Category Archives: Church

The History of Confession

A few more thoughts as I work through the content of my dissertation. The practice of confession has a long and quite varied history. My study in the history of confession taught me that I had much to learn about this important Christian practice.

First, if you were raised in a largely “protestant” (usually meaning, “anything other than Roman Catholic or Jewish) background, you probably thought of confession as something that you did just between you and God. For the really big sins, or even the little sins that happened to be the topic of family dinner tables, you had to “go forward” and sit on the front pew and tell the church you were sorry for what you did. Often the church members where you had to do this were totally unaware of what you had done, so your “confession” very often created a considerable amount of gossip. Which, in turn, I suppose should have caused more people to “go forward” and confess, but it rarely did.

If you were raised in a Roman Catholic, Anglican/Episcopalian, or Lutheran church (and perhaps some others) confession probably meant going into a room or closet such as is pictured above and making confession privately to a priest. I think that in the imagination of most Americans today, that is the most common image of confession.

What I discovered is that in the earliest centuries of the church, the church members took the commands of James 5:16 quite literally. Confession was made before the entire congregation, and was specific rather than generic. The congregation then responded with forgiveness, or, if necessary, a period of “penance” in which the offender was made to endure some punishment (usually exclusion from the congregation) until such time as he/she was deemed to have suffered long enough. Obviously the process varied between congregations, and even regions of the world. The point of the procedure was to purify the soul of the penitent, and to make clear that further inappropriate behavior would meet with stricter punishment.

After Constantine’s “conversion” and after Christianity became the prevailing religion of the realm, confession took a turn for the private – and the seeds of the modern confessional were planted. As the gap between “clergy” and “laity” became wider, the need for “official” absolution became more important. So, the congregation was excluded from both the confession, and the absolution/penance. This took decades, even centuries, to fully develop, but this is the procedure that is so common in the “high” liturgical churches such as I listed above.

With the Protestant Reformation confession was frequently, although not exclusively, returned to the people. The concept of the “priesthood of all believers” was variously implemented, and in especially in groups associated with the Anabaptist movement the idea of confession to one’s Christian brother or sister – or to the congregation at large, was once again practiced. Both Luther and Calvin taught confession to one’s Christian brother or sister, and only in times of great spiritual distress must one go specifically to a priest (although, in later years, both Lutheran and Reformed churches have put a higher value in confession to ordained clergy).

With the Reformation another, very distinct, usage of the word “Confession” (with a capital “C”) became prominent – that of a specific “Confession of Faith.” A Confession of Faith is similar to a Creed, although a Creed is much more succinct, and has the purpose of defining what is accepted as orthodox faith as opposed to heresy. A Confession of Faith is longer, and has the purpose of defining different styles, or forms of worship. Stated another way, Creeds are designed to be universally believed, Confessions of Faith are more sectarian and define specific positions of separate groups. So, the question “What Confession do you follow?” would be analogous to the more common question today, “Which denomination are you a part of?”

All of this 2,000 year history of the word confession makes a “restoration” of the concept problematic. The word just means so many things to so many different people. Many people think they are confessional, when, in reality they are not. Others are confessional, but not in the biblical usage of the word.

It is my great hope and prayer that I can teach – and hopefully convince – those who are willing to consider my insights that we as members of the Churches of Christ need to become a confessional church once again. We need to renew the biblical concepts (plural) of confession – adoration and praise, thanksgiving, lament, and the specific confession of sin. While we do not necessarily need to mandate the old practice of “going forward and confessing fault,” that would be a huge first step for many congregations. After all – it was one of the fundamental practices of the early church!

As I have mentioned in all of my posts on this subject, I will be presenting this information in seminar form, and if you and your congregation is interested in learning more about how to schedule a seminar, please contact me at my regular email address: abqfr8dawg (at) msn (dot) com.

Book Review – The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Thomas E. Bergler)

The Juvenilization of American Christianity Thoms E. Bergler (Grand Rapids: William E. Eerdmans, 2012) 229 pages and 37 pages of endnotes. 51+3XPP+nvL

I’m not exactly sure the process that encouraged me to read this book – I had a bunch of “irons in the fire” over the past couple of years, and a note indicates I bought this book in July of 2013 – so it has been a while since I have read it. It has taken me a while to get around to reviewing it, but that time delay does not reflect on the importance of the book.

There are some books that you read and you think, “Wow, I wish I had thought of that.” Other books you read and you think, “I’m not sure I agree with that, or I do not think the author made his case very well here.” And then there are the books that you read and you think, “Wow. I agree with the author, and I really wish that he was not right.” Bergler’s book fit that third category for me. I have felt that Bergler’s thesis was true for quite some time, but I could not have said it as powerfully or as eloquently as Bergler does.

Bergler’s thesis is given on pages 4 and 8:

Beginning in the 1930s and 1940s, Christian teenagers and youth leaders staged a quiet revolution in American Church life which can properly be called the juvenilization of American Christianity. Juvenilization is the process by which the religious beliefs, practices, and developmental characteristics of adolescents become accepted as appropriate for Christians of all ages.

And then this:

Adolescent Christianity is any way of understanding, experiencing, or practicing the Christian faith that conforms to the patterns of adolescence in American culture.

The main point of the book is that due to the influence of the adolescent culture shift that started in the 1930’s, the American church is basically a church of adolescents. This is not something that can be undone, according to Bergler. Indeed, he states emphatically that his book is NOT a manual on how to eliminate juvenilization – and the last chapter is dedicated to “The Triumph and Taming of Juvenilization.”

Bergler demonstrates how each of the major groups of American Christianity (Liberals andConservatives, Catholics and Protestants) have been affected by this trend. The one group that he points out that has managed to resist the process is the Black church. This is true because  Black Christians did a much better job of integrating their youth into the entire church and thereby fostered a greater degree of maturity as their youth matured.

In contrast, by creating, and by constantly re-creating age specific “youth groups” complete with their own “youth ministers,” the vast majority of the American church scene simply allowed their youth to stagnate in the period of life we call adolescence. The problem is that now “we are all adolescents” as the introduction is titled. Just think of the major issues in the American church today and you will find that at the root there is a systemic lack of Christian maturity. Everyone wants the church to be what they want it to be, not what Christ has called the church to be.

Having gone through adolescence in the 1970’s this book was a hard read for me. I loved the youth group that gave me so much strength as a young Christian. But I can see now how we have bent the church to try to match the demands of what can only be described as “adolescence” that we have lost sight of Paul’s instruction to “grow up into maturity . . . into Christ.” By allowing everyone to stay an adolescent, we have almost killed the church.

The one problem I have with the book is Bergler’s acceptance of the problem he identified. True, in the final pages he discusses how the process needs to be “tamed,” but I do not see how the issue he discusses can be dealt with short of ending it. Adolescence may be a necessary stage of growth for today’s young people, but in no way do we want them to stay stuck in adolescence. We want to move them to maturity – we want to move the church to maturity. We want, or maybe better put, we NEED to grow up!

I heartily recommend the book. It may open your eyes, it may challenge you, and you may thoroughly disagree with Bergler, but in my (humble) opinion you cannot disregard the issue that he reveals.

C. S. Lewis on Ecumenism

I have been reading a delightful book of letters written by C.S. Lewis, entitled Yours, Jack. I was actually wanting, and expecting, more from the book, but the letters do reveal a little more about the great author.

Lewis was not a professional theologian; he portrayed himself as an amateur writing for other amateurs in the field of religion. But I think he was far too self-effacing. Perhaps not a trained, “professional” theologian, but Lewis had some profound theological insights, and wrote some of the best “theology” (discourse about God) that is available. His writings are among the easiest to understand, but also contain some of the deepest spiritual insights. That is not easy to do, and reveals the greatness of the man.

Yesterday I came across this gem, written in 1958 in response to a question posed to him about ecumenical discussions (discussions intended to heal divisions and rifts between Christian churches).

I think, urgently, that it is false wisdom to have any ‘denomination’ represented for ecumenical purposes by those who are on its fringe. People (perhaps naturally) think this will help reunion, whereas in fact it invalidates the whole discussion. Each body should rather be represented by its centre. Only then will any agreements that are achieved be of real value. (Yours, Jack Harper One, 2008, p. 313.)

This is Lewis at his best: clear, concise, and devastatingly on point. This is also why Lewis,  once he is understood, is so out of popularity with mainstream Christian leaders today. Today the common thought is that only if a leader is willing to shed his groups’ basic core beliefs would he be a qualified candidate for ecumenical conversations. I am afraid this is why the current Pope is so popular with many main-line evangelicals. I think they see him as willing to jettison many traditional Roman Catholic beliefs, and so he is somehow baptized in an “evangelical” model. The problem is, if the Pope is not leading from the core of Roman Catholic teaching, he will only be able to speak for the disgruntled population within the Roman Catholic church, and not its broad middle.

I live, worship, teach, and write as a member of the Church of Christ. It bothers me deeply that the voices of ecumenism within the Churches of Christ are exactly what Lewis describes, outliers in the “fringe” of the church. Those who “want a voice at the ecumenical table” are sadly those who are the most willing to discard many of the main identifiers of our movement – adult baptism for the remission of sins, simple and unadorned worship experiences, male spiritual leadership, and an unwavering belief in the words of Scripture alone for understanding the mind of God. Visit the congregations where these leaders serve as ministers and you see nothing, absolutely nothing, that lets a visitor know that the worshippers are proud of, or even knowledgeable about, their spiritual heritage. Call that what ever you want to (and I have some choice adjectives), but it is NOT ecumenism.

As Lewis so urgently (his word) pointed out – ecumenism calls for those at the table to come from the center of their group. Only then will any discussions have any merit, any possibility of moving forward. What you see today is not ecumenism – it is syncretism, and a weak form of that. Syncretism is just taking bits and pieces of things you like and mushing them together to create a hybrid monster. Syncretism is not the mixing of ingredients to create a masterpiece, it is slopping all your leftovers to create goulash.

I have written earlier that the Churches of Christ today are facing many internal problems. It has always been that way, and most likely always will be that way. I defy you to find me a religious group that is not facing similar internal problems. I just wish that those who invite various “leaders” from the divided Christian church to sit down at an “ecumenical table” would invite someone from the Churches of Christ who actually are proud of our heritage, and can defend it, rather than being embarrassed by it and want to jettison it.

Confession – Nothing Could Be More Biblical

This is the third in my series of working through my Doctor of Ministry dissertation on confession in the Churches of Christ. Today I look at the biblical evidence for the practice of confession.

Within the Churches of Christ our focus has been primarily on the New Testament. The Old Testament is valuable, so children are told, but mostly because all the really cool stories are in the Old Testament. There are no floods, no arks, no fish that swallow humans, no giant-killing little shepherds in the New Testament. As adults we are told that the Old Testament is valuable because it “teaches us about God,” but if that is the case we must not want to know much about God because we spend precious little time studying (I mean really studying) the Old Testament.

However, in my doctoral studies I wrote a paper on the Psalms of Lament, and it struck a nerve with me. Depending on how you classify the Psalms, approximately one-third of the Psalms (maybe a little more, maybe a little less) are Psalms of lament. Now, stop and ask yourself a question – why was lament such a major part of worship for the Israelites/Jews? Well, that got me to thinking, and when the time came for me to select my dissertation topic, one thing kind of led to another and the subject of confession made itself sort of unavoidable.

So, as a result of the paper on the Psalms of Lament, I turned not to the New Testament for the “skeleton” of my biblical study on confession, but to the Psalms. What I discovered was that the Psalms are basically a roadmap for the practice of confession. In fact, you might say that “confession” is one major, if not the major, theme that unifies the entire book of Psalms.

In a very brief summary, I discovered that the book of Psalms contains the following four types of confession:

Adoration, Praise, and the confession of belief/faith in God
Thanksgiving
Lament
Confession of sin

Now, some may quibble about my taxonomy here, but as John Denver once quipped to his audience that was clamoring for him to sing their favorite song, “Hey, this is my show.”

I then turned to the narrative sections of the Old Testament and discovered that these same qualities, or types, of confession are described throughout the text. Within the prophetic material the aspect of lament is particularly evident in Jeremiah, but the other types of confession are evident in the prophets as well. Certainly the book of Job contains both lament and praise.

Turning to the New Testament I discovered the same thread – there are examples of each of the four main types of confession, although lament is noticeably more subdued in the New Testament. I believe there is a theological reason for that – but there are examples of lament within the New Testament as well.

The purpose of this section of the dissertation was to demonstrate that confession (in all of its various forms) was, and is, a critical component of the daily life and worship of God’s people. The absence of a clear and sustained emphasis on confession in the Churches of Christ is all the more striking, then, because one of the “pillars” of our heritage is that we want to go back to the Bible and practice the pure faith and religion of the earliest church. I am convinced, and I argue in my dissertation, that we have failed to do so when it comes to the practice of confession.

I realize these blog posts are rudimentary – just giving the briefest sketch of my work. However, I am creating a seminar that covers this material in-depth, and if you would like more information about scheduling a seminar in your area, please contact me at abqfr8dawg (at) msn (dot) com. Also, I am presently searching for a publisher who might be interested in publishing the dissertation (although expanded and modified for a general audience), so if there is anyone out there in the blogosphere who has a connection with a publisher who might be interested, please let me know at the above email address. I will be deeply grateful!

Thanks for following me in the fog!

Beg Your Pardon, But Your Philosophy is Showing

One of the greatest blessings given to me through my studies for my DMin. coursework was the realization of how secular philosophies affect our theology. Second to this observation is the further truth that these philosophies are virtually hidden to our conscious thought. These philosophies are just like the air we breath – we are controlled by them yet we are hardly aware of them, if at all.

In my last post I discussed the reality that for many members of the Churches of Christ, our physical history is something of an enigma. We clearly have one (kind of like a belly button) but for many of us we do not want it to be seen or discussed (again, much like a belly button). We can cover it up, and refuse to admit we have one, but sooner or later the truth comes out and our history rises up to bite us when and where we least expect it.

If acknowledging our history is difficult for the majority of the members of the Churches of Christ, the admission that we are affected by secular philosophy (or philosophies) is tantamount to heresy. Even those who accept that the Restoration Movement is rooted in history will more often than not claim that this history is divine history, and therefore unstained by any human embellishment. In that limited world-view, God simply swooped down and deposited the Restoration Movement onto the pages of history much like he swooped down to snatch Elijah from the earth. Don’t laugh. For many years this was my concept of Restoration History. Sort of like the “big bang,” first there was no Restoration, and then “POOF” there was a Restoration. Call it Restoration ex nihilo.

This, much to my initial chagrin and later relief, cannot be any further from the truth. The fact is that Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, Tolbert Fanning, David Lipscomb, and every leader down to the latest graduate from our universities or schools of preaching were and are profoundly affected by the prevailing philosophies of their day. For Campbell and Stone that meant the philosophy of John Locke, Francis Bacon, and the political philosophy that drove the “Founding Fathers” of our nation to create the Constitution. Evidence of this can be amply produced through the language used in the early documents of the Restoration Movement. This is why so much of our contemporary language focuses on “pattern” and “constitution” and “blueprint.” We are simply following in the footsteps of those who were following in the footsteps of those who formed the new Republic.

For us today the situation is the same, although the prevailing philosophies have changed. We are no longer marching in lock-step with those who believe in the ultimate goodness of technology or the limitless capacity of the human mind. We have seen both the incomparable good of splitting the atom, and also the horrific evil of the same. Yet, having split the atom, we cannot seem to figure out a way to put the thing back together. We realize now that man is more likely to be the cause of his own demise, rather than the source of his own salvation. There is no “ultimate good” for which man is destined. The “modern mind” which so fully captivated Campbell has been replaced with the “postmodern mind;” therefore, much of what Campbell believed to be incontrovertible truth now just seems like a quaint little fairy tale. Such is the air that we breathe, the truth that we hold to be “self-evident.”

What does all of this “philosophizing” have to do with theology? Simply this – if we do not at least attempt to recognize our own temporal worldview, we will end up making the same mistakes of our spiritual forebears. I for one am an avowed restorationist. I am constantly awed and humbled by the profundity of Campbell, Stone, Walter Scott, “Raccoon” John Smith and a host of others. They were centuries ahead of their contemporaries, as modern theological thought has proven. But, that having been said, they were woefully unaware that the basic philosophy of their day was coloring the theology that they were producing. Therefore, they read early 19th century America back into the Bible, especially the New Testament, and the result of their research was that Jesus was the quintessential American Patriot. That philosophical blindness has been passed down for numerous generations, and it has affected our spiritual vision at every step along the way.

The solution to this vision problem is not to discard our history! (As so many are wont to do). Neither is it to idolize our history and simply ignore the reality of temporal nearsightedness. The solution is to acknowledge the reality of our own human frailty, to acknowledge the affect of secular philosophy upon our most deeply held convictions, and then to challenge those convictions with the penetrating truth of God’s word.

In my own, very narrow study of confession, what I discovered was that the Lockean/Baconian empiricism of Campbell and his early disciples made it virtually impossible for them and their heirs to develop and bequeath a healthy practice of confession. Stated in its most raw expression, if you have everything all figured out, if you have perfectly restored that which was defective, there is no need for confession. That, of course, is an over-simplification, but it works for a “nuts-and-bolts” summary of the early chapters of my dissertation.

Lest I be counted as an ancestor-bashing, history-hating, long-haired, dope-smoking hippy, let me repeat – I am an avowed restorationist. I am far more Stonian/Lipscombian than I am Campbellian, but if I am cut I bleed Restorationist blood. I wrote my dissertation to honor my heritage, not to trash it. So, in the greatest heritage of seeking to improve upon that which has been given to me, I recognize some areas where my spiritual heritage can be strengthened. One of those areas is confession, and that is what led me to my final research.

As I mentioned in my last blog, I will create a seminar dedicated to sharing this information with any who are interested. Please contact me at abqfr8dawg (at) msn (dot) com and I will gladly get back with you.

An Irrational Fear of Our History

I promised some time ago to work through the conclusions of my doctoral dissertation. I hope to do so in a general way, although for the “brass tacks” specifics you will have to wait awhile.

I chose that creepy picture that accompanies this post for a reason. I am not afraid of many things, although a few issues really creep me out. Heights for one, and I do tend to be claustrophobic. But, Black Widow Spiders?? I would just as soon hit my thumb with a hammer as to have to deal with BWS (for short). I have no idea why God created them, and he can just un-create them as far as I am concerned. Do not talk to me about the “balance of nature” – as God could have created umpteen other ways to get rid of flies and other nasty bugs. Black Widow Spiders? – my back is icky just typing the words.

One of the main conclusions of my dissertation is that the overwhelming majority of members of the Churches of Christ are either afraid of our history, or are at best ambivalent toward it. That is to say that you would be hard pressed to find 1 out of 10 or 10 out of 100 members that either enjoy learning about the history of the Restoration Movement, or even care about it. That leaves more than 90% of our fellowship (and I imagine the number is much higher) that either hate the idea of Restoration History or simply do not care one way or the other. The end result is the same – our history is steadfastly belittled or ignored.

Those who hate, or fear, our history can be divided into two groups. On the far conservative side are those who simply deny we have a history, and it terrifies them to consider the fact that, yes, we do have a very real physical history, and we are descendants of very real, fallible, sinful human beings. Go back as far as you wish, but you can trace our spiritual heritage to a handful of men – visionaries and spiritual giants all – who observed that the Christian church as they saw it was corrupt and corrupting. They could see in the New Testament a better way, and a far more simple concept of the church. They all sought to “restore” that vision of the church. Some attempted it in ways we would be proud of; some in ways we would disagree with. All of them, however, were human and all of them failed in lesser or greater ways. That is not to criticize nor to idolize. It is simply to acknowledge reality.

On the far other extreme we have those who acknowledge our history, are perhaps are acquainted with it in greater or lesser degrees, but who are equally terrified of that history. These are the “intelligentsia” of our movement, those who would claim to be leading us to more verdant pastures than our forebears. Instead of denying the history of the Restoration Movement, these leaders do not want the hoi poloi, the common people, to learn about the theology of Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, and their immediate disciples because there is something profoundly compelling about these early 19th century spiritual pilgrims. When we open up the pages of the Christian Baptist or the Christian Messenger we see real genius at work. We see Christian leaders trying to throw off the yoke of the “guaranteed results of modern scholarship” and simply go back to what the New Testament taught about being a disciple of Christ. I think these individuals are afraid that, if the real wisdom of Campbell and Stone (and Fanning, and Lipscomb, et. al.) were widely disseminated it would destroy their grip on the hearts and minds of the average, pew sitting Church of Christer today.

Caught in the middle between these two opposite, yet strangely married extremes, are the vast majority of church members. They hear first the one side, more strident obviously, but they they also hear the murmurings and whispers of the second group. Held in ignorance by both sides, and unwilling to face the wrath of the first group and not willing to be labeled as Luddites by the second group, they simply maintain their silence and go about their business as if there was no real issue to begin with.

This is tragic! The modern day heirs of the Restoration Movement have one of the richest, the most compelling histories in the wide and complex history of the Christian movement itself. As just one (admittedly puny) example, much of what is being preached today by elements of the “Emerging Church” and the “Missional Church” comes straight out of the theology and praxis of Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone. But, because we (speaking generically, of course) are so ashamed of our history we do not even recognize the fact, and because we have not claimed our history and proclaimed it’s strengths the world does not know that we could be at least 200 years ahead of the ecclesiastical curve, if not more.

So, to make a long post much shorter, in my dissertation I begin by looking at our history with as clear a set of spectacles as I could. I could not address ALL of our history, as that would take volumes. But I did examine how our history was affected by philosophical beliefs as well as theological conclusions, and how this combination worked against the practice of confession within the Churches of Christ.

Beginning in October of this year (2015) I will begin presenting the conclusions reached in the process of preparing my dissertation in a weekend seminar format. If you are interested in learning more about the biblical practice of confession, and especially how Churches of Christ need to “restore” the practice of biblical confession, send me a personal note to abqfr8dawg (at) msn (dot) com, and I will be happy to get back with you quickly. The first seminar will be in Portales, New Mexico, in October, so perhaps you can attend that seminar, or I will be happy to come to your congregation and present the material to you.

Doggone Bad Theology

It is spring break week here in the fog so I have been doing some catch-up reading. I am reading two books in particular, one that is stimulating and enjoyable and the other that is, well, just painful. What I find particularly disturbing is that the book I am being challenged by and the one that I am enjoying is written by someone with whom I have much to disagree. The book that I am reading just because I feel like I have to (for reasons that will go undisclosed) is written by someone who is a member of the Church of Christ. In fact, in certain parts of the country he would be idolized, yea worshipped, if he were to step up to a pulpit and start preaching. He is certainly no “average” member of the Church of Christ. He is about as far to the right as you can get within the fellowship of the churches of Christ without being anti-institutional, non-Sunday school or one-cup-only for the fruit of the vine during communion.

The one with whom I have doctrinal issues writes in a manner as to promote his beliefs without putting down any others, and with the intention of building up the body of Christ. The other uses derogatory terms to describe his “enemies,” makes no effort to mask his ridicule of their positions, and offers no apologies to “calling them out by name.” The first authors uses hermeneutical processes that are agreed upon by most scholars today; the other uses a hermeneutical principle that only he and a few others find convincing. The first author is willing to consider options other than his own conclusions; the second summarily dismisses any challenges to his conclusions as coming from someone who do not love God nor do they respect the Bible. Even when the second author makes a conclusion that I agree with I am frequently appalled at his logic and his condescending tone.

Have you ever agreed with someone you disagree with more than you agree with someone you agree with?

I have often said, and firmly believe, that I learn more from someone I disagree with, if they present their positions fairly and openly, than I do from someone that, for every other reason, I should agree with. Maybe I am weird that way. I would just much rather discuss religion with someone who knows and understands what he/she believes than with someone of my own faith group who simply parrots what some teacher/preacher/parent/friend once said. And that goes for those on both ends of the “conservative/liberal” spectrum. Wild-eyed liberals turn me off just as fast, if not faster, than closed-fisted reactionaries.

At the end of one of my undergraduate semesters a question was posed to our professor as to how we should respond when someone says/teaches something in error concerning the topic we had just completed studying (I am not sure whether it was Greek, Romans or Revelation – I can remember the professor and the statement, but not the subject). The professor paused for a moment as if to collect his thoughts. Very slowly he said, “Gentlemen, you must be very careful in those situations. Challenging someone’s long held beliefs is perilous work. But bad theology must be named as bad theology.”

In my 30-plus years serving the church in a number of capacities I have learned the truth of that statement over and over again, and have marveled at the wisdom of the professor who uttered it. Bad theology kills, no matter how loved or worshipped the speaker/writer/teacher is. Bad theology must be named as bad theology.

And doggone bad theology is the worst.

Talking in an Echo Chamber

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.

Conformational Christianity vs. Transformational Christianity

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.

Book Review – The Church According to Paul (James W. Thompson)

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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.

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