Author Archives: Paul Smith
Andrew Root, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker: A Theological Vision for Discipleship and Life Together (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014)
I am a Bonhoefferophile. Happiness to me (if I cannot be fly fishing somewhere on a cold trout stream) is a big cup of Earl Grey tea, a book by or about Bonhoeffer, and a long afternoon. But, that having been said, there is nothing worse than a bad book about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Regardless of how much you like steak, there come a point that if it is cooked poorly, even a filet mignon is a wretched piece of meat. So, when I heard that a book about Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a youth worker had been published, I was immediately and deeply suspicious. Possibly no theologian has been used and abused more than Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Liberals see Bonhoeffer as the consummate liberal, conservatives see Bonhoeffer as a flag carrying conservative. I was afraid to find that Mr. Root would make Dietrich Bonhoeffer out to be the paragon of modern “pizza and praise God party” youth minister. I read some encouraging reviews, so I cautiously bought the book. The siren call of another study on Bonhoeffer was just too strong to resist.
Boy, am I glad I did.
My fears of Mr. Root transposing American youth ministry onto Bonhoeffer were dispelled on p. 3 when he wrote, “Actually, as we’ll see in the chapters below, Dietrich Bonhoeffer more than likely would have been strongly against many of the forms American youth ministry has taken since its inception.” Mr. Root is still too kind, but at least he put my mind at ease. The rest of the book served this summary well – he clearly demonstrated the vast difference between Bonhoeffer and American elitist, entitlement based youth ministry.
Root’s work is divided into 14 chapters and runs 208 pages long – so the book moves quickly. Root takes a chronological approach to studying Bonhoeffer’s work with youth, which is not the only way to study Bonhoeffer’s theology, but it works very well in this case. Root demonstrates that throughout his work with youth (which is far more extensive than most people realize), Bonhoeffer was consistent and demanding. Bonhoeffer was a theologian first and foremost and not at all concerned with the “bottom line” that defines so much American youth ministry. However, he was particularly adept at recognizing the capacity of his audience to perceive and adopt theological concepts, and so Bonhoeffer was a master at pedagogy as well as theology. Reading this book illuminates how important it is for a youth worker to be firmly grounded in theology, as well as methodology to convey that theology. (Note especially chapter 6, “Tears for Mr. Wolf: Barcelona and After”, and chapter 9, “They Killed Their Last Teacher! The Wedding Confirmation Class.”)
I am afraid that many (if not most) American youth ministers will not like this book – if they even understand what Root is saying. Most American youth ministry creates idols out of young people. “Do this, or we will lose our youth!” “Don’t do that, or say that, because our young people will not like it and they will leave!” Most critical, youth ministry in America treats theology like the plague – you can do just about anything, but for crying out loud stay away from theology. Even if you have to (horrors) talk about God, make sure he comes across as a BFF, so that you will not scare the poor little darlings.
Bonhoeffer, as Root so powerfully and eloquently demonstrates, viewed young people as individuals who were both capable and responsible for learning about the great and deep things of God. And Bonhoeffer viewed youth ministry as a critical part of the entire congregation – Bonhoeffer never wavered from his insistence that the church, and especially the congregation, was the center of the world for the Christian. I think Bonhoeffer would be aghast at the way our youth ministries pull young people away from the church – we actually destroy the community of the saints by isolating one of its most critical components.
Root demonstrates beyond question that for Bonhoeffer, theology had to be the center for youth ministry. How he managed to accomplish what he did is another story – certainly not everyone is going to be as gifted as Bonhoeffer in working with youth. But, if you love young people, if you are concerned about the young people in your church, and especially if you are currently involved in ministering to young people, this is one book you need to buy, read, and most important, fit into your ministry.
Just do not expect to find a 21st century youth minister in Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was not, and for that we should all be very grateful.
Regardless of who we are, what we do, or what we believe, we like to be around others who share the same interests and opinions. It is the most natural and logical of situations. We seek out those with whom we have the most in common and situations where we feel the most comfortable. It would be ridiculous to constantly want to be around people who disagree with us or to be in situations where we constantly feel threatened.
Nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than in issues of faith. Christians want to be with other Christians, not Muslims. Muslims want to pray in Mosques, not Cathedrals. Even more specific, Roman Catholics like to worship with fellow Catholics, Lutherans with Lutherans, and Baptists with Baptists. I choose to worship with fellow members of the churches of Christ. It is there that I am at home. I know the language. I am with family.
Even certain doctrines or beliefs within a specific faith or faith community have their own boundaries. Within the churches of Christ we have those who accept separate Sunday school classes for different ages, and those who believe the congregation should not be divided. We have those who believe it is wrong to eat a common meal in the church building, and those who have full sized gyms and coffee houses in their buildings. We have those who partake of the Lord’s Supper with one cup and one loaf, and those who have the oversized thimbles full of grape juice and multiple little crackers. Instruments of music, female worship leaders – every question creates new divisions and either creates or deepens animosities.
And every division creates a new echo chamber. It is impossible not to recognize that each position comes complete with a venue to promote that opinion. As early as the second generation of the Restoration Movement, members were divided as to whether they were “Advocate men” or “Standard men.” (Women, I suppose, were identified by their husband’s allegiance). Then there came the Firm Foundation, and the Gospel Guardian, and the Heretic Detector (I kid you not), and Contending for the Faith and the Spiritual Sword and then Image and then Wineskins – and the beat goes on. Each journal, and sometimes associated lectureship, has rules about who can, and more importantly, who cannot be included in their “circle.” Although in the early years of the Restoration Movement many journals carried written debates and articles that conveyed opinions contrary to the editor, that day has long since disappeared. Now, in order to be accepted by any journal or any lectureship a writer or speaker must be fully vetted, and if there is any shibboleth that cannot be explained, he (or she) is simply excluded.
Every journal and every lectureship within the fellowship of the Churches of Christ today is simply an echo chamber of the opinions and attitudes of those who edit/direct it. Oh, you may have the rogue conservative that travels out west or the closet progressive that manages to sneak in the midwest somewhere, but those situations are rare to the point of being isolated, and perhaps embarrassing to the powers-that-be once they are discovered.
So conservatives speak and write in echo chambers that simply reinforce their interpretations and opinions, and progressives speak and write in echo chambers that reinforce their interpretations and opinions. I am not exactly sure how to change that situation. Like I said, who wants to be in a place where they are threatened and made to feel like a lamb in the middle of a wolf convention? Not I, said this sheep.
But I just wonder (thinking out loud here), if some of the outrageously stupid things that were said in these echo chambers were spoken in a venue where they could be challenged and proven to be utterly baseless, would the condition of the average church member not be much healthier? I mean, to be absolutely honest and utterly frustrated here . . . it cannot be that it is scripturally wrong to hold or participate in a particular belief or practice and at the same time for that belief or practice to be scripturally right and blessed by God. One belief or practice is (a) wrong, and therefore a sin, or (b) right and therefore blessed by God or (c ) it is not a scriptural issue to begin with and therefore is neither (a) nor (b). But it cannot be both (a) and (b). Likewise, a passage of Scripture cannot have diametrically opposite interpretations and both (or all, if there be more than one radically different interpretation) be correct. One interpretation must be false. Jesus did not suggest that the Pharisees and Sadducees were merely mistaken. He called them blind guides and fools, and a brood of snakes. I get the impression Jesus believed the Pharisees and Sadducees were BOTH flat out, positively, absolutely wrong.
I have grown weary trying to hear a sane and honest, and yet direct, debate about some issues facing the Church of Christ today. There are a lot of people talking and writing and pontificating and lecturing and other sundry things. But they are all doing so in their respective echo chambers, where they receive standing ovations and feel-good reviews and everyone goes away happy. It is easy to feel good about what you hear in an echo chamber.
Problem is, Jesus did not say to listen to the voices in an echo chamber. He said to listen to his voice. God said listen to the voice of Jesus. It seems to me that the ONE voice we are not paying attention to today is the ONLY voice we should be listening to.
One of the joys I have is teaching and learning from some really great young people. The other day following class a few of us were discussing various topics, and one of the things we were talking about was faithful obedience. The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and their great statement of faith came up,
O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If it be so, Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace; and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up. (Daniel 3:16-18, RSV)
One of the students told the group he had prepared a lesson on the difference between faith and fear. The lesson is profound, so I share it with you.
Fear says, “What if . . .” Fear says, “What if I fail, what if I get sick or die, what if this solution costs too much or does not achieve the goal for which we out to overcome, what if the people reject me, what if there are unforeseen setbacks, what if, what if, what if.”
Faith says, “Even if . . .” “Even if I fail, even if I get sick or die, even if this solution costs more that the value returned, even if the people reject me, even if there are unforeseen setbacks, I am going to follow God and his word, and I am not going to give in to fear.”
It was a powerful moment. Far too often I have collapsed under the weight of the “what ifs.” I am cautious by nature, almost to a fault (maybe certainly to a fault). I like to see the end before I take a step. Could I have uttered the words of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego? I shudder to think.
How many times do we worship false gods because we are afraid of the “what ifs.” How many good projects are not even attempted because of the “what ifs.” How much good could be accomplished if we would just say, “even if.” We really need to have the courage to swim against the crush of the crowds – the courage of our convictions.
I needed to hear that message. I hope it helps you too.
This semester’s schedule calls for me to get back into Christian ethics. So, in addition to the basic text I am using, I have been reading some sources that are “new” to me, John Howard Yoder, in particular. Yoder is perhaps the most persuasive and well-known among pacifist writers. Whether you agree with Yoder, disagree with Yoder, love him or hate him, if you are going to wade very deep into Christian ethics you have to deal with Yoder and the application of his views.
This, however, is not really a post about Yoder. Perhaps I will do that at another time.
What Yoder got me thinking about was how diluted Christianity has become. With very, very, few exceptions, most congregations of virtually every stripe or color of Christians have become conformational. This fact is astounding, given the reality that Jesus called upon his disciples to be transformed, and transformational, and the apostle Paul wrote emphatically that disciples of Christ are to be transformed and transformational. (see Romans 12:1-3)
To explain my terminology here, conformational Christianity is a Christianity that has conformed itself in one or more aspects to the culture in which it resides (for us Americans, that would be a free-market, capitalistic, militaristic, representative republic). We look like good Americans, we act like good Americans, we talk and buy and sell and defend and basically exist as if America was the “promised land” of which Moses spoke to the Israelites.
Transformational Christianity, both individual and communal, would examine that culture (or cultures) and work with the remnant of ideas that might be God affirming, and would reject or transform everything else in order to live fully and whole-heartedly within the “reign of God” on earth. A transformed Christianity would look nothing like its surrounding culture, except as that culture has itself been transformed by the Christian leaven working within it. A transformed people would be known by their inexplicable love for one another. They would be known for their total devotion to the ethics of the Kingdom of God. They would not be concerned about money or power or prestige or whether or not they were being treated fairly under the Constitution. A transformed church would live as if this world was a transition to a better world, a re-created Garden of Eden in which Christians will all share in a re-established image of God.
Conformational Christianity asks, “What is culture saying that we must do in order to appeal to consumers looking for the best religious deal?” Transformational Christianity asks, “How has Christ changed my life, and how can I go out and change my world.” Conformational Christianity asks, “What can we do to keep our young people from choosing another church or to leave the church altogether?” Transformational Christianity says, “I have no idea what you are talking about, our kids are begging for opportunities to serve and lead.” Conformational Christianity worries that maintaining any tradition will hamper its effort to “be relevant.” Transformational Christianity rejoices in traditions that keep its message pure and alive, while willingly looking for new ways to express its faith – with no regard whatsoever for the issue of “relevancy.” Transformational Christianity knows intuitively that a person cannot make the church “relevant” (what ever that means), it knows that the church is relevant for the purpose of transforming people’s lives as a basic, fundamental part of its existence.
I know of too many churches that are sell-outs to cultural pressure. They define the term, “conformational Christianity.” They conform to both the style and content that the western culture demands of them. In the words of Jesus’ parable, they are worthless, their fate is to be thrown on the dung heap.
Transformational churches are salt and light in the midst of a bent and broken world. Jesus called on his disciples to be transformational people (Matthew 5-7). Paul echoed that call in Romans 12. Peter called on the churches to whom he was writing to be a Holy people, just as the God they worship was Holy (1 Peter 1:13-16).
Be Holy. Be Transformed. Be Transforming. That is the challenge given to the Church of Christ. I pray we have the courage of our convictions, and that we can accept this challenge without fear or favor to any earthly power.
I want to conclude this little mini-series on mysticism with some thoughts on how mere mortals can join the ranks of the mystics. As with virtually everything else that I write, I cannot claim any true originality here, only in the sense of putting these ideas together in the manner that I have.
To begin with, it should go without saying, but you must first of all desire to submit to the reign of God. This is so obvious, but then again, I am the master at discovering what everyone else already knows. If you do not want God to reign in your life, or in anyone else’s life, He simply will not force himself upon you. To want God to reign in your life you must be willing to surrender every other king in your life – money, prestige, power, status, country, possessions, even people. To say, “Thy kingdom come” means just that – not a democracy or a meritocracy, but a monarchy. Those who say they want God to reign in their life while continuing to submit to the principalities and powers of this world are deceiving themselves – and God cannot be deceived.
We are to seek God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength. It is an all-or-nothing adventure. To join with Peter walking on the waves of the storm-washed sea we have to be willing to let go of the boat. This is the problem I see with most “Christianity” in America today. We are half-hearted at best. We want God plus America (or America plus God). We want God plus the Constitution. We want God plus the greatest armed forces the world has ever known. We want God plus every technological discovery that we have or ever will create. We do not want God, we want God plus something else. We want God.1. That is NOT seeking the kingdom of God. That is NOT seeking God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. That is not seeking God’s kingdom first, and allowing him to add “all these things.”
Next, a person seeking the reign of God in their lives will conform their life to the pattern of Jesus. They will study the life and teachings of Christ as their only sure guide to learning the will of the Father. The beatitudes become no longer a list of virtues to emulate, but the reality of everyday life. The parables no longer serve as topics for academic study, but an entrance into the kingdom. Along with the life of Jesus they will absorb as much of the rest of Scripture as they possibly can. They will learn from the great inspired mystics – from Moses and Isaiah and Jeremiah and Daniel and Paul and Peter and John. Every page of the Bible will be to them a treasure of untold value – revealing the heart and will of God in heaven, whose reign they purely and entirely seek. Jesus, however, will be the center around which every other detail of Scripture revolves. Christ is the center, the norm, of a mystic life. It was Christ who inaugurated the ultimate reign of God, and it will be Christ who returns to fully embody that reign.
Third, a person seeking the reign of God will decide, based on what the Scriptures and Jesus teach them about the reign of God, whether they want to accept that reign or refuse it. Just because the reign was fervently desired in the first place does not mean that every person will decide to accept that reign. The rich young ruler went away sorrowful, even while he was on the very threshold of accepting the kingdom of God. The apostle Paul wrote of a certain Hymenaeus and Alexander who had made a shipwreck out of their faith, and who had apparently decided to rescind their allegiance to the reign of God. Experience tells me that many fit Jesus’ parable of the seed that falls on the weedy soil – the heart accepts the message with gladness but there is just too much “stuff” that chokes out God’s kingdom. So, following desire and discovery there comes the point of decision. Is God going to reign, or not? There is no other question, there is no other answer.
Finally, the one who places God as the king in their life will actually live as if God is the king of their life. How do you think Abraham had the courage to leave his father’s faith and country? How do you think Joseph was able to risk his life to remain pure? How do you think Moses had the nerve to stand up to Pharaoh? How do you think Daniel and his three friends had the courage to defy the king? How do you think Paul could stand up to Herod? How could John write from Patmos to tell the seven churches to stand up against Caesar? The answer to each and every situation was that these faithful, these disciples, these mystics, all had the kingdom of God securely implanted in their heart. They knew who was the king, and the earthly power that threatened them was simply not worthy of their fear, and certainly not of their devotion.
We are a nation of sanctimonious cowards. We fear the government. We fear losing our Constitution. We fear what will happen to us if, by some horrible circumstance, we are caught without our fully loaded handgun on our person. We fear what will happen if we stop building multi-million dollar airplanes to drop multi-million dollar bombs. We fear losing our freedom, yet we are too ignorant to realize that is striving for every human comfort and safety we have sacrificed our greatest freedom – the freedom to live in and expand the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God knows nothing of Constitutions and guns and airplanes and bombs. The symbols of the kingdom of God are a towel and a cross. The towel is to serve this world, and the cross is to die to it and for it.
As I started this series, I said that the world does not like mystics. The world punishes, persecutes, and even kills mystics. Jesus predicted his followers would be hated. Paul predicted his churches would face tribulation. John saw only martyrdom for those who remained faithful to the word of the cross. To share in the resurrection of Jesus we must first share in his death. When we invite the kingdom into our life, the hatred of the world will soon follow. But if we are to follow Jesus, how can it be any other way?
The cross is not the terrible end of a pious, happy life. Instead, it stands at the beginning of community with Jesus Christ. Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
One day the Pharisees asked Jesus, “When will the kingdom of God come?” Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God can’t be detected by visible signs. You won’t be able to say, ‘Here it is!’ or ‘It’s over there!’ For the kingdom of God is already among you. (Luke 17:20-21, NLT)
The kingdom is among us. I pray we want it. I pray we are searching for it. I pray we care enough to learn what it means. I pray we decide to accept it, and live like we accept it.
I pray we all, in whatever measure we can, will accept the call to be mystics – and begin to live as if the kingdom has arrived.
In my last post I said that some of my favorite people were mystics. The names I mentioned were all biblical characters, with the exception of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Barton Stone, and David Lipscomb. I could have mentioned a number of others, including Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and maybe even C.S. Lewis, among others. As I have reflected on my post I felt that I needed to explain a littler further what I mean by mysticism, and how these individuals fit into my understanding of what it means to be a mystic.
First, mystics have a profound vision of the kingdom of God. You can see this very clearly in the inspired mystics – Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Jesus, Paul, Peter, John. These individuals received either a very clear vision of God, or received inspiration and illumination far beyond the “normal” avenues of study and meditation. I place these visionaries on an entirely different plane than non-inspired mystics. The “non-inspired” mystics have also had a vision of the kingdom of God – one that drives their writing or preaching on a level that exceeds most “common” or non-mystical writing. There is a sense in reading these individuals that they see, or hear, or have been given, insight into the kingdom of God that is reserved for the few who (1) truly desire to have that kind of insight and (2) open themselves to receiving that kind of insight. None of the “non-inspired” mystics just woke up one morning with the clarity of vision that they have shared with the rest of us. God rewards those who seek him – he will be found if he is sought after. Mere seeking will not avail, however, if there is no heart prepared to welcome him. Mystics spend as much time preparing their heart to receive the kingdom as they do in seeking the kingdom. I think that is why so many earnest seekers never find the kingdom. They are simply unwilling to accept it when it is shown to them.
Second, once the kingdom is revealed, these individuals seize it. They believe God, not just believe in God. There is a radical transformation that takes place in the heart of a mystic, even if the mystic came from a position of belief to begin with. Some, such as a C.S. Lewis, came from a position of agnosticism, if not even outright atheism, and so their transformation is all the more astounding. There is a sense, however, in which believers can be converted – once the vision of the kingdom is received and accepted. The apostle Paul was perhaps the quintessential example of this – he was converted from faith to faith. I think the same could also be said of Isaiah, and Peter seemed to be on a never-ending cycle of renewed and expanded faith.
Finally, the mystics of whom I write did not stop with a simple apprehension and acceptance of the kingdom. They went out and lived as if the kingdom was really here, live and in living color, as the old saying used to go. They did not wait for “pie in the sky by and by.” They lived, taught, and wrote to transform their world into the kingdom that God intended. For their vision and their efforts many were killed – most of them in fact were either imprisoned or persecuted in some form or fashion. They remained faithful to their vision, however, and through their lives the world caught a greater glimpse of what the kingdom of God will ultimately look like.
This is why I place Bonhoeffer, Stone, and Lipscomb within the category of “mystic,” although for some the characterization may be laughable. These men, so disparate in many respects, all had a vision of the kingdom informed by the writings and teachings of the inspired mystics that we find in Scripture. They searched longingly for the kingdom, and when they had prepared their hearts to receive it – God let them see what the kingdom could be. Then, they went out and lived as if they kingdom was indeed, “among them” just as Jesus emphatically said it was. They challenged the status quo. They lived as kingdom subjects, and suffered as only kingdom subjects will suffer.
As I said, some of my favorite people – authors and saints – are mystics. I am coming to see the difference in their life and mine. I glory in their vision, and their faithful expression of that vision.
And, before anyone says it – yes, I know that these men were all flawed human beings, with the obvious exception of our Lord. None of them was perfect. This is why we proclaim our allegiance to Jesus, and not to any mortal human. The lives of the others can be illustrative, however, of what it means to be a disciple, a mystic. For their example I am truly grateful, and if some day someone looks back on my life and says, “there lived a mystic” then I will owe that epitaph to the example of these faithful, though flawed, mortal beings.
Mystics are not popular people. Mystics get arrested, shot, hanged, burned at the stake, crucified. Oh, there are mystics who say popular things from time to time, and occasionally you will find a group of people who popularize the teachings of a mystic, but with very few exceptions mystics are just not very popular. Mystics see things that the overwhelming majority of people cannot see, and for that reason they are considered dangerous. Dangerous people must be removed, so that the rest of us can be comfortable.
Jesus was a mystic. The apostles Paul and John were mystics. Peter was a clumsy mystic, but he was a mystic. Isaiah and Jeremiah and Daniel and Ezekiel preceded them in a long line of Divinely appointed mysticism. These were not mystics because they retreated to the desert and slept in caves and ate exotic bugs. No, Jesus and Paul and Isaiah were mystics because they were able to see with the eyes of God.
Mystics do not see what is not there. Mystics do not call people to a life that cannot be lived. Jesus was a mystic not because he was obscure and bizarre and said incomprehensible things. Paul was not a mystic because he was blind for three days and then went into the Arabian desert. Isaiah and Jesus and Peter and Paul all saw the kingdom of God with a clarity that eludes those who think that mystics are weird people that sane people should stay away from.
Jesus said, “Blessed are you when you are persecuted” and “The last shall be first” and “The kingdom of God is among you.” Paul said, “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live” and “When I am weak, then I am strong.” John saw the heavens open and the new city of God descend upon the new earth. These are mystical sayings and events, but they are not delusional. Mystics say that the lion shall lie down with the lamb and the child shall play over the den of the viper not because these things are false, but because they are of a truth that only mystics can see. True reality is much more real that what most humans accept for reality. That which confronts us daily is not reality, it is a mirage of the devil’s making. We surrendered reality in the garden. The mystics see reality. Realists see only a distant shadow of that reality.
Mystics call for mankind to lay down the weapons of war. Realists say that is impossible, because realists cannot see peace, nor do they really want to see peace. They want to see war, because war is raw and passionate and “real.” Mystics do not see any division between races and nations. Realists want to keep nations and the human races separate, because separating the races creates animosity, and animosity will ultimately create war. Mystics call for equality, and that is something that realists simply cannot accept. Equality would lead to peace, and that is simply too high a price for realists to pay.
Mystics are some of my favorite people. Even when people cannot be fully described as mystic, there are times when the heavens open for them and they catch a glimpse of the real, and for that crystalline moment they are transformed into mystics. I think Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a mystic, although as with most mystics, I think he has been greatly misunderstood. I think Barton W. Stone had moments that bordered on mystical. I think David Lipscomb was the same way. They looked beyond the concrete and they saw the real – the kingdom as it will be, not what mankind has turned it into.
Fact is, I would rather be called a mystic than a realist. I don’t want to see the world the way it is. I want to see the world become what it should be. I want the Kingdom be among us. I want to see the lion and lamb gambol together. I want to swim with Great White sharks and not fear the teeth.
“The greatest insanity of all is to see the world as it is, and not as it should be.” – from Man of La Mancha, based on the book Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
It is not a popular concept anymore, if, in fact, it ever was. What if I’m wrong? In today’s world there is no right and wrong. But, there again, what if the people who think this way are, despite their assertion to the contrary, wrong?
What happens then?
It is frightening to pay attention to many speakers, preachers and Bible class teachers in particular. Imbued with the “sage on the stage” mentality they view their conclusions as unassailable truth, when, in fact, often times their conclusions are nothing more than guesses, educated or not. This is especially so when such conclusions are buttressed with the quotation from a passage of Scripture. The truth of Scripture is somehow magically transferred to the the presenter, baptizing the false statement and absolving the presenter of any sin. Of course, the error is more frequently than not compounded by the fact that the passage of Scripture is taken out of context, but hey, if we are proving the truth of our flimsy argument and absolving ourselves of sin, what does a little context have to do with anything?
But, I return to my question – what happens if I am wrong? (Let’s speak in first person singular terms here, just to avoid the temptation to be judgmental.) Or, perhaps to be more truthful, what happens WHEN I am wrong?
When was the last time you saw, or heard, someone actually, sincerely confess error? I don’t mean confess around the error. Politicians and other public figures have mastered the art of first-person-once-removed confession. “I’m sorry if anyone was offended by the allegations made against me.” Notice there is never any regret at being wrong, only that certain individuals might be offended. In some rare instances the figure might admit that the allegations are serious, but on the other hand, “there is no evidence to support the allegations.” Never, “the allegations are absolutely false.” It is just that there is never any evidence to support the allegations. My lawyer is too good to allow any evidence to show up.
Enough with the politicians. They are far too easy a target. What about your preacher, your Bible class teacher – what about you? When was the last time you heard your preacher stand in the pulpit and say, “I was wrong”? When was the last time you told your class, “I was wrong”? When was the last time you told your class, “I might be wrong here” and fully, truthfully meant it?
Here again I am not talking about the massive flood of “I used to think this about (you name the hot-button issue of the day), but now I think this…” That is mere pandering to the masses, and that in and of itself is conduct unbecoming a minister of the gospel. Any minister who changes his mind concerning homosexuality or bending gender roles or the role of the Holy Spirit just to climb aboard a bandwagon has sold his soul to the devil. I am talking about a genuine confession of error in life or in doctrine that affects a person to the core of his or her being.
I am talking about a Saul of Tarsus to the Apostle Paul kind of transformation. A confession that moves a person from persecutor to persecuted, from trying to take life to being willing to surrender one’s life for the sake of the same cause. I am talking about being absolutely convinced of the truth of a concept to the absolute conviction of the error of the same concept. I know it happens, but, how does it happen and what are the consequences?
To make the argument that I am always right, that I am flawless in my interpretation of Scripture, that I know the absolute truth to every question of translation, interpretation, and application is absolute heresy. No one can be that perfect. We may share in a measure of perfection, we may taste perfection from time to time, but even the most secure of our conclusions comes with the tinge of reality that I am human, my intellect is fallen, and there is always more information out there than I can access or grasp.
Does that mean we throw up our hands and give up? As Paul would say, “By no means!” Absolutely not! I may not know with divine certainty why baptism is essential for salvation, why men and women are created equal but with different roles, why certain practices are pleasing to God while others do not please him, but that does not mean I surrender my God given intellectual gifts to try to understand those questions – nor to search for greater certainty that those “truths” are indeed true. And it certainly does not absolve me of confessing when I am wrong about any conclusions I offer as being true, but are not.
If I had one saying that could describe my philosophy of learning it would be this, “If I am wrong, please point out the error of my way, as I do not want to believe any error, nor do I want to teach any error. But please use evidence beyond personal opinion so that I can test the validity of your conclusion, as you have obviously tested the validity of my conclusion and found it to be false.”
Two people who hold diametrically opposing viewpoints on any issue cannot both be right. Homosexuality cannot be both acceptable to God and a sin. A congregation that forbids the public leadership roles to women and a congregation that allows women full leadership roles cannot both be pleasing to God. Christians cannot both affirm the uniqueness of male/female genders and affirm the rights of individuals to “change” their gender. Baptism cannot be both essential to salvation and an optional act of choice. Man cannot have both free will, and be subject to eternal predestination.
These concepts I hold to be true. If I am wrong, please let me know why, and where I can learn a better truth. Don’t expect me to just give up if you disagree with me, but if I am wrong I want to change my beliefs and behaviors to conform with the truth.
What happens if I am wrong? . . . Maybe my topic is not important, maybe it is eternally important. But the question itself should never cease to guide my search for truth.
Thanks for flying with me in the fog…
The Church According to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ James W. Thompson, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), 289 pages including bibliography and indices.
I’ve noticed that most of the book reviews I write are on books that are years, if not decades old. So, it it nice to finally read (and review) a recent publication. This book has a 2014 publication date, so you cannot get much more recent than that. And, the subject matter is relevant to so many discussions regarding the church today.
Dr. Thompson’s main thesis is that in all of the discussions (written and oral) about the church today, the one voice that is missing is the voice of the apostle Paul, and since he had the most to say about the New Testament church, it just makes sense to go back and read what he had to say about the church. Throughout nine chapters this is exactly what Dr. Thompson does – examining such topics as the key themes in Paul’s ecclesiology, the corporate nature of the church, the visible manifestations of the church, spiritual formation and the church, justification, evangelism, the universal church, the relationship between the universal church and house churches, and leadership in the church. Dr. Thompson concludes with a summary chapter discussing the church after christendom. Dr. Thompson moves well beyond the Roman Catholic position, as well as the standard Protestant definition of the church. He also challenges the standard understanding of the church in the American Restoration Movement (I’m not so sure I agree with his views on Paul’s teaching regarding the importance of baptism, but that is a minor point in the book). Dr. Thompson explores the rich nuances of Paul’s ecclesiology in-depth, and opens the path to a much deeper and more vibrant understanding of what it means to be the church of Christ.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book – there is hardly a page in my copy that does not have multiple sentences underlined and maybe a passage or two with a star in the margin. The book is written in an academic style, but Greek words and phrases are transliterated so that the reader who does not know Greek can follow along. Dr. Thompson employs voluminous Scripture references – no one can accuse Dr. Thompson of avoiding the text. The reader may not agree with Dr. Thompson in every point (I did not, nor do I ever fully agree with an author), but you know that Dr. Thompson has done the heavy lifting to research his topic and to present his material in an easy-to-follow format.
Regarding those who will disagree with this book – those in the “the church has to be missional to be a church” crowd will not enjoy this book. Maybe that is why I enjoyed the book so much – the whole “missional” movement has left me utterly flat – few can define what they mean by “missional,” and even those who try to define it cannot do so with reference to the Bible. Usually what they end up doing is quoting some Latin phrase (missio dei) or some such and then grinning really big like they have said something important. (How about this for a quote, “The word ‘missional’ seems to have traveled the remarkable path of going from obscurity to banality in one decade.” p. 12, quoting Allan J. Roxburgh in footnote #55). Dr. Thompson challenges vapid thinking, and this book is a healthy and very much needed corrective to the pabulum being touted as the next thing to save the church from obscurity. But Dr. Thompson does not just attack the “missional” church movement and leave the scene of the fight. Dr. Thompson provides a healthy and scriptural response to those who follow the “missional or bust” movement.
Regarding the aspects of the book I did not appreciate – Dr. Thompson has an irritating habit throughout the book of making reference to “Deutero-Isaiah” and “the contested letters of Paul.” Now, I am fully aware of the controversy regarding the authorship of the book of Isaiah. But, we do not have an Isaiah, a “Deutero-Isaiah,” and a “Trito-Isaiah.” What we have in our text is the book of Isaiah. If you are quoting from the book of Isaiah, quote Isaiah, not from some unproven theory that there were multiple authors of Isaiah. If you are writing a commentary on Isaiah, or if you are writing a critical introduction to the book of Isaiah, then by all means cover the relevant arguments and state your conclusion. The same holds true with the “contested” letters of Paul. So what if the authorship is contested? Either they were written by Paul (if so, say so and move on) or they were not (if so, why even mention them in a book discussing Paul’s ecclesiology?) then state your reason for not including them in your book. Oh, well, that is why Dr. Thompson has his work published by Baker Academic, and mine won’t be. Still, it is irritating to constantly be confronted with these phrases, which, at least to me, are not just descriptive, but have crossed the line into being judgmental.
Dr. Thompson’s book is timely, and for those who are interested in the health of the church, is a much needed addition to the study of ecclesiology (the study of the church). Doubtless, Dr. Thompson’s conclusions will upset some people – he certainly challenged me in many healthy and beneficial ways. But, agree with him or disagree with him, you must appreciate the depth of the study and the imminently readable fashion in which Dr. Thompson writes. Sure, there are some things that I wish he would have changed, but this book should be on the “to read” list of any minister, elder, deacon, or Bible class teacher who is vitally interested in the health of today’s church.
2014 was a relatively quiet year here at Instrument Rated Theology. Most of that silence was due to the fact that I was doing a lot of writing – on another little project that demanded my attention. Oh, well – that is done and over with, so onward and upward.
Even with the scarcity of posts, you, my readers, kept the blog alive and gave me a wonderful gift. This past year the blog witnessed another record number of views – an average of just over one thousand per month. I am humbled, and more than just a little perplexed. Although I write my posts in order to be read (why else write them?), it is still just a little spooky to know that many of the things I have written continue to have such a long life. That makes me want to continue to write, and also challenges me to write about things that interest me – and are of interest to my readers.
So, in 2015 I plan on doing more writing here, and hopefully something that I write will be a blessing to my readers – or if not a blessing, maybe it will be an encouragement for a better response somewhere else. As always, this blog is for my thoughts, however irrational they may be, so if you want to disagree with me you are more than welcome to be wrong.
I have a long list of books that I will be reviewing in 2015, and, if the mood strikes me, I will be rehearsing some of the material that I prepared for my DMin dissertation. Also, I intend to continue my conversation with Christ’s church – those who agree with me and especially those who do not. I have a sneaking suspicion there are far more in the second category than the first.
Thanks to all to signed up to follow this blog. Please feel free to comment, disagree, ask a question, or send large donations. I have to pay for that diploma (not yet conferred) somehow.
My prayer is that all of you will experience God’s shalom in 2015.
Again, thanks for flying in the fog with the ol’ Freightdawg.