Category Archives: Theology
Lo and behold – I am in the final stages of getting my DMin dissertation approved. It has been a wild ride. Soon, though, I hope to have it in my rear-view mirror. In 2015 I hope to present a series of posts here that will kind of summarize my dissertation, although I will probably add some comments here and there that were not necessarily pertinent to my academic paper.
One benefit of my paper was that I was introduced, and perhaps re-introduced in some areas, to some parts of my history that I was not aware of. Even now, as a result of reading a book that came into my vision as I was writing my paper, I realize that I know very little of my own spiritual history – the history of the Churches of Christ. This is odd, because before I started writing my paper I would have argued that I knew quite a bit of this history. I had classes in Restoration History, I have read extensively (so I thought) in Restoration history, and yet…I barely touched the “hem of the garment” as the old saying goes.
Why are members of the Churches of Christ so adverse, or afraid, of learning and teaching our history? As I address this and issues next year I will undoubtedly expand on some of my thoughts here, but here are some of the reasons that have occurred to me as I have worked on my dissertation.
1. We deny that we even have a history. Other churches have histories, we do not. We were created on the day of Pentecost, round about AD 33 in Jerusalem, and that is that. No need to study all that historical stuff that happened over the past 1900 + years. As Henry Ford has been quoted as saying, “History is bunk.” Just study the Bible and that is all you need to do. Sadly, this is the opinion of a great number of members of the Churches of Christ today.
2. Even if we admit that we have a history, there is no use studying it, because it really does not matter anyway. Studying history only dredges up old fights and issues that no one wants to deal with today. Let sleeping dogs lie. Besides, if I do not study what actually happened in my history, I can write my own history. That way my side is always right. Do not try to confuse me with the facts, my mind is made up.
3. We are simply mortified to find out that our history, is, well, so different that what I pictured it. I am stunned to discover that some members’ (even well educated members’) understanding of our history is so blatantly wrong. I have taught a couple of survey type courses on Restoration history in congregations, and without fail someone will walk up to me and say, “I never knew [insert subject] happened that way.” Usually it is in regard to the instrumental music question, but several other topics always seem to catch people off-guard. Case in point – recently a congregation had a “Friends Day,” always a perilous adventure in Churches of Christ because visitors are stunned to find that the band packed up and moved out. So, explanations must be made as to why there is no electric guitars, drum sets, or nary a piano to be seen. Now, a perfect opportunity exists to open visitor’s eyes to the depth of understanding that encompasses over 200 years of Restoration thought. But no, not for this congregation. No, the reason there was no band up front was because it is our tradition not to have instrumental music. No mention of the biblical, historical, or theological reasoning that lies behind that tradition. No mention that Churches of Christ are just one of many groups that recognize the power and beauty of acapella singing. Nope. Just a half-hearted dodge from someone who was terrified that a visitor might think that there was actually a defensible reason why there was no instruments of music in sight. You see, if your history embarrasses you, it is far better never to actually investigate that history.
4. Studying our history exposes our weaknesses and our failings. Here is where I spent most of my time briefly surveying the history of the Churches of Christ as it related to my specific topic. Everyone wants their history to be a history of nobility, honor and unimpeachable righteousness. How strange that the Churches of Christ would want to think this, seeing as how the entire history of the Israelite people (the original “Church of God”) is one long history of mistakes, faithlessness, and more mundane goof-ups. Why should we expect our history to be any different? The fact is the leading voices of the Churches of Christ have made just as many mistakes as they have made things right. But, admitting your weaknesses and failings is a painful, humiliating experience. Many, if not most, members of the Churches of Christ would just rather blithely go through their life thinking that the men (and sometimes women) that they have some vague connection to are enshrined as God’s cherubim and seraphim – blameless, holy, and untouchable.
I genuinely wish more members of the Churches of Christ would learn to appreciate our history. Our history is one of the richest, most exciting, and dare I say, most entertaining of stories. It is replete with triumph and tragedy, success and failure. This history is part and parcel of who I am – how can I deny it? And, for those who have come to the church late in life, it is an amazing story of the American spirit (for good or ill) and learning from this history explains much of the current religious situation in America today.
Why are we so afraid of our history? Maybe I know, and maybe I don’t know. But it bothers me that members of the Churches of Christ are so blatantly ignorant of our history. I pray that changes. Maybe the next generation will not be so phobic about pulling out some dusty history books and turning a few pages…
Yesterday I was directed to a blog post regaling the virtues of the millennial generation. For those of you who do not know, the millennial generation is that group of people born in the late 1970s (or early 1980s) through the mid 1990s. So, the oldest of this group are entering their 30’s, the youngest are still in college, or are perhaps entering college. You can find many different opinions as to when a “new” generation arrives and supplants its predecessor. There are obviously large “buffer” groups in-between clearly defined generational groups.
Anyway, in this blog the author made the statement that the millennial generation is the most educated generation in modern history, if not all human history. I almost choked on my coffee. But, then I understood what the author was saying. In the next paragraph he pointed out that millennials have greater access to more information than any generation before. Now that I can agree with. But, seriously, information does not equal education.
I deal with millennials every day. And, granted, some of them are incredibly gifted, brilliant, and well educated young people. And, on the other hand, some of them are dumber than door-knobs, yet with the ability to google just about any topic and scroll through thousands of bits of information in just seconds. They know how to work their tablets and smart phones with amazing dexterity, and yet they cannot think their way out of a wet paper bag.
Having access to information does not equal education. You can live in a library for all of your life and still be illiterate – just having millions of books at your disposal does not mean you know what is in them, nor does it mean that you can process the information that they contain in an intelligent manner. The fact that the author of the blog appeared to be a millennial himself (just going by his picture) proves my point. He equated information with education. Education certainly requires information, but education means far, far more than access to or even appropriation of information.
What does this have to do with theology? It is funny, but one of my college groups was discussing the huge increase in the number of Bible translations over the past couple of decades. Whereas I grew up with maybe a dozen translations to choose from, now there are hundreds, with more being produced every year. You have more translations on your smart phone than I had to study in the library at ACU (okay, that dates me). But, the proliferation of translations has done nothing to increase the knowledge of the Bible, nor general biblical literacy. If anything, knowledge of the Bible has decreased with the increase in the availability of modern Bible translations. Access to greater information has actually had a negative affect in terms of people knowing the text, and how to apply the text of the Bible. The Bible has just become another app on your phone, standing in competition with FaceBook, Twitter and the latest, greatest computer game.
I do not mean to unduly criticize the millennial generation. Those in this category certainly did not ask to be born in the year they were born, and they were handed a world that was thoroughly trashed by the Boomers and Gen X. Maybe the millennial generation will be able to fix some things that need to be fixed, and, God willing, maybe they will see fit to return their sights onto God and the Church. They have a tough row to hoe – and mere access to information is not going to help them. They need to learn how to process that information, and they need to learn how to make that information work to the benefit of mankind, not its detriment. My generation did not do such a good job with that mandate. I can only hope the millennials, and my daughter’s generation (what ever it will be called) can do better.
But, please, do not confuse information with education. That just proves how uneducated you really are.
I’ll give you two quotes, you decide which one is acceptable and which one is unacceptable.
“Infidels in the region have three choices: convert to Muhammed, pay a tax, or die.” – The Islamic State to non-Muslims in their territory.
“The time has come that we need to either convert them, which I think is next to impossible, or kill them.” Phil Robertson, patriarch of the “Duck Dynasty” family and elder in the Church of Christ, speaking about the Muslim extremists on the Sean Hannity radio show.
Okay, have you figured out which one is wrong? I’ll give you all the time you need……
Here is a hint. Both statements are reprehensible, and for the same reason. Both are born of a far right-wing ideology that replaces faith with fanaticism. “If you do not agree with me, you deserve to die, no questions asked, no quarter given.”
The first statement is reprehensible enough coming from practitioners of the “Religion of Peace.” The second is even far more reprehensible, coming from a follower of the Prince of Peace, who sacrificed his own life so that all men could have the hope of a reconciliation with a Holy God.
How is it that men can replace religion with such hatred? Especially coming from one who claims to follow the Christ who said, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” Somehow I do not see how, “Convert or we will bomb you into eternity” is much of a loving or prayerful statement.
Tonight in our college Bible study we read and discussed the book of Jonah. The college kids got it. God loves all people. Even the people of Nineveh, the capital of the nation of Assyria.
As in, the capital of the proto-nation of Iraq, the modern day nation of all the Muslims Phil Robertson wants to convert or kill.
God actually loved the Assyrians enough to send a prophet to them to warn them of their sinful ways. Yes, the message was, “repent or perish,” but that message came from a God that is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”
I think Phil Robertson needs to read his Bible a little more carefully. I think he needs to read the Sermon on the Mount, and I think he needs to read the book of Jonah.
And I think that anyone who agrees with the kind of faith that would rather bomb someone into damnation rather than pray for them a path into glory should really, really re-examine whether they are following the Prince of Peace or a hate-filled creed that is as damnable as the ideology they seek to destroy.
I have not been posting much this summer (and probably will not, except for a stray column now and then). I am working on finishing my dissertation for my Doctor of Ministry program and I am up to my armpits in writing crises. I just have not had time for this space this summer.
But, some things are just too good to pass up.
As a part of my dissertation I was reviewing some material from earlier classes at Fuller Theological Seminary. I came across a book that I did not realize how important it was the first time I read it, but now after the passage of some time and the focusing of my dissertation I have an entirely new appreciation for the material.
The book is titled, Dissident Discipleship: A Spirituality of Self-Surrender, Love of God, and Love of Neighbor by David Augsburger. It is published by Brazos Press out of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and has a 2006 publication date. In a sentence, the book is a description of the Anabaptist view of discipleship.
I don’t want to spoil anything for those of you who are curious about my dissertation, but finding this book on my shelves again was huge. Augsburger works through eight core practices of discipleship: Radical Attachment, Stubborn Loyalty, Tenacious Serenity, Habitual Humility, Resolute Nonviolence, Concrete Service, Authentic Witness and Subversive Spirituality. Augsburger then concludes with six appendices, the most valuable to me was the seven “Core Convictions” of the Anabaptists. As you can tell from the chapter headings, this is not fluffy reading. Although Augsburger works through some heavy theology, the book is not written in “technical jargon” and is easily accessible, if the reader will simply devote some time to absorbing the material. The content will challenge you, regardless of whether you accept Augsburger’s conclusions or not.
Coming from a tradition that values reason and logic above all else, there was much in this book that was difficult for me to understand. I do not agree with everything that Augsburger says in the book – I never agree whole heartedly with any author (well, almost never). However, after the passage of several years, a whole heap of a lot of study, and the focus of my dissertation, all of a sudden I think I realize just how important, and how powerful, this book really is.
The fact that the book is based on the “radical” Anabaptist tradition will, no doubt, be distressing to many. If you judge a book, or an entire movement, by the fly-leaf of a book review or by the shallow lecture of someone who knows nothing about the tradition, then this is probably not the book for you. It would rattle your cage to the point you would probably lose your sanity.
However, If you are serious about learning about an often misjudged and abused people, then by all means buy and study this book. If you are serious about learning about what it means to be a disciple of Christ, then by all means buy and study this book. If you are interested in deepening your walk with God and your service to the church and world, then by all means buy and study this book.
But be careful, you just might end up becoming a dissident disciple.
Okay, I hope I did not vacuum someone in here that did not want to be here, and if I did I apologize. In no way, shape or form do I agree with the message of the title of this post (notice the quotation marks??). However, an increasing number of people do believe this, but not in manner that you might suspect. On a surface “intellectual” level they will say that yes, indeed, Jesus was the living embodiment of the eternal God. However, on a functional “gut” level they simply do not accept that Jesus is in any way the one, true, living God.
Just this week I was reminded (in reading another blog) that there is a deep seated repulsion of the idea that the loving, kind, and all-forgiving Jesus of the New Testament could be associated with the mean, nasty, wrathful and genocidal God of the Old Testament. This is especially true in two specific areas: capital punishment and homosexuality. The God of the Old Testament, it is averred, was a deity best described as cold, austere, vengeful and angry. Offer the wrong kind of incense and poof, God just zapped you dead. Touch the Ark of the Covenant in an unworthy manner and pay for it with your life. Simply go outside and pick up a few sticks on the Sabbath and kiss your next birthday goodbye. And that whole sex thing? That was just one entire death sentence just waiting to happen. It is a wonder any babies were born.
However, turn the page from Malachi to Matthew and all of the sudden we have Jesus – meek, mild, gentle little Jesus who cradled sinners and hobnobbed with the wretched. Jesus, it is proclaimed, never had a bad word to say about anyone, forgave everyone, and basically told his followers, “You know, all those stories about God punishing the unrighteous – well, that was true up until I was born, but now its ollie-ollie-in-come-free.” Why, we have Jesus getting drunk (or at least tipsy, so it is insinuated), thumbing his nose at all those restrictive 10 commandments (or at least that pesky Sabbath one) and promenading around with the promiscuous. Amazingly enough, Jesus looks just like a rebellious teenage or a baby-boomer looking for a second childhood.
Of course, all of this is post-modern deconstruction and re-historizing. Individuals who have this myopic view of Jesus and God have never done one, or perhaps either, of two things. They have never deeply read the Old Testament, and they have never deeply read the New Testament. For in the Old Testament we see God repeatedly begging His wayward people to return to Him and demonstrating time and again how He has made it possible for them to do so. Likewise, we see in the New Testament, especially in the words of Jesus, how God’s patience is limited. There will come a day of judgment in which some will be blessed and some will be punished. Jesus himself pronounced specific and eternal curses (woes) upon those who rejected his words, as well as offered tears because they would not.
Yes, God demanded strict obedience in the Old Testament, and He punished those who defied His Holiness. If I read Acts 5 correctly, He did so in the New Testament as well. And, yes, God forgave blatant sinners in the Old Testament (insiders as well as outsiders to the faith); and, clearly, He did so in the New Testament. So, you tell me – exactly how is the Jesus of the New Testament different from the God of the Old Testament? It seems to me that the entire point of the New Testament is that Jesus IS the God of the Old Testament – only briefly made human so that we could see and hear from Him directly (Jn. 1:1).
Please do not get caught up in this postmodern falderal. Of course it is not new – according to the writer of Ecclesiastes nothing is ever entirely “new.” But it is certainly becoming more prevalent. The New Testament portrayal of Jesus does not contradict the Old Testament portrayal of God. The gospel of Jesus is in the Pentateuch, the Writings, and the Prophets just as clearly as it is in the Gospels, Acts and the Epistles. However, the Holiness of God is just as prevalent in the Gospels, Acts and the Epistles as it is in the Pentateuch, the Writings, and the Prophets. We worship One God, not two. That God has one will, not two. There is one people of faith, not a pre-faith and post-faith. And we will all be saved by the one grace of God, and judged by the one revelation of that God.
Hear O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. (Deut. 6:4)
I’ve been trying to articulate something for some time, and for whatever reason I just cannot seem to get the words right. If you are reading this that must mean I hit the “publish” button, so maybe I’ll get it right this time.
Back when I was flying the most stressful (nay, terrifying) aspect of flight was the last few thousand feet of the flight when I was cutting through some dense fog on an instrument approach. According to the FAA rules under which I was operating, I could begin an approach as long as the visibility at the airport was one-half mile and there was a 200 foot space between terra firma and the base of any solid cloud layer. (This was the lowest minimum visibility required – at other airports the minimums went up due to less accurate navigational aids). Now, what that means is when I broke out of the cloud base there was 200 feet between me and mother earth, and I could see 3,000 feet in front of me. The only problem (well, not ONLY) is that on final approach I was flying at roughly 100 miles an hour. It does not take long to cover 3,000 feet horizontally or 200 feet vertically if you are traveling at 165 feet per second (give or take a few).
Add to that there was the issue of keeping both eyes glued to my instruments, making sure I had flaps and landing gear down (the chirp of rubber meeting concrete is much more comforting than the shriek of aluminum grinding on concrete), maintaining proper airspeed, monitoring all my approach and navigational aids, and talking on the radio whilst at the same time keeping one eye pealed out the windscreen hoping to catch a glimpse of the ground before it reached up and smacked me. And, I was doing this all single pilot – nobody named Auto sitting next to me to make sure I was not about to kill myself and spread thousands of pounds of freight all over the countryside.
So, when I saw the bright strobes and approach light system announcing the approach end of the runway I always let out a huge sigh of relief. It was always nice to breathe again when you have been holding your breath for 5 minutes.
The thing that was so comforting about seeing the approach light system was that it meant I was almost home. The lights did not have to worry about the fog, the ceiling level of the cloud base, the rain, the snow, or if everything in the plane was functioning properly and had been properly tuned, pushed and set. The lights were solid guides in a very fluid and dangerous system.
Oh, and one other thing I forgot to mention:
When flying in fog so dense I could not see my wingtips I had to turn off the strobe and landing lights on my airplane. This was true in daylight, but was especially critical at night or in snow or rain. If I did not the disorientation from the resulting strobe or the reflection from the landing lights could get me killed graveyard dead in a matter of seconds.
I had to make sure that the only lights my eyes would focus on were the lights of the approach light system on the end of the runway. Any other light was distracting, and potentially fatal. Once free of the clouds a quick flip of a couple of switches and I had my strobes and landing lights back on (if necessary).
I may be an alarmist, but I see way too many preachers and authors trying to fly in the theological fog with every light in and on their airplane turned as bright as it can, while ignoring the lights at the end of the runway. In other words, they are focusing entirely upon their constantly changing nature, their culture, their wants, their wishes, their desires, and the way they have decided God must think, act and judge; and they are totally ignoring the solid, immovable structure that tell us exactly how God in fact does think, act and judge.
Stated another way – we need to turn the lights off of ourselves and let the light of God’s Word guide us home.
I’m sick to death of preachers saying that some passage of Scripture can be ignored or rewritten because our culture is different from the culture in which the author lived. Yes, it is. And the culture of Paul was different from the culture of Abraham or David. But you never read of Paul disavowing Abraham or David just because they preceded him in terms of earthly chronology.
Our world is moving and changing at a speed far in excess of 100 miles an hour. The fog of contemporary culture is far more dense than any in which I ever flew. We cannot just sit back and “fly by the seat of our pants.” We have to end this infantile obsession with our narcissistic culture and realize that if we are going to safely lead others to a distant shore then we are going to have to trust the approach lights that God has given us – not our own fickle and changing opinions.
We have to turn the lights off of ourselves. God hasn’t moved since the days of Adam and Eve. He knows where firm ground is. He knows where our destination is. He has provided us with all the guidance we need. He has the approach lights turned up as bright as he possibly can.
Let us have a little faith in the light of God’s Word, shall we?
[Opinion disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this piece are mine and mine alone, and do not reflect the views of anyone that I am associated with – and that includes my wife, child, employers, my four cats, my rambunctious puppy or my very limited number of friends – or at least the friends who considered themselves my friends before they read this blog. My language is hyperbolic and some might consider it extreme. I intentionally did so for a purpose. I just want to make that point perfectly clear. In my next post I will return to a “quieter” and more analytical response. Today the right brain, tomorrow the left.]
There have been a flurry of “Christian” or biblical-themed movies hit the big screen in recent years, and especially in recent months. Just a few that come to mind are “The Passion of the Christ,” “Fireproof,” a somewhat lesser release called “The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry,” the most recent additions “God’s Not Dead,” and “Noah” and the soon to be released “Son of God” and “Heaven Is For Real.” I know I am missing many, but these are the ones that jump to my mind.
“The Passion of the Christ” and the recent release of “Noah” have generated the most discussion, mostly because they were big budget, big name releases that were heavily advertised and were, in different ways, very controversial. “The Passion of the Christ” was controversial because of the persona of Mel Gibson, hardly a choir boy, who pushed the movie from conception to completion. It was also brutally graphic – some reviewers felt it was almost obscenely so. “Noah” is controversial because (a) the only relation it has to the biblical story is the namesake and a lot of water and (b) I believe the producers and marketers of the movie wanted it to be controversial so they could sell more tickets.
In my opinion, many, though not all, “Christian” themed movies are just bad – some wretchedly so. I believe this first because of the (un)theology involved. Others suffer from low budgets and poor acting, directing and other technical aspects. Some are just so blatantly transparent that they reek of condescension and hyper-morality. Once again, in my opinion these movies are not just bad – they are bad in epic proportions – dreadfully, wretchedly, horrifically, insultingly bad.
So why are these movies so popular? Why do otherwise sane and believable ministers and bloggers scream “You HAVE to go see this movie” in bold letters and with three exclamation marks at the end? The obvious answer is that perhaps they have seen the movie and they genuinely like it. Movies are like anything else – my tastes are not everyone else’s tastes. What is garbage to me is a diamond to someone else. So, while you may think a particular movie is the greatest thing since “Gone With the Wind” I will politely say that hitting my thumb with a hammer is a far more enjoyable experience than watching it.
But I would like to suggest that there is another reason why any movie that has a vague “Christian” message is hyped so relentlessly, regardless of whether there are any artistic or theological reasons for doing so (or for avoiding it, for that matter.) I believe that most “Christian” movies are hyped and are popular with “Christian” audiences because that demographic is so starving for anything that even resembles “secular” themed movies that the Christian audience will simply neutralize any intellectual or critical component of their thinking because they want to go watch a movie that is one of “ours.” We have bought into the concept of “group-think” to the point that we cannot criticize or reject any product that has a “Christian” message because we would be guilty of shooting ourselves in the foot. I have been more than mildly amused with the fact that the greatest amount of negativity regarding the release of “Noah” is NOT directed at the movie (contrary to what some may think), but the real vitriol has been reserved for those reviewers (Christian or secular) who happen to criticize the movie on any of its major faults. It is “biblical,” it is at least tangentially related to God and faith (how much is dependent upon the viewer) and so the movie and the ones who produced it are viewed as being simply beyond criticism. “Hey Christians, we made a movie for you so shell out your money and keep your mouth shut.”
I guess I am more disappointed in the ones who should really know better – the ministers and church leaders who should (one would hope) have a greater grasp of theology and apologetics. I have to say in all honesty that the entire premise of “God’s Not Dead” is so incredibly laughable that I honestly wonder what anyone related to the film was thinking when they put the storyline together. A professor wasting an already limited amount of class time to having a debate with a student? A student getting away with yelling at a professor in front of a class? And really, how many professors would waste their time forcing their students to sign an atheist manifesto like “God is dead”? Now – I am well aware that atheistic professors will openly belittle and ridicule Christianity. But, come on people! Sometimes our spiritual xenophobia is so extreme that it borders on psychotic illness. I have agnostic/atheistic students in my classes who (a) would never set foot in a movie theatre with such a blatantly condescending title as that movie and (b) even if they did they would laugh out loud at the ridiculous setting of the movie. And they would definitely not appreciate the characterization of the professor in the movie.
Brothers and sisters, if we want to attract an agnostic or atheistic audience and honestly engage them in a meaningful discussion, insulting their intelligence is NOT the way to go about it. If we want to show that the message of Christianity is superior to that of the atheist, we should portray the atheist as the atheists or agnostics that I know – honest, kind, logical thinking people who are open to the person of Jesus but who have been led astray or even brutalized by a false manifestation of Christianity. (Incidentally – the movie itself violates a major rule of logic. In a proper philosophy class you would never be allowed to create a “straw man” type of opponent, which is exactly what the professor in the movie becomes. We think that because the “straw man” was defeated all similar arguments are thereby defeated. Nothing could be further from the truth, and the depiction is inherently misleading and therefore unethical.)
But these movies are NOT made for atheists or agnostics, they are made for “Christians,” because “God” or some biblical character’s name is in the title and they are supposed to “prove” that God is not dead or that he did thus and such thousands of years ago. They are designed to reinforce our already solid convictions. So “Christians” are shelling out dollars by the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, and no one is asking the 8 most basic, fundamental questions a Christian should ask about movies such as these – is this movie true? Is it honorable? Is it just? Is it pure? Is it lovely? Is it gracious? Is it excellent? Is it worthy of praise? (Philippians 4:8). If it fails on a majority of these questions then we should not support it. (I would also argue that these questions should be asked of ANY movie we think about seeing!)
C.S. Lewis is reported to have said that the world does not need more Christian literature. What the world needs, he said, was more literature produced by Christians that was excellent literature – good, solid, captivating stories that were told in a brilliant manner. I agree wholeheartedly with Lewis. What we need are wonderful movies, well written, beautifully acted and produced, and marketed not as “Christian” apologetics, but simply as captivating, worthwhile movies the whole family can view and enjoy.
And, maybe, if we did that, we might actually be able to engage our agnostic or atheistic friends in some honest and open discussion.
It has happened again. When in happens in multiples it gets your attention. One is an accident, two is a coincidence, three times – well, you had better pay attention.
And they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they were silent; for on the way they had discussed with one another who was the greatest. And he sat down and called the twelve; and he said to them, “If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” And he took a child, and put him in the midst of them; and taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” (Mark 9:33-37 RSV)
It would appear that there is no end of those who want to discuss among themselves who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. As I mentioned, I have come across several just in the last few days. The last one was the straw that broke this camel’s back, and so I had to vent some steam here.
There are a multitude of ways in which some declare their own superior discipleship over lesser “mere Christians.” Some do it through speaking in tongues or some other miraculous manifestation of the Holy Spirit. Some do it through rituals or practices -say fasting or praying or going on “faith walks” or the such. One favorite among preachers within the Churches of Christ is to measure Bible studies and baptisms. Some youth ministers can’t wait for summer camp so that they can carve a whole new row of notches on their spiritual six-shooter. I suppose, if I wanted to, I could add that some measure their superiority by their advanced educational degrees, or at least their advanced knowledge even if they do not have the paper to certify a degree. I mean, after all, did not Paul tell Timothy to “study to shew thyself approved unto God”? (2 Timothy 2:15, KJV) How much more of a direct command can we get than that?
The point is, it does not matter whether we quote Matthew 28:18-20 or 1 Corinthians 14:5 or 2 Timothy 2:15 until our faces turn blue – all our soap and blather will not change one basic, fundamental fact that is taught in Scripture from Genesis to Revelation – God’s grace is equal and equally undeserved and there are no levels of superior or inferior spirituality when it comes to the servants of the kingdom.
I mean, really, how many times are we going to have to hear the words of Jesus??
Listen to Paul explain, again and again, that there are NO super Christians:
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. No neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. (1 Corinthians 3:5-7 RSV)
This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. (1 Corinthians 4:1 RSV)
For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake…But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. (2 Corinthians 4:5, 7 RSV)
See also 1 Corinthians 12:4-13:13, Romans 12:3-8. Ephesians 4:9-16.
What is so distressing to me when I hear or read these promoters of super-spirituality is that it is so believable! We want to believe that if we work a little bit harder, pray a little more fervently, teach one more Bible class that someone else or are able to parse a verb in one more language than someone else that God must pay us a little more. He has to reward us a little higher. We so desperately want to believe that there are levels of spirituality, so that I can be just a little better than the scum-sucking, bottom-feeding pew-sitter taking up space and wasting valuable resources of the church. And that is the deadly sin involved in this judgment – I am better than you because according to my measurement I am just a better, holier, more spiritual disciple than you are.
So tongue speakers measure spirituality by speaking in tongues, introverts measure spirituality by hours of prayer and devotions, personal evangelists measure discipleship by the number of Bible studies conducted and baptisms accomplished and scholars measure spirituality by articles written and conferences held.
And it is all so dreadfully, profoundly, disgustingly, sinful! Pride is a sin and it does not matter who is doing the bragging.
Why can we not just accept Paul’s teaching and realize that it takes all of us to make up the kingdom? If you have a miraculous gift – fine and wonderful. But don’t condemn me because I have another gift. Can you pray for hours uninterrupted? Wonderful! Do not cast off those who are a little more distracted. Can you initiate, teach and conclude dozens of Bible studies a year? Yahoo and praise the Lord – but do not sniff down your nose at those who cannot, and according to Scripture, even should not, be doing so. And can you translate the Bible from all the original languages into dozens of others? Jump for joy and pass the printing ink – but do not condemn, judge or dismiss those who do well to read from one easy-to-read translation.
One more passage from the mouth of our Savior:
So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.” (Luke 17:10)
Let us do our duty, fulfill our gifts, lift up those who are striving to fulfill their gifts, and let us for once and for ever get over this adolescent fixation on whether we are more spiritual that someone else simply because we have a different gift.
If you are a child of the American Restoration Movement you are the product of debate. Not many of us realize that, but it is as certain as the brightness of the sun or the scent of a rose. We may describe it differently, but the reality exists. The overwhelming majority of our theological beliefs have been hammered out and refined through the process of written or oral debate.
While some criticize this, or bemoan it, in reality this is a healthy process. In fact, we can see the very first “ancestor” of the debate process in Acts 15. Two groups of people, each with differing opinions and with differing evidence to defend those opinions, meet together for an open airing of the differences and the resolution of the problem. In several of his letters the apostle Paul carries on “debates” of sorts with his readers. He offers what is, or what he believes might be, an argument against his position, and then demonstrates why that particular argument or statement is false.
Debate is NOT an evil thing.
However, I am growing more convinced by the day that civil debate in a modern setting is virtually impossible. There are many reasons why I think this is true, so let me list a few:
1. Theological positions become emotional positions, and the resulting language makes it impossible for the opposing side to articulate any kind of positive position. They are always on the defensive, and are in a no-win situation to begin with. Case in point: I just read a tweet (message on the social media Twitter) in which those who disagree with the full inclusion of women in every aspect of a Christian worship service are guilty of “gender injustice.” Now, because I disagree with the position that women can participate in every aspect of leadership within a congregation, including leadership within a worship service, automatically I am guilty of injustice. Let’s parse that for a minute – what does injustice mean to you? Cruelty? Viciousness? Overweening power and brutality? The denial of basic human dignity? How, might I gently respond, does a complementarian position in which women are viewed as equal in every sense of the word, but have differing roles to fulfill in the Christian economy, equate to injustice? Yet, the inclusion of that word precludes any rational debate.
2. Those who hold a particular opinion refuse to consider the weakness of their position, or any possible exceptions to their opinion. Case in point: growing up within the Churches of Christ I was taught from a very early age that the Greek preposition eis means “for the purpose of.” Thus it was crystal clear that when Peter said “Repent and be baptized eis the forgiveness of sins” he meant “for the purpose of receiving the forgiveness of sins.” Nothing could be clearer. I was told that those who translated the word eis as “because of” were completely wrong, both in Greek and in theology. Imagine my surprise, then, when in doing maybe the most exhaustive research that I have ever done for a series of sermons, that I discovered that there is, indeed, a use of the Greek preposition eis that has to mean “because of.” The passage is Matthew 12:41, where Jesus very clearly states that the men of Nineveh repented eis the preaching of Jonah. Now, eis cannot mean “for the purpose of” in this passage! It has to mean “because of” or “as a result of.” Now, do not get me wrong. I still believe eis in Acts 2:38 means “for the purpose of.” But I learned an important lesson. We cannot summarily dismiss every challenge to our conclusions without carefully considering the basis of that challenge. Yet, today, objections and challenges are routinely dismissed for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is mentioned in point #1 above, if you disagree with me all you are is a mean, nasty, inhuman person, and probably ignorant as well.
3. The differing sides cannot even agree on the measure that would be used to decide the truthfulness or falsity of any position. In Acts 15 the disciples relied upon Scripture and the leading of the Spirit to come to a unified position. Today that appears to be all but impossible. Returning to the issue of women and leadership roles in the church, I have repeatedly asked how it could be that Paul would so clearly and unambiguously state in Galatians 3:27-28 that women are to be full and equal partners in every possible scenario in the Lords kingdom, and yet in writings which were either possibly or even certainly produced much later than the Galatian letter reverse himself and teach that only men are to lead in certain aspects of the church. We are not simply arguing two different interpretations of Galatians 3:27-28. We are approaching the question from two entirely different philosophical and epistemological foundations. If we cannot even decide on a mutually agreeable measuring stick, how can we even begin to engage in profitable debate?
In pointing these issues out I have to admit my own weakness and shortcomings in the process. I am emotionally invested in my conclusions. After all, if a position is not worth defending it is not worth holding. And, as I pointed out in point #2, I have been guilty on more than one occasion of assigning false motives and conclusions to my opponents. I hope I am better now, and I hope I get even better with time, but human flesh is human flesh and I still catch myself violating my own standards from time to time.
I hope I am wrong, I hope that as disciples we could gather and join in a decent “conference” or debate and constructively address some of these issues. I just do not see that happening any time soon – and that saddens me.
For a people immersed and raised in the cauldron of discussion and debate we owe it to our forebears to be able to acquit ourselves better.