Category Archives: Church
Meant to tackle this topic last week, and the wheels came off of my planning cart.
A few months ago I wrote a response to the New Mexico Supreme Court ruling that a photographer could not legally refuse to participate in a homosexual wedding regardless of that photographer’s religious belief. In the weeks/months that have passed since that ruling the accounts of courts and judges forcing people to accept and even participate in what they view as aberrant behavior have just mushroomed. In my last post I mentioned I would suggest a way forward for the church, but in reality what I have to say is not new – either to me or to others. So, I am not claiming originality here, but I would like to share once again what I believe the church must do, or must continue to do if it is already doing so.
By way of reminder, I do not see the United States as a Christian nation. Perhaps we once were: that point can be debated. But we should no longer use the phrase if we are to have any respectability. At one time those who lived in the United States but were not Christians managed to smile when Christians invoked the phrase. Now, the American world is no longer smiling. The quaint little expression “Freedom of Religion” now is interpreted to mean, “Freedom to keep your religion to yourself.” When Americans no longer have the right to LIVE their religious beliefs, we in effect no longer have that freedom.
We must accept this fact or nothing else we do will ever matter.
So, how is the church to move forward in a post-Christian world? Once again – I make no claim to originality, but here are some preliminary thoughts:
1. We are going to have to get over the fact that people will hate us. For too long we have been thinking and acting as if we can change people’s hearts by changing our beliefs and practices. If I have heard once I have heard a thousand times, “if we do not change [x] (where “x” can be just about anything) then our young people will leave us and no one in the community will want to join us.” So, churches change names, worship styles, language styles and incorporate the newest, flashiest equipment on the market. And what happens? Their young people leave for an even edgier church and the people in the community do not want to join them because they are simply the latest in a long line of churches who have changed names and core values.
Is my Bible the only one that has John 15:18-25 in it? Or is this the first generation in which speaking up for one’s beliefs has caused a negative reaction? Why do we believe that changing OUR beliefs will cause others to change THEIR hearts? I am not suggesting that we should be hateful, or that we should never ask questions about what we believe. But legitimate self-examination is a far cry from running in absolute panic away from any criticism or unwarranted attack.
No – we are going to have to overcome this irrational fear of being disliked and we are going to have to realize that the new “normal” is for God’s people to stand out in stark contrast to a bent and broken world.
2. We are going to have to ACT like we believe what we say we believe. We say we believe in a lifetime of marriage between one man and one woman, but we practice the acceptance serial marriages like we owned a wedding chapel and our livelihood depended upon as many “re-marriages” as we can possibly create. We say we do not believe in pre-marital co-habitation, yet we allow our children and grandchildren to “try out” marriage partners as if they were test-driving a new vehicle. We say we oppose graphic violence, sexuality and adult themes, and we buy millions of dollars of movie tickets every month, and allow our teens and pre-teens to do likewise. We fill our minds with the same base lyrics that non-Christians fill their minds with, and salve our consciences by attending a worship hour a week and re-proclaiming how much we hate words and actions that blaspheme our God.
But, if we ditch the cable and turn off the satellite, our neighbors might think we are weird or un-American or something. See point #1.
3. We are going to have to re-evaluate this entire “The Constitution as the 67th Book of the Bible” mantra that “conservatives” have been repeating for so long. Oh, no – no one actually ever says that, but that is exactly what is meant in many of our good conservative (read “Tea Party”) speeches.
Brothers and sisters, ladies and gentlemen, the Constitution is a wonderful document. Maybe the best human government document that has ever been written. But, strictly speaking, following the Constitution is exactly what has brought us to this point in history. The words “Jesus,” “Christ,” “Bible,” or “Christian” simply do not appear in the Constitution nor the Declaration of Independence. The framers of the Constitution did not want a theocracy, and certainly not a Christocracy, and they made sure we did not get one. But human seeds grow up into human trees, and the fruit of a Christ-neutral document is now becoming ripe. Yell and kick and scream all you want to, but how else are you going to interpret the protections ingrained in the Constitution that prevent one religion from becoming physically forced upon all citizens? If we have the freedom to exercise religion, we also have the freedom not to exercise religion, and when you allow (or actually mandate) broken, sinful, human judges to decide what is or is not constitutional, then bingo – welcome to the U. S. of A. in the year 2014. So, what was brilliant in terms of human government has proven to be utterly disastrous in terms of discipleship to Christ.
But, to quote that out-dated and horribly non-American apostle Paul, “Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 3:20)
4. The church is going to have to start practicing some old-fashioned discipline. The church has boundaries. We are not everyone and everything. Not everything is holy. Not everything is “set apart.” There is clean and un-clean, holy and un-holy, Christian and un-christian, saved and lost. It is ridiculous to suggest that a congregational leadership cannot exercise any kind of discipline because “if they do then people will get their feelings hurt and they will leave.” This is not to suggest that the eldership “withdraws fellowship” from someone just to rattle their swords. I have witnessed that and it was a stain against some good men and a good congregation. But for a biblical leadership to allow, or to even sanction, blatant immorality within the congregation is just unconscionable. The same is true of doctrinal beliefs. A congregation cannot condone or sanction contradictory beliefs. You cannot have a separate worship service for every competing feeling or doctrine. If everything is acceptable then nothing is sinful. And we wonder why people look at us with our three different services with three different worship formats and laugh? We are not demanding discipleship – we are offering a circus.
Sorry for the wordiness today – I guess I got a little carried away. But the world is not smiling at us anymore – if it ever did. And we, as God’s people, are going to have to learn a new way to act. Or, conversely, we are going to have to start acting like we’ve known how to act all along.
Ray Stevens recorded a song that begins, “I’m not one to get all excited, I’m seldom tense and never uptight but there is one thing that really makes me mad…” Well, the song is about vending machines, and it is hysterical, but that is not the point of this entry…
This morning I found yet another thing that really makes me mad. The list is long and filled with items I am not necessarily proud of. The new addition? A combination of telling an elder IN A BIBLE CLASS that his interpretation of a passage of Scripture was wrong, while at the same time totally misinterpreting the disputed passage of Scripture yourself.
Here’s the set-up. The class was focused on the role of women in the church (part of a continuing series of lessons on various aspects of the teacher’s growth in the faith). Towards the very end of the class a question was raised, at which time an elder responded in a very direct, but non-confrontational way. It was at this point that a young man objected and said, in so many words, that he had studied the letter to the Corinthians “carefully” and that the elders interpretation was wrong. Emphatically wrong.
What was the young man’s basis for his all-fired surety? (cue the drum roll, please…..)
The young man was so sure the elder was wrong because (and I cannot quote exactly, but I can come pretty close…) “the culture in Corinth was such that if Paul had allowed the women to speak in a public assembly it would have upset those visiting the church services from the surrounding community and it would have hurt the message of Christ. So, rather than allow the women to speak and upset the culture, Paul told them to remain silent.”
To quote Ronald Reagan, “There you go again.” The old, “Paul was too timid to upset the local culture” argument. Without one single particle, noun or verb to defend his position he was utterly convinced that the elder in question was wrong, and with all of his, maybe, what, 10 or 15 years of “careful” (whatever that means) study he was able to dispense with thousands of years of consistent biblical exegesis.
I don’t care how “careful” you study a passage, if you study wrong you are not going to come up with a correct answer. So, one more time, with emphasis, let us look and see what the apostle Paul ACTUALLY WROTE about whether he was writing to not ruffle any cultural feathers or whether he was writing across all cultures with the same message:
1 Cor. 1:2 – Paul writes to the church of God in Corinth, and to all those everywhere who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Cor. 4:17 – Paul’s life (an example to the Corinthians) is in agreement with what he teaches everywhere and in every church.
1 Cor. 7:17 – Paul lays down a rule in Corinth that he lays down in all the churches.
1 Cor. 11:16 – Paul discusses the covering of women and states that he has no other practice, nor do the churches of God.
1 Cor. 14:33 – Paul says that, as in all the congregations of the saints, the women are to maintain silence in the assembly.
So, exactly which of these passages tells us that Paul was making a concession based on culture in Corinth? On any subject??
Or Rome, or Jerusalem, or Ephesus, or Philippi, or Colossae, or Crete?? Where did Paul cave in to cultural sensitivities? And where exactly are cultural sensitivities EVER in line with Christian thought and behavior before Christ is preached?
I’ve heard the “Paul did not want to offend the local culture” argument until I’m getting sick of it – where is even the smallest bit of textual evidence that Paul backed down on ANY point of doctrine because of cultural pressure? Some would argue that he did so in relation to slavery but I would argue even there that (1) Paul did not back down in the face of cultural pressure but rather confronted it in an effort to change it in a significant manner, and (2) the reality of slavery in Paul’s day was so different from our American understanding of slavery that we cannot even begin to discuss the issue intelligently unless we do a thorough study of slavery in the Roman empire and how it differed from the American experience.
So – yeah, I found another item to add to my list of things that “really make me mad.” I do not like it when elders are confronted in public, by a young man who was both disrespectful and who was totally wrong in his interpretation of the passage of Scripture. And I really, really, really am getting sick of people using an argument that (1) they have not studied through and (2) is completely without any textual evidence to support it.
This post has started out in several different forms. Each time I would erase a little, change a little, zig a little here, zag a little there. Every time I started out with the same goal, and each time I found myself traipsing down a path I had not necessarily planned on traipsing. Such is the nature of this post – I know what I want to say but the “getting out” is proving to be quite exhausting.
For those of you who do not keep up with religious bloggers, quite the hoo-haw has been raised over the past few days concerning Donald Miller’s confession that he does not like church very much. (He wrote a book entitled Blue Like Jazz in which he basically said the same thing, but in much more disguised and glowing terminology.) There have been dozens (hundreds?) of blogs written in response – some praising and some condemning. But what I find to be interesting is that so many of Miller’s compatriots in the “Emerging Church” movement have ended up in exactly the same place – they all claim to love Jesus exuberantly but for one reason or another cannot stand to remain in the “institutional” church (whatever that is) so they leave the church to join the ekklesia at large. I see that as a very high-brow way of saying, “I love to eat steak, but I would never condone the slaughtering of a cow. So I get my steaks at the restaurant.”
I might add, for those of you who think I am just reacting to everyone else’s reaction, I have had three classes in a doctoral level program that were either entirely or significantly focused on the writings of post-modern, “Emerging Church” theologians. I was interested in their writings (and I still am), but was then and remain now deeply doubtful of the long-term results of their shallow theology. They often indicate they are in agreement with orthodox Christianity, but when they spell out what they really believe in terms of practice it becomes clear that their doxy is quite anything but ortho.
I should also say up front that I too believe that the modern church is not what it could and should be. I think I am honest about my misgivings. If I am permitted to do so, I intend to direct my dissertation to an area of theology and practice that I believe modern Churches of Christ have completely (or to be more charitable, almost completely) omitted – and much to our spiritual loss. But, the Good Lord willing, I will write out of a position of love and healing, not a position of hate and rejection. Such is my plan, anyway, and my fate is currently in the hands of others, so all of this may be a bunch of blather about nothing.
But, returning to my original, thoroughly revamped post – I just wonder how anyone can proclaim any kind of love for Jesus or God and at the same time argue that the church is dead, or at least is on life support and should be extinguished. What kind of friend walks up to a groom and says, “Man, I love you like you were my own brother, but I have to tell you, that girl you just married is as ugly as the south end of a north bound donkey and has the personality of a witch.”
The book of Revelation ends with God’s redeemed people receiving a stamped, embossed invitation to the marriage feast between the Son and his bride, the Church. Jesus died for the church, his creation. Paul rejoiced that he was able to continue Christ’s afflictions for the church. It’s funny, but with all the warts and dysfunction and flat-out heresies that consumed the early churches, Paul never referred to them as anything other than God’s holy and precious children.
Yes, I love the church. Exactly why would take a whole book to explain – this blog is just too short. But suffice it to say that I love the church exactly because Jesus loved the church – enough to die so that it might have life. And it seems to me that if Jesus loved something enough to die for it then I should make every effort to love it as well.
It may not be popular, it may not be blue like jazz, but in the end God is not going to ask if we were trendy and hip – He will judge whether we have been faithful and devoted. I do not think that God ever expected the church on earth to be perfect – I think that is a dangerous myth that has led to some horrendous mistakes. But we can be faithful, honest and disciplined – all hallmarks of the church that God gave to us through the blood of Christ.
The church of Christ, the church of God, the church of the Firstborn Ones*, the universal ekklesia or the local congregation down the street, – whatever name you find in Scripture, just love the church. Help it get better. Point out where it is weak. Make it stronger. Just do not leave it and claim you are doing so for the love of Jesus.
*The word firstborn in Hebrews 12:23 is plural. This is not typically translated, as firstborns or firstborn ones are clumsy ways of translating the phrase. Think of the word “fish.” We can catch either one fish, or multiple fish, but we only rarely (and only archaically) catch more than one fishes. The context of the passage, however, makes the plural obvious.
An excellent question has been posed to me, and I would like to give it the full consideration it deserves. I will not repost the question in its entirety, but I hope to cover all that the respondent indicated were important issues. The question is one that is asked all across the country in differing degrees and with differing outcomes. Are women allowed to speak up in modern Bible classes? Are they allowed to ask questions? Are they allowed to make comments? And, should a woman wear a hat or a scarf over her head to show her submission to men?
First – where I stand generally. In regard to my last post I believe that all Scripture is inspired, not just the parts we like or can button-hole into interpretations that we like. I believe it is important to listen to ALL that a particular writer has to say, and I believe that it is critical to take grammatical and rhetorical cues into mind as we seek to understand what the author intended and the Spirit directed.
In regard to the questions being asked, I believe that Paul wrote the Corinthian letters as a continuation of what he taught everywhere and in every place (1 Cor. 4:17, 7:17, 11:16, 14:33, see also 1:2). I do not believe that 1 Cor. 11:1-16 is written with the situation of public worship in mind (the passage that discusses a woman praying or prophesying). I believe this because in 11:18, 20, and 33, and later in 14:23 and 26 Paul clearly uses the phrase “when you come together” or “when the church comes together.” So, I separate 11:1-16 from Paul’s later injunction in 14:34. Finally, in 14:26-35 Paul exhorts first tongue speakers, then prophets, and finally women to “be silent.” The first two are clarifications or limitations – if there is no one to interpret a special tongue or if there are additional revelations. However, in regard to the “women” there are no clarifications or limitations of previous permissions. Paul does not appear to be saying, “a certain group of women need to be silent, but other women are free to speak.” Paul does use an absolute word for “silent” with all three groups, but it is clear (at least to me) from the context he is not meaning “absolutely soundless” as the command to be silent is a clarification, not an absolute prohibition. In 1 Timothy 1:11 a different word is used for the silence of women and I think it provides clarity to the 1 Corinthians teaching. The word is “hesychia” and means respectful silence – not absolute soundlessness.
So, what about our modern Bible classes and the participation of women? I will answer not as an absolute authority, but only as one who is offering his own opinion, based on a careful study of this issue.
1. Our modern Bible classes are nothing like the ancient worship setting. There was no “Bible class” separate and apart from “Worship.” That is a modern monstrosity. Be that as it may, we must deal with it or completely change our format, and I can guess how far that suggestion would go. So, in response to the above question I would ask the following clarification questions:
- Is the class recognized as one which is “open” for discussion and comments? Or are questions (from either males or females) considered to be interruptions and challenges to the teacher’s authority?
- Is the question asked or comment made by a female considered rude and interruptive, or is she genuinely asking for information?
- Has the teacher (assuming it is a male) objected to the questions/comments of a female, or is the person objecting herself a female who resents another “uppity” female from asking questions?
I ask these questions because I have lead classes myself in which a woman tried to interject herself as the “teacher” and it was very uncomfortable for everyone involved. I have also seen women hijack classes that were being lead by men who were very young or inexperienced teachers and did not have either the courage or the wisdom to overcome the challenge. These situations are clearly wrong in my opinion, and would be wrong if the perpetrator was a male. To challenge a teacher in order to tear him down or to usurp his teaching authority in front of a class is just wrong – it is unchristian and beneath the dignity of a student.
On the other hand, in our culture today the asking of a question is not automatically assumed to be a challenge and a method of usurping authority. In the Socratic method of teaching, the “instructor” lead by asking questions – by “drawing out” the correct answer from his students. Thus, for a student to “ask a question” in a Socratic sense is to challenge authority, and believe me, I have had plenty of these type questions both from males and females. (There is a manner in which you can ask a question and convey the attitude that you believe the instructor is a total and complete idiot.) There is also a perfectly innocent method of asking questions – to seek information. I personally do not object to, and often very much appreciate, these types of questions from any student.
In a “worship” experience I have an opposite conclusion. From 1 Corinthians, 1 Timothy and incidentally from passages in Ephesians and Colossians, I believe males are to be the leaders in a worship setting. Here is where I believe 1 Cor. 14 is distinct from 1 Cor. 11. A woman may pray or prophesy (although I have a MUCH different understanding of “prophecy” than modern egalitarians!!), but not in a setting in which males are present. If a male is present, HE is to be the leader and voice of teaching and preaching authority.
2. What about the head covering? In looking at 1 Corinthians 11 it seems obvious to me that Paul is discussing how a person reveals submission to his or her “head.” In that culture women did so by wearing head coverings. Today most women do not. So, how do women today demonstrate respectful submission? I believe that answer to that is cultural – “when in Rome do as the Romans.” Are you in a location where head coverings are expected? Then by all means follow that practice. Should all men wear a tie and a coat when serving on the Lord’s Table or when publicly praying or leading singing? If that is the common understanding, then yes, by all means buy a tie and wear a sport coat. Do bib-overalls suffice? Then wash your overalls and wear a nice shirt.
A very important note needs to be interjected here. In my graduate study I read an article that discussed 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 and for the life of me I cannot remember the title of the article or the name of the author. However, the gist of the article was that Paul was NOT specifically addressing the head covering of women in this section, but he was rather condemning the practice of pagan male priests to have their heads completely covered with a heavy cowl as they “officiated” at their pagan sacrifices. Thus, what we have seen as being directed against women, was actually directed to men, and the reference to women was simply an aside – Paul commenting on his own argument with an oblique reference to women’s head coverings. That article had a profound influence on the way I interpret this passage – although obviously not enough for me to remember who wrote it.* (By the way – I have forgotten my own wedding anniversary, so that tells you how good my memory is).
I will say that I have had women in the congregations that I serve wear head coverings at every service. They did not demand it of other women, but quietly followed their own conscience.
So, to the one who asked the specific question I will advise this – speak to the teacher of the class and/or your leadership. In your setting is the class clearly demarcated from the worship assembly? Does your leadership object to a female asking questions? Is the class open for anyone to do so? Or is it understood that only males can ask questions? Are the questions considered “Socratic” in the sense that they are viewed as interruptive and authoritative? And, regarding the woman that confronted you, did she do so in a spirit of humility, seeking your best interest, or did she attempt to steamroll you and back you into a corner? I have discovered that very often it is the staunchest “defenders of the faith” that need the greatest reminder about humility, and the willingness of the leader to wash the feet of those whom he/she leads.
*To the best of my foggy memory the article was written by Richard Oster. However, it could have been Abraham Malherbe. It actually could turn out to be neither. The title had something to do with head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11. I have not had the chance to locate that article, although I would dearly love to get my hands on it again.
As a conservative, Bible believing Christian I do not often speak about God’s incompetence. I rarely have opportunity to discuss his abject failure and blatant ignorance. But, thanks to so many wonderful bloggers out there I have been presented with this precious opportunity, and I shall endeavor to make the most of it.
It would appear that, according to these theological wunderkinder, God is basically able to create the world ex nihilo and part the Red Sea and feed 5,000 people with a couple of fish and some matzo crackers, but there are some things that are simply beyond God’s otherwise unimpeachable metaphysical prowess. Chief among these, or perhaps the ONLY thing God cannot do, is offend people.
That is right, you did not hear it first here, folks, but God is simply incapable of offending people. Let me explain it the best way I know how:
God can take an young, unmarried and very much virgin girl from a peasant village in a backwater strip of land known as “Palestine” and choose her to bear his very own Son. God is further capable of declaring through this Son His very nature – who and what it means to be God. Throughout this Divine Son’s ministry on earth he made a lot of people very, very angry. He called the religious leaders a bunch of snakes. He challenged the religious hierarchy and told them their precious temple would be destroyed. He even had the audacity to march in and kick over their money-changing tables and throw the bums out.
But, he never, ever, ever offended anyone.
His earliest disciples picked right up where He left off. They told the leading religious figures that ALL people, not just a chosen few, could enter into God’s kingdom. They challenged sexual practices, religious practices, economic practices, domestic practices, speech patterns and changed the liturgy of their worship.
But, they were careful to never, ever, ever offend anyone, because that is simply something God cannot do.
So, when a question arose over whether men should be the leaders of the family and church these early disciples were hit with a problem. Jesus never offended the tender sensibilities of the people by selecting a woman as one of his apostles, and all the way back to the garden of Eden there appeared to be an solid chain of male spiritual leadership, so these early disciples did what God was forced to do and what Jesus surrendered as well.
They strove mightily not to offend anyone who would be upset if a woman was selected as a spiritual leader.
So, we might see little hints and pointers that women are to be elevated into spiritual leadership positions, but they have to be extremely well camouflaged lest the words upset these fragile early followers of Jesus, and more important, the surrounding culture. So well camouflaged, I might add, that it took almost 2,000 years of some of the finest theology ever written to decode the carefully hidden messages.
So, when the apostle Paul encouraged the women to be silent in Corinth (well, according to the letter that was his message everywhere, but we do not want to confuse the situation any more than it already is) he was only faking it, what he really meant to say was, “OK gals, you’re in charge now – go for it!”
The same with Peter. Bless his heart, after almost letting the cat out of the bag in that ill planned sermon in Acts 2, he had to come back and redeem his socially acceptable self in his first letter when he referred to those “weaker vessels” that had to be gently loved by their husbands. Whew! That was a close call!
There is only one thing that I do not understand about this multi-act play. I don’t get it.
Why would this all powerful God, who from the very first page of Genesis to the last word of Revelation, demonstrates that he goes out of his way to delight in upsetting the status quo, suddenly be stricken with a case of total incompetence when it comes to the issue of spiritual leadership? Why would Jesus, who was a Great White shark when it came to touching all kinds of spiritually and physically unclean people and who allowed prostitutes to touch him, suddenly become a jellyfish when it came to choosing his immediate successors? Why would an apostle, in presenting arguments that would completely upend virtually every facet of common culture, suddenly balk and become impotent when the issue of female spiritual leadership came up?
And, much beyond those questions, if we can label certain teachings of these apostles as inferior and even spiritually false, how can we trust any of their writings? If Jesus and Peter and Paul could all be wrong about the gender thing, how can we trust they were anywhere close to being right about the grace thing? What about the ultimate question of God Himself? Is this all just an elaborate charade? Could it be that Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, et.al., are actually correct – that the Bible is nothing more than a bunch of fables used by certain power groups to maintain their hegemony?
You see, I just don’t buy the argument. If God is who He says He is, if Jesus is who He says He is and if he could do the things that the Bible records that He did, then by all means God could “upset the tender sensibilities” of a culture that placed men over women. God could have kicked over the tables of the misogynists and thrown the bums out. Jesus could have selected three or six female apostles, and the male apostles could have written emphatically that in the realm of spiritual leadership there is to be no gender difference.
But that is not the story that we have. That is not the Scripture that we have. So, we are faced with a question:
Is our God a bumbling, fumbling, incompetent buffoon who only occasionally gets a few things right, or is our God one who both knows the human psyche and who directs humanity’s footsteps, even in directions that we are not inclined to go?
I’m placing my faith in a God who is so much bigger and so much smarter and so much more powerful than I am.
And yes, I do happen to believe that God is capable of offending people.
Another (set, as they are kind of all related) of the penetrating questions that my benevolent antagonist posed to me was this:
How do you know the Protestant Bible is inspired? How do you know the canon is closed? … Why aren’t the earliest scripture copies under your sect’s protection?
Let me begin by saying I am the wrong guy to be hitting with these heavyweight questions. But, as Andy Griffith once said concerning football, I have studied on it, and I think I can point my readers in a healthy direction. My answer will take the structure of several bullet points for clarity.
1. The history of the development of the Canon of Scripture is at the same time rich, diverse, fascinating, and at times confusing. The best I can do is to direct the interested reader to the best in “recent” scholarship regarding this topic. The most erudite book on the subject is Bruce M. Metzter, The Canon of Scripture: Its Origin, Development, and Significance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987). A very valuable, yet probably a little more for the common man is F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988). Yet even more directed to the common man, and specifically for church classes, is Neil R. Lightfoot, How We Got the Bible 3rd Ed., Revised and Expanded, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003). All of these books cover the same material, to greater or lesser degrees of academic precision, and I highly recommend obtaining all three books if you want a well rounded discussion.
2. I do not believe that one “church” created the canon. I believe that God created the canon of Scripture, and that many scholars and theologians, over several hundred years beginning with the original audiences and continuing up through the 4th century, recognized those books that were to be considered inspired and authoritative. There is a big difference between creating something and recognizing that which has been created.
3. I do not accept that there is a “Protestant” Bible and a “Catholic” Bible. In terms of authority and “dogma,” the same 66 books are used by both the Roman Catholic church and most “Protestant” churches. The main difference (as I understand it, and I may be wrong here) is that the Roman Catholic church also includes books that are useful for edification that many Protestant churches do not use. These books are referred to as the “Apocrypha.” There is yet a third distinction, that of “Deuterocanonical books” that are even outside this middle distinction by the Roman Catholic church. [Note: please read the comments below, as a friend accurately challenged my nomenclature here. I apologize to those who clearly know better.]
4. I accept by faith that the Bible, or the the 66 books universally accepted by virtually every Christian group, is inspired because those books either indicate that they come from the mouth or pen of an inspired author, or another book within those 66 books makes reference to them in such a way as to indicate inspiration. The acceptance of this witness was done within a very short time of their original creation, and so, as someone who is separated by some 2,000 – 4,000 years from the original composition I must accept and trust the guidance of those who have recognized those writings as inspired and who have collected and treasured those inspired writings.
5. I hold that the canon of Scripture is closed because, once again, the witness of the earliest writers is that after a certain point (the death of the last apostles, to be sure), no other writings were ever elevated to the status of “Scripture.” Many were treasured (the “Shepherd” of Hermas, the Didache, the writings of various early church fathers), and some of those were even accorded the status of Scripture in certain parts of the Christian world. However, for reasons both simple and complex those locally accepted writings were ultimately viewed as valuable, but not inspired Scripture, by the overwhelming majority of the church leaders. Therefore, since the end of the first century, no writing has ever been accorded the value of “Scripture” by universal acclaim.
6. It does not bother me one bit that the earliest manuscripts of the 66 books of the Bible are not under the control of my “sect.” (I don’t own one, by the way, but I get my questioner’s drift.) The manuscripts that we have (over 5,000 of the various New Testament writings alone) are all safely housed where scholars of all different beliefs can study them. This is how it should be, and no other “religion” can even come close to this type of openness and transparency. If it was proven that my beliefs depended on one single manuscript (or even one family of manuscripts) I would seriously question that belief. Hence my largest and most insurmountable disagreement with groups such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The manuscripts which contain the documents that I consider to be Scripture are open to everyone to study – and I am secure in the belief that if any major changes must be made to that corpus of documents that such decisions will be justified by a large and diverse number of scholars from a wide variety of theological belief systems.
So, in a nut-shell, my beliefs in the collection of writings we call the “Bible” are based on a history of recognition and proclamation that dates back at least as far as Moses and Joshua, and orally even further back than that. Outside of the proclamations within those sacred writings themselves I have no immediate knowledge of the creation or transmission of those writings – but my faith does not depend upon my own ability to verify every single truth claim made in Scripture. I trust in the leading and guiding of the Holy Spirit, and just as I can believe in many truths although not independently verifiable by my own intellect, I trust they are true because other individuals who DO have that knowledge can verify them, and such has been the case for the Bible for well over 3,000 years now.
This has just been the “Confession of Faith” of just one individual, and in no way to I intend my words to be universally held by every member of the Church of Christ. But, I hope they are helpful, and if so, then all glory to God. If anyone has any additional questions I would love to hear them and perhaps I can be more specific in a future post.
Once again, I thank my conversation partner, and I hope I have treated his question fairly. I trust he will respond in kind if I have not.
Okay, so I am not going to start out 2014 with a happy, happy, happy post. But this post has been “building” inside of me for some months, and I finally decided to take some time to put it in writing. I hope it is not too depressing.
Let me begin with the word of the LORD, as penned by Jeremiah:
Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the LORD,
for my people have committed two evils;
they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters,
and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns, that can hold no water. (Jeremiah 2:12-13, RSV)
I have been studying and teaching over the past 18 months in the field of philosophy. Now, to be sure I am simply a neophyte in this field, my studies have been more along the lines of “tread water as fast as you can to keep from sinking” rather than any esoteric deepening of mankind’s understanding of itself. However, if I may say so myself, my studies have proven to be somewhat fruitful in that my eyes have been opened to the depths of understanding that I have hitherto been blissfully unaware.
As the old saying goes, “ignorance is bliss, when it is folly to be wise.” Or something like that.
The LORD revealed to Jeremiah two substantive sins: the sin of rejecting Him, and the sin of attempting to replace Him with a broken and useless substitute.
I have come to realize that the church is facing two equally critical sins today. Perhaps they are the same as the sins in Jeremiah’s day. They are certainly related.
In the language of philosophy, today’s church is facing a crisis of epistemology and ontology. Put those terms in “Freightdawg” language and what I am talking about is that the church is facing a crisis of knowing what is truth and how to determine truth on the one hand, and on the other hand it has lost its understanding of what it is supposed to be.
First, the church today has lost its confidence in Scripture. While there is much talk about listening to Scripture, and studying Scripture, and hearing the “Word of God,” much of what is being discussed is just a thin veneer of biblical language glued to a plank of particle board made up of human intuitions and interpolations. You only have to enter into a conversation regarding the role of women in the public worship service or the issue of homosexuality to discover how shallow this veneer really is. Passages of Scripture (both Old and New Testament) that have been viewed for centuries as being unambiguous are now discarded like yesterday’s newspaper. There are typically three reasons for excising certain passages of Scripture that are now seen as “controversial”: (1) the author of the passage was writing in a culture that was (according to the modern worldview) ignorant and repressive, therefore the writings of said author cannot be relied upon today; (2) especially in regard to the supposed writings of the apostle Paul, the passages which are viewed to be repressive and “unChristian” are delegated to the sub-apostolic time period, therefore nullifying their “Scriptural” authority, and (3) regardless of their inclusion in the Christian canon, these backward and repressive texts are superseded by the “progressive” nature of the Word of God in which the literal words of Jesus are supposed to take precedence over any previous or later misinterpretations of God’s ultimate will.
You see, we are to look beyond the text to see what Jesus REALLY meant, not look to the text to see what the Holy Spirit lead the New Testament (and, I might add, the Old Testament) authors to understand what the will of God is. But, this is all a mirage, a phantasm. We cannot move “behind” the text to find out what the will of God is. It is doubly dangerous to posit that we can determine what God’s “progressive” will would be, especially if that “progressive will” is seen to be in direct contradiction to his previous “revealed” will.
To bring in a picture from church history, what these neo-liberals are asking the church to swallow is a huge helping of Gnosticism, without the giblet gravy. We are not to trust the real Scripture, we are to seek some ephemeral, non-corporeal, ghostly “essence” of what Scripture should be.
And, amazingly enough, what these Gnostic-come-lately’s discover in their “proto-Scripture” looks exactly like them: postmodern intellectuals who want to be loved by everyone, accept every form of piety no matter how heterodox, and welcome every syncretistic practice and belief into the church no matter how foreign to the revealed Scripture.
This leads me to my second point: the church has lost its purpose. The church was never supposed to be a social club where all who wanted admission were granted membership simply upon the payment of annual dues and the memorization of the secret password. The church is the post-Pentecost identification of the “people of God” that formally dates all the way back to Abraham. This people is not identified by their desire to be a part of some earthly social organization, but rather they are identified by God’s choosing and their submission to HIS standards of belief (orthodoxy) and practice (orthopraxis).
Simply put, if you disagree with God, or you continually act in ways that are contrary to His revealed will, you cannot be a part of this “people of God.”
I have simply grown weary to the point of nausea with individuals who claim to have a high view of Scripture in one breath and then in the next breath (or in the next sentence) begin to explain why we cannot trust Leviticus or Paul’s letter to the Corinthians because these books or portions thereof violate some post-modern sensibility.
Either the author(s) of the Torah and the New Testament apostles were guided by God’s Holy Spirit or they were not. There really can be no middle ground, no “hedging” of our bets. We cannot have the revealed Word of God and at the same time look for another “intended” word of God. It is time the church demand of its leaders a firm commitment: in the words of Jacob Marley to Ebenezer Scrooge, “Do you believe in me or not?!”
The LORD told Jeremiah very succinctly: if you reject Him you must depend upon your own devices, your own strength, your own ability in order to survive. Realistically, all that means is you end up with a mess of broken cisterns. Those cisterns might sustain life on a minimal level, but nowhere close to the abundant life provided by the living streams of God’s Holy Spirit.
The church today is trying to exist by drinking muddy waters from shattered wells.
Let us go back to the pure water of God’s life giving words. Our eternal existence, and the future of the physical church, depends upon it.
Another of the very good questions posed to me by my on-line conversationalist has to do with Scripture (in fact, several are related to this subject). Hopefully I can do these questions justice.
The specific question posed was, “Where does the Bible teach sola scriptura?” I find that question fascinating for a couple of reasons. One, my questioner looks to Scripture for the answer to his question, and two, if you asked a room full of members of the Church of Christ where the Bible teaches sola scriptura they would more than likely answer that it is not necessary to know Greek in order to be saved. (Inside joke). The fact is that “sola scriptura” is a phrase that comes from the Reformation movement, and was coined by Martin Luther, if I am not mistaken.
But, the question is a good one – do the Scriptures teach that what is written is all that is necessary for man to know God and to be in a saved relationship with Him?
I would begin by quoting Moses in the last half of Deuteronomy 8:3, “…man does not live by bread alone, but that man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD.” I chose that particular verse because it is the phrase that Jesus used to overcome the first temptation by Satan in Matthew 4:1-4. Clearly, Jesus knew and quoted Scripture (the Old Testament to us) as authoritative and final. He emphatically said that he did not come to abolish the law and the prophets, and that nothing from the law would pass away until he had accomplished all things (Matthew 5:17-18).
In regard to that law, two Psalms in particular point to the everlasting nature of the word of God and how it was revered and honored in Jewish faith – Psalm 19 and 119. Because of a diluted form of Marcionism that remains alive in the church today we as Christians sometimes fail to appreciate how important the books of the Old Testament are to our faith. As I was trying to communicate in my last post, I think this is one of the areas that needs “restoring,” even in, or perhaps especially in, the American Restoration Movement.
Moving further in the New Testament, however, we find statements such as 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (RSV, emphasis mine). Once again, I believe that the apostle had what we refer to as the Old Testament in view here, as I am not sure what New Testament works would have been created and would have been accorded the value of “Scripture” at the time Paul wrote to Timothy. But notice – the words of God in Scripture are ALL that is necessary for a “man of God” to be complete! There is nothing else necessary – no special dispensation of the Holy Spirit, no latter day revelation, no continuing or “progressive” revelation. God’s word, labeled as “Scripture” (Greek, writing) is final, and fully efficacious.
Next I would turn to 2 Peter 3:15-16, in which Peter refers to the writings of “our beloved brother Paul,” in which he admits there are some things that are hard to understand, and then he continues to say, “…which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.” (RSV, emphasis mine). Now, at the outset I want to acknowledge that this is a problematic text for many people. They deny that Peter wrote the letter to begin with, and they certainly do not believe that Peter was equating Paul’s letters with Scripture. However, many, many scholars believe that the letter was indeed penned by Peter and that yes, he WAS equating Paul’s letters with Scripture, and we know that from a very early date both Paul’s and Peter’s letters were collected, copied, shared among congregations, and viewed as being authoritative and inspired words from God.
So, I believe (along with an innumerable host of others, both within and without the Churches of Christ) that the Bible, both Old and New Testament, teaches sola scriptura – Scripture alone.
I have other, non-biblical, reasons for holding to sola scriptura. When a group of people divests itself of the anchoring authority of Scripture the only result is an elevation of human hubris, which is another way of saying man turns his own fantasies into idols. Because the point of contention between my questioner and myself is (are) the differences between the Church of Christ and the Roman Catholic Church, I will select a neutral third party to illustrate my point: the Mormon Church.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is a perfect example of a group of people who have turned the wild, and dare I say, heretical visions of a human being into a gross caricature of the Lord’s church. The teachings of the LDS conflict with the Old and New Testaments on virtually every point, yet that does not disturb the Mormon faithful at all, because they are not bound by sola scriptura. This is what bothers me about attempting any kind of conversation with a Mormon – they will not, indeed cannot, conduct a conversation involving religion without referring to the Book of Mormon or the Pearl of Great Price or any one of the other “approved” writings of Joseph Smith or one of his followers. For a Mormon everything depends upon the “latter day” revelation (?) received by Joseph Smith, and which supposedly still continue through the president of the church, the prophets and the apostles.
[Interestingly enough, the LDS started as a "restoration movement" roughly about the same time period as Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone were doing their work. It seems that "restoration" was in the air and water of the early pioneers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.]
You see, when you divest yourself of the power of Scripture to both teach and admonish, you become a victim of any powerful person’s whim and fancy. I do not stand over Scripture, I stand under it. I do not dictate what it means, I seek to allow it to dictate to me what I should be.
I am a firm believer in the power of tradition. I happen to be one of those who feels that one of the weaknesses of the American Restoration Movement is that we are a “traditionless tradition.” We have severed ourselves from the great river of Christianity throughout the ages, and I believe we have an impoverished liturgy and spirituality because of that ill-fated decision. However, and this must be understood by all who want to understand me, I would never place tradition over Scripture or even on the same level as Scripture. The value of tradition is to help us understand Scripture and to guide our attempts to honor and worship God. I have believed, do now believe, and as far as I know will always believe that Scripture is the sole source of my understanding of God, Jesus, and the church. I cannot allow any human being, no matter how saintly or holy he or she may be, to usurp that position.
Next up: I will continue my discussion of Scripture, especially in relation to the question of an open or closed canon and the authority of councils and the resulting creeds and confessions of faith.
I have been swamped by a mixture of pressing duties and an admittedly poor administration of time management. That has accounted for the paucity of posts over the past several weeks. However, now that I am in-between semesters, maybe I can do a little catching up.
One item of immediate business is to address some questions/comments that were made in response to my comments to the Churches of Christ. In particular is one rather animated individual who, at least in my initial impression, was genuinely off-put by some of my declarations. In subsequent comments it became more clear to me that while not quite so antagonistic as I had originally thought, this individual has some serious questions/challenges to the concept of restoration theology, and he provided me with a few of those questions. So, I have identified this individual as a generous antagonist: antagonist in that he clearly disagrees with me, generous in that he has engaged me with an accepting tone, albeit a pointed one. This is how it should be. If your position is not worth defending, it is not worth owning.
At the outset I want it clearly understood, however, that I am only defending MY position, and if you were to ask 100 other ministers within the Churches of Christ you would probably come up with 162 other opinions. That is because ministers within the Churches of Christ rarely agree, and even if they agree they have to share some unique twist or “improvement” on someone else’s opinion. So, I am not declaring divine inspiration here, but I do want to make my own understanding of the situation as clear as I can.
So for a general beginning, here is what I consider to be a very pertinent question:
So my question is, how do you justify the idea that there are 2,000 years of Christian history if the “true Church” left planet earth shortly after/during the apostolic era (who knows when?) and then popped up in the 19th century? Is it not more honest to suggest that your tradition only has less-than 200 years of history?
Perhaps a little background might be valuable. I was making the argument that the record of church history defended the use of acappella music as opposed to instrumental music. My interlocutor wondered, if the Churches of Christ disavow church history from “X” period of time up until Alexander Campbell “got it right” then how can we appeal to “church history” as a defense of acapella music in worship?
My answer in response to this and similar questions posed by the same individual is this: I do not believe the “‘true church’ left the planet earth shortly after/during the apostolic era (who knows when?) and then popped up in the 19th century.” I know there are some (perhaps many) within the Churches of Christ who do believe this, but my antagonist must ask them this question. As I do not believe the statement, I cannot defend it.
The phrase “true Church” is mystifying to me. That phrase communicates that there are true churches and false churches, real churches and fake churches, good churches and evil churches. The New Testament, continuing and building upon the Old Testament, communicates no such idea. In the Old Testament there were the “people of God” (sons of God, Children of Israel, the “faithful”) and there were “the nations.” In the New Testament we find this “people of God” being identified by a new communal name, “the Church,” but the concept is identical. There is “the Church” and there are the “nations” – those who either flat out disbelieve in God or who might accept that God exists, but who reject his commandments.
Now, within this Church there are a number of other “categories” that we might identify from phrases either found in Scripture or closely akin to terms used in Scripture. One would be schismatics, those who would divide the Church because of ego or some other non-doctrinal matter. John had his Diotrephes, Paul had his opponents in Corinth. These folks need to be disciplined, to be sure, but theirs is more a problem of ego rather than doctrine.
Another group would be those who would destroy the Church over matters of doctrine. Paul was much more severe with these individuals: Galatians is the best example of his address to these folks. However, there were some of these people everywhere Paul went – he told Timothy to watch out for Hymenaeus and Philetus. These two clearly had a false teaching related to the resurrection and Paul says they have “wandered away from the truth.” (2 Tim.2:17).
So, while we have schismatics and heretics, we only have one “Church.” While schismatics may seek to divide the Church, and heretics must be cast out of the Church, there can only be one “Church.” Jesus did not come to build many churches, but only one – His Church.
So, out of the dozens, if not hundreds, of “churches” in existence today, which is the “true” Church? Answer: the one that truly seeks to “love God with all of its heart, soul, mind and strength, and that loves its neighbor as itself” to borrow a phrase both from the Old Testament and Jesus’ teaching. The “true Church” is not defined by the name on the building, the legal documents that establish it with the state, the creed or confession that separates it from other “churches.” The true Church is the Church was created by Jesus, bought with his blood, and the one that lives its life in total surrender to the grace and command of God.
Now, please note: within that Church there may be many who are schismatics and heretics. The one group needs to be disciplined, the other needs to be removed. Just as with a human body, some diseases need to be cured; gangrenous limbs need to be amputated. In regard to the sheer number of “churches” in existence today that process appears to be impossible. But, I also believe in the power of the Holy Spirit and in God’s desire that His Church be as pure as is humanly possible. Therefore, I am a firm believer in, and defender of, the restoration movement.
However, let me be clear about this next point as well. The restoration movement that I see as my example did not begin with Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone. My example for the restoration of the Church began with the apostle Paul.
It is impossible to read Paul’s letters without noticing one overwhelming theme: Christ’s Church is to be focused on and lead by Christ. Just read 1 Corinthians and underline every mention of the names “Jesus,” “Lord,” “Christ” or any combination of the three. How many times in the prison epistles (Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, Philemon) is the phrase, “in Christ” used? Paul was not concerned about creating, developing or maintaining a human institution. He was concerned about being a people devoted to Christ. Paul was the archetypal restorationist. I believe in “restoration theology” because it is what the apostle Paul taught. The closer we as humans get to Christ, the more we become the “true Church” of Christ.
And, so, to my generous antagonist I will say this in answer to his question: the “apostasy” that affected the church affected it in the first century, and has repeated itself in every century since. The “restoration” of that church started in the first century, and has been necessary in every century since. To the extent that the Church fails to be the pure bride of Christ in any generation it has “apostatized,” and therefore a “restoration” becomes necessary. This was true in Ephesus, Colosse, Philippi, Rome, Jerusalem and it is every bit true in every place where there is a Church in 2013.
I will continue with some other very good and thought provoking questions in the days to come.
P.S. – It occurred to me in re-reading this post that I did not address the second part of the question above. To conserve space I would simply say “yes, it would be appropriate to admit that our ‘tradition’ is only approximately 200 years old, if by ‘tradition’ you mean that movement which was popularized and promoted by Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, and a host of others.” If, however, you mean by ‘tradition’ that we as a group of people seek to follow God the Father and Jesus as Lord in all that we do, then no, our tradition spans the entirety of history from the call of Abraham until today. Depending on the context and my audience, I will use ‘tradition’ in either sense, and in my opinion, justifiably so.
Note: I wrote the piece with the above title as an expression of some very deeply held feelings.
I was direct, confrontational, and perhaps “hyperbolic.”
Believe me, it cuts both ways. I have been accused of no longer being a Christian simply because I believe God gave the role of spiritual leadership to men.
But quite frankly I am tired of having to defend my own feelings. I never should have hit the “publish” button.
I deleted the post.