Category Archives: Theology
One thing I can say about Postmodernists – they sure love to talk about culture. Everything, it would appear, is connected to and limited by one’s place of birth, and especially one’s time of birth. If you were born in a patriarchal age, you were doomed to slave under a patriarchy. However, if you were born in the late 20th or early 21st century you are blessed to be an egalitarian – and a postmodern as icing on the cake.
Postmoderns do not like anything to be authoritarian, but they are especially opposed to having an ancient text provide any type of authority. For disciples of Christ this poses somewhat of a dilemma – because Jesus certainly used an ancient text (the books we refer to as the “Old Testament”) as an authority in his life. It was not a “god,” but it certainly contained the words of the true and living God; and he used the Torah not only as example but as it was designed – as a light for his feet.
Those who wish to claim a Christian lifestyle while challenging the role of the written text have come up with some ingenious methods to deal with the texts that, at least on the surface, appear to be authoritarian. Many simply deny that they belong in the canon that we call the Bible. (The word canon itself means “rule,” implying authority.) Thus, for many the letters that we call the “Pastoral Epistles” (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) were not written by the apostle Paul as the texts claim, therefore they are not authoritarian for the life of the disciple today. Others, while not willing to remove entire books, will remove certain verses within those books.
Finally, the “trump card” that many Postmoderns use is the “culture card.” Briefly stated, this argument posits that, because the authors of these ancient texts lived in times so far removed from our advanced culture, the texts they wrote cannot possibly be thought of as being an authority for our life today. Thus, these exegetes can keep the objectionable books in the canon, but they simply ignore the verses that have been found to be patriarchal, homophobic, capitalistic, militaristic – the list is almost inexhaustible. In the Postmodern setting the text is not the judge of the reader or listener, the reader or listener is the judge (and far too often, the executioner) of the text.
The Postmodern interpreter can do wonders with certain texts by pointing out the cultural differences between the time period of the various biblical authors and our own, but they have a significant problem when they come to the letter we know as 1 Corinthians. This letter is also a major point of emphasis for Postmodern interpreters, as they have issues with the apostle Paul’s apparent homophobia and male chauvinism. Thus, the letter of 1 Corinthians provides both a test case, and, in my opinion, the rock on which the ship of Postmodernism founders.
As I see it, in order for Postmodern exegetes to win the battle of interpretations they must prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that the ancient texts of the Bible were written for one specific audience, and that the only way for the texts to be valuable today is if they are “re-contextualized” to meet modern (or, better yet, Postmodern) sensibilities. On this point I will offer partial agreement. Especially in regard to the writings in the New Testament I will agree completely that they were written as “occasional” pieces – they were written to address specific questions or issues in concrete situations. However, that is where the Postmodern ends his or her exegesis, and it is at that point that I offer my strongest disagreement. And, as evidence exhibit “A,” I offer the letter of 1 Corinthians.
In terms of specific situations, we can learn that the letter we know as 1 Corinthians was written to the church of God in Corinth in approximately the middle of the first century. It’s author, destination, and approximate date are among the least debated in New Testament studies. Paul specifically mentions the issues that “occasioned” the writing of the letter – division, sexual immorality, issues of congregational life and spiritual giftedness. Therefore, the “concrete” and specific questions that the letter addresses are not to be debated. We could argue, if we so desired, that the answers that Paul gives to these issues and questions were to be used solely by the congregation in Corinth and only during the time period the original readers were alive. That is the path that Postmodern interpreters want us to walk. That would be a very easy conclusion to make – and in fact it is argued by a great many brilliant minds.
The only problem is, as I see it, the whole argument is destroyed by the text of the letter itself. Four times in the letter Paul tells the Corinthian disciples that what he is writing to them (and what he has taught them previously in person) is what he teaches “everywhere and in every place” (see 4:17, 7:17, 11:16 and 14:35). That means that in Jewish Jerusalem, in Gentile Ephesus, in Greek Athens and Corinth, and soon to be in Latin Rome Paul preached the same message and made the same points. Across multiple cultural platforms and in reaction to multiple socio-economic and political situations Paul did not “contextualize” the content of his message, although he may have contextualized the manner in which he presented it. The mode of communication may change, the content cannot be changed.
I once heard a lecture by an individual whose classical scholarship cannot be questioned. He is perhaps one of the finest scholars the Churches of Christ have produced. He was lecturing, oddly enough, on the letter of 1 Corinthians. I will never forget his conclusion. He stated that the doctrine of the living church should never be limited by the aberrations of the first century congregations to which the bulk of the New Testament was written. I was dumbfounded. If the doctrine of the church cannot be limited by the writings of the apostles to address those very aberrations, to what can we appeal for the formation and limitation of our doctrine? I had not heard of “postmodernism” at that point in my life but I have come to understand that speech in an entirely different light now than when I first heard it. What I understand now is that this scholar, who in my estimation is beyond questioning in his knowledge of the Greek language and the history of the New Testament, came to a conclusion that was in direct opposition to the words of the text. Therefore the ancient text had to be “re-contextualized” to fit his new conclusion. All he had to do was anchor 1 Corinthians to the city of Corinth in the first century, and he could advocate basically any interpretation he wished.
I have no problem accepting the fact that our Bible, and the New Testament in particular, was written by very human beings in concrete, specific situations. I would even argue that is true of the Old Testament as well. I have been taught and I believe that the more we come to understand those cultures and time periods in which our ancient texts were written we can understand and interpret the books more faithfully. I am all for learning more about the ancient world in which our Bible was written.
But I refuse to accept the conclusion that we are to leave our Bibles in the dust of those ancient civilizations. The writers of the New Testament certainly did not think that the texts of the Torah were to be left in the musty caves of Mesopotamia, Egypt or Arabia. Those texts were alive and brought life to the early church. So today, we do not abandon our New Testaments on the pillars of ancient Rome, Ephesus or Jerusalem. The text is living, it speaks to today – the spirit of God is breathing out of the text just as surely and the Spirit of God was breathed into it as it was first written. The heresy of the Postmodernist is that of turning the living and active Word of God into a dead and decaying clump of leather, papyrus or clay.
Surely we need to speak God’s word in a manner that is appropriate to the audience that is called to hear it. We must not transport our western culture into places where it would be harmful and confusing to do so. And we must be careful not to read into the text concepts that are not there, but that we wish were there, due to our specific culture and issues.
But the content of God’s revealed word is not up for negotiation. God does not change his mind simply because the calendar changes or because the reader moves from a democratic culture to a dictatorial one, or from a patriarchal culture to a matriarchal culture. God’s will and His words are eternal.
And that is a situation the Postmodernist simply cannot contextualize.
Just Peacemaking: The New Paradigm for the Ethics of Peace and War (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2008) 234 pages including end notes.
I have not mastered the art of making proficient book reviews. If you have read any of my other reviews they are basically extended comments about why you should obtain the book for yourself. A proper book review includes summaries of the author(s) main arguments and an evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of the book. Like I said, I’ve never really been taught how to do that exceptionally well, and I’m lazy to boot. But, that having been said, I will try to evaluate this book a little more carefully.
How is that for brevity? I was guided in a study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Dr. Stassen as a part of my Doctor of Ministry work at Fuller Theological Seminary. I read and loved his Kingdom Ethics. I appreciated his Living the Sermon on the Mount although it was written on a much more popular level and I felt like he oriented the book a little too much toward the popular reader. I was excited to purchase this book, which Dr. Stassen edited, as a continuation of his discussion on the importance of “Just Peacemaking” in a world that has basically gone mad.
This book simply disappointed on so many levels. I will attempt to share with you some of my frustrations.
The book begins with a 40 page introduction that needed an introduction. It was kind of like turning on the TV and hearing the announcement, “We now return to our regularly scheduled programing already in progress…” There are five names associated with the writing of the introduction, and it genuinely reads like the product of a committee. The first eight pages contain a rambling discussion of terrorism with no real context to frame the discussion. It is not until page nine that a coherent discussion of Just Peacemaking begins. The rest of the introduction is valuable, but perhaps overly lengthy. The purpose of an introduction is to introduce the subject. At 40 pages the introduction was a chapter in and of itself. As I said, the introduction needed an introduction.
The first chapter, “Support Non Violent Direct Action,” written by John Cartwright and Susan Thistlewaite, was, in this blogger’s estimation, simply dreadful. Not only dreadful, but profoundly contradictory. The authors state as the lead of the second paragraph, “Nonviolent direct action is a strategy that lances the festering boil of violence and produces healing without resort to war.” (p. 42) All well and good, if not a little flowery in the language. What “nonviolent” actions do the authors recommend? The first is boycotts, which they define as “…a concerted action designed to isolate an individual, group, or nation in order to express disapproval and to coerce change.” (p. 44) I nearly gagged on my coffee when I read that sentence. Let me get this straight – we are to lance the festering boil of violence by isolating and coercing people that we disagree with into behaving the way we want them to. It gets better. The lead of the next paragraph reads, “After 1880 the term soon came into common use, broadening to describe and include all forms of nonviolent intimidation.” So, now the priests of nonviolence have encouraged their followers to use isolation, coercion and intimidation to achieve their goals. I almost put the book down right then, but I soldiered on. (Pardon the pun).
The next nonviolent action the authors recommend is a strike. They suggest that, “Strikes have often met with considerable violence on the part of both business owners and government.” (p. 47) I suppose the authors have never heard of, nor read about, the horrific violence that strikers have used against business owners and non-workers alike. Oh well, if you are going to advocate coercion and intimidation, a little violence might not be too bad. Except that the whole point of the chapter was supposed to be “nonviolent” actions. This chapter was clearly the worst of the book, and if you can get past this entry, the rest of the book is not that bad.
The next chapter, “Take Independent Initiatives to Reduce Threat” by Glen Stassen is quite good. It is brief, to the point, and well written – all hallmarks of Dr. Stassen’s expertise. The third chapter, “Use Cooperative Conflict Resolution” is a little bit longer, but still valuable. I found the fourth chapter, “Acknowledge Responsibility for Conflict and Injustice and Seek Repentance and Forgiveness” written by Alan Geyer and Donald W. Shriver to be particularly valuable. Once again the chapter was direct, fairly brief, full of legitimate examples, and the concepts espoused fit directly into the title of the book, Just Peacemaking.
In the second (chapters 5 and 6) and third (chapters 7 – 10) sections of the book the second major flaw of the book was revealed. These chapters read like a manifesto produced by the Democratic party of the United States. The only American Presidents who received any positive mention were Democrats, and Jimmy Carter was clearly the favorite of all the authors. Ronald Reagan was vilified at every opportunity. Likewise, the Palestinians and their cause received all the positive comments, whereas the Israelis were never described as anything other than land hungry war mongers. I do not doubt but what the Palestinians have a legitimate complaint against the colonization of their land. But the one-sided nature of the treatment in this book made it sound like the suicide bombers and the indiscriminate missile firing of the Palestinian terrorists are somehow justified. The political stance of the authors was utterly transparent. And that was unfortunate in a book that was designed to be about Just Peacemaking. You cannot be a peacemaker if you are lobbing verbal hand grenades at your political opponents.
After finishing the book, especially the last sections, I could not help but think of the irony that the authors of the book really needed to read chapters 2-4 of the book and put those principles into practice in their own chapters. The authors of chapter one just need to re-write their chapter from scratch.
Okay, so I am not an accomplished book reviewer. I usually only review those books that I genuinely love and want others to read. I made an exception here, not that I do not want people to buy this book, but only that if you are interested in the title of the book that you purchase it carefully. If your politics are even moderately left-of-center you will probably love the book. The more left-of-center your politics the more you will like the book (if you can get past the theological arguments and the references to the Bible). But, if you are like me and have somewhat to moderate right-of-center politics and you are fairly conservative in your theology, this book is a frustrating read.
I will recommend you purchase the book with the above caveat in mind. If you are interested in the “new paradigm” of Just Peacemaking (a concept, by the way, that I approve of whole heartedly) then this is a good resource. The middle chapters are good, and the later chapters do have some good points. I simply wish the authors had checked their politics in the coat room when they entered the conversation hall. It would have made the book much more valuable, and also much more enjoyable to read.
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your manservant, or your maidservant, or your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates; for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it. (Exodus 20:8-11).
Being raised in the Church of Christ I grew accustomed to being among a people of “nots.” We did “not” do this, we did “not” do that. One of the defining pamphlets that seemingly was omnipresent as I was growing up was a little tract entitled, “Neither Catholic, Protestant or Jew.” That pretty much sums it up. I never knew what we were, but I could come pretty close to telling you what we were “not.”
Nothing in our pantheon of “nots” was more devoutly honored than the fact that we did “not” have to obey the fourth command of the 10 Commandments. I always thought this was somewhat strange - here God had made something pretty obvious, and yet we found a way to get around obeying it. There were many reasons given for the legitimacy of breaking one of God’s 10 Commandments, but growing up I kind of had a sneaking suspicion that most of our objection to commandment #4 was the fact that we identified ourselves significantly as “not” being Jewish. Therefore, to practice anything that smelled as if it might be connected to the Old Testament was strictly verboten. Why did we have to obey the other nine commands, you may ask? Well, because they were repeated in the New Testament, in one form or another; but luckily for us the fourth never was (specifically, anyway).
While I will never renounce my allegiance to Jesus, and I have no intention of making the Mosaic law code mandatory for entrance into the Kingdom of God, I do want to say that I am no longer comfortable with the way we have so blithely dismissed the fourth command. I have several reasons for this change of heart.
First, Jesus honored the true meaning of the sabbath command. He worshipped on the sabbath. At no point does he ever command, or even suggest, that the sabbath command could be negated. True, he healed on the sabbath. Reading the gospel of Luke it almost seems like he never healed except on the sabbath. But I believe the emphasis on the sabbath healings was to show that God really meant what he said – the sabbath was to be a day of deliverance and rest. Those who were suffering deserved to be set free from their ailments and diseases. Therefore, although a technical violation of the sabbath prohibition against work, it was a divinely sanctioned and approved technical violation, and Jesus soundly criticized the Pharisees and others because they could not see God’s hand in setting the oppressed free.
Second, the apostle Paul clearly honored the sabbath command. He sought out synagogues and other places of worship on the sabbath. Why? Well, for one reason I am sure he wanted to begin his ministry to his own people – the Jews. But I sincerely believe that he still worshipped God on the sabbath. That does not mean he did not worship on the first day of the week (we are clearly told he did – to remember the Lord’s death, burial and resurrection). But, we cannot overlook the significance Paul placed on the day of sabbath rest and worship. Not, that is, unless we want to be hypocritical about our emphasis on examples.
And, last but in no way to make the point insignificant, I believe there remains deep theological importance to the day of sabbath. For this point I want to quote Deuteronomy 5:12-15 in its entirety, even though I quoted the Exodus 20 passage above:
Observe the sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your manservant, or your maidservant, or your ox, or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day. (RSV)
You will notice, as you compare the two readings, that the Deuteronomy passage is almost verbatim a repeat of the Exodus passage, with a couple of minor variations in that more animals are listed. But there is one very important difference. In the Exodus passage the reason given for the day of sabbath rest is the account of the creation and the LORD’s day of rest. In the Deuteronomy passage the reason given for the day of sabbath rest is the event of the deliverance of the people of Israel from Egyptian bondage. The command remains the same, but the theology has changed! It remains a day of rest, but the reason has been amplified. Now we have not only a day of rest from creation, but we also have a day of rest in remembrance of divine deliverance.
Now, I simply pose the question – Do we as Christians not have an even better reason to join with God and all his creation for a day of rest?
I find it significant, profoundly so, that God goes to so much trouble to delineate all the people and animals that were to benefit from this sabbath rest. Making arguments about whether a Christian should or should not observe the sabbath is to overlook one huge aspect of the command – God is vitally concerned about how one person treats another person – and even the animal kingdom. And when we use other people to further our own agendas with no regard for their well being we are violating a core aspect of God’s nature. God has put within us the need to have a complete day of rest. You might say it is in our DNA.
You might argue that for the majority of Americans Sunday is a day of rest. I beg to differ with you. When we go out to eat Sunday lunch we force someone to open their restaurant and someone else to cook and someone else to serve. When we go to the grocery store or the convenience store we force the owners to open and the workers to be there. When we play a round of golf or go to a movie or do any one of a dozen other activities we force people to be there and serve us. We may be resting, but they are not. We force them to work on the Christian day of rest. How is that for consistency?
I have been especially mindful of this because as a minister Sunday was the hardest day of the week for me. It was my routine to teach a class and preach two sermons. Add to that the phone calls, the various “crises” that had to be dealt with on Sundays, the various committee meetings or other social events that are invariably planned for Sundays because “everybody is off on Sunday” and by the time I got home for the last time on Sunday night I was utterly fried. There is a very real reason so many children of ministers grow up hating the church. They see how abused their parents are every day of Christian rest. They see the hypocrisy.
So, yes. I am all for a day of sabbath rest, whether it is our Saturday or Sunday. A day of rest for me, my wife, my daughter, the person at the 7 to Eleven, the restaurant waitress and the hot-dog concessionaire at the ball park. A day of rest for everyone. Shut the whole stinking country down for at least 24 hours every week – lock, stock and barrel. It’s scriptural. It’s healthy.
We might even say it is a command of God.
Today, command number 2:
You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generations of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:4-6 RSV)
As all the commands have a common thread they must all be read together. But command number two is inextricably linked to command number one, the command to have not other gods before, or beside, God. In my meditation on the first command I listed some, but by no means all, of the possible gods that we set up in opposition to the one, true God.
A graven image may or may not be synonymous with another god. That is to say, a graven image, or an idol, may actually be a false god, or it may be a false representation of the one true God. For continuity sake, in my last post I mentioned that some false gods are power, sex, glory, honor, entertainment, etc. I cannot remember if I mentioned ambition or not, but certainly ambition would be a false god. I believe each of these can be represented with a “graven image” or an idol that represents that god. On the other hand, we may have an image, an idol, that we believe represents the true God, but instead of worshipping the true God, we end up worshipping the idol, which then becomes a false god. In this regard I note that in Exodus 32 the name of the LORD was mentioned in regard to the golden calf that Aaron had created. Also, in 1 Kings 12 when Jeroboam set up the two golden calves in Dan and Bethel he said, “here is your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt” connecting the two graven images to the one true God. Thus, creating a graven image certainly violates the second command, but also may violate the first command.
What are some of our graven images today?
A gun is an idol. It is an idol of the false god of power. It can also be an idol of the false god of safety and security. If I trust in the killing power of cold steel and lifeless wood, I am rejecting the power of the life-giving and life protecting God.
The flag can certainly be an idol. It is the image of political power, and also of an ideology. This is why I am growing very uncomfortable with the concept of pledging allegiance to the flag. In a very real sense I believe we are violating the second command, and possible the first as well, when we do so.
Methods of birth control can be considered idols. They are symbols of our unending fascination and slavery to our sexual natures. When anyone, male or female, loudly protests that “you cannot tell me what I can or cannot do with my body” you can be sure they are not very far away from idolatry.
Houses and cabins can be idols. We have an idol in the cool mountains to escape the summer heat. We have an idol in the warm south to escape the winter snow. We have an idol on wheels that we can drive or pull to escape the tedium of the work week. Some of us have all three, in addition to the mundane little mansion that we inhabit daily.
Health equipment are used as idols. They are images that we worship in order to create the perfectly sculpted and healthy body.
Vehicles are used as idols.
Anything that distracts us from our daily routine can be idols: music instruments, cameras, tools for hobbies, books, computers.
How do you know if any of these, or something else in your life, is an idol? Simply follow two well-traveled trails. The most obvious is the trail of money. How much money do you spend on a particular item? The larger the percentage of your annual income the greater the possibility that it is an idol. The second trail would be the trail of attention devoted to that object, especially measured by time devoted to spending with that object and the emotional attachment you have to that object.
Absolutely unwilling to part with your guns? Say hello to your idol. Salute the flag, pledge “allegiance” to the flag, and bow down before the flag as it passes by? Welcome your idol. Spend thousands of dollars annually and countless hours chasing a little white ball around a carefully manicured park? Meet your idol.
God said not to make any graven image, especially that of something involving a creature only he himself created. We have broken ourselves of worshipping calves and birds and cats and snakes. But mark these words well – our lives are full of idols.
The question is, when we stop and spend some time meditating and thinking about Exodus 20:4-6, will we rid ourselves of those idolatrous behaviors? Or will we make excuses for ourselves, and thus end up infuriating a God who very plainly tells us He will not stand for any created thing to replace Him as the center of our lives?
Dear God, as we contemplate the deeper meaning and application of this second command, please reveal to us our graven images. Purge our lives of our idolatrous thoughts. May we truly and wholly focus on you as our one and only true and living God.
I’m not exactly sure why, but I was inspired this morning with the thought that I have not really worked through the 10 Commandments in any kind of meditative or contemplative manner. I think that I have taught and /or preached through them, but I wanted to take another look at these great words. I hope my thoughts will be beneficial, but as with everything else in this blog, I am speaking primarily to me.
A word about my outline. I plan on taking one “command” per post, and then at the very end I plan on adding an essay about why I believe the 10 Commandments have been neglected in many circles of Christianity (especially so in the Churches of Christ) and what can be done to overcome that omission.
So, here is installment one.
And God spoke these words, saying, I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. (Exodus 20:1-2 RSV)
Most people think that the ten commandments begin with Exodus 20:3. That is our first mistake.
The ten commandments begin with Exodus 20:1. God is speaking to His people. He identifies Himself. But he does not identify Himself with any esoteric, profound ontological or theological definitions. God identifies Himself simply and profoundly by reference to His action. “I am your God. You know me because I am the One who just delivered you out of your miserable slavery. I am the LORD. I am the I AM. You’ve seen my mighty arm, now listen to what is in my heart.”
When we begin our study of this text in Exodus 20:3 we miss this monumental opening. We miss the main point. It would be like showing up at a wedding after the couple has departed for their honeymoon. Sure, there may be some cake left, and maybe a mint or two – but is that the point of going to a wedding?
We must see that the “10 Commandments” are built exclusively and entirely upon grace. “I am the LORD.” It is the greatest statement of grace in the Bible, repeated hundreds of times. Perhaps we are more comfortable with the “I am the good shepherd” of John’s gospel, but the meaning is the same. God is saying, “Don’t worry. I have your back. In fact, I have your front too. Just look at what I just did for you. Which would you prefer – slavery or freedom?” And that is the entire meaning of v. 2. God double identifies the place where the Israelites just were. “Out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”
Remember Egypt – the cruel taskmasters, the hours and hours of back breaking labor only to be beaten and humiliated? Bone crushing servitude with nothing to show for it? Do you remember that? Look at your hands, look at your feet, look at the backs of your neighbors – remember Egypt.
The ten commandments are all about grace. And if we miss that point we might as well not even try to study the actual commands. If we miss the grace concerning the deliverance from slavery all we do is return to the land of Egypt. Exodus 20:3-17 simply becomes another house of bondage if we miss v. 1-2. We become slaves to a legal code, a merciless task master that seeks only to impose it’s power over us. It beats us, brutalizes us, dehumanizes us. Built on the foundation of v. 1-2, however, and the commands become avenues of God’s grace.
It is interesting that in the original Hebrew text, the description for what follows are the “10 Words.” Not commandments, even though they may take the imperative form. No, this section of the inspired text is referred to as the “10 Words.” I believe that in the overall theology of the Bible this point is profound. In the beginning God spoke simple words and the world was created. In the book of Isaiah we read that “my words will not return to me empty.” In the prologue of the gospel of John we read that, “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
And the decalogue, the great charter of the Israelite nation, is referred to by these Israelites as the “10 Words.”
I like that. The 10 Words of Grace. That just sound so much more inviting, so much more welcome, so much more, well, God-like than the “10 Commandments.”
Mind you – these are still commands, they remain strictures about how a child of God is to think, act and believe. But they are primarily words of grace. And that makes them foundational for any understanding of the work of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God and the very personification of Grace.
May we hear these words always new, always fresh. Amen.
Have you ever been relatively sure of something, or maybe even profoundly sure of something, only to find out at a later time that you were relatively, or maybe even profoundly wrong? I hate it when that happens. Especially when I am the perpetrator and the victim.
Matthew 7:6 has always been a “question mark” verse for me. I know how others have interpreted it in the past, and for the most part I have agreed with them. The traditional interpretation is that Jesus is telling us to not call people dogs or pigs (I mean, in 7:1 he just told us not to judge, right?); but, as the interpretation goes, some people are just dogs and pigs. So, even though we are not supposed to, we end up judging people. We decide they are not worth having the gospel preached to them (“that which is holy” and the “pearls”). The amplified interpretation is that, while we are not supposed to judge people’s hearts or motives, we are supposed to be “fruit inspectors” (Mt. 7:16) and if someone looks like a pig, grunts like a pig, and acts like a pig, well, who are we to say otherwise?
As I said, this was my standard interpretation – one I taught and preached for years. I’ve never been 100% comfortable with that interpretation because there was always a nagging question in the back of my mind about how 7:6 was related to 7:1. But, many minds much more brilliant than mine have taught this traditional interpretation, so I put aside my uneasiness and just assumed I was being a little too hyper-critical.
In his article, “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-7:12), Dr. Glen Stassen has finally given me the answer to my question mark. I encourage you to find the article and read it in its totality, as I do not have the time or the inclination to repeat Dr. Stassen’s entire article here. However, to make a fine and complex argument very short, Dr. Stassen points out that in the contemporary literature that would be circulating during Jesus’ lifetime, the epithets “dog” and “pig” was most uniformly applied to the Romans, and to the Roman government in particular. It is true that the epithets were hurled at other groups, but the overwhelming majority of uses applies to the Romans and the Roman government.
As a striking example of how this played out in the gospel, note the story of Jesus healing the demoniac at Gerasa (Mark 5:1-20). Note the language. Jesus asked the demoniac what his name was, and the man replied, “legion.” Now, a legion is a lot of demons, but a “Legion” was also the identification of a Roman military unit. When Jesus cast the demon(s) out of the man, the “legion” entered into a herd of pigs. Dr. Stassen points out that in the first century, in a culture in which the Roman occupation was hated with a deep passion, this little play on words would not go unnoticed. Was Mark trying to make a point about Jesus’ power over the Roman government, or was this just a fortuitous slip of the pen? It does certainly give me pause to think that there is something else to be considered in Matthew 7:6.
By keeping the “triadic” formula in mind, we see that Matthew 7:6a fits the “traditional teaching” portion of the triad. The “vicious cycle” comes next – if we give that which is holy and the costly pearls to the dogs and pigs they will not care about them or us. They will trample that which is holy and valuable and turn to attack us. The “transforming initiative” then follows, with an extended illustration. We are to continue to keep asking God for that which we need, we are to keep searching for that which we need, and we are to keep knocking at the throne room of heaven. If we ask, we will receive; if we seek we will find; and if we knock it will be opened to us.
But what is Jesus talking about here? Going back to Matthew 6:19 (the verse that takes up immediately after Jesus’ emphasis on the spiritual disciplines) Jesus has been focused on the Kingdom of God, and our relationship to that Kingdom. What Dr. Stassen points out is that we are to keep asking, seeking and knocking for the Kingdom to arrive on earth. Our trust, our hope, the point of our asking, seeking and knocking must be the reign of God on earth. If we hope and trust in his reign, if we ask for it, seek for it and knock on heaven’s door for it to be opened, we will receive, find and have it given to us.
So, if “that which is holy” and the costly “pearl” is our hope, our faith, our trust, how do we throw those things to the dogs and pigs? Simply by giving our faith, our hope, our trust to any and or every human government that we find ourselves subject to.
Bingo! Just like the light bulb coming on over the cartoon character’s head, suddenly now I get it.
Jesus is saying here that the most precious thing we can give to God is our hope, our faith, our allegiance. If we give those things to an earthly government, it will not respect those gifts nor those who give them. They will trample those precious gifts underfoot and then turn and attack the people who surrender those precious possessions.
Can anyone say, “The United States Government?”
I know I sometimes sound like a broken record – the same line being repeated endlessly. But I am just struck by how profound this teaching is throughout Scripture, and this view of Matthew 7:6-21 simply magnifies that teaching to me.
For well over 200 years now Americans have given their allegiance, their hope, their faith, and their trust to a piece of paper called “The Constitution of the United States of America.” Certain individuals have viewed it as the 67th book of the Holy Bible. Some conservative Christians can quote from the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence more accurately than they can quote the words of Jesus. But let me ask every conservative, red-white-and-blue, flag waving Constitutionalist what that devotion, how that adoration has benefited the church of Christ?
We now have abortion on demand – and millions of babies die each year at the simple request of their mother. We have some states in which assisted suicide is legal and protected. The use of mind-altering drugs is increasingly becoming legal and protected (the most obvious is alcohol!). Building, staffing and filling prisons with prisoners is a growth industry. We have states in which same-sex marriage is legal and protected. But formal prayers in public schools and in public meeting places is illegal. Posting portions of Scripture in a public place is not allowed. Increasingly we have more and more limits on what once was considered to be free speech. On the other hand, vulgarity, nudity and violence are common themes even in forms of entertainment that are primarily oriented toward children. The divorce rate is astronomical, the birth rate among unwed teenagers is unconscionable, and a federal judge just ruled within the past week that any female should be able to receive an abortifacient drug over-the-counter with no prescription needed. Yes, indeed. We truly are a Christian nation.
We gave everything we considered to be high and holy to the government, and it return it trampled those offerings under foot and now has turned and started to attack those who surrendered those gifts.
Just like Jesus said it would happen.
When will we wake up, disciples of Christ? When will we quit throwing that which is holy and our precious pearls in front of a government that despises them and us? When will we finally understand that the only thing that the government wants is more power? And how long will it take us to finally realize that the government will do anything and everything it needs to in order to achieve that ultimate power?
And when will we start giving our faith, our hope, our trust, and our allegiance back to God?
“But seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you.” Matthew 6:33.
This ends my series of thoughts on the Sermon on the Mount, and in particular, Dr. Glen Stassen’s profound explication of this sermon. I hope it has benefited you as much as it did me.
And I hope that we will soon begin to put this Radical Sermon into some very concrete behavior!
(Note: some bad grammar and punctuation fixed, and sentence clarified 4/14/13. Sorry about the confusing sentence.)
Warning: ill-tempered rant immediately ahead.
Don’t lie to God. He takes a pretty dim view of people who lie to Him. Just a couple of examples -
In 1 Samuel 15 King Saul is given a specific command to destroy the people of Amalek. We recoil from the command because it sounds so genocidal. However, that was the command, and apparently King Saul understood it quite literally. So he marches off and almost completely and totally obeys the command. Then he lies to God about the “almost” part. “But I did obey the LORD!” Saul answered. (1 Sam. 15:20). Problem was, he did not. He had spared the king and the finest of the animals, ostensibly for sacrifice, but spared them none-the-less. In response Samuel said,
“Does the LORD take pleasure in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the LORD?”
Then Samuel told Saul that God had rejected him as king, and that meant that Saul’s sons would be rejected as well. There would be no Saul dynasty.
You see, when you lie to God you really cannot fool him, and he takes a pretty dim view of the attempt.
Example #2 – in Acts 5 the author Luke interrupts his litany of events about church growth and all the good things that are happening in and through the miraculous working of the Holy Spirit to relate a very sordid story. A married couple sells a piece of land and brings a portion of the proceeds to the apostles for distribution to the poor. The only problem is that they lied to God about the amount of money they had received. God took a pretty dim view of the deception. First Ananias and then his wife Sapphira fell dead before the church. A harsh end for such a little transgression, we might say. It just goes to highlight the importance God places on our honesty.
Don’t ever lie to God. He takes a pretty dim view of people who lie to Him.
I may be barking up the wrong tree here, but there are a couple of lies that I keep hearing that are really beginning to bother me – bother me deeply and with increasing passion.
Lie #1 – “I want everyone to know that I really, really, really love the church, but…” The sentence can come in many different shades of “really” but though the form may change the content never does. What follows this supposed confession of love for the church is invariably a lengthy screed condemning the church and everyone who would defend the church. The church is hypocritical. The church is corrupt. The church is hopelessly out of date. The church needs to wake up and start doing things the way the author deems critical or it will simply cease to exist.
Pardon me for being blunt, Mr. or Mrs. church critic, but it is obvious that you really do not love the church. Your opening line is designed to get me to lower my defenses. “Oh, I should not judge Mr. or Mrs. Critic so harshly” my inner voice is supposed to lecture me, “see how much he or she loves the church.” Except that it is a bogus love, a false love, a poisonous love served up in a golden goblet.
To love the church means that you love something that is filled with humans and by that very definition itself means that it is imperfect – tainted with sin, broken and in need of Christ’s healing. Here is some news for you, Mr or Mrs. church critic – the church will never be perfect. It has never been perfect and it will not be perfect even after you get through lecturing it. It will not be perfect even if it followed every one of your perfect solutions. Until Jesus comes to claim his Bride the church will still have its blots and blemishes. That is why Paul prayed daily with tears and great anxiety. He knew that Christ has called his church to be pure, but he also knew that the people who made up each individual congregation were far from pure.
I find it personally repugnant that so many of the people who are ostensibly in love with the church (and yet who make a healthy living out of disciplining the church) have given up on the idea of serving a local congregation. Now that I have “shown my cards” so to speak maybe I should just go ahead and reveal how I really feel. But if Mr. or Mrs. church critic is not covered in the muck and mud of daily congregational ministry I just really do not care about what they have to say about fixing the church (or abandoning the church). And that is especially true of all these 20 somethings who have never been in a position to truly minister to a bent and broken local congregation and who are writing all those books and blogs and producing all the videos that carp and criticize the efforts of those who are spending their days and nights wallowing in the muck and mud of exhausting congregational ministry.
Hey, Mr. or Mrs. church critic – if you don’t smell like sheep then what business do you have to tell me how to shepherd mine? Or, to be more theologically correct, what business do you have to tell me how to shepherd God’s sheep?
And while I’m at it – how about a word to our schools who are preparing and sending these twenty-somethings out into the world to criticize something they have no experience in serving? How dare you claim to be producing servants of the Crucified One when the majority of your graduates have no intention of serving God’s people in a local congregation? How can you defend taking young men and women and filling their heads with the idea that the church is something to be studiously avoided? How can you claim that you study the opening chapters of virtually all of the apostle Paul’s letters (Galatians notably excepted) and at the same time suggest that serving a local congregation is somehow beneath the dignity of your esteemed graduates? Maybe you are trying to get them to go into congregational ministry and they simply refuse. Maybe. But if a majority of your graduates have no plans to enter congregational ministry does that not speak poorly of the emphasis you place upon the local congregation and its value in the Kingdom of God?
Don’t lie to God. Really – just don’t.
Lie #2 – “I really, truly, deeply, love Jesus – I just don’t love the church.” Everything I said about lie #1 applies to lie #2, except that lie #2 is more insidious. Who would ever think of challenging someone who really, really, truly and deeply loves Jesus, especially if they have the audacity to admit they do not love the church? Except, once again, that is an outright lie. You cannot love Jesus and at the same time dislike the church.
Here is a quick test – for whom did Jesus die? If you said “me” or “each person” you get half credit. Jesus did not die for individuals, to create an individual salvation, so that each person could imagine an individual heaven where he/she can individually worship God. Jesus died for the sins of all people collectively, in order to create a new community of those who believe in Him, and for the purpose of establishing a new and eternal kingdom where untold thousands from “every nation, tribe, language and people” are gathered together to live in perfect unity in worship to God. On earth that kingdom is called the church. If you do not love the church, if you dislike the church, if you do not want to have anything to do with the church, then by that very admission you no longer love the one who died to redeem that community for God. We in America have taken “individualism” to such an extreme that we have utterly corrupted the communal view of the Kingdom of God. I cannot think of a single passage of the New Testament that speaks of Jesus dying for an individual separate and apart from the community of other redeemed sinners. Perhaps one exists, but I would hasten to add that if such a passage exists it is written within the immediate context of the community of the saints. The inspired authors of our New Testament simply did not write to bless our American view of individual salvation.
I was going to say I wonder about how God feels about so many people lying about their relationship with Him. But, I really don’t have to wonder at all.
God takes a very dim view of folks who lie about Him. Just ask a deposed king and a couple of suddenly deceased land owners.
That has to be the longest title to a blog that I have ever written. I hope the post is not correspondingly as long.
I was really not zoned into the “blogosphere” when Pope Benedict XVI was selected, so I really cannot say that I heard or read much about his selection. But I have been following the election of Pope Francis with some interest. I will have more to say about my thoughts about that in a moment.
I have to say I have truly been disheartened by some of my fellow non-Catholics in their response to this event. Honestly, brothers (and maybe a sister or two), if I was a Roman Catholic and I stumbled across some of your invective disguised as teaching I would not even pay you the common courtesy to give you the time of day if you were to ask. Talk about speaking misrepresentations of opinions in a tone of hatred. Some of the articles have even offended me, and I am not a Roman Catholic. I especially despise those brilliant thinkers who imagine themselves to be profound apologists and recommend to any Roman Catholic who happens to be reading (and there are precious few, I guarantee) that they read the Bible. That is so special. And inflammatory. And so grossly stereotyped. And just so patently wrong.
I spent a year serving in a hospice (an organization designed to ease the suffering of those who are dying). I was able to serve many individuals from an amazing number of spiritual and non-spiritual backgrounds. Being in New Mexico the largest number of patients I served were Roman Catholics. Most, (but certainly not all) were deeply committed, very devoted and had a profound love for the church. Now I realize that I was dealing mostly with the elderly, and that was a generation where members of all religious groups were very committed, devoted, and had a profound love for the church. But what I found among the Catholics that I did not expect was a deep love for and respect for the Bible. I had always been told that Catholics never read the Bible, or only were concerned about what their priest said about the Bible. What I discovered was almost diametrically opposite to that stereotype. When I would approach them and ask what I could do to help them, they always asked for prayer and the majority also asked that I read a passage of Scripture. Some had a favorite text, many just wanted me to read to them – from the Bible and not from a Catholic publication. So, as I hopefully served them, I also received an education, one that I treasure to this day.
The second education I received came in my Doctor of Ministry program. I had the privilege of studying under a Franciscan priest who really opened my eyes concerning the functioning of the Roman Catholic church. As he explained it, the Roman Catholic church is truly a “big tent” concept. There are many communities within the larger framework of the church, each with a special life of its own, and some even eyeing each other with a certain amount of suspicion and envy. That is the ugly side of the church. The good side of that openness is that you do not have some “one size fits all” mentality that afflicts many non-Catholic groups. For example: when I was growing up all I ever heard was that if you were a Christian you had to be an evangelist/preacher/teacher/baptizer. If you did not baptize as many people as you could you might still be allowed to go to heaven, but you would only be allowed in the steerage section – you would never be allowed up to first class. I can’t tell you how many sermons I heard that asked me the question, “will there be any stars in your crown” as if a person baptized under your tutelage would entitle you to another star. I will not go into great detail as to how I loathe that theology.
Which brings me to my thoughts on Pope Francis. When I first heard his background and his chosen name I associated “Francis” with Francis Xavier, one of the men who established the Society of Jesus – the Jesuits – of which Pope Francis is a member. But later I was to read that he chose the name Francis in honor of Francis of Assisi. Now, having been raised in Santa Fe New Mexico, I have a special interest in St. Francis of Assisi. (The entire name of Santa Fe in English would be “The city of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi.” I’m sure glad I don’t have to print that on all my legal paperwork!) So, to make things short and sweet, the Roman Catholic church has in Pope Francis a Jesuit (deeply committed to the imitation of Jesus, and generally considered to be the scholarly circle within the Roman Catholic church) and a devoted follower of St. Francis who was the founder of the Order of the Friars Minor – an order devoted to preaching and to the care of the poor and dispossessed.
We have, in other words, the blending of two of the most radically different, although not opposed, circles within Roman Catholicism. This I find to be utterly captivating. Such a blending of viewpoints would be virtually unheard of within the church in which I was raised. I love my heritage, but it did not take me long to realize that within the Churches of Christ you either agreed with me or you were going to hell. And that included every possible minuscule detail. If you used too many cups in the administration of the Lord’s Supper or if you raised your hands during a song – I’m sorry, that’s it. You’re done.
I find that same spirit of demonization and hatred all too common in blog posts regarding the selection of the Roman Pope. And so, as the title of this post argues, it is far better to have people think you are a fool than to write a blog post and to remove all doubt. If you are looking for a few “amens” from the choir section, then go right ahead and spew your venom. If you are looking to invite Roman Catholic readers to consider your thoughts – well, let’s just say they have more constructive blogs to read.
I should be able to leave this disclaimer unsaid, but I will state it just for the record. I am not a Roman Catholic. I do not agree with much of the officially sanctioned dogma of the church. I believe that I am to base my faith on the person of Jesus as revealed in the clear teachings of Scripture, and that the rules and doctrines of men only serve to cloud and pollute those teachings. And so, while I understand where a great many of the teachings of the Roman Catholic church arise, I reject them as being man-made and ultimately contrary to the New Testament. I must add – this applies to my own heritage, and so I must be ever vigilant to guard my own thoughts and ideas against man-made traditions, something that is difficult and painful at times to do.
I have said in other posts that I have been deeply touched by Roman Catholic writers and theologians. If I had been a member of the “unchurched” and I came across a book written by Henri Nouwen or Thomas Merton I might have been convinced to become a member of the Roman Catholic church. I do not hold the gross excesses in the history of the church against modern Roman Catholics, any more that I wish to be blamed for the sins of the early settlers of the United States. I would like to judge a people, or a faith, based on their brightest lights, not their dimmest bulbs.
Which, by the way, is exactly why I do not want Roman Catholic readers to judge me by some of the hate filled, ignorant posts written by some of my non-Catholic counterparts.
(Oops – my first copy of this post identified the OFM as the Order of St. Friars Minor. My bad – that is the Order of the Friars Minor, the “Little Brothers” of St. Francis. I hope my slip is not showing too much.)
Hearing of a church (or part of a church) having worship in a bar is nothing particularly new – especially if you follow the writings of the Emergent Church. It has been the practice for some time for those who consider themselves to be a part of the “Emergent Conversation” to apply their “missional” theology and to establish worship communities in any number of venues – disco clubs, coffee houses, and yes, bars and pubs. Such endeavors are considered “edgy,” “missional” and “relevant” in our culture today. As I said, such endeavors have been in practice for quite some time now. What is new is for a fairly conservative church to do so. And so when a congregation of the Churches of Christ decided to establish a “Bar Church” and that decision was reported by the Christian Chronicle, quite a bit of fur flew. For some it was the first they had heard of such a thing. For others it was a “ho, hum” moment and they wondered why it took so long for a Church of Christ to do so publicly.
I responded to the article in the Christian Chronicle, but I felt that the issue demanded a more in-depth response than just a brief comment. So, for better or for worse, here is my understanding of the issues involved, and why I believe such an endeavor is wrong-headed even if it is right-hearted.
To begin with, I understand the thinking behind the “missional” movement, even if that term is so elastic as to be virtually worthless (and it is). I understand that for too many people the church has been an enclave of the pious and the self-righteous and they believe that the “established church” is either dead or dying, and something needs to be done about it. I get the heart. It is the head that I think is utterly wrong here, and when the head and the heart are going in two different direction the end result cannot be pretty.
One of the greatest weaknesses I see in the “Emergent” or the “Missional” church/movement/conversation is a blurring (or abject erasure) of the distinction between the holy and the profane. To set the table we must consider some of the foundational passages of the Israelite People of God:
The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.’” (Lev. 19:1, NIV)
You must distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean, and you must teach the Israelites all the decrees the LORD has given them through Moses. (Lev. 10:10 NIV)
Her priests do violence to my law and profane my holy things; they do not distinguish between the holy and the common; they teach that there is no difference between the unclean and the clean; and they shut their eyes to the keeping of my Sabbaths, so that I am profaned among them. (Ezekiel 22:26 NIV)
I will make known my holy name among my people Israel. I will no longer let my holy name be profaned. (Ezekiel 39:7 NIV)
Those quotations should be sufficient, although they are hardly exhaustive. There is a difference between the holy and the common, between the clean and the unclean. Repeatedly and emphatically the Israelites were commanded to observe the difference, and to keep the two separate. It should come as no surprise, then, when Peter wrote in his letter to the disciples dispersed throughout the Mediterranean world:
But just as the one who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:15)
Disciples have a hard time with holiness. For one thing, it is hard to maintain any kind of level of separation from the world today, let alone any kind of separation that would fit the description of “holiness.” Second, for generations now the big knock against Christianity has been that “you all are just a bunch of self-righteous, ‘holier than thou’ hypocrites.” So, in order to avoid being called “holier than thou” we run from anything that would separate us from the world.
Except, unless I misunderstand a major, repeated theme throughout Scripture, being separate and apart from the world is exactly what a disciple is called to be.
Returning to the issue of having a “church” or “worship” service in a place where intoxicating beverages are sold for the purpose of dulling senses, if not to the point of absolute drunkenness, then certainly as close to that line as possible. What is the purpose? This is the “heart” issue that I said I get. The intent is to reach people who would not ordinarily attend a “formal” worship service, especially among a group of people who use a special kind of language and dress and act in a way that is completely foreign to the way in which the “unchurched” person lives and speaks.
But what about the “head” issue? What is being communicated when we cease to make any distinction between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean?
I find it especially meaningful that in the Leviticus 10:10 passage I quoted above the immediate context relates to drinking intoxicating beverages when the priests were to enter into the Tent of Meeting to preside at worship. I also find it noteworthy that the apostle Paul in his letter extolling the perfection of the Church as the Bride of Christ uses the term “holy” as a bookend to both begin and end his thoughts (Ephesians 1:4, 5:27). Notice as well that in the Ezekiel 22:26 passage the removal of the distinction between the holy and the profane had a direct result of the profaning of the Sabbath. If you don’t know the difference between holy and profane, then you cannot separate yourself from the one in order to worship and praise the other.
Fellow disciples of Christ – we can have the best, the purest of intentions and still be woefully ignorant of both the error and the negative consequences of our actions. In Exodus 32, Aaron proclaimed a “festival to the LORD,” but the people were worshipping a golden calf and “afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.” (v.5-6) The apostle Paul had this to say about his fellow Jews:
Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from god and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. (Romans 10:1-3 NIV)
I am all in favor of reaching the multitudes of “unchurched” individuals, and I am fully in sympathy to those who see old and decaying churches as being utterly incapable of taking the initiative of reaching those individuals. But, honestly, moving worship to a bar? There can be no distinction between the “holy and the common, between the clean and the unclean” if the Holy Spirit is confused with 90 proof Tennessee sipping spirits.
As I stated in my comments regarding this right-hearted but wrong-headed endeavor: there are a lot of descriptions which might be used of such an effort. But “biblical, “missional,” “Christian,” or “holy” cannot be among those terms used.
May God give us a heart to reach the lost. But may he bless us with wisdom in our efforts so that the line between the holy and the profane, the clean and the unclean is never breached. God does read the heart. He knows our motivations. But the manner in which we exercise those intentions cannot be so profane that they ultimately defeat the intent of our heart. We must remain pure in motive and in practice!
A bit of a warning here for those readers who are not members of the Churches of Christ, the group that is most widely recognized as the most conservative wing of the American Restoration Movement. If you are not familiar with our history or our struggles this post may sound strange, if not worse. If you care to read on I do believe that what I say, or rather ask, is beneficial for any group, any disciple of Christ. I am writing from my own experience, my own heritage. Therefore, I do feel I have a right to voice these concerns.
As a member of the Church of Christ I have felt a special blessing. I have been raised from an infant in a heritage that treasures the written Word of God and seeks to measure all matters of faith and practice by this outside measuring tool. In addition, the history of the early church is often researched to illuminate various issues and to provide guidance where the Scriptures are silent, or are at least open to more than one interpretation. This is how we have lived and worked and studied and worshipped.
This dual basis of authority is seen in virtually every aspect that makes the Churches of Christ “unique” or “different.” In the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper we see where Scripture and the history of the early church point to both the immersion of adult believers and the weekly remembrance of the last supper. In matters of worship, where specifics are not readily forthcoming, we believe that the history of the early church validates our understanding of acapella singing and an emphasis on the preached word. In church organization we believe that each congregation is autonomous and that each congregation is to be led by a plurality of male leaders, known variously as elders, bishops, or overseers. We refer to ourselves as the Church of Christ (or little “c” church of Christ for some) as we do not want to be known as a denomination, but as an identity – the church which is known as being owned by Christ. The capitalization of the “c” has caused no small amount of ink to be spilled, and I do not wish it to be a symbol of denominationalism.
I know what to do if I was to challenge or to reject any or all of these identifiers, plus a number of others. Integrity would demand that I would say, “Listen, I love my heritage but I no longer believe ‘x’ ‘y’ or ‘z’ and so I am leaving the fellowship.” But what do you do if the church leaves you? What if you are standing where you think you need to stand, and you look around and everyone is looking at you as if you just cursed your mother?
I know I spend a large part of my life confused. But that is where I am right now. I am confused. Bamboozled. Flummoxed. Gobsmacked.
Part of my confusion may be my own limited point of view. Maybe I am just not seeing the whole picture. But it appears to me that a huge number, perhaps a majority, and perhaps an overwhelming majority, of members of the Church of Christ see absolutely nothing wrong with using violence and weapons of violence, perpetuating the cycle of violence, and even demanding that others perpetuate the cycle of violence all in the name of “self-defense” and the right to own guns.
There is nothing in the Scriptures which teach this – particularly the New Testament. Jesus clearly and repeatedly renounced violence and the use of weapons of violence. The early church, as evidenced in the book of Acts, certainly did not condone using weapons of violence and did not use them. Stephen and James went to their deaths as martyrs, not casualties of war. The other apostles and early disciples were arrested, but none resisted with force. What we see from the pages of the early church historians validates this adherence to a policy of non-violence.
The modern response to this biblical and early non-biblical evidence is, “well, of course they did not resist. They were in the minority. If they had resisted they would have all been killed.”
Oh. So the nations that have been trying to exterminate the Jewish people have not been able to do so because the Jews were more numerous and had better weaponry? From the days of Mt. Sinai until today? Is that your understanding of history?
It is far easier to exterminate someone who is unarmed than someone who is well armed. At least that is the argument that is being made to promote a violent response to violence. Why then was the church able to survive and even grow when their response to violence was pacifist? The church has grown the fastest in times of persecution. So, what exactly does that do to the argument that we must use violence to protect ourselves?
This turn of hermeneutics is a fascinating method of doing theology – especially for a movement that is known for being a biblicist movement. “Avoid weapons if you are a minority and will lose, because that is what the Bible teaches, but the moment you attain majority status and have access to better weaponry it is perfectly okay to use weapons of violence because that is what the Bible teaches.” I think I lost something in the logic there.
What I see happening is this discussion/debate is ultimately a battle over power. Those who own guns and teach that we ought to use them as a response to violence believe that they are in the ultimate power position and they refuse to consider leaving it. They do not want to surrender their power. And believe me, if you have a gun and I do not, or if you have a bigger gun than I do, you are in the power position. That is what is being taught, and it apparently is being followed by a great many people.
But, and correct me if I am wrong, did not Jesus teach a reversal of the power equation? Did he not come to surrender his power? Did he not come to teach us that the only way we are going to have peace on this earth is if we learn to do things God’s way? And is the cross not the ultimate image of the reversal of power? Is not the cross the picture of the Son of God surrendering all of his Divine power in order to bring peace and salvation to a violent world?
If you arm a half-dozen men (and women) in your congregation to guard against a violent encounter, you may never have that encounter. But you will not have peace in your assembly. You will have overcome evil by means of evil. You will have overcome the use of violence by the threat of greater and more lethal violence. That, by its very nature, means the absence of peace. You may not have open conflict. But the fear that destroys peace will always be present. It will always keep peace from your assembly. And, if I understand Jesus correctly, that means you lose.
So, what I am wondering is, what do you do when your church leaves you? I still believe in defining doctrine and practice by first examining Scripture and then by confirming my conclusions by examining the history of the early church. That is what I was taught, it is what I believe, and I cannot leave that position in good conscience unless someone teaches me that I have been wrong.
Now I am being told that Jesus’ words of non-violence, that the early church’s use of non-violent resistance and the clear evidence of the first couple of centuries of church writings are all to be ignored because of the 2nd amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the overwhelming need to arm ourselves for the purpose of self-preservation.
I am experiencing a major case of spiritual whiplash here. Everything that I was taught is being rejected, and everything that I was taught to reject is being promoted.
Am I wrong here? Did I, as Bugs Bunny so famously did so long ago, take a wrong turn in Albuquerque?
Who moved? And where am I supposed to go now?