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Speaking in an Echo Chamber and Totally Missing the Point

(Note: this should probably go without saying, but this is my reaction to a recent series of events, so, if you have another take on the discussion, good on ‘ya.)

Another “tempest in a teapot” amid a larger hurricane has erupted in the fellowship of the Churches of Christ. To summarize, Matthew Morine wrote an article in the Gospel Advocate excoriating those who advocate for gender egalitarianism in the Churches of Christ. Deeply offended, yet feigning magnanimity, Mike Cope responded in Wineskins, excoriating Matthew Morine and anyone who would dare agree with him. Together the two articles accomplished nothing but to establish that a deep division regarding this issue has already occurred in the Churches of Christ. Unless one side or the other experiences a major manifestation of the Holy Spirit, there will be no repairing it.

First, a little background for those who might be confused. Matthew Morine’s article in the GA was written as red meat for the most entrenched, conservative segment of the brotherhood. It was something akin to a warm-up before the key-note speech at a political convention. Was it thoughtful, carefully reasoned, and tactfully delivered? No, no and no. I’m not sure it was supposed to be. Morine is something of a wunderkind to the conservative right, and he is a favorite author in the GA fold. Mike Cope, on the other hand, is one confirmed miracle away from being canonized as a saint in the progressive left of the brotherhood. His writings serve as the red meat entree for the progressives. Politically speaking, Cope is Barak Obama to Matthew Morine’s Ted Cruz. It is matter, meet anti-matter.

The problem is that Morine has expressed (however provocatively) a concern that many – conservative or moderate – feel is a legitimate critique of the egalitarian left’s position: it is biblically and theologically weak, fueled mainly, if not exclusively, by cultural pressure. Cope, presented with an opportunity to take the high road and explain his position in clear biblical terms, totally wiffed, choosing rather to express his umbrage that Morine would dare attack his motives.

Well, at the severe risk of causing Cope and his followers even more emotional pain, a great many people do look at his conclusions and question his motives. Morine may have been too acerbic (actually, he was too acerbic), but his challenge was spot-on. I would say that my main problem with Morine’s content was that he misidentified the hypocrisy of the egalitarian left. It is within that element of the brotherhood that the loudest complaints about “proof-texting” a position can be heard. Yet, when it comes to gender egalitarianism, their entire argument is built on one single verse from the book of Galatians, and it is completely taken out of context, and twisted into something Paul never intended. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.

Neither Cope, nor any other egalitarian I have read, has adequately addressed Morine’s basic observation: their position is based on a misinterpretation and misapplication of Galatians 3:27-28, and in order to defend this misinterpretation, they must either excise or condescendingly dismiss several other passages of Scripture which contradict their position. Harrumph if you want, but throwing a temper-tantrum when your conclusions are challenged is not an effective apologetic technique.

The issue as I see it is that both Morine and Cope are speaking in an echo chamber and talk completely past each other. Morine could have been, and should have been, much more respectful. He, or someone at GA should have edited his article to be less acerbic and confrontational. Cope totally missed Morine’s point, choosing rather to express hurt feelings rather than address issues. I honestly have to ask why Cope was even concerned with Morine and the GA. Does he even think that his readers are going to care about the GA?

I said above, and I fully believe, that a schism equal to the instrumental music division of the last century has already occurred within the Churches of Christ. Just as it is impossible for two groups to worship simultaneously with and without instruments (however congregations try to paper over this division with “separate” worships services), you cannot worship simultaneously as a male-led congregation and a matriarchy. Just my opinion here, but it seems to me that there needs to be a clean break and we need to stop this illusion that we are all one big happy family. There needs to be a “Churches of Christ” and a “Churches of Christ / Instrumental and Egalitarian” (Funny, but the two “improvements” are virtually inseparable.)

One other observation about Cope’s response. He added that his “journey” from a male-led leadership to an egalitarian position was “painful.” That is a common thread in “journeys” from traditional convictions to progressive ones. I wonder why that is? If you move from a conviction that worship in song should be acapella to an acceptance of instrumental music, your “journey” is harrowing, painful and gut-wrenching. Why? It seems to me that if you can throw off the shackles of hundreds of years of bad exegesis and even worse theology, the process would be enlightening, exhilarating, and joyful. Same with egalitarianism. Why the angst? Why the pain? It seems to me that if you can scrape 2,000 years of encrusted barnacles of patriarchy off of your congregational cruise ship, why would that be so painful? I would think you would be ecstatic. The whole thing just sounds a little too “Oprah Winfrey” to pass my sniff test.

If someone can explain to me, using established methods of exegesis and hermeneutics, how Galatians 3:27-28 can have any association with male or female leadership in the Lord’s church, I am ready to listen (or read). If anyone can explain how Paul can be so clearly right in Galatians 3:27-28, but be so clearly wrong in Corinthians and Timothy, let me know. If someone can convince me that Jesus could overturn virtually every oppressive and Spirit-rejecting religious aspect of his culture but the one issue of male spiritual leadership – please enlighten me. But, be forewarned, my  obfuscation meter is set to high sensitivity – so don’t try the “Hillary Clinton” condescension trick or the “Bart Ehrman” re-write the New Testament trick. As the old saying in this part of the country goes, this ain’t my first rodeo, ma’am.

(Note: I have been informed that Matthew Morine was queried about the article by the GA editorial staff, and wanted the article to be published as it was written, and so I retract my comments about the editors at GA missing an opportunity here to help Matthew.)

How Have We Lost the Love of Bible Study?

Yesterday I shared how I almost came to hate the guitar – something that for virtually all of my life I have loved. I focused on how my instructors (who were undoubtedly good people, and who only had the best intentions, I am sure) almost drove my love of the instrument from me. I drew the conclusion that as teachers we have a tremendous burden, and responsibility, not to kill our student’s love of the Bible by promoting our own agendas. Today I want to look at the equal but opposite issue of a lack of desire and love of the Bible by many who would consider themselves faithful Christians.

Now, right of the bat I want to explain that I KNOW we are not supposed to worship or venerate the Bible. It is the word of God that points us to the Word of God – we are to love and worship God and his Son, not the message that teaches us about God and his Son. However, just as a musician loves the piece of paper that contains the notes that he or she will eventually transform into a glorious piece of music, so too we must love the medium that leads us to the author of our faith. And, for Christians, that medium is the Bible.

I understand my observations here are largely anecdotal, but in my half-century or so in observing the church I have noticed a decline in the interest in serious Bible study. I believe there are several reasons for this decline – some more understandable than others, but real never-the-less:

  1.  As I mentioned yesterday, I believe bad teachers drive a love of Bible study away from us. On the one hand are teachers that make it sound like they, and they alone, can climb Mt. Biblius, the great peak from which all spiritual wisdom is obtained. Only they can see the great truths of the subject at hand (which makes we wonder if that truth is even there, but that is another story). Everyone else in the class is just plain ignorant, and this teacher communicates that feeling in a number of verbal and non-verbal ways. On the other hand is the teacher who never comes to class prepared, quickly reads over the class text about 10 minutes before class starts, and then “teaches” a class that revolves around reading one verse at a time, and then asking that most penetrating of questions, “What do you think [insert author here] meant when he wrote that?” Brilliant discussion question, that.
  2. There is a pervading sense of anti-intellectualism among Christians, and I have especially seen and heard that mentality expressed among members of the Churches of Christ. It is almost as if class members prefer their teacher to be uneducated – that way if they say something that is incorrect (or even incomprehensible) they cannot be corrected. There is something intimidating about being the presence of someone who can answer virtually any question you throw at them, and when it comes to questions of religion, sometimes we do not want all our questions answered or statements evaluated. I find that this is ONLY in regard to the Bible, as NO ONE wants a surgeon who barely squeaked by with C’s or D’s on his transcript, or a lawyer that passed the bar exam on his 10th try by answering one question correct more than the minimum needed to pass. We want the best surgeons to open our bodies, the best lawyers to argue our cases, the best pilots to fly our airplanes; I would suggest we need to demand the best Bible teachers as well.
  3. With regard to full time ministers, we do not allow for the kind of study required to actually teach a Bible class. If uncle Bob goes in for a 6 hour surgery, we expect Bro. Jones to sit with the family in the waiting room for every minute of those 6 hours. Plus there is the Kiwanis Club meeting, the luncheon at the Senior Center, 15 absentees to visit and cajole, and the ever-present high school football game or drama presentation. Between phone calls and “drop-in” visits, the average preacher gets to spend maybe an hour or so on his Bible class lesson (the rest of his non-existent preparation time is devoted to his sermon or sermons). With our demands on his time, we are in effect telling the minister – “Hey, we really do not want in-depth Bible lessons – just give us the warmed-over re-runs from some lesson you prepared in the past. We are not going to remember what you say 15 minutes after class anyway, so why spend so much time preparing your lesson?”

And that leads me to my final point – and the bookend to my last post. Many preachers and teachers can get by with teaching pabulum simply because the audience does not care. In their mind they can check the box that says “Attended Bible Study” and that is all that matters. The actual content is inconsequential, and actually if the teacher makes demands of time and mental acuity, the response is emphatically negative. How dare the teacher demand that the students actually buy a study book? How dare the teacher demand that the student perform homework? How dare the teacher expect that the text for the lesson be read and studied before the class period begins? How dare the teacher expect that the student actually does something with the lesson (like put it into concrete, identifiable, practices)?

I stated yesterday, and I firmly believe, that teachers bear a tremendous burden. That burden is to nurture and support the love of learning that a student brings to a Bible class. It may be ugly, it may be messy, it may not fit the “technique” that a teacher has in mind, but the goal of education is the transformation of a life, and if a student comes wanting to learn, the teacher must find a way to help that student learn.

But there are some things a teacher cannot do – and chief among them is to create that love of learning. I have stood, Sunday after Sunday, in front of a class of uninterested, uncaring, and unmotivated church members whose only purpose in being present is to fulfill a legal requirement. They do not want to to be challenged in any way – mentally or physically. They verbally say “We are here for Bible study” but their hearts are far from God. (See Isaiah 29:13-14; Proverbs 17:16) They sit with glazed-over eyes, or they trim their finger nails, or they fumble absentmindedly with some object they happened to have discovered on the pew or in their pocket.

Bad teachers are responsible for a number of sins. But when we as God’s children do not demand high-quality, serious Bible study, we should not be critical when we get the kind of lessons that put us to sleep and kill whatever interest there might have been in any kind of profitable Bible study.

I mentioned yesterday that the Bible is accessible – it can be mastered, though not in the sense that we can know everything about it or can answer every question that can be posed to us. But every part of the Bible can be taught, and can be understood, if the heart to learn and the heart to teach are both there.

God, give us a heart to learn! And, God, give us teachers who will not quit until our thirst for learning exceeds their thirst for teaching!

How My Guitar Teacher Made Me Hate the Guitar (And How We Do the Same Thing With Bible Study)

I love the guitar. As long as I can remember I have loved guitar music. But there was a time that I did hate the instrument. Oddly enough, it was when I was trying to learn how to play it. 

Let’s just say my first two instructors were really accomplished. The first was a good salesman, and the second was a phenomenal player. Combined they made me hate the guitar. My first instructor was bent on making me learn possibly the only song he knew how to play. I did not know the song, and when he played it for me I hated it. I did not know how the song went so I never knew if I was playing it right or wrong. To be honest, it was such a bad song I could not tell if he was playing it correctly or not. Thankfully, he tired of me and recommended a classical guitar instructor. Great! Now I could go places.

The second instructor turned out to be the perfectionist from Hades. “Hold the guitar like this, bend your right hand like this, use your left hand like this, pluck the strings like this . . . ” I was not learning the guitar I was trying to placate a drill sergeant. The “pieces” he gave me to learn might have been great for developing his goose-stepping technique, but they had no musical value at all, and once again I had no idea if I was playing them correctly or incorrectly. They sounded just like random notes thrown on a treble clef. Yuck.

I finally quit taking lessons. I was wasting my parents’ money and I was growing to hate the guitar. I still loved guitar music, but actually handling a guitar was distasteful.

Several years later I needed to fill an elective slot in my schedule at college. A friend told me that the university had a fairly good guitar instructor, so I thought, “why not?” I could not do any worse than my first instructors, right?

The first lesson the instructor has me play of a couple of those unmusical, muse-foresaken practice etudes. Then he asked me something that I honestly had come to believe was illegal for any guitar instructor to ask. He said, “Paul, is there a piece of music you would like to learn this semester?” After I picked my jaw off the floor I kind of half-described and half-hummed a piece I absolutely adored, and gave him the name of the composer – Vivaldi. The next class period the instructor showed up with some yellowed, marked up music sheets – Vivaldi’s Concerto in D Major. I could have cried. For the next three months the instructor patiently worked me through fingerings, technique, and, yes, hand position and the importance of practicing scales. But I was finally learning music, not just making noise.

I fear that too many interested Bible students are turned into Bible study haters through the exact same sequence that almost made me hate the guitar. And, sadly, I fear my “technique” has been all too often that of the guitar Nazi that was more concerned about the angle of my wrist than if I was actually learning how to play the instrument. It is easier to critique method and technique and style and posture than it is to simply ask, “Is there something about the Bible you want to learn?”

One thing I have learned through my experience as a teacher is that if we give some control of the learning situation to the student the result is often messy – out of tune and off-key. It is just awful, sort of like my butchered rendition of Vivaldi. But my university instructor knew something no other instructor I had before or since ever acknowledged – if I loved the guitar and the music, I would pay attention to his instruction so that I would get the sound right.

This semester I am getting to teach the fundamentals of biblical interpretation once again – by teaching a senior level course on apocalyptic literature and the book of Revelation. How can you teach the basic fundamentals of Bible study through such a complicated theological minefield like Revelation? Actually, it is not that hard. First, my students love the subject, so the motivation to learn is high. Second, I constantly remind them that Revelation is an accessible book if they apply themselves earnestly. Then, I break the “piece” into manageable sections, and introduce tricky “fingerings” slowly and carefully: Old Testament allusions, Greek verb tense variations, grammar and structure subtleties. I get to teach the importance of some critical techniques, but the subject matter keeps the students focused and the results of their effort is immediate rather than some mythological day in the future when they get everything “perfect.” Slowly but surely we are constructing a symphony of biblical interpretive beauty.

I wish I could say that my university teacher was the last and best experience I ever had with guitar instructors. Unfortunately, I chose another instructor who taught with the same mentality of the technique Nazi. Luckily I had my previous experience to remember, so cutting the string with him was not too painful (pardon the pun).

I will never be a concert guitarist. I never really wanted to be. But I did, and I still do, want to play my favorite songs and classical pieces well. I often wonder how my guitar playing would be different today if my earlier instructors had capitalized on my love of the instrument and my love of specific music pieces instead of focusing on perpetuating their concept of proper technique and musicality.

I do not think every person in a pew on Sunday morning wants to be a professional theologian. I do, however, believe that many of them want to know how to read and understand the totality of Scripture. But, just like the guitar, the Bible is a complex and sometimes daunting instrument. It can be learned, even mastered although never perfectly, but only if it is not turned into an instrument of torture.

I wonder, “How many really interested Bible students I have discouraged because I was focused more on my agenda rather than their love of the Bible?” I think all Bible teachers need to honestly consider that question.

(P.S. – I went through and corrected a couple of errors, and thought I would pass along that it was only the second movement of Vivaldi’s Concerto in D Major that I was really interested in, or even remotely capable of playing – the second movement, “Largo.” Give it a listen on YouTube. It is absolutely gorgeous.)

God Did NOT Abandon Jesus #5 – The Atonement

This is the fifth in a series in which I demonstrate that it is a false teaching to assert that God abandoned Jesus on the cross. If you are new to the series, please review the posts immediately preceding this entry.

I will admit two things at the front of this post. (1) this post will be the most philosophical of the series, and (2) I am in no way claiming that I am an expert in something as deep and varied as the theory of the atonement. However, the biblical texts themselves make it clear that God could not have abandoned Jesus on the cross, if God was going to achieve the purpose for which virtually every Christian, including the “separationists,” claims that he did achieve – namely, the redemption and reclamation of his people.

Scriptures to consider: Romans 6:1-4, 8:1-11, 1 Corinthians 15:1-8, Colossians 1:15-23, Hebrews 2:9-18, 5:7-10, 9:11-10:18, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Revelation 5:9

To begin with I will make what initially seems to be a brash statement, but upon further review is absolutely true. There is not one single passage of Scripture from Acts – Revelation that even hints that God abandoned Jesus on the cross. Not one single passage. Not one allusion. Not one hint. None. It simply was not, and is not, a New Testament concept. In fact, the concept is so foreign to the New Testament that I do not understand where the idea originated. The only passage that can even remotely be used in defense of this teaching is, to no great surprise, a refutation of that teaching.

First, let us see how the New Testament writers viewed Jesus’s death. The primary text here is the book of Hebrews. From beginning to end the letter (sermon) extols the uniqueness and superiority of the sacrifice of Jesus as compared to the earthly sacrifices of the physical temple. The entire book needs to be read in this context, but notice 9:23-10:10 in particular. Nowhere in this section (nor in the entire book) can you find a place for God’s rejection of Jesus. It just will not fit the theology.

Read also Romans 6:1-14 and 8:1-11. Here again there is no room for an abandonment, a rejection of Jesus by God. The language Paul uses cannot be twisted around “Jesus was accounted to be sin, so God had to turn his back on him.” Paul’s theory of the atonement is undone if Christ was so wretched, so impregnated with our sin, that God could not look upon him (once again, twisting Habakkuk 1:13 to get to that viewpoint).

We have already noticed John 1:1-18 in regard to the trinity, but notice how in the introduction to his book here, John weaves in the idea of the atonement. It is because Jesus was “with God and was God” that through his “fullness we have received, grace upon grace.” A fractured, abandoned and rejected Jesus can hardly be considered to be in the “fulness” of God.

Now let’s look at 2 Corinthians 5:21, the one verse that “separationists” hang onto with all their might to rescue their fallacious theory:

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (RSV)

The “separationists” focus on one little phrase, “he made him to be sin” and overlook the entire context of the passage. Let us undo that mistake.

To begin with, the chapter in which this verse is found is not an explanation of the atonement at all. It is a defense of the role of the minister, an ambassador for Christ. Paul is defending his role specifically, and explaining why he does what he does. So, if he preaches relentlessly, because he is convinced that Christ died for all men, what does it mean that Christ died for all men? That is the “digression” that begins in v. 16. By Christ’s death he has made all men new. This is “from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself” The phraseology is important here. Paul states that it was through Christ that God reconciled man to himself. He continues in the next sentence by saying, “that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself.” Now, we have “in Christ.” So it was in and through Christ that God accomplished the reconciliation. How did this occur? Paul is not specific (in fact, in the entire New Testament there is no one, single, clear explanation of the atonement), but he does go on then with the verse highlighted above.

Note in this section what Paul does NOT say. Paul does NOT say that Jesus was made to be sinful. This would contradict the entire book of Hebrews, noted above. Paul also does NOT say here, and here would be THE perfect place for him to say it, that God abandoned or rejected Jesus at any point in time. In fact, taken in its context, Paul is arguing the exact OPPOSITE. He is telling the Corinthian Christians that the death of Jesus was entirely God’s will and plan, and that it was exactly in and through this death that God accomplished his goal of reconciliation with mankind.

Now, I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but it just seems to me that if you reject the very thing that you willed and that you planned, you can not then come back and say that it was the very thing that you rejected and abandoned that accomplished your will. Yet, this is the exact illogical argumentation that “separationists” want you to believe when they tell you that God rejected Jesus on the cross.

So, as a summation, we have here yet another illustration of the number of ways the “separationists” incorrectly interpret Scripture, twist other Scriptures, fail to follow clear lines of logic, and reject the overarching message of the entire New Testament.

But, I have just one more point to make as I close. As a matter of sheer luck (serendipity?), a preacher friend (who knows I am working through this project) showed me an interesting verse in the book of Exodus. I shall quote the passage in full to illustrate my point:

And you shall make a plate of pure gold, and engrave on it, like the engraving of a signet, “Holy to the LORD.” And you shall fasten it on the turban by a lace of blue; it shall be on the front of the turban. it shall be upon Aaron’s forehead, and Aaron shall take upon himself any guilt incurred in the holy offering which the people of Israel hallow as their holy gifts; it shall always be upon his forehead, that they may be accepted before the LORD. (Exodus 28:36-38 RSV, emphasis mine).

So, Aaron, the high priest, was to “take upon himself any guilt” of the people – and he was to take that guilt and atone for it before the ark on the day of atonement. And God never turned his back on Aaron, did he?

Kind of makes you want to go back and pay more attention to the book of Hebrews, doesn’t it??

Next up – the impossibility of God abandoning Jesus as demonstrated in the chronology of the crucifixion.

God Did NOT Abandon Jesus – #4: Jesus Himself Rejected the Possibility

So far in this series of posts I have examined Psalm 22, Habakkuk 1:13, and the nature of the trinity as arguments against the mistaken belief that God abandoned Jesus on the cross. At this point if you agree with me you are probably saying, “Enough, you made your point, what could be more clear?” Of course, if you disagree with me you are probably not reading this post at all, so to go on further would kind of be silly anyway. But I am not done yet – I have a number or arguments yet to mention that further support the biblical view that God was entirely with Jesus on the cross.

Today I look at how Jesus himself rejected the idea that somehow the Father would abandon him on the cross. Consider first Jesus’s words in John 16:32:

The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, every man to his home, and will leave me alone; yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me. (RSV, emphasis mine.)

Now, a full fledged separationist (one who believes God did abandon Jesus on the cross) would point out that at this point in time Jesus was in fellowship with his father. What I want to point out is that Jesus never said, “At some point I will be alone” or “At some point the Father will abandon me.” He went out of his way to emphasize that at the point in time the disciples abandon him, he will not be alone, because his father (God) will be with him. If God did reject Jesus it was a complete shock to Jesus, and a repudiation of Jesus’s own words! I do not think many separationists stop to consider this verse, nor the one to follow:

I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. The glory which thou hast given me I have given them, that they may one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that show has sent me and has loved them even as thou has loved me. (John 17:20-23, RSV, emphasis mine)

Notice the purpose for which this prayer is prayed – the unity of all followers of Jesus. Notice the proof that Jesus gives that such believers can be, and should be, perfectly one. That proof is the unity of God and Jesus. If that unity is destroyed, then the argument Jesus makes that all disciples should be one is also destroyed. If God can abandon Jesus, why then can Jesus’s disciples not abandon one another in times of stress and persecution? The theory of God abandoning Jesus simply destroys the concept of the trinity (last post) and invalidates the promises and prayers that Jesus spoke immediately before his death.

So, just to recap: if you believe that God abandoned Jesus you have to (1) twist Psalm 22 to mean something it most definitely does not mean. You have to also (2) take Habakkuk 1:13 out of context and make Habakkuk mean something for all time and eternity that he said once, that God later corrected him for saying, and that Habakkuk himself refuted toward the end of his writing. Finally, you have to reject all the biblical teachings of the unity and indivisible nature of the trinity, up to and including disregarding, or even disavowing, the very words of Jesus to his disciples.

It just seems to me to be an awful amount of work to do to defend a teaching that was rejected in the first couple of centuries as being heresy. Why would you want to?

Next: The New Testament (and indeed the biblical) doctrine of the atonement refutes the idea the God abandoned Jesus.

Death Penalty – Revisited

The death penalty has been on my mind quite a bit lately. One reason is that I am teaching a course on Christian Ethics, and the topic came up as a part of the curriculum. Another reason is that there is a case currently in the headlines about a woman on death row who has, by virtually all accounts, made a complete change in her life and has become a Christian, and has been doing remarkable work with other inmates as she has contact with them. Many, both in the secular and the religious worlds, are working for the commutation of her sentence so that she be spared her execution.

I try to keep abreast of arguments on both sides of this issue. One of my mentors (by distance, and now only through his writings as he has passed away) was an avowed anti-death penalty advocate. I read his arguments closely, and while I agree with some of his logic, there are some other aspects of his (and the entire anti-death penalty movement) that I have great difficulty in accepting. So, I write this post as both a statement of my current position, and as a refutation, or a challenge if you will, of some aspects of the anti-death penalty moment that I would like to see clarified or explained.

As I understand the main theological objection to the death penalty, Jesus established in the Sermon on the Mount, and through later teachings as well, that his disciples are to forgive, are not to employ any means of violence, are not to retaliate in any way, and are to bear with any injustice, all for the sake of the Kingdom of God. This is a strong argument, and cannot be dismissed with the flippant attitude that many pro-death penalty advocates demonstrate. In this line of thinking Jesus has abrogated the Old Testament permission to take “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” While this is a strong argument, I believe there is an inherent flaw – a contradiction that weakens the argument significantly, if not totally.

The primary Old Testament passages relating to capital punishment (especially in relation to murder) are Genesis 9:6, Exodus 21:12-17, and Numbers 35:9-34. There is another key passage that must be included in the discussion, and that is the law relating to false witnesses, Deuteronomy 19:15-21. These passages reveal several critical components of capital punishment that I believe are NOT addressed by many anti-capital punishment advocates.

First, the basis of capital punishment is not revenge, retaliation, or retribution. The basis – the foundation – for the use of the death penalty in the case of murder is that murder violates the nature of God himself. Murder certainly is a violent crime – as is rape and kidnapping, other crimes for which the death penalty could be used. Murder violates the bond of humans in community, as does rape, kidnapping, and the sexual sins for which a person could be executed – adultery, bestiality, even homosexuality. But, while all of these crimes and violations of the Law violated God’s holiness, only the crime of murder violated his nature. Thus, the only crime for which there was no chance for a substitution was the crime of murder (Num. 35:31).

Second, to reverse the rationale or the exercise of capital punishment is to tacitly admit that the God of the Old Testament was a  vengeful, angry, violent God, but the God of the New Testament is a kind, loving, forgiving God. It is to tear apart the Trinity – Jehovah is the God of the Old Testament, a warring, violent God; but Jesus is the God of the New Testament, a kind, gentle, forgiving God. This is a separation of the nature of God that I simply cannot accept. God is clearly described in the Old Testament as a forgiving God who seeks the restoration of a broken relationship with man. God is just as clearly described in the New Testament as a God who will ultimately judge the disobedient and unrepentant sinner.

Third, and directly related to the last point, when we turn the God of the New Testament into an exclusively kind, gentle, loving, forgiving God we create a god in our own image. We are just so kind, so loving, so forgiving, so much more mature than those bloodthirsty Israelites that we need a god who looks and acts like us. We need a compassionate god – and a god that condones capital punishment simply will not do. So, we create a new god – an anti-capital punishment god, and we do everything that we can to separate him from the God of the Old Testament. But this is pure idolatry. When we say we worship the God of the Bible, we must let the Bible describe who God is, and then we either accept that God or we reject that God. We cannot create him in our own image.

That leads me to my last point. I have a suspicion that one reason so many are so afraid of allowing that God can still condone the use of capital punishment is that we fear our own punishment. If murder (and other sins, to be perfectly honest) demand the death penalty, then hell is a very real possibility. But, if God utterly and totally reversed himself on that blessed night in Bethlehem when a little baby was born to the virgin Mary, then maybe there really is not a hell after all – how can a God who has abolished the death penalty actually use the ultimate death penalty?

As I said above – I continue to consider this question deeply. I know that in the United States we have employed the death penalty very unevenly and very unjustly. We certainly do not apply the penalty as it is described in the Bible. To pause for a season to make sure our system does not perpetrate the sins of our past is a wise move. However, our very human and very broken use of the penalty does not in and of itself eliminate the just and proper use of the penalty.

I am certainly open to the possibility that Jesus did, in fact, abolish the use of capital punishment. However, in order for me to be fully convinced, the objections that I have raised above must be answered. If murder in particular so violated the nature of a life creating and sustaining God, and if God in his divine justice system created such an explicit and carefully nuanced method of determining guilt and the protection of the innocent, how can we, as mere mortals, claim that justice system is unfair? Is it not OUR system that is unfair?

Just another flight through the thick fog of our broken humanity, and trying to see the light of God’s word clearly and faithfully.

What If I’m Wrong?

It is not a popular concept anymore, if, in fact, it ever was. What if I’m wrong? In today’s world there is no right and wrong. But, there again, what if the people who think this way are, despite their assertion to the contrary, wrong?

What happens then?

It is frightening to pay attention to many speakers, preachers and Bible class teachers in particular. Imbued with the “sage on the stage” mentality they view their conclusions as unassailable truth, when, in fact, often times their conclusions are nothing more than guesses, educated or not. This is especially so when such conclusions are buttressed with the quotation from a passage of Scripture. The truth of Scripture is somehow magically transferred to the the presenter, baptizing the false statement and absolving the presenter of any sin. Of course, the error is more frequently than not compounded by the fact that the passage of Scripture is taken out of context, but hey, if we are proving the truth of our flimsy argument and absolving ourselves of sin, what does a little context have to do with anything?

But, I return to my question – what happens if I am wrong? (Let’s speak in first person singular terms here, just to avoid the temptation to be judgmental.) Or, perhaps to be more truthful, what happens WHEN I am wrong?

When was the last time you saw, or heard, someone actually, sincerely confess error? I don’t mean confess around the error. Politicians and other public figures have mastered the art of first-person-once-removed confession. “I’m sorry if anyone was offended by the allegations made against me.” Notice there is never any regret at being wrong, only that certain individuals might be offended. In some rare instances the figure might admit that the allegations are serious, but on the other hand, “there is no evidence to support the allegations.” Never, “the allegations are absolutely false.” It is just that there is never any evidence to support the allegations. My lawyer is too good to allow any evidence to show up.

Enough with the politicians. They are far too easy a target. What about your preacher, your Bible class teacher – what about you? When was the last time you heard your preacher stand in the pulpit and say, “I was wrong”? When was the last time you told your class, “I was wrong”? When was the last time you told your class, “I might be wrong here” and fully, truthfully meant it?

Here again I am not talking about the massive flood of “I used to think this about (you name the hot-button issue of the day), but now I think this…” That is mere pandering to the masses, and that in and of itself is conduct unbecoming a minister of the gospel. Any minister who changes his mind concerning homosexuality or bending gender roles or the role of the Holy Spirit just to climb aboard a bandwagon has sold his soul to the devil. I am talking about a genuine confession of error in life or in doctrine that affects a person to the core of his or her being.

I am talking about a Saul of Tarsus to the Apostle Paul kind of transformation. A confession that moves a person from persecutor to persecuted, from trying to take life to being willing to surrender one’s life for the sake of the same cause. I am talking about being absolutely convinced of the truth of a concept to the absolute conviction of the error of the same concept. I know it happens, but, how does it happen and what are the consequences?

To make the argument that I am always right, that I am flawless in my interpretation of Scripture, that I know the absolute truth to every question of translation, interpretation, and application is absolute heresy. No one can be that perfect. We may share in a measure of perfection, we may taste perfection from time to time, but even the most secure of our conclusions comes with the tinge of reality that I am human, my intellect is fallen, and there is always more information out there than I can access or grasp.

Does that mean we throw up our hands and give up? As Paul would say, “By no means!” Absolutely not! I may not know with divine certainty why baptism is essential for salvation, why men and women are created equal but with different roles, why certain practices are pleasing to God while others do not please him, but that does not mean I surrender my God given intellectual gifts to try to understand those questions – nor to search for greater certainty that those “truths” are indeed true. And it certainly does not absolve me of confessing when I am wrong about any conclusions I offer as being true, but are not.

If I had one saying that could describe my philosophy of learning it would be this, “If I am wrong, please point out the error of my way, as I do not want to believe any error, nor do I want to teach any error. But please use evidence beyond personal opinion so that I can test the validity of your conclusion, as you have obviously tested the validity of my conclusion and found it to be false.”

Two people who hold diametrically opposing viewpoints on any issue cannot both be right. Homosexuality cannot be both acceptable to God and a sin. A congregation that forbids the public leadership roles to women and a congregation that allows women full leadership roles cannot both be pleasing to God. Christians cannot both affirm the uniqueness of male/female genders and affirm the rights of individuals to “change” their gender. Baptism cannot be both essential to salvation and an optional act of choice. Man cannot have both free will, and be subject to eternal predestination.

These concepts I hold to be true. If I am wrong, please let me know why, and where I can learn a better truth. Don’t expect me to just give up if you disagree with me, but if I am wrong I want to change my beliefs and behaviors to conform with the truth.

What happens if I am wrong? . . . Maybe my topic is not important, maybe it is eternally important. But the question itself should never cease to guide my search for truth.

Thanks for flying with me in the fog…

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


The Church According to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ James W. Thompson, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), 289 pages including bibliography and indices.

I’ve noticed that most of the book reviews I write are on books that are years, if not decades old. So, it it nice to finally read (and review) a recent publication. This book has a 2014 publication date, so you cannot get much more recent than that. And, the subject matter is relevant to so many discussions regarding the church today.

Dr. Thompson’s main thesis is that in all of the discussions (written and oral) about the church today, the one voice that is missing is the voice of the apostle Paul, and since he had the most to say about the New Testament church, it just makes sense to go back and read what he had to say about the church. Throughout nine chapters this is exactly what Dr. Thompson does – examining such topics as the key themes in Paul’s ecclesiology, the corporate nature of the church, the visible manifestations of the church, spiritual formation and the church, justification, evangelism, the universal church, the relationship between the universal church and house churches, and leadership in the church. Dr. Thompson concludes with a summary chapter discussing the church after christendom. Dr. Thompson moves well beyond the Roman Catholic position, as well as the standard Protestant definition of the church. He also challenges the standard understanding of the church in the American Restoration Movement (I’m not so sure I agree with his views on Paul’s teaching regarding the importance of baptism, but that is a minor point in the book). Dr. Thompson explores the rich nuances of Paul’s ecclesiology in-depth, and opens the path to a much deeper and more vibrant understanding of what it means to be the church of Christ.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book – there is hardly a page in my copy that does not have multiple sentences underlined and maybe a passage or two with a star in the margin. The book is written in an academic style, but Greek words and phrases are transliterated so that the reader who does not know Greek can follow along. Dr. Thompson employs voluminous Scripture references – no one can accuse Dr. Thompson of avoiding the text. The reader may not agree with Dr. Thompson in every point (I did not, nor do I ever fully agree with an author), but you know that Dr. Thompson has done the heavy lifting to research his topic and to present his material in an easy-to-follow format.

Regarding those who will disagree with this book – those in the “the church has to be missional to be a church” crowd will not enjoy this book. Maybe that is why I enjoyed the book so much – the whole “missional” movement has left me utterly flat – few can define what they mean by “missional,” and even those who try to define it cannot do so with reference to the Bible. Usually what they end up doing is quoting some Latin phrase (missio dei) or some such and then grinning really big like they have said something important. (How about this for a quote, “The word ‘missional’ seems to have traveled the remarkable path of going from obscurity to banality in one decade.” p. 12, quoting Allan J. Roxburgh in footnote #55).  Dr. Thompson challenges vapid thinking, and this book is a healthy and very much needed corrective to the pabulum being touted as the next thing to save the church from obscurity. But Dr. Thompson does not just attack the “missional” church movement and leave the scene of the fight. Dr. Thompson provides a healthy and scriptural response to those who follow the “missional or bust” movement.

Regarding the aspects of the book I did not appreciate – Dr. Thompson has an irritating habit throughout the book of making reference to “Deutero-Isaiah” and “the contested letters of Paul.” Now, I am fully aware of the controversy regarding the authorship of the book of Isaiah. But, we do not have an Isaiah, a “Deutero-Isaiah,” and a “Trito-Isaiah.” What we have in our text is the book of Isaiah. If you are quoting from the book of Isaiah, quote Isaiah, not from some unproven theory that there were multiple authors of Isaiah. If you are writing a commentary on Isaiah, or if you are writing a critical introduction to the book of Isaiah, then by all means cover the relevant arguments and state your conclusion. The same holds true with the “contested” letters of Paul. So what if the authorship is contested? Either they were written by Paul (if so, say so and move on) or they were not (if so, why even mention them in a book discussing Paul’s ecclesiology?) then state your reason for not including them in your book. Oh, well, that is why Dr. Thompson has his work published by Baker Academic, and mine won’t be. Still, it is irritating to constantly be confronted with these phrases, which, at least to me, are not just descriptive, but have crossed the line into being judgmental.

Dr. Thompson’s book is timely, and for those who are interested in the health of the church, is a much needed addition to the study of ecclesiology (the study of the church). Doubtless, Dr. Thompson’s conclusions will upset some people – he certainly challenged me in many healthy and beneficial ways. But, agree with him or disagree with him, you must appreciate the depth of the study and the imminently readable fashion in which Dr. Thompson writes. Sure, there are some things that I wish he would have changed, but this book should be on the “to read” list of any minister, elder, deacon, or Bible class teacher who is vitally interested in the health of today’s church.

Bible Reading Schedule – 2015

It is time for my annual (or almost annual) post suggesting a daily Bible reading schedule. This coming year (2015) I am going to return to an older schedule I have used, and after explaining that schedule I will explain why I believe it to be a valuable exercise.

First, a bit of an explanation – it sounds confusing, but it really is not. I just explain in confusing terms.

The basic schedule calls for a reader to read 5 chapters of the Old Testament every day, Monday through Saturday. Also, one Psalm is read daily, Monday through Saturday. On Mondays and Saturdays the reader reads one chapter of the New Testament, and on Tuesdays through Fridays the reader reads 2 chapters of the New Testament. Thus, on Mondays and Saturdays the schedule calls for 7 chapters a day, and on Tuesday through Friday it calls for 8 chapters a day. This schedule allows a person to read through the entire Bible twice in a year. I choose one translation for January – June, and another for July – December. This allows me to “hear” the text in two different translations within one year.

Now, a couple of changes need to be made throughout the year. For one, February only has 28 days, so there has to be some changes in the Old Testament readings. I combine some of the smaller prophetic writings, or I will add a chapter here or there depending on context. Also, Ps. 119 is 176 verses long, so I break the Psalm into 24 verse sections for a daily reading.

To work the whole schedule out, I take a calendar and, starting with Jan. 1, will write down the OT, Psalm, and NT reading for each day on that calendar. Planning ahead is part of the discipline of reading. Of course, there are dozens, maybe hundreds of pre-printed schedules out there – but what fun is that? Part of the joy of this plan is you actually have to spend time working it out. The return you get for your time is quite gratifying.

You may ask, “What about Sunday?” Well, that is when I turn to the Moravian reading schedule, which follows the common lectionary reading for Sunday. So, every Sunday there is an Old Testament reading, a reading from a Psalm, a reading from a gospel, and a reading from another New Testament book. The lectionary follows the common Christian calendar.

This past year I followed the Moravian reading schedule completely, but I learned a couple of things. The Moravian schedule is much more expanded – you read through the Bible once every two years, meaning the readings are much smaller. But I learned that the manner in which the Moravian schedule breaks the Old Testament readings is not necessarily along contextual lines. Many stories are interrupted, and others are broken in seemingly incongruous ways. Also, many of the Psalms are divided, when they should have been read in their entirety. Now, a reader can always read the entire Psalm every day, and I often did, but it just did not make sense to me to break so many of the Psalms into smaller sections. The New Testament readings make much more sense, at least this past year, as the readings all came from the gospels which are easier to break into contextual sections.

An objection to my longer reading schedule is often “I don’t have time to read that Bible that long every day.” Let me say first that there are some people for whom that is true. I think especially of mothers of young children. Babies and toddlers just do not allow for lengthy periods of quiet time. However, for the overwhelming majority of us, that excuse is just a dodge. How much time do you spend with your eyes glued to a screen – either your computer, phone, or tablet? Uh huh, thought so. Now, how much time do you spend reading your Bible? Yeah, right. See – our priorities are revealed by the amount of time we devote to certain tasks. I seriously doubt that many of us cannot devote 30 – 45 minutes a day to reading the Bible, even if it has to be broken into sections (Old Testament in the morning, Psalms and New Testament at night). It is not so much a matter of opportunity, but will power and dedication.

Another objection I hear is “I just want to read a verse or two and meditate on those.” Wonderful! I think that is a great idea. But with that idea comes the related problem of atomizing the Scriptures. The Old Testament in particular was written as a narrative, a story. By just pulling one verse out of thin air a reader misses the “story” that makes the verse important. So, by reading larger sections (and 5 chapters a day is NOT that long of a reading), a reader can follow along with the narrative of the text. Then, if a particular verse, or section of verses, strikes you as especially meaningful, then by all means take the time to meditate on those verses.

The point of any daily Bible reading schedule is that it is pointless if we do not spend time in the text. I fully admit that this “long” reading schedule is not for everyone. But, for some, it may be the schedule that opens entire new doors into the Scripture.

Whatever your plan, choose one that works for you and stick with it. Let us all become readers of God’s word in 2015!

Informed Does Not Mean Educated

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.


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