote what probably has been my most angry post. I am still fuming – and believe me, what I posted was nowhere near as vitriolic as what I deleted. Quite simply I cannot fathom why anyone would consider a personal “right” (whether it truly is or not is debatable) over the life of another human being, but especially the child of grieving parent. Enough of that.
The question I want to pose today is why do American “Christians” have such a morbid attachment to the U.S. Constitution? Why are American Christians so emotionally attached to that piece of paper? Can anyone explain that?
Really, people – its just a piece of paper. A bunch of human beings got together, wrote it down and then voted on what they wrote. It is as simple as that. There was no divine intervention, no words from Mt. Sinai, and there were clearly no words from Golgotha. It was a significant human achievement, I will grant you. But Americans, and Christians in America especially, act as if Moses carried down the mountain before the 10 Commandments. I mean, wasn’t Moses elected president of the NRA? That’s good enough for most Duck Dynasty fans, anyway.
Here is a little exercise for you – think of the most horrific thing that can happen to the U.S. Constitution. Was it destroyed? Did a foreign country overwhelm the U.S. and burn it to ashes? Did the President get it annulled? (Our current one is working on it, by the way). Got it? Now, what would change about your life?
Really, seriously – what would change if the Constitution was to be destroyed? Would you maybe lose your job? Would you become a slave? Would you have to go to an interment camp? Maybe your family would be killed? Maybe you would be killed?
Well, guess what, good Christian American – each and every one of those things has occurred to people as a direct result of the U.S. Constitution! If you doubt be ask the descendent of a slave. Ask a Native American Indian whose ancestors were beaten, raped, forced to live in “Reservations” (which is a really polite word for “Concentration Camp”) and, if they resisted, were murdered by the thousands. Ask the Chinese who were forced to work as virtual slaves as the country moved west. Ask the Japanese and German immigrants who were forced to live in interment camps during WWII simply because of their last names. Yeah, boy, we have a long list of Christian accomplishments – all at the power of the U.S. Constitution.
If the U.S. Constitution were destroyed tomorrow I will tell you what would still be true – God would still be God, Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross would still be effective for all who believe in him, disciples of Christ would still be able to live in the greatest free country in the world – the country of the Kingdom of God.
No human can ever be really free just because of the accident of his or her birth. No human can ever be a slave to anyone if that person has been set free by the blood of Christ. We are all, each and every human who has ever lived, ultimately the slave of whichever god we choose to be the ruler of our life. And that subjection is proclaimed most clearly by the things we protect the most fiercely and those things we absolutely refuse to give up.
So, I ask again, why are American Christians so devoted to the Constitution? Oh, I think I just answered my own question.
Joe the Plumber, the ignorant red-neck hillbilly that earned his 15 minutes of fame a long time ago, has crawled back out of his hole to attack the parents of the victims of the mass killing in California. In his “Open Letter” he flatly stated that “your dead kids do not trump my constitutional rights.”
Well, here is why Joe the Plumber is dead wrong.
1) All innocent human life trumps any worthless piece of paper. This is even more true when the victims are innocent bystanders, young people just beginning their lives as adults.
2) The Constitution is a dead relic of a time that has long past. If he (or anyone else) disagrees, then he (or they) must admit that the Constitution is a living document, and if a living document, then is subject to re-interpretation and improvement. If the constitution is subject to re-interpretation then it is well past time to eliminate the 2nd Amendment, a clause that was written in the day of flintlock black-powder muskets.
3) As a Christian my allegiance is not to some ink-stained piece of parchment anyway. God will accept no idol in his name, and that includes any fallible human contract for governance.
4) Jesus died for all people of every nation and for every time. Greeks, Romans, Scandinavians, Germans, Spaniards, Canadians, French, Mexicans, Chinese – every people from every tribe under heaven. The cross was not just for Americans and when I realize that I can put the US Constitution in its proper context. When we say “Jesus is Lord” that is as much or more of a political statement than it is a religious one. And Jesus did not die for the Constitution of the United States.
5) We all have the right to “free speech,” and yet the Supreme Court has ruled emphatically there are times, places and situations in which certain types of speech are illegal. You cannot yell “fire” in a crowded theater and incite a riot. You cannot incite the physical harm of someone else. And, when your “right” to own weapons and ammunition whose only purpose is to kill and maim human beings results in the deaths of hundreds of innocent children (and adults) every year, then, sir, I respectfully submit that yes -
THE LIFE OF MY CHILD, AND THE LIVES OF THE CHILDREN WHOM I LOVE, MOST CERTAINLY DO “TRUMP” YOUR WORTHLESS RIGHT TO OWN A GUN.