Category Archives: Leadership
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.
One of the joys I have is teaching and learning from some really great young people. The other day following class a few of us were discussing various topics, and one of the things we were talking about was faithful obedience. The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and their great statement of faith came up,
O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If it be so, Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace; and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up. (Daniel 3:16-18, RSV)
One of the students told the group he had prepared a lesson on the difference between faith and fear. The lesson is profound, so I share it with you.
Fear says, “What if . . .” Fear says, “What if I fail, what if I get sick or die, what if this solution costs too much or does not achieve the goal for which we out to overcome, what if the people reject me, what if there are unforeseen setbacks, what if, what if, what if.”
Faith says, “Even if . . .” “Even if I fail, even if I get sick or die, even if this solution costs more that the value returned, even if the people reject me, even if there are unforeseen setbacks, I am going to follow God and his word, and I am not going to give in to fear.”
It was a powerful moment. Far too often I have collapsed under the weight of the “what ifs.” I am cautious by nature, almost to a fault (maybe certainly to a fault). I like to see the end before I take a step. Could I have uttered the words of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego? I shudder to think.
How many times do we worship false gods because we are afraid of the “what ifs.” How many good projects are not even attempted because of the “what ifs.” How much good could be accomplished if we would just say, “even if.” We really need to have the courage to swim against the crush of the crowds – the courage of our convictions.
I needed to hear that message. I hope it helps you too.
As a conservative, Bible believing Christian I do not often speak about God’s incompetence. I rarely have opportunity to discuss his abject failure and blatant ignorance. But, thanks to so many wonderful bloggers out there I have been presented with this precious opportunity, and I shall endeavor to make the most of it.
It would appear that, according to these theological wunderkinder, God is basically able to create the world ex nihilo and part the Red Sea and feed 5,000 people with a couple of fish and some matzo crackers, but there are some things that are simply beyond God’s otherwise unimpeachable metaphysical prowess. Chief among these, or perhaps the ONLY thing God cannot do, is offend people.
That is right, you did not hear it first here, folks, but God is simply incapable of offending people. Let me explain it the best way I know how:
God can take an young, unmarried and very much virgin girl from a peasant village in a backwater strip of land known as “Palestine” and choose her to bear his very own Son. God is further capable of declaring through this Son His very nature – who and what it means to be God. Throughout this Divine Son’s ministry on earth he made a lot of people very, very angry. He called the religious leaders a bunch of snakes. He challenged the religious hierarchy and told them their precious temple would be destroyed. He even had the audacity to march in and kick over their money-changing tables and throw the bums out.
But, he never, ever, ever offended anyone.
His earliest disciples picked right up where He left off. They told the leading religious figures that ALL people, not just a chosen few, could enter into God’s kingdom. They challenged sexual practices, religious practices, economic practices, domestic practices, speech patterns and changed the liturgy of their worship.
But, they were careful to never, ever, ever offend anyone, because that is simply something God cannot do.
So, when a question arose over whether men should be the leaders of the family and church these early disciples were hit with a problem. Jesus never offended the tender sensibilities of the people by selecting a woman as one of his apostles, and all the way back to the garden of Eden there appeared to be an solid chain of male spiritual leadership, so these early disciples did what God was forced to do and what Jesus surrendered as well.
They strove mightily not to offend anyone who would be upset if a woman was selected as a spiritual leader.
So, we might see little hints and pointers that women are to be elevated into spiritual leadership positions, but they have to be extremely well camouflaged lest the words upset these fragile early followers of Jesus, and more important, the surrounding culture. So well camouflaged, I might add, that it took almost 2,000 years of some of the finest theology ever written to decode the carefully hidden messages.
So, when the apostle Paul encouraged the women to be silent in Corinth (well, according to the letter that was his message everywhere, but we do not want to confuse the situation any more than it already is) he was only faking it, what he really meant to say was, “OK gals, you’re in charge now – go for it!”
The same with Peter. Bless his heart, after almost letting the cat out of the bag in that ill planned sermon in Acts 2, he had to come back and redeem his socially acceptable self in his first letter when he referred to those “weaker vessels” that had to be gently loved by their husbands. Whew! That was a close call!
There is only one thing that I do not understand about this multi-act play. I don’t get it.
Why would this all powerful God, who from the very first page of Genesis to the last word of Revelation, demonstrates that he goes out of his way to delight in upsetting the status quo, suddenly be stricken with a case of total incompetence when it comes to the issue of spiritual leadership? Why would Jesus, who was a Great White shark when it came to touching all kinds of spiritually and physically unclean people and who allowed prostitutes to touch him, suddenly become a jellyfish when it came to choosing his immediate successors? Why would an apostle, in presenting arguments that would completely upend virtually every facet of common culture, suddenly balk and become impotent when the issue of female spiritual leadership came up?
And, much beyond those questions, if we can label certain teachings of these apostles as inferior and even spiritually false, how can we trust any of their writings? If Jesus and Peter and Paul could all be wrong about the gender thing, how can we trust they were anywhere close to being right about the grace thing? What about the ultimate question of God Himself? Is this all just an elaborate charade? Could it be that Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, et.al., are actually correct – that the Bible is nothing more than a bunch of fables used by certain power groups to maintain their hegemony?
You see, I just don’t buy the argument. If God is who He says He is, if Jesus is who He says He is and if he could do the things that the Bible records that He did, then by all means God could “upset the tender sensibilities” of a culture that placed men over women. God could have kicked over the tables of the misogynists and thrown the bums out. Jesus could have selected three or six female apostles, and the male apostles could have written emphatically that in the realm of spiritual leadership there is to be no gender difference.
But that is not the story that we have. That is not the Scripture that we have. So, we are faced with a question:
Is our God a bumbling, fumbling, incompetent buffoon who only occasionally gets a few things right, or is our God one who both knows the human psyche and who directs humanity’s footsteps, even in directions that we are not inclined to go?
I’m placing my faith in a God who is so much bigger and so much smarter and so much more powerful than I am.
And yes, I do happen to believe that God is capable of offending people.
Note: I wrote the piece with the above title as an expression of some very deeply held feelings.
I was direct, confrontational, and perhaps “hyperbolic.”
Believe me, it cuts both ways. I have been accused of no longer being a Christian simply because I believe God gave the role of spiritual leadership to men.
But quite frankly I am tired of having to defend my own feelings. I never should have hit the “publish” button.
I deleted the post.
I have far more to add to this series, but it simply would become too cumbersome if I said everything I wanted to say. Also, I have had a wonderful conversation with a follower of this blog, and I promised I would address some of his questions, so many other topics await. And, this has been an extremely fertile period for me in terms of personal study, so my list of future topics grows relentlessly. But, we now rejoin our topic at hand.
As briefly and as emphatically and as passionately as I can, I want to say that the Churches of Christ share a heritage that is as rich and vibrant as any faith group on earth. The community that has (over a long period of time and through many struggles) come to be known as the “Church of Christ” was born of a profound vision. A large and diverse group of individuals came to see that denominational Christianity was and is corrupted Christianity. They were separated by time and by distance, but all came to a remarkably similar conclusion: a return to the apostolic teaching of the New Testament would eliminate the barriers that divided the Christian world. The two most well-known, and therefore most influential, of these men were Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell. Of the two, Campbell was wealthier and had more influence, and so for the greater part of the history of the Churches of Christ the group has followed more of Campbell’s theology than Stone’s. However, the two men had widely divergent viewpoints on many issues, and through careful study of the history that I call my own, as well as reading deeply in the faith traditions of others, I have come to see where in many respects Barton Stone was more faithful to the Scriptures than was Campbell. I see this especially in regard to Stone’s apocalyptic worldview. Whereas he was a “restorer” in the sense of desiring to return to apostolic Christianity, he was nonetheless drawn forward by his understanding of the coming Kingdom of God. I believe it is this forward facing apocalypticism that we must return to if we, the Churches of Christ, are to remain faithful to Christ in the 21st century.
Nowhere is this need more apparent than in the manner in which many (if not an overwhelming majority) of the members of the Churches of Christ have accepted nationalism, and in particular, Republicanism, as the most prominent manifestation of God’s kingdom. In the first century to which so many “Restorers” point, the first Christians were deeply aware of the fact that they were “sojourners” and “aliens” in a foreign land. Members of the Churches of Christ, particularly in the United States, have utterly lost that sense of homelessness. In fact, we actively argue against it every time we wrap the Bible (and therefore all of its teachings) in the American flag. We are totally and completely at home in this world, and our guiding book is not the Word of God, it is the Constitution of the United States. If you doubt me just pay attention to the Sundays leading up to an important election. Sermon after sermon, class after class, announcement after announcement is made declaring that it is not simply the Christian’s right to vote, but it is his or her duty and obligation to vote. And, not just cast a ballot, but that ballot had better be for the candidate of the Republican party. I guess the passage of Scripture that teaches that particular concept is found in 1 Opinions or 2 Interpretations, because I have searched for it all through my Bible and I cannot find it anywhere. Christians are citizens of the city that is above, and our allegiance is to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
There is a HUGE difference between obeying and submitting to a government as long as it does not conflict with Kingdom ethics (which is a biblical teaching) and supporting and furthering that worldly government with our passionate support (which is clearly a concept that is condemned in Scripture).
The more divided and rancorous our political situation becomes, the more critical it becomes for members of the Churches of Christ to divest ourselves of the whole disgusting, ungodly, and corrupting system. In politics everyone loses at some point, and the poor and powerless lose the most frequently and with greater harm. And, just a question, what group is it that receives the greatest concern from God in every book of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation? Exactly – the poor and powerless who are abused and manipulated by the politically powerful.
Second, if we are to divest ourselves of our political affiliations, we are going to have to design a system by which we can care for the sick, the poor, and the abused in a manner that glorifies God and grows the Kingdom. We must be done with this attitude that, “that is the government’s job.” No, it is not. God gave that task to his people, the saved, the “holy ones.” If we claim the name, we had better start playing the game.
And, finally, lest this post turn into a dissertation sized monologue, the Churches of Christ need to return to a policy of passionate and honest engagement with our religious neighbors. As I mentioned in my last entry, we cannot do so if we harbor a pathological hatred of our past. I am sick of hearing preachers who claim an allegiance to the Church of Christ who stand in pulpits or write in journals and vent their spleen regaling how much they hate the Church of Christ. They hate that Churches of Christ have traditionally (and for very good theological and historical reasons) have not used instrumental music in the worship service. They hate how Churches of Christ have traditionally (and for very good theological and historical reasons) have limited leadership roles within the church to males. They hate that Churches of Christ limit the power of their ministers (and for very good theological reasons, I might add) by having independent, locally selected groups of elders in each autonomous congregation. It is not a perfect system, because it depends upon imperfect humans in each and every congregation. But it sure beats having some stuffed-shirt autocrat decide what every congregation, or even a group of congregations, must do in order to fulfill his (or her) vision of grandeur.
Likewise, we cannot enter into an honest engagement with our religious neighbors if we harbor a passionate hatred for anything that does not look or smell like a Church of Christ. I can, and I believe I do, hold my beliefs with passion and honesty. I must recognize that members of other faiths hold their conclusions just as passionately, and with reasons that they believe to be just as honest. Yes, there are charlatans in every group, including the Churches of Christ. I discount all of them. But if I expect others to give me an honest hearing, I must extend to them the same courtesy. It is amazing what happens when that exchange occurs. If you have never experienced that event I do pity you. You have missed out on an amazing gift.
I will close with a very personal anecdote, and I realize I share this with great risk. But I have been a part of two Doctor of Ministry programs, one
associated with the Churches of Christ, and my current program at Fuller Theological Seminary. My experience with the university associated with the Churches of Christ was dreadful. I was clearly the most conservative student in my class (theologically speaking) and the contempt and vitriol expressed relating to Churches of Christ was unbelievable. You could cut the hatred in the room with a knife. Every discussion, every topic was somehow skewed to point out how wrong the Church of Christ had been and continues to be.
On the other hand I have never been a part of a group that is more welcoming that the situation at Fuller. I just naturally assumed that as a theologically conservative “Church of Christer” I was going to be in the same basic situation. [By the way, I despise the term “Church of Christer” which I first heard from a member of the Church of Christ who used it approvingly, but I have since had it used against me as well. I place it in quotation marks to indicate I am using someone else’s term, and not my own.] I had steeled myself for that eventuality and consoled myself that at least the wrath of my fellow classmates could be attributed to the fact that they were “outsiders” and did not understand my history. To my amazement just the opposite occurred. My classmates at Fuller have been far more willing to hear my positions than my “brothers” at the university associated with the Churches of Christ. Now, to be sure, my Fuller classmates did not and do not fully agree with me – but they listen and I have learned to respond in kind. In fact, as a funny aside, one day one of our professors wanted us to sing a song that no one had heard before. As there were no instruments readily available this was going to have to be an “acapella” chorus. No one had the foggiest idea how to lead the song so they turned to the only one in the group who they were absolutely sure knew how to read music and therefore lead the group in this acapella version of the song – ME, the lone “Church of Christer” in the group. The irony is that I do not know how to read music and therefore let the group down. We resorted to going upstairs and borrowing an administrator who was gifted in the art of sight-reading music and she taught us how to sing the song.
I tell that story to make this point: if the Churches of Christ are going to continue to have a valid and meaningful voice in the religious world of the United States, it is imperative that her spokesmen return, or continue, to hold two positions without fear or favor. One, we are going to have to defend what we believe with passion and intellectual honesty. You cannot defend something you hate or something you disagree with. If you hold positions that are theologically and historically counter to what members of the Churches of Christ have proclaimed for almost 200 years now then it is your responsibility to “man up” and declare your spiritual independence and leave the community. Do not expect the church to change because you like guitar music or are raising a daughter. Thousands of members of the Church of Christ have loved and continue to love guitar music (I am chief among them) and have or are raising daughters (once again, me too). Two, it is absolutely imperative that we open our ears to actually listen to those who share a faith in Jesus, but who have differing opinions regarding doctrines and practices. I am not advocating that we embrace denominationalism, but we must engage with those who participate in it. I honestly believe that when we do so from a position of passion and honesty we will be heard with a far greater degree of reciprocity than what we have come to fear.
I have rambled far too long. I appreciate your patience in reading, and for many of you, for following this blog. Your support is humbling.
Sometimes life is just stranger than fiction. Sometimes you want to make something up and even what your imagination can create does not equal what occurs in 3-d real life.
As I was contemplating the next step in my series of personal reflections on the Churches of Christ I happened to come across this blog post: The post is a scathing indictment of the Churches of Christ and an attempt to explain why “so many” young ministers are leaving the Churches of Christ. Note that I am not recommending the post, but I am providing a link so that I am not accused of sensationalizing or misquoting a source.
I was going to deal with another subject, but I simply cannot let this blog post go unanswered. Because it touches on the subject I was about to address, I will respond to this post here first, and then return to the series as I had originally intended it.
First of all I am simply staggered by the attitude revealed in the title of the post. “My problem is not me, my problem is you. You are the source of my angst, my anger, my feelings of insecurity and sickness.” Now, I am well aware of the technique of creating a title that is hyperbolic – extreme – in order to gain attention. However, I do not think that is what the author of this particular piece is doing. I think he is being honest and up front: the problem with many ministers who are leaving the Churches of Christ is the Churches of Christ. The ministers themselves do not have any hang-ups, psychoses or spiritual issues. They are perfect – God’s own gift to the religious world. The problem is the sick, broken, misogynistic and moribund Church of Christ.
What are the main grievances that this author identifies as being the reasons these ministers are leaving the Church of Christ? He lists three: the refusal to allow women to take a leadership role in worship and in church governance; issues with leadership; and the refusal to allow instrumental music in worship which he sees as the main symptom of an unyielding adherence to tradition. That is it. Churches of Christ can be completely defined (and dismissed) in these three categories – misogynistic patriarchalism, an unthinking allegiance to acapella music, and stodgy leaders.
I really do not know where to begin in critiquing this attitude. Words simply do not suffice. “Narcissistic” comes close, but I think this even exceeds narcissism. I believe this type of “blame the Church for my issues” reveals a pathological hatred of the Church and that is something that will not be healed by simply pulling up stakes and leaving the Church of Christ for some other “greener pasture.”
To begin with, those who share these feelings (and judging by the comment section, quite a few ministers do feel this way) believe that they are so smart, so spiritual, so welcoming, so egalitarian and so important that the Church of Christ simply will not survive if they leave the fellowship of the Churches of Christ (at least, they hope it won’t so that they can be proven correct). The young ministers of whom this author and others who share his opinion speak are always described in the most glowing terms: they are well educated, they are erudite, they are deeply spiritual, yet they are conflicted by powers that are beyond their control, they are victims of a brutal and uncaring system that does not recognize their brilliance. Notice how those descriptions frame the antagonists of these poor, misunderstood spiritual giants. Their opponents are ignorant – even if an opponent has the same or greater degree of education it is defective. The opponents do not care about the Spirit; they are slaves of the carnal and only care about power and patriarchy. Their opponents are mired in the muck and mud of a tradition that stifles any kind of creative thought or ministry. This is not a battle between two different approaches to biblical interpretation, this is a battle between the Archangel Michael and the beast from the depths of the abyss.
The main problem I have with this scenario is that it is so abjectly wrong on so many levels.
First, I do not dispute the degree of education that these ministers have obtained. They are very gifted scholars. I will grant that. I will also grant that these ministers are deeply spiritual. I will not deny that that they have come to their conclusions honestly (but I will challenge the correctness of those conclusions). But why does that mean that their opponents are ignorant hayseeds? Why must someone who believes in male spiritual leadership always be portrayed as some kind of knuckle dragging Neanderthal who just came crawling out of his cave? There are many brilliant theologians, both within the Churches of Christ and outside of the Churches of Christ, who hold to the pattern of male spiritual leadership and their degree of scholarship simply cannot be dismissed with a contemptuous sniff and wave of the hand.
And, just for the record, a great many of the staunchest defenders of the concept of male spiritual leadership are females, both within the Churches of Christ and outside of the Churches of Christ. These women are virtually always ignored in the rants and screeds produced by these super-spiritual apostles of egalitarianism. The claim in this post is that women are made to feel like “second class citizens” in a church where men are expected to lead. I have lived my entire life in the Churches of Christ and I have never served or worshipped in a congregation that suggested that women were second class citizens. Were there women in those congregations who felt that way? Maybe – there were undoubtedly men who felt like second class citizens as well. The point is that is not the official, nor unofficial, position of the Churches of Christ and those who make this accusation need to apologize to the men and women who directly and emphatically teach otherwise.
In one of the truly stunning ironies of this whole discussion, it is the egalitarian males who are turning the female defenders of male spiritual leadership into second class citizens. These egalitarian males reject the arguments and silence the voices of those females with whom they disagree. If you are not a liberal female androphobe you simply do not matter to these men.
In regard to non-instrumental music, or a preference for acapella music, this subject has been beaten to death over the past 100 years or so within the Churches of Christ/Christian Church split. What the proponents of instrumental music refuse to acknowledge is that there are a number of other Christian faiths who do not use instruments, and they use the same arguments a put forward by leading scholars within the conservative Churches of Christ – i.e., the New Testament does not authorize the use of instrumental music, and the history of the Christian church clearly demonstrates that the use of instrumental music in worship is a descent from, not an ascent to, a more pure form of praise to God. But this gets back to the intelligence and education issue once again. Those who defend the use of acapella music in worship are just a bunch of ignorant, misguided fools, and if they could ever just sit down and get some real education they would find out that these young ministerial mavericks are absolutely correct and almost 2,000 years of church history can be re-written.
Yeah, that Harvard degree that Dr. Everett Ferguson earned was just a worthless piece of paper.
In regard to tradition and traditionalism, I will agree that the second is bad, but the first is absolutely necessary for the healthy functioning of any community, secular or religious. Those who leave the Churches of Christ because of the traditions within the Churches of Christ will do one of two things. They will either join another group that has just as formal and rigid a set of traditions as the Churches of Christ (albeit different ones), or they will go off and begin a new community of worshippers who will, within the first generation create an entirely new set of traditions that will become just as rigid and inflexible as the ones that now considered so repulsive. The only difference is that in the first scenario the ministers will choose a new set of traditions to form their worship, and in the second scenario they will create the new traditions. But they will not be able to eliminate any sense of tradition. If they were able to do so they would become the most psychologically damaged people on earth. We cannot live without our traditions.
I realize this post has been uncharacteristically harsh. Believe me, I have edited down what I had originally intended to say. But I am sick of this condescending, narcissistic, pre-adolescent criticism of the Church of Christ by a bunch of self-identified spiritual heroes. When I hear someone unreservedly and unapologetically blame others for their problems I immediately think of a spoiled rotten two year old child. When I hear these ministers say, “I have a problem and it is all your fault” all I can think about is a generation was raised in which every team got a first place trophy and every player received a most valuable player medal. This staggering sense of entitlement is almost beyond comprehension when I see it in the secular world, but to hear it from those who have proclaimed an allegiance to the crucified Son of God?
To quote a phrase from a popular movie a few years back: I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.
Do you have issues with the Church of Christ? Fine – so do I. I’ve had issues with the Church of Christ beginning with the day that I wanted some crackers and grape juice and my parents told me “no.” But if you have issues with the Church of Christ and you cannot see where you can conscientiously stay as a part of the fellowship then at least have the courage of your convictions and leave. Just get out. Say goodbye, and don’t expect us to turn out the lights when you leave.
If you have issues with the Church of Christ and you feel like you can be a constructive voice within the fellowship to lead the fellowship to greener and more healthy pastures, then by all means share your voice. But, in doing so make sure that you do not insinuate that because someone disagrees with your conclusions that they are ignorant, or a knuckle-dragging troglodyte, or a moribund traditionalist.
In other words, you might want to use some of your brilliant intellect, effusive education and profound spirituality to consider Matthew 7:1-5.
(Note: I have corrected one section of this entry. I had misquoted the three points the author made regarding the reason why ministers are leaving the Churches of Christ. His three points are women’s role, leadership, and traditionalism. Earlier I had listed women’s roles, acapella music, and traditionalism.)
Okay, that topic line ought to generate some curiosity. Truth be told, I’m kind of curios about it myself. I have some ideas about where I want to go, but we’ll see if I can get there or not.
The United States has been shocked over the past several weeks over two seemingly unrelated major aircraft accidents. In the first, an Asiana Airlines plane coming in for a landing in San Francisco clipped a sea wall and burst into flames as it slammed to the ground. In the second, and most recent event, a UPS plane also coming in for a landing mysteriously got well below the landing path and slammed into a hill a short distance from the runway. In both accidents there were fatalities. The reason “why” something tragic like those accidents occurred can never take away the pain of the loss of those human lives.
There are major differences between the two accidents. The planes were built by two different designers. The first was a major people-carrying airline, the second strictly a cargo carrying jet. The first had at least three pilots in the cockpit and was landing in the daylight with good visibility. The second had two well-qualified pilots, was landing at night (or, extremely early morning) and there were reports of low clouds and less than perfect visibility, although not low enough to mandate a precision instrument approach.
The questions are baffling: Why would (at least) five well qualified and highly trained professional pilots fly two state-of-the-art modern jets right into the ground? Why were there no distress calls in either case? Why did the automated systems in the planes not alert the pilots with enough time to recover from their low approaches? Were the pilots too fatigued? Were they distracted by other aspects of the planes’ highly technical computerized flight systems? Was there insufficient or defective communication between the pilot-in-command and the pilot flying as first officer? (Just because a pilot is listed as “captain” and “first officer” does not necessarily mean each was flying in that capacity on that leg. It is customary for captains and first officers to alternate legs of flights so that each can log time as “pilot-in-command” time in their log books, and to log take-offs, landings, instrument time, night flight, etc., as necessary components to keep their credentials up-to-date. Captains fly from the left seat, first officers fly from the right seat, regardless of who is “pilot-in-command” on that leg).
It is interesting, but speculation has focused on one common thread in both accidents – the growing dependance on automation and the resulting loss of piloting skill among super modern jet pilots. As computer technology has become more and more complex inside these jet cockpits the role of the pilots has morphed. Modern jet pilots are far more “systems managers” than they are “stick and rudder” pilots. Few jets are manufactured with cables connecting the pilot controls to the flight surfaces, meaning that there is no “feel” experienced by the pilots. In the case of the UPS plane, the pilots fly with a little joy-stick mounted on the side of the airplane, much like a computer game controller on your family entertainment center. The computer is constantly evaluating every control input by the pilot, and in some situations will actually override the control input by a pilot. No doubt this is a good thing in some situations, but, once again, it removes certain command decisions from the pilot. The maddening thing is the pilots are not required to know less: in fact, they must learn more – but they are not learning more about flying, they are learning more about managing complex computer systems. Perfectly good airplanes are not supposed to be flown into the ground. Something is very wrong with our technology obsessed culture.
We are not altogether in the situation that Dave faced with HAL in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” but we are getting close.
As I write this it is still far to early in either accident to know for certain why each accident occurred. Knowing a little about cockpit management and having studied some accident reports I can think of some scenarios for the first accident (the Asiana flight at San Francisco) but the UPS flight is simply a mind-bender to me. UPS is a top-notch, extremely well run organization with some of the best pilots around. Flying freight is a great gig. No passengers to complain, relatively uncrowded skies to fly in, great companies (UPS and Fed-Ex for sure) and extremely lucrative pay packages. I am sure that both of the pilots on the UPS flight were living their dream. That they would fly that jet into the ground is, to me, simply unimaginable. I suppose some day we will know what happened in those last few seconds, but it simply defies common logic at this point.
Which, in a long and circuitous route, brings me to my third topic – that of the decline of education in the United States today. In many ways we are the most technologically progressive and the most educationally regressive society that has ever existed. Our college students can operate virtually any type of computer equipment with expert proficiency and yet many cannot write a coherent English sentence. Our elementary school children are taught that spelling does not matter as long as they can get close to how the word sounds. Students are promoted to the next grade level with no regard for their ability to perform, but simply because holding them back would damage their fragile self-esteems. And now, with the explosion of on-line (so called) education, more and more people are being given certificates and diplomas for accomplishing nothing more than watching a few videos and taking a few multiple choice on-line tests.
In economics, if you continually print more and more paper dollar bills, the overall value of those bills drops. Our “one dollar” bill is nowhere close to the value it had several decades ago, simply because the Federal Reserve keeps printing more and more and more, just to prop up the economy. In education, when you hand out worthless and meaningless diplomas and certificates you are in effect “devaluing” the value of your diploma or certificate. Quite honestly, a high school diploma does not mean as much as it once did. And Bachelors degrees and Masters degrees are catching up with blazing speed.
If you read this space often you know this is a common rant with me. I just hate to see education go down this road. We should be demanding more, and all we are doing is demanding different. There is something tragically wrong when a child can enter college and not be able to spell correctly, write a coherent sentence, and to be able to analyze a complex paragraph or short story. I have no idea how the folks in the hard sciences are doing – maybe they are faring better. I just know what I hear and see, and it is not pleasant.
The sad thing is it is not the student’s fault that they are not being taught. You cannot learn what the teacher refuses to teach. I wonder if the “group promotion” concept did not have more to do with the educators’ fragile self-esteem rather than the students’ need to be recognized. If all of your students pass on to the next grade you must be a pretty good teacher, right? Who cares that they cannot read, write, or do basic math. Just pass them up to the next teacher and make those students his or her problem.
I guess that works to a certain degree.
Until airplanes start falling out of the sky for no good reason.
(Editor and author’s update: After posting this the lovely and very perceptive Mrs. Freightdawg gently questioned me – okay, she lowered the boom on me. Because of my rather injudicious choice of language, it might appear that I am accusing individual teachers of blatantly refusing to teach the necessary basics of education. This is NOT what I intended to convey. Many teachers are forced to teach nonsense and they deeply resent having to do do in order to teach to some governmental standard. I feel for those teachers. When you are between a rock and a hard place it is impossible to find a comfortable position.
That having been said, I stand by my assertion that the overall product of the American educational system is just weak. Maybe the problem goes way beyond the local and state schools systems. Maybe it is totally a failure at the federal level. Whatever the cause, the answer is simple: go back to basics – reading, writing, arithmetic, grammar, spelling, penmanship, and basic fundamental science courses.
If I offended any teachers out there I am sorry – that was not my intent. My purpose was to draw attention to the dismal product of our overall American educational system. Until we lean how to fix that, our children will always be at risk, and ultimately, so will our culture.)
A funny thing happened on the way to the blogosphere recently. It seems that a large number of religious bloggers have come down with traditio-phobia. This disease is the irrational fear and rejection of anything having to do with the spiritual tradition in which they were raised. Catholics fear and hate the papacy and all the related hierarchy, along with the traditional mandates of the Catholic church. Mainline protestants are disgusted with mainline Protestantism. The disease even afflicts non-denominational and non-aligned groups, as large numbers of members of the Churches of Christ have all but disavowed any relation to the tradition of the American Restoration Movement. The disease has strange symptoms, but perhaps one of the most revealing is the manner in which those who are afflicted attempt to “out hate” those from other groups who have come down with the same disease. For example, one person might say, “You don’t agree with the pope? Wow, that is big, but guess what – I don’t agree with the New Testament!” It forces everyone in the circle to come up with a bigger and badder enemy to disagree with.
Another symptom of the disease is the unity that is demonstrated among the traditio-phobic when confronted with someone who actually loves and appreciates their tradition. “Wow, dude, that is so cool that you diss the Pope. But watch out for Paul over there – man he is so in love with his traditions that he will try to give you a guilt trip. Why don’t you come over and hang with us for a while – we don’t like any traditions either, and you will be safe with us.”
Honestly, it is getting to the point that I actually appreciate talking to a Catholic that does not hate the Catholic church. I may disagree with their theology, but at least I can appreciate their devotion.
Why are we so traditio-phobic? And why are those who are traditio-phobic about one tradition so willing to accept, and even promote, the traditions of another group? And to add another wrinkle, why are they willing to accept the traditions of a group that is losing large numbers of their own traditio-phobic members because their traditions are deemed too repressive?
In the Churches of Christ we have a significant number of ministers who are openly disavowing long-held biblical doctrines because they are too culture-bound, or are too repressive, or too exclusive, or too something-or-other else. At the very same time I read blogs of others who are just now discovering (or are re-discovering) the importance of baptism, the beauty of acapella singing, the theological wisdom of male-centered spiritual leadership. It is enough to give a person spiritual whiplash.
I don’t claim to know any of the answers. I’m just a worn-out, sawed-off little munchin of a theologian who does his best to make sense of the this world so that I can talk about the next one. And when I am confused I don’t mind expressing that confusion. And right now I am confused.
I happen to love the tradition into which I was born, and into which I made a conscious decision to join. The American Restoration Movement was founded upon some of the loftiest and most divine concepts to ever flow from the pen of a theologian onto ordinary paper. Just use the Bible as the only sure guide to knowing God. Just be Christians only, not Christians plus something else. Use the adjective Christian or noun disciple exclusively. When you disagree on a matter of opinion, have the love in your heart to accept your brother or sister in peace.
Have we always lived up to those lofty goals? Hardly. But I would rather aim for the stars and come up short than to aim for the pigsty and hit my target. I would even suggest that learning about the failures of my spiritual forefathers has made me appreciate them more, not respect them less. I know they were human, and the fact that they might not have always lived up to their words does not diminish the value of the words they held up as their standard.
I’ve said it before a hundred times and I’ll probably say it again a hundred times – but I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer. I just don’t understand why a person has to hate their tradition just because someone who lived and died 100 years ago, or 1,000 years ago, stubbed his toe and fell down. I don’t worship my spiritual ancestors – that activity is reserved for God alone. But I can honor and respect those who blazed the trail on which I now walk by holding up the standard by which they walked and thereby carrying the torch just a little further. (Okay, perhaps a few too many mixed metaphors there, but I hope you get my drift – arrrrrrggh.)
I will offer this advice to those who are traditio-phobic – at least have the courage of your convictions to leave the people you have decided you no longer can honestly love. Don’t preach for a group you disagree with. If you no longer can hold to the teachings of the Catholic church, don’t try to pass yourself off as a Catholic. If you can no longer abide by the traditions of the Baptist church, stand up and say so.
And if the name Church of Christ is just so abhorrent to you that you grit your teeth every time someone says it or you have to park under the sign, then by all means do us all a favor and move somewhere else. I cannot judge you for your convictions (God is your judge, not me) but I am really growing weary of hearing, or reading, you bash something that I love very much.
If you listen to the pure theorists times could not be better for American education. Young people are learning more, are learning faster, and are entering the work place more prepared than at any other time in American history. They would point to the fact that many high school students are provided with the opportunity to earn college credit during high school. Many students enter college as second semester freshmen, or perhaps even at a sophomore level. Some states even allow high school graduates to earn both a high school diploma and an Associate degree from a nearby college. In the world of these theorists, everything has a distinctly rosy tint.
If you walk a mile in my moccasins, or talk to some of the fellow university instructors that I know, you would get the exact opposite reaction. College freshmen may come more highly credentialed than ever, but they also come with a corresponding inability to produce freshman level college work. Many cannot construct a coherent English sentence; do not even think about making them construct an entire coherent paragraph. Many do not know the difference between a noun, a verb, and a participle. They cannot spell. These students have been propped up and puffed up their entire educational career, and they expect that college and university instructors will continue the pattern of praise and adulation. Sadly, many do. It is difficult to tell a young man or young woman who is academically in their second, third or even fourth year of college that they are not even writing at a 12th grade level.
And, believe me – with the advent of on-line “miseducation” and the proliferation of on-line college degrees the level of incompetence in high school and even college graduates is simply going to explode.
What does this have to do with a blog on theology? Much, and I’m glad you asked.
Once upon a time (and it really was not that long ago), sermons and Bible classes were exercises in serious exegesis and discovery. Texts were painstakingly worked through. Forty-five minute sermons or lessons were the norm, not the exception. It was expected, even demanded, that the audience was capable of following lengthy, carefully constructed arguments, including an occasions side-track or two.
But then the technology revolution hit – especially television. The medium of television itself is not evil, but television producers, writers, actors and cameramen all needed to be paid, so along with television shows came television commercials. That meant that an hour long show was broken up into a number of smaller segments, demarcated with a couple of minutes of commercials. The attention span of the average American dropped.
Then, almost imperceptibly, hour-long shows became 30 minute shows – still broken up into shorter and shorter segments. The American attention span grew even shorter.
Today there is not only TV, but a myriad of other electronic media that demands our attention – computers and tablets and phones and digital music storage devices. We as Americans get bored faster and in spite of more stimulation than any other culture before us. And that head-long rush into lethargy is carried right over into our worship experiences.
It is no surprise to me that the very same generation that invented the “X Games,” a collection of high risk, extreme sporting events, is now demanding the same type of experiential high from their worship services. Apparently it is no longer enough to raise your voice in song; now there has to be ear- splitting, roof-rattling music and mind-bending special effects. Even in the more “sedate” religious groups the simple projection of words on a screen is no longer considered acceptable. No – now there must be multiple images as well as the introduction of other sensory stimuli in order to raise the level of spirituality in the increasingly more passive and yet technologically demanding audience.
Parallel with this movement toward a more “experiential” worship service there is a marked decline in the acceptance of a rigorous hermeneutic that demands a careful and extended study of the text of Scripture. Sermons must be 20 minutes (or less) and should be directed to today’s “felt needs” or in some other way “relevant” to our immediate culture. Long gone are the days in which the church was expected to shape culture – now the church must bend and twist and morph itself in order to comply with the demands of an ever-changing culture that also happens to be diametrically opposed to the message and mission of the church of Christ.
And, as technology becomes a mainstay even with pre-schoolers, I do not see any change in this intellectual/spiritual collapse any time soon.
When he was just a teenager, Dietrich Bonhoeffer had virtually every option open to him in regards to his life’s work. He was intelligent enough, and had the connections, to become a scientist, a legal scholar, or follow in his father’s footsteps in the field of medicine. He was talented enough musically to have become a professional musician. Instead, he shocked (and disappointed) his family when he announced that he would become a theologian. According to his friend Eberhard Bethge, his family tried to tell him that the church was a “… poor, feeble, boring, petty and bourgeois institution.” Bonhoeffer was undeterred. “In that case I shall reform it” he smugly responded. (Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, p. 36)
The amazing thing is, he did! With the exception of his friend and mentor Karl Barth, no early 20th century theologian has had as deep and as lasting effect on the church as Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But he did not reform it by adding praise bands, or praise teams, or glorified visual presentations, or by adding bells or incense. Bonhoeffer reformed the church, and his writings continue to exert his influence, by a serious, deep and sustained return to the foundations of discipleship: prayer, Bible study, meditation, confession and Christian service.
Basic spiritual disciplines – what a concept!
May God raise up another Dietrich Bonhoeffer for this generation. Or, maybe 100.
I’ve been accused of saying controversial things. Don’t know whether I could ever be convicted or not. Even very recently I have been taken to task over some things that I’ve said, things that I felt were smack dab right down the middle of what it means to be a disciple of Christ. In the famous words of the movie, “Cool Hand Luke” and later “Smokey and the Bandit,” what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.
So, just for giggles and grins I thought I would explain my view of why preachers (and bloggers) sometimes say controversial things.
1. Sometimes they are jerks. There, I said it. I knew some of you would be looking for this one, so I decided to start off with it. Yes, some preachers are jerks – obnoxious morons who go through life with the motto, “I’m not happy until everyone around me is unhappy.” Of course there is no defense for these people, and I hope I do not fit that category.
2. Sometimes they are just clumsy. They are not intentionally rude, crude and socially unacceptable, it just seems like if there is a way to mis-state something or make a comment at the wrong time they manage to find and take advantage of that opportunity.
3. Conversely, some people have 10 sore thumbs, and they spend their day doing nothing but searching for hammers to stick those sore thumbs under so that they can yell and kick and scream at the one who wielded the hammer. In other words, what the preacher said was not so controversial, it was the ears of the person who heard it that caused the problem. I can relate here. I have had my fair share of people who are incapable of hearing what I said. Even if I plainly said, “I don’t believe in ‘X'” I would have the person walk up to me and challenge me in that “I’m concerned about your salvation” tone of voice, “Why do you believe in ‘X’.” Honestly, what do you do with such a person?
Those were all pretty bad reasons for a preacher either to be controversial, or to be accused of being controversial. Now let’s look at some other reasons:
4. The naming of sin is controversial. If he does his job well, the preacher must hold his congregation to a higher standard than what the world sets forth. That means he must not only name sin, he must condemn it. A preacher who never challenges his congregation, a preacher who always makes his flock feel better about themselves and the world around them, and a preacher who believes it is his task to make his congregation “happy, happy, happy” is not worth listening to. The “Good News,” the gospel, must be preached in its entirety (and thus there must always be the proclamation of redemption) but the message of mankind’s fall from grace must precede that message of redemption. When you start naming sins, you start becoming controversial. No one likes to hear their pet character flaw be named as a sin that would separate them from God.
5. If he is to do his job well, a preacher must spend a large portion of his time on the mountain talking with God. If he does so intently and humbly, when he comes down from that mountain his face should be shining with the glory of God. That means the words he speaks, having received them from God, will be threatening for the people who hear it. (Ref. Exodus 34:29f). Please note: I say this by way of illustration, not literally. But a man who spends time in the presence of a holy God is going to preach different from someone who simply reads commentaries and the daily newspaper. His words should be controversial – unless he is preaching to a congregation of God’s cherubim and seraphim.
6. Related to #5, this world is a bent and broken place. When you try to fix a bent piece of metal or warped piece of wood you face resistance. Once a body reaches a certain state of being, it will resist any attempt to change that status. What “is” becomes what “ought to be.” The only problem is, what “is” is very rarely what God wants it to be. Therefore, in order to change, there has to be some discomfort, some pain. That pain is frequently identified as the preacher being controversial. He is, but intentionally and biblically so. God intends his spokesmen to be controversial in order to change what “is” into what “ought to be.”
I know points 4, 5, and 6 are closely related, but each has its own little nuance. I hope they make sense. Simply put, I believe in the message of Ezekiel 3:16ff. If a man feels called by God to proclaim the words of God, some of what he says (albeit not everything he says) will be controversial. If it is not, then I believe that minister is simply failing to be the watchman that he is called to be.
A personal confession here. While I have been all too guilty of reasons 1 and 2 above, I feel that to an even greater extent I have failed in my duties as a preacher and “watchman.” I have avoided controversy, sometimes at all costs, and I have been too quick to retreat when I should have spurred my faithful steed and charged into the battle. It is difficult, sometimes exceptionally so, for a young minister to know where the line is and when it is more valuable to cross it and when he should back away from it. No one should ever be a jerk, and it does not help to be clumsy. I have been guilty of being both. I need to work on that. But I also know I have been rock solid, straight-as-an-arrow right about something, and I have pulled back simply because I have not wanted to “rock the boat.” I need to work on that weakness as well. I do not want the “failure to communicate” to be my failure to stand for what is right and true.
Controversy can be, and often is, a blight upon a preacher’s ministry. But it need not be, and it should go without saying that if there is never any controversy then perhaps the preacher is simply following the sheep and not tending them. What is sinful is not the existence of controversy, but the mishandling of that controversy. Does the preacher need to be rebuked? Do so in a biblical and spiritual manner. But, why is controversy always the fault of the preacher? On the other hand, does the complainer need to be rebuked? Paul plainly and clearly rebuked Peter, and John openly rebuked Diotrephes. Unless we are to assume that both Paul and John were blatant sinners and disturbers of the peace, we have to understand that sometimes a wayward, belligerent or complaining church member needs to be told to straighten up and fly right.
There I go, being controversial again.