Category Archives: Church
Okay, I plead guilty. The above title is intentionally provocative. But if you stay with me, I think it is appropriate.
The lovely and always insightful Mrs. Smith and I were having a discussion this evening about several issues that are troubling us. In regard to the current state of things in the church, and with a passing reference to F. LaGard Smith’s book “Baptism: The Believer’s Wedding Ceremony,” (no relation, by the way), my wife had this observation: “You know, in just about any morally conservative church, if a couple started sleeping together outside of marriage and they based their behavior on the fact that they had ‘prayed the lover’s prayer’ and had ‘accepted one another into each other’s hearts,’ the leadership would demand that they stop sleeping with each other or, at the very least, formally declare their relationship through a legal marriage ceremony. Yet, those same churches will accept anyone as a ‘Christian’ just because of some non-biblical prayer or an emotional declaration that has no biblical support.”
Sometimes I wonder who has the better theological mind.
The image was striking to me. We have congregation after congregation after congregation that accepts individuals who claim to have an intimate relationship with Jesus and yet will deny, sometimes adamantly, that a formal rite is necessary to formalize their relationship to Christ. Some will come to that sacred rite only after they have claimed their intimacy with Jesus. Either way the only way to describe their relationship is promiscuous. They are spiritual fornicators. To borrow an earthy but descriptive phrase, they want the milk but they do not want to pay for the cow.
Throughout the pages of the New Testament the sacred rite of baptism is described in many ways: a death, burial and resurrection, an adoption, a physical union. The image of a wedding ceremony is equally powerful. Especially in the current debate over homosexual marriage and the importance of marriage in general, it is insightful to cast the ceremony of baptism as a wedding.
Why is a wedding ceremony important if two young lovers have “prayed the lovers prayer” and “accepted one another into each other’s heart?” Because we know that the power of a ceremony has a binding effect. Yes, it can be broken. But from the very beginning couples have been performing, in whatever culture they live, the sacred rite of a wedding ceremony to make their marriage union both legal and morally acceptable.
Why should we treat our union with our Savior with any less respect and honor? Especially with two worn out phrases that traffic in far more emotion than they do biblical or theological support.
Come to think of it, baptism has far more textual support* than does the formal ceremony of a wedding. So, why is it that many “Christians” will get so upset if a young couple is having sex outside of a marriage contract, and yet will gleefully accept the so-called profession of a “sinner’s prayer” or “accepting Jesus into my heart?”
And this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also – not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ… (1 Peter 3:21).
*Baptism is mentioned in virtually every book of the New Testament. If the word itself is not mentioned, then the rite is certainly referenced. For documentation, please consult G.R. Beasley-Murray’s book, Baptism in the New Testament.
In my last post I wanted to make the following points: (1) The Boy Scouts of America is not a Christian organization, and it should not use claims of Christian doctrine to support its denial of membership to young men who claim to be homosexual. While the Boy Scouts may teach such concepts as honor and respect, in many other areas the teachings of the Scouts are clearly antithetical to Christian beliefs. I know mine is a minority conclusion, but I cannot help but see the logical implications to many of the core disciplines within the Scouts. (2) The fact that the militant homosexual lobby was able to coerce the Scouts into accepting young Scouts who are openly homosexual is just a precursor to the process of forcing the Scouts to accept adult leaders who are active in the homosexual lifestyle. It is well documented that a majority of Scouts and Scout leaders are opposed to the homosexual lifestyle, but that means nothing to those who would force their deviant views onto others. I closed with a question – at what point does this evolution of societal norms call the church to proclaim the concept of heresy again? A related question would be, what exactly is the meaning of heresy?
I want to begin by drawing a parallel to another issue facing the church today, one that many have accepted as just a normal progression of what the church needs to do to be “relevant” to the predominant western culture today. Notice the argumentation that is used to defend and to promote the position that women are to have equal roles in the spiritual leadership of the church:
- References to Old Testament norms of male spiritual leadership are invalid because we live under the New Covenant.
- Jesus clearly involved many women in his ministry.
- The apostles lived under a patriarchal society, therefore their teachings regarding male spiritual leadership are not relevant in our egalitarian society.
- In at least one instance (the Pastoral letters) it is argued that the author was not Paul, was not apostolic, and therefore not authoritative for the modern church.
- In regard to the Corinthian letters, Paul was confronting a pagan culture where the role of women was vastly different from what women would be doing in the church today. Therefore, the letter of 1 Corinthians is not relevant to the role of women in the church today.
- Galatians 3:27-28 clearly redefines relationships within the body of Christ, therefore we are to count everyone as equal.
- How can you possibly deny the freedom of a woman to serve in a capacity she feels called and gifted to serve the church?
Now, note how the militant homosexual lobby has picked up on those very points to advance their agenda:
- References to the Old Testament are not relevant, as laws concerning homosexual behavior were addressed to Canaanite fertility cults, and we are not living under the Old Covenant today anyway.
- Jesus did not condemn homosexuality in any of his teachings – in fact he taught love and acceptance of all people.
- The apostles lived in a Jewish culture that was homophobic due to the influence of the Levitical purity code, therefore their teachings against homosexuality are culturally bound and are no longer relevant to our more permissive society.
- It follows that Paul’s teachings against homosexuality in Romans and 1 Corinthians are directed against the pagan fertility cults practiced in the first century, and since those cults are no longer relevant today, the condemnations of those behaviors are no longer relevant today.
- Galatians 3:27-28 clearly redefines relationships within the body of Christ, therefore we are to count everyone as equal, and we are certainly not to exclude those who live in a committed, loving, monogamous relationship, whether it be homosexual or heterosexual.
- How can you possibly deny the freedom of a gay man or lesbian woman who feels called and gifted to serve the church, especially since their sexual nature is a gift from God himself, and something that should not be ridiculed or condemned?
Many people get angry when these parallels are pointed out. While they are all for women being put forward as ministers, preachers, deacons, and even elders within a congregation, they are morally repulsed by the idea of two men or two women marrying each other and publicly promoting their union in the church. When the parallels are pointed out they stammer, “But the equal position of women is just different than blessing the sin of homosexuality. Homosexuality is condemned in Scripture, women using their God-given gifts is not condemned!”
Different in degree perhaps. But I question whether the arguments for blessing the homosexual lifestyle and for promoting the elevation of women over men in the church are all that different in substance.
Just a question, but if you accept those seven points in regard to women’s role in the church, how can you deny those six points in regard to accepting practicing homosexuals as members and especially leaders in the church?
If you question my logic or my sanity, simply consider the path of the Episcopal/Anglican Church, the Lutheran Church, and the Presbyterian Church (USA). Each of these denominations long ago accepted the increased role of women in the work and worship of the church. Each did so with the aforementioned reasons front and center. They wanted to be relevant, they wanted to be sympathetic to the needs and gifts of the women in their churches, and they wanted to be seen as being responsive to the changing culture. And each of these denominations are now facing the battle of what to do with practicing homosexuals who use the very same arguments to promote the elevation of homosexuals as priests, bishops, and even archbishops. It is not surprising to many analysts that the more expansive and “affirming” these denominations become, the greater the losses in their memberships. While some former Episcopalians, Lutherans and Presbyterians simply drop out of church altogether, it is fascinating to me that many of them are “returning” to the Roman Catholic church. They see in Roman Catholicism something that their denomination surrendered a long time ago – an adherence to the word of God and to the power of church tradition.
When you base doctrine on Scripture alone (Latin, Sola Scriptura) you have a very solid foundation. But, it is not without its weakness. When you allow every person and every group to interpret that Scripture in any way they see fit you are bound to have disagreements and sometimes serious divisions. However, when you add the power of church tradition to the equation you brace that written foundation with a historical foundation. That is why, in the discussion of what books were to be considered a part of the canon and which were to be discarded, one primary “rule of thumb” that was used was “that which is believed always, everywhere, and by all.” Here you have the expanse of time (always), geography (everywhere) and general agreement (by all). Those who refused to accept this three-fold criteria were labeled “heretics.”
What an old-fashioned, out of date, hateful and derogatory word. Heresy – it even hisses when you say it. I would argue that if the church is to survive with any degree of health we had better learn how to say the word and apply the word judiciously and effectively.
In the New Testament the word is used to identify a division – even the church was labeled as a heresy of the Jewish faith. But soon the word came to mean not just a division, but a dangerous and rebellious division – one that was anti-Christian as much as it was un-Christian. It meant that a church, or a group of churches, was forced to examine a teaching, and those who promoted it, seriously and if it failed to meet the three-fold criteria of “everywhere, in every place, and by all” it was deemed to be an “evil spirit” and it was repulsed.
Today we do not speak of heresy very much, if at all. We are told, “do not judge, lest ye be judged.” We are told to be loving and kind and affirming and welcoming. We are told to never, ever, ever offend anyone, lest our good name be drug through the mud. We frame all of our decisions on how they will be viewed by a very narrow group of non-believers, instead of how they will be judged by God.
Somewhere in this path the concept of truth and fidelity to Jesus and to his church, that which has been believed “always, everywhere, and by all” has been forgotten, or consciously discarded. I am deeply concerned with the direction of the Church of Christ today. The scuffle over worship styles has degenerated into a fight over the role of women, and it will become a war when the issue of homosexuality finally explodes.
If we do not return to an understanding that some teachings are sound and some are heretical, that some teachers are healthy and some are destructive, that some practices are truly matters of opinion and some are matters of critical obedience to Jesus and his commands, the church will continue to lose members and, more important, lose its purity in the sight of God (see Rev. 2-3). That means we are going to have to call some teachings heretical, and some teachers heretics. Some people will be offended, many will leave. Or, perhaps the faithful will have to leave.
But if the church ceases to be the church, what difference will it make if everyone stays?
And the Lord said: Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment of men learned by rote; therefore, behold, I will again do marvelous things with this people, wonderful and marvelous; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hid. (Isaiah 29:13-14, RSV)
I wish I had a dollar for every book and blog post that has been written describing the decline of the church of Jesus Christ today, or the prescription of the one single magic potion that would reverse this decline. Depending on the theological worldview of the author the church either has to become more modern or it has to go back to a pristine form of some past era. The worship needs to become more vibrant, relevant and “hip” or it needs to become more contemplative and dignified. The church needs to surrender the reigns of leadership to the younger people (whether in actual roles of leadership or at least in terms of the direction of the church) or it needs to “put the young ‘uns in their place” and reject any and every call for modernization. Just about everyone has a silver bullet or at least a silver plated bullet that will bring the church back from the brink of destruction to a full blossom of youth and vitality.
I am struck with the realization that most of these suggestions, while every one might be good intentioned and even healthy in some respect, can be described simply as window dressing. Hiring a younger minister, recruiting a praise time or removing the praise band altogether, removing the pews, creating a prayer labyrinth, lighting candles and incense – all of these external changes will amount to nothing if there is not a substantial change somewhere else. That change has got to be in the heart of the individual, and the collective heart of the congregation, or nothing anyone does is going to amount to anything at all.
I am also struck with the realization that the one voice that most people refuse to allow to be spoken in the church is the voice of the prophet. Hence, I turn to the prophets with increasing interest. I am convinced we cannot hear the voice of the Messiah correctly if we refuse to hear the voices of those who prepared for his arrival. I believe our focus on surface religion and our avoidance of the prophetic message are inextricably related. If we want to restore our church, we must learn to hear the prophets once again. No, that is not a “magic bullet.” But it is a necessary beginning.
Notice in the passage above – Isaiah did not say the people were not honoring God. Oh, they were honoring God all right – dressed in their finery and exuding all kinds of spirituality they worshipped with great pomp and circumstance. But, and this is a common theme throughout all the writing prophets, God would not be mocked with their false worship. He saw straight through their empty and vain ceremony. As Isaiah stated it, the process of worship that had devolved by the time of his writing was simply, “…a commandment of men learned by rote.” How many of our worship services can be described by that one dreadful line?
I have been involved in multiple ministry situations in a relatively broad sampling of congregations and there is one characteristic that defines virtually all of them. (Note: I have not been to every congregation, so if your congregation does not fit this description, simply move on). That characteristic is a lack of commitment. I am not accusing every member of every congregation – some members are amazingly committed. There is, however, a disturbing number of individuals who simply could not be any less interested in the mission of the church.
I have known members who would not miss a softball practice or game to save their life, but who cannot manage to get out of bed early enough on Sunday morning to attend a Bible study. I have known dear sweet little old widow ladies who would not miss their weekly card game if they had double pneumonia, but let them be afflicted with a case of the sniffles and they are nowhere to be found on Sunday morning. I know men who can quote the batting averages of the complete roster of their favorite baseball team who could not find a Scripture if they were handed a Bible with thumb indexes for each book. I have known church leaders who had a chest full of pins from their social club honoring their recruiting prowess who never, ever invited anyone to attend a worship service. I have known salesmen who would drop everything to make a sales call for their business but who were always “booked solid” when it came time to make an appointment to study the Bible with a friend or neighbor. I have known brilliant teachers who were always “too tired” to teach a class. I have known retirees who had plenty of time for the golf course, for the fishing stream, or for the lunch room at the senior center but somehow never had any time to volunteer for a congregational ministry.
Why is it that the auditorium will be full on Sunday morning, but on Monday or Tuesday night when the “rubber is meeting the road” there is only a handful of members show up? And why is it that even though they are so worn out, so tired, and so distracted, that they would not be any other place but the Bible study table, the prison visiting room, the nursing home, the soup kitchen? Is it not because deep inside their heart they have the love of their Lord burning brightly?
Somehow or another the softball diamond, the card table, the bowling alley, the social club, the Senior Center – all of these can make absolute demands of our time and we do not even flinch. But let the Lord’s servant speak the words “total commitment” and watch the fur fly.
How dare you expect me to be totally committed to the church! You are not my master. I have more important things to do.
And so Bible studies go untaught, lonely people go unvisited, critical ministries wither and rot when the willing servants finally get burned out or die. And the members who only know the “fear of the Lord as a commandment learned by rote” wonder why their country is “going to the dogs,” wonder why no one seems to have any moral values anymore, wonder why no one is attending their church anymore, wonder why there is no teacher for their class, wonder why no one will ever come to visit them. And they dream up such wonderful ideas as adding PowerPoint projectors to their auditoriums and building a prayer labyrinth in the weed patch behind the building. And, if they are really radical, they might even recruit a praise team to make their vain worship more relevant.
Sometimes I really have to wonder – Is God through with us yet? When is he going to do something marvelous with this generation? And will we have the spiritual eyes and ears to become aware of it when it happens?
God, revive us again, and please give us eyes to see, and ears to hear when your Spirit starts working in our desperate world.
One thing I can say about Postmodernists – they sure love to talk about culture. Everything, it would appear, is connected to and limited by one’s place of birth, and especially one’s time of birth. If you were born in a patriarchal age, you were doomed to slave under a patriarchy. However, if you were born in the late 20th or early 21st century you are blessed to be an egalitarian – and a postmodern as icing on the cake.
Postmoderns do not like anything to be authoritarian, but they are especially opposed to having an ancient text provide any type of authority. For disciples of Christ this poses somewhat of a dilemma – because Jesus certainly used an ancient text (the books we refer to as the “Old Testament”) as an authority in his life. It was not a “god,” but it certainly contained the words of the true and living God; and he used the Torah not only as example but as it was designed – as a light for his feet.
Those who wish to claim a Christian lifestyle while challenging the role of the written text have come up with some ingenious methods to deal with the texts that, at least on the surface, appear to be authoritarian. Many simply deny that they belong in the canon that we call the Bible. (The word canon itself means “rule,” implying authority.) Thus, for many the letters that we call the “Pastoral Epistles” (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) were not written by the apostle Paul as the texts claim, therefore they are not authoritarian for the life of the disciple today. Others, while not willing to remove entire books, will remove certain verses within those books.
Finally, the “trump card” that many Postmoderns use is the “culture card.” Briefly stated, this argument posits that, because the authors of these ancient texts lived in times so far removed from our advanced culture, the texts they wrote cannot possibly be thought of as being an authority for our life today. Thus, these exegetes can keep the objectionable books in the canon, but they simply ignore the verses that have been found to be patriarchal, homophobic, capitalistic, militaristic – the list is almost inexhaustible. In the Postmodern setting the text is not the judge of the reader or listener, the reader or listener is the judge (and far too often, the executioner) of the text.
The Postmodern interpreter can do wonders with certain texts by pointing out the cultural differences between the time period of the various biblical authors and our own, but they have a significant problem when they come to the letter we know as 1 Corinthians. This letter is also a major point of emphasis for Postmodern interpreters, as they have issues with the apostle Paul’s apparent homophobia and male chauvinism. Thus, the letter of 1 Corinthians provides both a test case, and, in my opinion, the rock on which the ship of Postmodernism founders.
As I see it, in order for Postmodern exegetes to win the battle of interpretations they must prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that the ancient texts of the Bible were written for one specific audience, and that the only way for the texts to be valuable today is if they are “re-contextualized” to meet modern (or, better yet, Postmodern) sensibilities. On this point I will offer partial agreement. Especially in regard to the writings in the New Testament I will agree completely that they were written as “occasional” pieces – they were written to address specific questions or issues in concrete situations. However, that is where the Postmodern ends his or her exegesis, and it is at that point that I offer my strongest disagreement. And, as evidence exhibit “A,” I offer the letter of 1 Corinthians.
In terms of specific situations, we can learn that the letter we know as 1 Corinthians was written to the church of God in Corinth in approximately the middle of the first century. It’s author, destination, and approximate date are among the least debated in New Testament studies. Paul specifically mentions the issues that “occasioned” the writing of the letter – division, sexual immorality, issues of congregational life and spiritual giftedness. Therefore, the “concrete” and specific questions that the letter addresses are not to be debated. We could argue, if we so desired, that the answers that Paul gives to these issues and questions were to be used solely by the congregation in Corinth and only during the time period the original readers were alive. That is the path that Postmodern interpreters want us to walk. That would be a very easy conclusion to make – and in fact it is argued by a great many brilliant minds.
The only problem is, as I see it, the whole argument is destroyed by the text of the letter itself. Four times in the letter Paul tells the Corinthian disciples that what he is writing to them (and what he has taught them previously in person) is what he teaches “everywhere and in every place” (see 4:17, 7:17, 11:16 and 14:35). That means that in Jewish Jerusalem, in Gentile Ephesus, in Greek Athens and Corinth, and soon to be in Latin Rome Paul preached the same message and made the same points. Across multiple cultural platforms and in reaction to multiple socio-economic and political situations Paul did not “contextualize” the content of his message, although he may have contextualized the manner in which he presented it. The mode of communication may change, the content cannot be changed.
I once heard a lecture by an individual whose classical scholarship cannot be questioned. He is perhaps one of the finest scholars the Churches of Christ have produced. He was lecturing, oddly enough, on the letter of 1 Corinthians. I will never forget his conclusion. He stated that the doctrine of the living church should never be limited by the aberrations of the first century congregations to which the bulk of the New Testament was written. I was dumbfounded. If the doctrine of the church cannot be limited by the writings of the apostles to address those very aberrations, to what can we appeal for the formation and limitation of our doctrine? I had not heard of “postmodernism” at that point in my life but I have come to understand that speech in an entirely different light now than when I first heard it. What I understand now is that this scholar, who in my estimation is beyond questioning in his knowledge of the Greek language and the history of the New Testament, came to a conclusion that was in direct opposition to the words of the text. Therefore the ancient text had to be “re-contextualized” to fit his new conclusion. All he had to do was anchor 1 Corinthians to the city of Corinth in the first century, and he could advocate basically any interpretation he wished.
I have no problem accepting the fact that our Bible, and the New Testament in particular, was written by very human beings in concrete, specific situations. I would even argue that is true of the Old Testament as well. I have been taught and I believe that the more we come to understand those cultures and time periods in which our ancient texts were written we can understand and interpret the books more faithfully. I am all for learning more about the ancient world in which our Bible was written.
But I refuse to accept the conclusion that we are to leave our Bibles in the dust of those ancient civilizations. The writers of the New Testament certainly did not think that the texts of the Torah were to be left in the musty caves of Mesopotamia, Egypt or Arabia. Those texts were alive and brought life to the early church. So today, we do not abandon our New Testaments on the pillars of ancient Rome, Ephesus or Jerusalem. The text is living, it speaks to today – the spirit of God is breathing out of the text just as surely and the Spirit of God was breathed into it as it was first written. The heresy of the Postmodernist is that of turning the living and active Word of God into a dead and decaying clump of leather, papyrus or clay.
Surely we need to speak God’s word in a manner that is appropriate to the audience that is called to hear it. We must not transport our western culture into places where it would be harmful and confusing to do so. And we must be careful not to read into the text concepts that are not there, but that we wish were there, due to our specific culture and issues.
But the content of God’s revealed word is not up for negotiation. God does not change his mind simply because the calendar changes or because the reader moves from a democratic culture to a dictatorial one, or from a patriarchal culture to a matriarchal culture. God’s will and His words are eternal.
And that is a situation the Postmodernist simply cannot contextualize.
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your manservant, or your maidservant, or your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates; for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it. (Exodus 20:8-11).
Being raised in the Church of Christ I grew accustomed to being among a people of “nots.” We did “not” do this, we did “not” do that. One of the defining pamphlets that seemingly was omnipresent as I was growing up was a little tract entitled, “Neither Catholic, Protestant or Jew.” That pretty much sums it up. I never knew what we were, but I could come pretty close to telling you what we were “not.”
Nothing in our pantheon of “nots” was more devoutly honored than the fact that we did “not” have to obey the fourth command of the 10 Commandments. I always thought this was somewhat strange - here God had made something pretty obvious, and yet we found a way to get around obeying it. There were many reasons given for the legitimacy of breaking one of God’s 10 Commandments, but growing up I kind of had a sneaking suspicion that most of our objection to commandment #4 was the fact that we identified ourselves significantly as “not” being Jewish. Therefore, to practice anything that smelled as if it might be connected to the Old Testament was strictly verboten. Why did we have to obey the other nine commands, you may ask? Well, because they were repeated in the New Testament, in one form or another; but luckily for us the fourth never was (specifically, anyway).
While I will never renounce my allegiance to Jesus, and I have no intention of making the Mosaic law code mandatory for entrance into the Kingdom of God, I do want to say that I am no longer comfortable with the way we have so blithely dismissed the fourth command. I have several reasons for this change of heart.
First, Jesus honored the true meaning of the sabbath command. He worshipped on the sabbath. At no point does he ever command, or even suggest, that the sabbath command could be negated. True, he healed on the sabbath. Reading the gospel of Luke it almost seems like he never healed except on the sabbath. But I believe the emphasis on the sabbath healings was to show that God really meant what he said – the sabbath was to be a day of deliverance and rest. Those who were suffering deserved to be set free from their ailments and diseases. Therefore, although a technical violation of the sabbath prohibition against work, it was a divinely sanctioned and approved technical violation, and Jesus soundly criticized the Pharisees and others because they could not see God’s hand in setting the oppressed free.
Second, the apostle Paul clearly honored the sabbath command. He sought out synagogues and other places of worship on the sabbath. Why? Well, for one reason I am sure he wanted to begin his ministry to his own people – the Jews. But I sincerely believe that he still worshipped God on the sabbath. That does not mean he did not worship on the first day of the week (we are clearly told he did – to remember the Lord’s death, burial and resurrection). But, we cannot overlook the significance Paul placed on the day of sabbath rest and worship. Not, that is, unless we want to be hypocritical about our emphasis on examples.
And, last but in no way to make the point insignificant, I believe there remains deep theological importance to the day of sabbath. For this point I want to quote Deuteronomy 5:12-15 in its entirety, even though I quoted the Exodus 20 passage above:
Observe the sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your manservant, or your maidservant, or your ox, or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day. (RSV)
You will notice, as you compare the two readings, that the Deuteronomy passage is almost verbatim a repeat of the Exodus passage, with a couple of minor variations in that more animals are listed. But there is one very important difference. In the Exodus passage the reason given for the day of sabbath rest is the account of the creation and the LORD’s day of rest. In the Deuteronomy passage the reason given for the day of sabbath rest is the event of the deliverance of the people of Israel from Egyptian bondage. The command remains the same, but the theology has changed! It remains a day of rest, but the reason has been amplified. Now we have not only a day of rest from creation, but we also have a day of rest in remembrance of divine deliverance.
Now, I simply pose the question – Do we as Christians not have an even better reason to join with God and all his creation for a day of rest?
I find it significant, profoundly so, that God goes to so much trouble to delineate all the people and animals that were to benefit from this sabbath rest. Making arguments about whether a Christian should or should not observe the sabbath is to overlook one huge aspect of the command – God is vitally concerned about how one person treats another person – and even the animal kingdom. And when we use other people to further our own agendas with no regard for their well being we are violating a core aspect of God’s nature. God has put within us the need to have a complete day of rest. You might say it is in our DNA.
You might argue that for the majority of Americans Sunday is a day of rest. I beg to differ with you. When we go out to eat Sunday lunch we force someone to open their restaurant and someone else to cook and someone else to serve. When we go to the grocery store or the convenience store we force the owners to open and the workers to be there. When we play a round of golf or go to a movie or do any one of a dozen other activities we force people to be there and serve us. We may be resting, but they are not. We force them to work on the Christian day of rest. How is that for consistency?
I have been especially mindful of this because as a minister Sunday was the hardest day of the week for me. It was my routine to teach a class and preach two sermons. Add to that the phone calls, the various “crises” that had to be dealt with on Sundays, the various committee meetings or other social events that are invariably planned for Sundays because “everybody is off on Sunday” and by the time I got home for the last time on Sunday night I was utterly fried. There is a very real reason so many children of ministers grow up hating the church. They see how abused their parents are every day of Christian rest. They see the hypocrisy.
So, yes. I am all for a day of sabbath rest, whether it is our Saturday or Sunday. A day of rest for me, my wife, my daughter, the person at the 7 to Eleven, the restaurant waitress and the hot-dog concessionaire at the ball park. A day of rest for everyone. Shut the whole stinking country down for at least 24 hours every week – lock, stock and barrel. It’s scriptural. It’s healthy.
We might even say it is a command of God.
Our gender-neutral older sibling in the ethereal realm -
How, like, totally common is your personal identification.
May your egalitarian and democratic socio-political relationship utopia be realized;
May your totally non-authoritarian suggestions be accepted;
On this environmentally protected sphere as well as your inter-planetary dwelling.
Give us, like, everything we totally want, as well as the obvious things we need.
And forgive all those self-righteous bigots who are constantly making it sound like we need being forgiven.
Don’t let us get too close to the homophobes, male chauvinists and other haters;
And, for Thomas Jefferson’s sake, please keep us away from the Pope and anyone else who happens to care about his backward religion.
Nice chattin’ with ya – see ya later.
Commandment number 1 – “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3, RSV)
Really, how simple can it get? There is one God. Worship Him. Burn, throw away, discard, dismember all the rest.
For the sake of the series, I shall separate the idea of having a false god with that of having a physical image of a false god (idolatry) which is the topic of the next command.
The command here is to have no other gods before the one, true God.
Nothing, either physical nor metaphysical, can be in the place of God. None, nada, zip, zero. No other gods means no other gods.
We worship a pantheon of gods today – each one a testament to the myriad ways in which we violate this command.
We worship power, sex, self-esteem, education, freedom, love, health and safety, entertainment, glory, and honor – and many others. Each has its own little menagerie of idols (graven images) but each is truly a false god.
We fear losing each of these things, but the reality is that it is only when we lose those things that we can receive the one true God. Blessed are those who have absolutely nothing, because they are the only ones who can see that they need God.
How many gods are in my life. Not idols – we will deal with those in due time. But how many gods are in my life. What do I worship? What do I fear losing? What demands my attention? What receives my money? Track those things back and you will find your god.
We violate any and all of the other commands because we don’t get this one right. If we truly understood and obeyed this one, the others would be unnecessary.
God, forgive us of the worship of our false gods. Help us identify them, give us the courage to destroy them. Teach us how to have one, true God.
Just sitting here ruminating on a subject that has been festering for a while. I really do not know who to address this to, so it will just be an open letter – directed at no one in particular and a lot of people in general.
To all those who are fed up with, cannot stand, and are otherwise angry at the church. I think I get your message. I want to say “I think” because to say “I fully understand” would be presumptuous. Because I have not met you personally, you may not fit every description that I mention in what follows. So, let me begin on a foundation of humility. I want to understand where you are coming from, and to a certain degree I think I get you. And, whether you believe me or not, in many areas I agree with you. But still, there is a yawning chasm between the two of us that bothers me…
The overwhelming majority of you are in your third decade of life. Some are much older, some are younger. That tells me that the majority of you simply have not had the opportunity to experience so much of life that longevity teaches. You may have traveled extensively, you may have lived with the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor. But, you are still young. Youth has its advantages, to be sure. But youth also has its severe limitations. There is a reason that God turned the leadership of the church over to a group of individuals we refer to as elders. Age does a lot of things to our bodies, but it is an incredible teacher for our hearts and minds. So, I am not necessarily criticizing you for your youth, but I am making a point. You have not seen a lot of things and experienced a lot of life simply because you are not old enough to have done so. Hang around a while – you will.
That leaves some of you who are my age and older who still angry at the church but for entirely different reasons. Maybe something I say will speak to you as well, but I fear the issues you have need another letter. Increased chronological age does not necessarily equate to increased maturity. An angry senior citizen is no improvement over an angry toddler.
I want to tell you that we – the older generation that you seem to be so bent on overcoming – have been where you have been and we have done what you are doing. With our grandfathers, or maybe for some of us our fathers, it was the “social gospel.” For many others of us it was that promising panacea called “youth ministry.” Then there was the “bus ministry.” Our pet phrase was “ministry with a social conscience.” Then we were saved by becoming “seeker sensitive.” We were given a healthy dose of “purpose driven.” Now we are told the only thing that can save us to to become “emergent” “incarnational” or “missional.” Next up – “discipling.” We have been transfixed with Billy Sunday, Billy Graham, Bill Hybels, Rick Warren and now Rob Bell and Brian McLaren. It has become so confusing that we need a scorecard to keep up with all the slogans and phrases and personalities. It’s just that we – the old gray head set – need bifocals to read all the small print.
As a member of the “traditional, fundamentalist, backward, Luddite” generation that provides so much of the anger that you are venting, I would like to suggest that you take a moment to analyze why it is that we are so wary of your efforts. After reading volumes of your books, scanning your blogs and watching your You Tube videos, I would gently like to suggest that you criticize without offering the least indication you have attempted to understand what it is you are criticizing. You think that you are criticizing the “established, traditional, fundamentalist church” but who you are actually criticizing are people. Real people. People who have stood where you are standing and who have asked the same questions and who have been through a lot more fights and defeats than you have.
You come across as selfish, arrogant, narcissistic, and vain. The very traits, I would suggest, that you criticize us for being.
You preach a tolerance of ideas and practices and yet you ridicule and reject the values and beliefs of the generations who have gone before you.
And, I say again lest I be misunderstood, we can recognize these failings because we pioneered them. You are simply perfecting the faults we instilled within you. But I hasten to add – the fact you have perfected them is no honor.
If we are hesitant to accept your panacea for church renewal I suggest that it is because we are tired of the rhetoric – the empty promises and of dealing with the burned out remains of ours and previous failures. The generation that is older than I am had to deal with me – they heard the same empty promises and they dealt with the same blown-up congregations and they had to pull out the bandages and try to put broken people and lives back together. And my generation blithely walked away from all the carnage and smugly patted ourselves on the back for being such faithful and devoted disciples of the Prince of Peace. Until it happened to us. Now we see the same thing that our forefathers experienced and it gives us a lot of heartbreak. We cannot undo what we did, but we are not much interested in having the same thing happen to us.
Believe me, many of us are looking for something better! We have not lost the idealism of our youth, but the scars and the broken bones have taught us to be a little careful about how we go about instigating change. We may need bifocals to read our old leather-bound Bibles, but we can see through the dim lights of your “new” worship. We may need hearing aids, but we hear nothing of substance in your theologically vapid praise bands. And we can smell a rat through the fog of your incense.
So, please – if you are asking us to give you the courtesy of listening to the next one greatest discovery that will save the church from every evil that befalls it, give us the courtesy of realizing we have heard this song before. We sang it too. We even added a few verses and an endless repeating chorus. Realize that we are not your enemy until you back us into a corner and give us no other option but to either leave or fight back. Yes, there are individuals who are my age and older who have demonized every word you say and every idea you put forward. I do not like them any more than you do. I reject their rhetoric and their hateful attitudes. Every mansion has a few cobwebs in the corners.
I appreciate your enthusiasm for the Lord and His church. I appreciate that you are not only willing, but also very capable of the skill of analysis and problem solving. I would suggest that one skill you are lacking significantly is the skill of the appreciation of history – your history, and your immediate history to be exact. I would also like to suggest that unless you seek to remedy this gap in your resume you will find yourself in an interesting situation in about 20 years or so – give or take a few.
You will be exactly where I am, peering through your new pair of bi-focals, writing an open letter to your children and grandchildren who have discovered the next latest and greatest saving prescription for the church they have discovered is old and stale and irrelevant.
The very church you are in the process of creating.
An old guy who is willing to listen, but justifiably cautious about swallowing every idea just because it is new.
One thing I want everyone to know about this post – I am attacking myself, not others (at least explicitly). When I refer to others it is to illustrate my failings, not to heap scorn upon derision. This is a confession, not a broadside.
I have been struggling mightily with something over the past few weeks, months, and maybe even years. It has finally bubbled up to the point that I either have to deal with it or it will destroy me. Possibly it has already overcome me, I don’t know. Maybe I won’t know for quite a while.
But, political correctness is killing me. I don’t mean the kind of sloppy journalism or political hatchet jobs that continually assail me. I am talking about my own political correctness and how I seem utterly unable to confront or defeat it. For those of you who follow this blog regularly you might be surprised at that admission. There are times in my writings in which I become (or surrender to) my acerbic self. But, interestingly, that is part of the problem. This is my own little space of the cyber world in which everyone is invited but no one is forced to enter, or stay. If someone does not like what I write they ignore me. Thousands upon thousands assiduously do so on a regular basis. Knowing that, I steam and vent about subjects that are important to me, but obviously not too significant for others.
No, my issue with my own political correctness has to do with those with whom I am forced to deal on a regular, or at least semi-regular basis. I fit the description that was leveled against the apostle Paul (although, to be fair, I believe he disavowed such an attack) that his letters were “weighty and powerful, but his physical appearance is weak, and his public speaking is despicable.” (2 Cor. 10:10) I have visions of being a Great White Shark, and ultimately all I manage to portray is a spineless little jellyfish.
There are times in this world in which a person must stand up – speak up and say what needs to be said. Of course, it should go without saying that such statements need to be made in the spirit of love and correction, not hate and malediction. But still, you cannot read the gospels without seeing a Jesus that was both loving and welcoming as well as direct and, to put it mildly, politically incorrect.
And so I struggle with the balance – and all too often I find myself swallowing my words, backing off of a confrontation that I think needs to be made, weakly surrendering to the pressure of the moment or of the possible consequences should my objection be objected to. I defer – and end up kicking myself for it. Joseph, Moses, Daniel, Jeremiah, Amos, Peter, Paul, Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer – all had the spine to stand up and confront not only the minions of politics but also the minions of religion and all either paid a huge price or at least had the threat of paying a huge personal price.
I’m tired of my own cowardice, but I’m not sure how to overcome it without being churlish and vindictive.
I’ve just had it to my eyebrows with the skinny jeans, t-shirt and goatee wearing crowd lecturing me about how to fix the church when they have already written the church off as being unimportant. I’m sick to my stomach of authors criticizing spiritual leaders who have been loving and serving the church longer than these twenty-somethings have been alive. I recoil when I hear some academically trained yet theologically ignorant sycophant use some word like “missional” or “incarnational” as if by wielding such verbal weaponry they can slay their Quixotic opponent.
I stand mute when I hear a racist or homosexual loathing comment made in a Bible class, and I offer no word of censure when the same racist or homophobe stands a few minutes later to implore God’s blessings over the table of His Son’s memorial feast. I do not confront the obvious and blatant misrepresentation of Scripture that is done in manifest adoration of “the ancient paths.” When someone who leaves his Bible on the church pew so he won’t forget it next Sunday upbraids me because my hours of preparation and reading the accumulated wisdom of centuries of scholarship do not match his preconceived ideas, I say nothing. It might cause a scene. And causing a scene is the last thing a politically correct minister wants to do.
I swallow hard, and walk away. I do so because I think that it is better to maintain peace than to cause a disturbance. The times that I have tried to stand up have not ended well. My blood does flow hot, and all too often I let passion get the best of me. But the opposite has been that I say nothing. “Keep your mouth shut and be politically correct.”
I wish, just once, I could justifiably kick over a few money-changing tables and toss some thieving scoundrels out on their ears.
Sometimes being politically incorrect is exactly what God expects. His house is no less a place of prayer and of healing for the nations today than it was in the last week of Jesus’ life.
Maybe someday I will find the balance between personal disgust and zeal for God’s house. Maybe someday before I die I will manage to find my teeth.
I can always hope.
For preachers – no one ever conquered without rising to a challenge. Challenge your listeners, man, challenge!
For congregations – if your minister is telling you exactly what you want to hear and exactly what you have always heard, it is time to find another preacher. If you are not being challenged, you are not hearing the Word of God!