I am in the midst of working through a text-book that I (hopefully) will be using in a class this fall on the subject of interpreting Scripture. The book is entitled, Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible by J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays. So far I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the Book and I really hope that I have enough students to teach the class. Perhaps in the future I will write a more in-depth review, but I came across a very helpful distinction the other day and I wanted to share it, and if by sharing it more people are interested in reading the book then so much the better.
To begin, let me use a situation from real life. In my work as a minister I have come across many people who are honestly, but hopelessly, lost when it comes to the concept of interpreting Scripture. They have heard so many sermons and so many classes in which the preacher or teacher says something like, “we do not interpret Scripture, we just read Scripture,” or “we interpret Scripture literally, other religions invent methods of interpretation to support their man-made ideas.” So, many church members blithely go about their business thinking either that they do not ever join in the process of interpreting the Bible, or they assume, because they have been told repeatedly that they do so, that they interpret the Bible in a “pure” and literal sense.
One poor soul is so convinced of this that every time he reads the book of Revelation after an election he has to completely re-establish his interpretation because the identity of his anti-Christ has changed. In a small way if it were not so sad it would be comical. But it is not comical at all – it is very, very sad.
To be perfectly blunt: it is impossible to interpret the Bible in a “pure” literal sense. To use just one simple illustration, if everyone was to do so, after the first sin involving the use of sight a person would have to pluck out their right eye, and after the second sin involving sight they would have to pluck out their left eye. After the first sin involving a hand or a finger the person would have to chop off their right hand, and after the second sin they would have to chop off their left hand (Matthew 5:27-30). Now, how many church members do you see who have plucked out one eye, let alone both? How many have cut off one hand, let alone both? And yet are they going to suggest they have NEVER sinned with their eyes or their hands? What about gossips? Would it not be a “literal” application that a gossip would have to cut their tongue out? Hmmm.
Or take Jesus’ description of himself. Taken literally, we should look for a great big huge gate to descend from the clouds when Jesus returns. Oops, make that a grape-vine. Oops, make that a loaf of bread. Oops, make that a valiant warrior riding a white horse. Rats. I just cannot keep all those literal descriptions straight.
The point is when we attempt to interpret the Bible literally we get into all kinds of silly messes. And I have not even touched the hem of the garment that is called the Apocalypse. While I will not for a moment deny that the Bible is true and faithful in its message, I will argue that the writers of the books of the Bible used a wide variety of writing styles and techniques and we must be aware of those styles and techniques or we will distort and even negate the ultimate truth of the Bible.
Here is where the authors of the book Grasping God’s Word have hit on a timely phrase. They correctly point out that we should not attempt to interpret the Bible according to its literal meaning but according to its literary meaning. So, if we are reading poetry we understand that God is not literally a shepherd, but that there are several aspects of a shepherd that can be applied to our God. Jesus is not literally a door or a gate, but that image suggests something about the person and work of Jesus that we need to think seriously about. Jesus can use hyperbole (exaggeration) and irony (sarcasm’s weaker cousin) and we do not need to believe that the Pharisees were literally a bunch of snakes.
The strange thing is, as I see it, that we do this with the most obvious examples (Ps. 23, Matt. 5) but when it comes to more complex issues we want to revert back to “literal only.” Thus, when Paul exclaims, “Don’t you have houses to eat in?” (1 Cor. 11:22) he must mean that eating food at a church assembly is forever condemned. Except, in the first century the overwhelming evidence is that the Christians met together in homes! There simply was no “church building” to ban the use of communal meals. If Paul was banning the use of eating in places of assembly, he was therefore banning the eating of food in houses, the very thing that he appears to command in 1 Cor. 11:22! If we take every statement in the letters of Paul literally we move from the sublime to the absurd in a heartbeat!
I really do not blame many people for the confusion they experience when they come to difficult passages and for the helplessness they feel in trying to make sense of the verses. Many preachers and teachers – who should have known far better – have led these people into a black hole. Those who teach and preach today need to work remedially to untangle the web of deceit that has already been spun, and we need to preach and teach and model healthy, biblical forms of interpretation. That means, unfortunately, that bad theology needs to be exposed and, if needed, forcefully refuted. But all things must be done in love.
And, never forget my Undeniable Truth for Theological Reflection #1. All interpreters must come to the Bible in an attitude of humility. We may have an incorrect grasp on a biblical truth, so let us be careful about surgically removing a splinter from someone’s eye when we have a 2×4 in our own eye.
That’s a figure of speech, folks.
I want to return to the image that I have used for so many of my early posts, and the image for which this blog is named. Just for a moment I want to talk about the importance of using six main instruments in the process of flying in instrument weather conditions (abbreviated as IMC).
When flying in weather in which there is no outside reference to the horizon a pilot has to depend upon 6 primary instruments. (Technically there can be several others, but I will limit my comments to the process of keeping the plane where you want it to stay). As the pilot transitions into the landing phase of flight another set of instruments comes into play, making the process even more complicated. In modern aircraft several of these instruments may be projected on one visual screen (a “glass cockpit”) but I was never fortunate enough to fly in one of those.
The six main instruments pilots use in IMC are the airspeed indicator, the artificial horizon (attitude indicator), the altimeter, the rate of climb (or descent) indicator, the turn coordinator (or turn-and-bank indicator), and the heading indicator. These instruments are made of different components (either gyros or some other system) and are powered from different sources (either a vacuum system connected to the pitot-static system or electricity). All six instruments must be kept in a constant “scan” or serious problems can develop. The reason for the different construction and the different power systems is so that if the electric fails, or a gyro breaks, or the pitot-static system ices over the pilot still can keep the plan flying and can actually land safely.
The six primary instruments provide a system of redundancy so that if one instrument or even an entire system should fail, the other instruments not affected can be used for safe flight. Now, to be sure, an instrument failure constitutes an “in flight emergency” and the number one goal is to get the landing gear on the asphalt a soon as possible, but pilots practice flying by what is referred to as “partial panel” all the time, just so they can learn to use various instruments to keep themselves alive. For example, the airspeed indicator, the rate of climb indicator, and the altimeter can all be used to verify whether the plane is in a climb or a descent. The turn coordinator and the heading indicator (as well as the compass) tell the pilot if the wings are level or if the plane is turning. All of this information is displayed on the artificial horizon – so it is frequently used as the “fixated” instrument. But it is also prone to fail – I’ve had several fail on me, but luckily they always went out in visual flight conditions.
The trick is not to “fixate” on one single instrument. If you do, and that instrument fails, you can kill yourself and your passengers in a hurry. Even if that instrument is working properly, if you fixate on it you can still kill yourself and your passengers in a hurry if you are not paying attention to what your other primary flight instruments are telling you.
What in the world does this have to do with theology?
Today, as in every age, many theologians have decided that all they need for their system of theology is a reliance on a single verse of Scripture. I call this, profoundly enough, Single Verse Theology. I am very familiar with single verse theology because I am a part of the church that many have accused of only using Acts 2:38 for our theology of baptism. I do not feel like this is a fair accusation, and I can demonstrate that baptism is taught in virtually every book of the New Testament. However I will grant one argument: we have certainly fixated on Acts 2:38. That is a weakness in our theological history. But we are far, far from being alone in the single verse theology crowd.
- The “saved by grace through faith” crowd uses Ephesians 2:8 as their single verse. No other verse of Scripture needs to be quoted nor studied – Ephesians 2:8 trumps everything.
- Roman Catholics point to Matthew 16:18 as the “single verse” that justifies their teaching of the primacy of Peter.
- 1 Corinthians 11:22 is used to justify those who do not allow food in the church building. Actually, all they need is the first phrase of the verse.
- Hebrews 10:4 is quoted by those who believe that the sins of the pre-Christian faithful were “rolled forward” until the cross, because it is obvious (to them) that no one could be forgiven without the death of Jesus.
- Those who are agitating for women to take over the role of spiritual leadership in the church point exclusively to Galatians 3:28 for their reason of existence.
It does not matter to the proponents of these single verse theology proponents that many other passages of Scripture can be used to counter-balance these verses. I do not deny that any of them are in the text, although I certainly deny that they are always being used by their defenders as the context in which they are found dictates that they should be used. So really what we have here is not simply the reliance upon a single verse for an entire theology, but frequently a misuse of that single verse.
The point is not that these are bad, “satanic” verses that need to be cut out of our Scriptures. The point is that they need to be read in context, and also in light of many other passages of Scripture that show another aspect of the truth of God’s word. For example, I believe completely that Christians are saved by grace through faith. I believe that because Paul teaches us that in Ephesians 2:8. But I also believe that baptism is an essential response of that faith, and that it is in the rite of baptism that we are saved (1 Peter 3:21, and that dreaded Acts 2:38 passage among many others). I believe that Peter had a special place among the 12, but that no single apostle had the “primacy” of all the rest (the book of Acts and Paul’s rebuke of Peter in the book of Galatians teaches us that), and that Matthew 16:18 in no way teaches an unending apostolic succession. You cannot read Hebrews 10:4 in the way it is frequently used if you have read Leviticus 4-6 (10 times in these chapters we are told the priest will make atonement and the guilty party will be forgiven. I don’t make these things up, folks. Read it for yourself). And finally, Galatians 3:28 is a wonderful statement of equality of salvation within the body of Christ, but it has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with service in the church or responsibilities of spiritual leadership. Other passages in 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians and 1 Timothy and Titus ARE specifically dealing with the responsibilities of spiritual leadership. These passages cannot be ignored or explained away simply because Paul says in Galatians 3:28 that there are no multiple layers or ranks of blessedness when it comes to our salvation in Christ.
Fixation on a single instrument has killed many pilots. It is dangerous even in good conditions. When systems or instruments fail it is almost always fatal. Single verse theology is dangerous even when the verse is used in context and is correctly defined. When that verse is taken out of context, or when that verse is bent or twisted to fit a theologians cultural understanding, that single verse theology becomes fatal. Remember, Satan quoted Scripture to Jesus during his 40 days of temptation. Simply being able to find a verse in the Bible that supports your opinion does not mean that you have discovered that God has blessed your position.
It is a far safer exercise to find out what God has said throughout his history of salvation that has to bear on a specific subject. Difficult, yes; time consuming, for sure; frustrating (because we are so frequently challenged to amend our position) absolutely! But if you want to keep your wings level and your nose flying straight and you want to land your little aircraft safely on the ground that never shifts, it is the only way to fly.
Keep your scan going. Lose the single verse theology. Fly safely, with every instrument you can possibly use to make sure you are hearing the true, and entire, Word of God, and not the lie of the evil one.
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.
I write this on Saturday night, while thinking of the day ahead tomorrow.
Preachers – when you preach there may be someone in the auditorium for whom this is the first time they have heard of Christ. Will they hear the gospel? There may be someone in the auditorium for whom this will be the last sermon they hear. Will they hear the gospel? Preach as if this will be the first and last sermon someone ever hears.
Congregation – if the minister is speaking from the Bible, he is speaking the Words of God. Are you listening? What is God saying to you, to your congregation, to your city, state and to the world. Don’t treat the next few moments frivolously. You are in the presence of God. Be careful how you respond.
Last year I shared with everyone what has become my favorite Bible reading schedule. The post received a fair amount of attention, and so, because this is the time of year in which people make their plans to read from the Bible every day, I thought I would repeat the basic plan, but perhaps shorter this time and maybe more to the point.
The plan calls for the reader to read through the Bible twice in a year. My own personal preference is to read from a formal translation once, and a dynamic translation the second time. This allows me to “hear” the text in slightly different ways. I have found this to be a most enjoyable manner in which to read the Bible.
A word of explanation and perhaps a bit of apologetic. There is a belief that one should only read very small sections of scripture, perhaps only a verse or a paragraph, per day. This verse or this story is then the source of quiet meditation and devotional thought – maybe as the topic for journaling. This is a wonderful way to absorb the message of the Bible. However, it has some serious drawbacks. By atomizing a verse or two per day the reader loses track of the grand narrative of the Bible. The Bible is, at its most basic level, a story. Now, I know there are many different forms of literature within the Bible, but they combine to create a tapestry of incredible complexity and diversity. A reader must never lose sight of this grand narrative. So, while I applaud this particular method of Bible reading, I would caution you not to make it your only method of Bible reading. In fact, if you so desired, you could follow the plan that I will describe and focus in on a single verse or short passage. Bible reading is not either/or. It should be both/and.
So, to follow the schedule I follow and read the Bible through twice in a give year, here is the basic outline:
- Read 5 chapters a day from Monday through Saturday from the Old Testament
- Read 2 chapters a day from Tuesday though Friday from the New Testament
- On Monday and Saturday read one chapter from the New Testament
- Each day read one Psalm
- When you arrive at Psalm 119, read two sections (16 verses) per day
This is the basic plan, and depending on the year, it takes a small amount of tweaking. I use an Excel spreadsheet and divide everything up so that I can follow it on a printed sheet of paper.
You will notice that there is nothing listed for Sundays. I use the “Daily Texts” published by the Moravian Brethren for the reading each Sunday. This reading consists of an Old Testament passage, a Psalm (or a section of a Psalm), a reading from a gospel and a reading from Acts or one of the Epistles.
That is my schedule – you can accept it, adjust it or just plain forget it. By halving it (2 1/2 chapters per day in the O.T., one chapter in the N.T.) you can adjust it to read the Bible through once in a year. Or, you can follow the Moravian Brethren’s reading schedule and read much smaller sections and read the Bible through once every three years. They do follow a sequential reading schedule, so the major flow of the text remains unbroken. That might be the perfect solution for those who would like to spend time in the text, but have limited time or limited attention spans.
The most important thing, to me anyway, is that we need to get back into the text. We need to become a people of the book once again. We cannot do that by saying, “yeah, I really need to read my Bible more often.” We can only do that by READING the Bible.
So, the best Bible reading schedule for you is the one you actually follow.
May God bless your time with his word in 2013!
I want to begin by thanking many of you for the comments and observations on my post yesterday. In one response the comment was made that it was “provocative” and I must admit to a certain degree of emotion as I wrote the piece. Sometimes I do my best thinking when I am really worked up about something. On another day I would have written differently, although I stand by what I have written absolutely.
What I want to stress is that I am not writing as a political pundit. This is not political for me. It is spiritual. Governments rise and fall, powers shift in an endless ocean of greed, hate, selfishness and rebellion. That will never change, no matter what we might think or write.
But if you believe in the God of the Bible you must also believe that this world is not everything that there is. There is something beyond us – a great unknown in which all will be made right and the lion will indeed lay down with the lamb. That Kingdom, that reign of peace and righteousness is promised to those who trust utterly in the God who made this world and the world to come. The Kingdom came near in the person of Jesus of Nazareth who showed us, in incarnate human form, what the Kingdom could be here on earth if we would but “trust and obey” the reign of the King.
Although God had revealed himself in many ways previous to the coming of Jesus, mankind always wanted something better. In the garden of Eden instead of glorying in the fact that he was made “in the image of God,” man decided that it was better to be “like God” and so he threw his deepest sense of humanity away – and he ended up neither “like God” nor in the image of God any longer. Throughout mankind’s long history he has been searching to regain that lost “image” and the best he can come up with are “images” of his god in the shape of animals or totems. In the history of Israel, God’s chosen people, this happened repeatedly, until God finally punished his people by sending them into exile. The punishment worked – you never read of Israel as a nation falling into idol worship following the return from Babylon.
In the decades immediately following the death of Jesus we can see in the pages of recorded history how deeply Jesus’ message of being “reborn” in the image of God affected his disciples. When the Roman authorities would attempt to force them to utter the words, “Caesar is Lord” the disciples would refuse, because when they made the “good confession” that “Jesus is Lord” they meant it. They could not mouth the words, even knowing they did not believe the words, because even the mere vocalization of the consonants and vowels would have been bowing the knee to an idol. Because of their abject refusal to do so, many lost their lives. Others had property confiscated, were beaten, or otherwise punished.
Today, now almost 2,000 years removed from the death of Jesus, his people who live in the United States are faced with another defining moment. I have been writing, in fits and starts, about how I have come to view the Constitution as a form of an idol, an “American Idol.” The events of 12/14/12 crystalized that observation in my mind. I have been deeply touched by the fact that several, perhaps many, others are waking up to the same realization. Perhaps they have held it for many years and I was simply unaware of it. I am personally horrified to realize how long I have been blind to this reality.
If the blind shall lead the blind, they both will fall into the pit. (Matthew 15:14)
I want people to wake up and realize that this is a spiritual problem, not a political one. Oh, and I do not mean putting prayer back into the schools or posting the 10 Commandments back on the walls of the court houses. What I am talking about is removing the idol from the hearts of Christians and putting Jesus back in His proper place.
In my limited discussions with radical gun advocates following the massacre in Newtown the only response I get is “my right to own any gun and any ammunition is guaranteed by the 2nd Amendment.” There is no logic applied, no connection to the Kingdom of God, certainly no submission to the Prince of Peace. Just a pathetic, ignorant, reflexive appeal to a brief and profoundly misunderstood phrase in a man made and deeply flawed piece of human governance. So there you have it. An idol, shaped out of cold steel, wood or perhaps composite materials, and shrouded in an ink stained piece of parchment. Just as the ancient idols needed to be nailed to the floor lest they fall over, this idol needs to be nailed to the floor with poor arguments (guns don’t kill people…if you take away all the guns, only criminals will have guns) lest they fall over and everyone can see how pitiful their gods really are.
I cannot believe I have been so blind. I was one of those people. I mouthed the words. What is worse, at one time I actually believed those words. God forgive me for my ignorance and my idolatry. Now, we are living in a culture in which the ownership of a gun and the defense of the same is made a defining feature of what it means to be a Christian. If you are against unlimited gun ownership you are against the Constitution, and since the Constitution is founded on Christian principles (so the argument goes, I profoundly disagree) ipso facto you cannot be a Christian.
“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight.” (Isaiah 5:20-21)
America has become so inwardly focused, so in love with its individualism that even the concept itself has become demonical. It has taken on a life of its own. America today is all about the one, the individual, my rights, my freedoms, my way of doing things. But the Scriptures teach us that the Kingdom of God is focused on the other! The primary other is God himself, but even here in our daily walk we are to consider others more highly than ourselves, we are to lift the loads of the other, we are to bind up the wounds of the other, we are to willingly surrender our rights so that the life of the other is made better. Our America is 180 degrees out of phase with the New Testament. We cannot support this American way of life and at the same time claim to be followers of the Crucified One. The cross itself is the pinnacle of selflessness, and it was in the shadow of the cross that the message of the Kingdom of God spread like a wildfire.
Therefore, it is my firm conviction that you cannot replace God’s word with a fallible, broken human document and at the same time claim to be His disciple. You cannot worship an idol and the true and living God.
“Choose this day whom you will serve, but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” (Joshua 24:15)
Some have responded that I am being too harsh – that I cannot equate equate unqualified defense of the 2nd Amendment (or the Constitution as a whole) with idolatry. To which I simply respond: What is your definition of an idol? An idol is anything that replaces our trust, our affection, our devotion to God.
“Jesus replied, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37, 38)
It is not political, people. It is spiritual. And, if it is spiritual, our eternal destiny hangs in the balance. Do not be mislead by fine sounding but inwardly rotten arguments. Idols have never worked. They will not work in the 21st century any better than they worked in the 8th century BC or the 1st century AD.
Please, for our children and our grandchildren – we must wake up!
God’s people have always been plagued by a relentless fascination with idolatry.
Oh, they use the name Yahweh, or Jehovah God, or maybe just God, or more recently the name Jesus, but the Bible makes it clear that they were idolaters in every sense of the word. From Genesis all the way to Revelation, the idea of idolatry, and of committing adultery against God is ever present.
Somehow, after the Reformation, modern people thought that they could not succumb to idolatry any more. We heard sermons, and perhaps we even preached sermons, that used the word “idolatry,” but we never really came close to naming those idols. We might wave a dollar bill around our head in some voyeuristic fashion, or point out somebody’s million dollar mansion. But we always steered conveniently clear of our summer cabins in Colorado and our 5th wheel trailers with their satellite dishes and multiple roll-outs so that we can stay comfortable when we have to be inconvenienced in being away from home.
Americans are not only idolaters, we are hypocrites too, but that is for another post.
Every since the massacre of the school children in Newtown, CT, I have been bombarded with evidence that America has fallen completely in love with another idol, and this one will destroy us just as surely as the golden calves caused the destruction of Northern Israel. The idol is the United States Constitution, and nowhere is it more directly visible than in our repulsive adoration of the second amendment.
The second amendment to the Constitution would not be so troublesome, if it were interpreted with any degree of sanity. It simply says that because of the need for state militias, the right of people to bear arms shall not be infringed. Now, notice – the clauses which precede the actual “right” that is enumerated specifically states the necessity of militias – armed military groups necessary for the defense of the people. There was no standing army as such. Men were called to duty, and organized by states, as is perfectly illustrated in the Civil War.
The insanity begins when people only look at the “right” and completely overlook the “reason.” Most people, accustomed to the 30 second sound bites on TV, think that modern efforts at gun control are somehow an infringement on the precious 2nd Amendment “right” to bear arms. I know the rhetoric well. I rehearsed it every chance I got. “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” “Take away all the guns and only criminals will have guns.” All the slogans sound so right. Bumper sticker politics at its best. Throw a line like that into a sermon and you will get invitations to go out and eat at Furr’s cafeteria for the rest of the month.
Notice I spoke in the past tense. The murders in Newtown changed me forever. I will never use such insipid and ignorant language again. The cataracts over my eyes were ripped off in horrific fashion. I don’t know why they stayed on after Columbine, after Georgia Tech, after Aurora. But there they were, distorting my vision and making me think I was some kind of intellectual when all I was amounted to an ignorant buffoon.
That kind of does it for the politics – but what about the faith? What about the Christianity?
I’ll just be blunt and say it. I really do not think you can be a follower of Jesus the Christ and still support the 2nd Amendment as it is so devoutly defended by the NRA. And I truly do not think your Christianity amounts to a thimble of water if you are a member of the NRA – if you defend their most diabolical pronouncements. I am not condemning mere membership, although I feel that is a compromised position. What I am condemning is active defense of the most unchristian and indefensible statements made by NRA leaders and members. (Calling members of the FBI, DEA, and other Federal law enforcement agencies “jack booted thugs” or “Nazis” comes to mind).
First, the 2nd Amendment was written by a group of fallible humans who produced a fallible document that has worked (to some degree or another) for a mere 200 + years of history. To equate it to Scripture and say that we are to follow the 2nd Amendment because it is a part of the US Constitution is to declare that we are servants to Caesar and it is to him that we owe our loyalty. Jesus said we cannot serve two masters, and that our King is in heaven. We only get one choice – God or the Constitution. Choose wisely, your eternity depends upon it.
Second, Jesus came and died to destroy the power systems of this world – Satan being the chief power behind all worldly power systems. The US Constitution is just one of those worldly power systems. The 2nd Amendment grants power to those who own a tool designed, and purchased with one intent – to kill or maim another human being. Just think of how many guns there are that are designed for uses other than killing or causing great human bodily damage. Very, very few exist. Most of those are for hunting, although a few might be described as “sporting” firearms. Every handgun ever manufactured has one purpose, and well over 90 % of long guns (rifles and shotguns) are designed to kill or maim humans. That they are used for target practice does not minimize their ultimate purpose. Just to make my point even more clear, think of how many targets that are used at shooting ranges come in the outline of a human being.
Christians are commanded to think outside of this world – to have our minds transformed by the power of the One who came to save us from ourselves. Guns are designed to kill humans. Jesus died to save us from our sins and so that we could have life, and have it abundantly. The NRA, and those who steadfastly support the agenda of the NRA, exists so that others may die. It is that plain and simple. I have never heard any member of the NRA support or propose sensible restrictions to the power of human killing guns or the ammunition that destroys so much more than human flesh.
I am horrified and not just a little nauseated that so many of my “friends” within the Churches of Christ especially have devoted so much of their time in the days following this latest tragedy to support the uninhibited and unrestrained “right” to own guns. It is unchristian, it is completely opposite of the message of the crucified one, and it is a deeply ignorant position to hold. As I mentioned earlier, I was there until 12/14/12. I don’t know why it took me so long to see the sin of my position, or it’s unfathomable ignorance. But those 20 children who lost their lives in that massacre managed to do something that no other mass killing ever managed to do. They woke me up.
I won’t go back to sleep.
America’s obsession with guns will destroy it. It has already destroyed her soul. We count little first graders as “collateral damage” and we just shrug our shoulders and say, “evil happens” as if that solves any problem, or even identifies any problem. Well, people, it does neither. And as long as we have people who claim to be Christians who defend the use of assault rifles and the mass murderers who use them, America will never be free. Schools now will have to have even more security – more metal detectors, more limited methods of entry and exit, higher fences. I know some prisons that have fewer security systems. And this is freedom?
You can have it. I want the freedom that is in Christ – the freedom that comes from surrendering my rights – and that means my so called 2nd Amendment right to own a gun designed to kill another human being.
I dunno. Maybe its just because my twig got bent when I was a little kid, but I get amused at the weirdest things. Some of which are decidedly NOT funny to others, which tends to get me into far more trouble than I deserve. Like, for instance, when I point out that women spend billions of dollars on make-up, push-up bras, tummy flattening girdles and impossibly high pointy spiked shoes, and yet are incensed when men comment on their appearance, some women just get positively apoplectic. It’s a good thing I can out-run some of them in their pointy high heeled shoes, or I would be flogged with their push-up wonder bras.
Another oddity that is simply mind boggling to me is how liberals and conservatives love to bash each other, all the while blithely ignorant of the fact that they are philosophically identical. Both sides would disagree with me here – but that just lends credence to my theory.
Take egalitarian and complementarian positions for example. On the one hand we have a group that says women should be treated equally to men in all respects, but especially in regard to church leadership. There is no difference between men and women (as they exegete Gal. 3:27-28) so men and women ought to be able to serve equally in positions of leadership.
It should come as no surprise that egalitarians dislike complementarians, those who believe that men and women have distinct, albeit complementary, roles to fill in the church. What I find amusing here is that egalitarians save some of their most hateful venom for women who are complementarians. They simply cannot comprehend how as woman could acquiesce to this horrible miscarriage of justice. In their mind every woman should listen to them and leave such misogynistic churches immediately. That some women choose to remain in these bastions of chauvinism is bothersome to the egalitarians, but at least they can explain it by telling themselves (and anyone who will listen) that these poor women are so brow beaten that they cannot even think for themselves. They just blindly go along with whatever their slave-owning master-husbands tell them to think.
But what really riles the egalitarians up is when a woman defends the concept of complementarianism. Here is where the affirming, kind, gentle and compassionate egalitarians absolutely flip their wigs. How dare a woman actually suggest that God has specific roles for a man and a woman to play, and that the male should be the leader. Do you think that African American females were excoriated for supporting Mitt Romney? Try being a complementarian female and see how you get treated by the general media – or by the predominant gate keepers within mainline Christianity today.
But let’s flip the coin. Complementarians are quite convinced that egalitarians are out to destroy the world, or at least the church, with their heretical inversion of biblical authority. Every book, author or preacher is given a screening so invasive it makes the TSA look like a bunch of boy scouts. Many other disagreements are tolerated so long as a “good brother” is sound on the “women question.” However, lurking behind all of their bravado and machismo is a disturbing and (to me, just slightly) humorous paradox. Many complementarians will call anyone a leader as long as he has, um, shall we say for decency’s sake, external reproductive features.
In many congregations if a woman stood up to distribute the emblems of the Lord’s Supper a small revolt would take place. But, replace that woman with an 8 or 9 year old little boy who was baptized just last week and not a peep of resistance would be heard. Why, you retort, we are training that little boy to be a leader! Okay, help me out here. We would never invite that 8 or 9 year old boy to make decisions in a men’s business meeting, or to cast a vote in an elder’s meeting. I doubt we would ask his opinion about the hiring or firing of a preacher. I seriously question whether we would entrust him with the leading of a Bible class or other ministry simply based on his baptism. Yet, we routinely place such youngsters “at the table” or let him lead a prayer or read a Scripture so he can be a “leader” in the church. It is for that very reason that we say a woman, or an 8 or 9 year old female who has just been baptized, cannot perform such things.
What does passing a tray of bread or grape juice or reading a passage of Scripture have to do with leadership? Am I the only one who sees the incongruity here?
Apparently not, because many “egalitarian” churches have made the move to allow women to serve in many visible capacities. They have seen the paradox, but instead of searching for a theologically informed response, they have simply pieced together a practical band-aid that allows women to think they are being treated equally and at the same time salves the conscience of a few “compassionate” males.
Lest I be misunderstood here, I am not arguing for the practice of allowing women to serve as worship “leaders.” I would be considered a complementarian, although I am not truly comfortable with the term. I believe emphatically that God has given the role of spiritual leadership to the male gender. I want to be clear about that.
What I am arguing against is the false idea that visibility in the worship service is somehow equal to leadership. Let me put it this way – visibility in a worship oriented service should be limited to those who have already demonstrated spiritual maturity and leadership, not as a proving ground to somehow develop that leadership!
I will be bold here, and I will undoubtedly get myself in all kinds of trouble with some readers. It is my opinion (hopefully theologically informed, although that may be debated) that the biblical concept of leadership is based on a prior history of service, measured and tempered by maturity, and it is therefore critical that we define and develop servants before we elevate them into positions of leadership. What we are doing to our young men is a huge disservice at best and is spiritually fatal at worst. We baptize them, give them a Bible, teach them how to give a 5 minute devotional, let them serve at the Lord’s Table and, voila, presto-chango they are transformed into a leader. Many cannot even shave, but we routinely stick them in front of a crowd and croon, my, what a wonderful Christian leader!
The tragedy is that many, far too many, buy into this false coronation and a few years later when life slaps them upside the head these “leaders” have been destroyed. They get chewed up and spit out – first by the world and then by the church that no longer looks at them with awe but instead with contempt. They have failed marriages and broken families and shattered dreams and destroyed faiths because they were told and they believed they were something that they never were. They were told they had achieved spiritual maturity when they needed to be told they were little infants. They were told they were leaders when they had not even mastered the art of marching in formation. They never were given a chance, but they are given all the blame, and the church looks for the next newly baptized young man to begin the process all over again.
So, as bizarre as it may sound, both egalitarians and complementarians fail at a crucial point. This point is not about gender – although I do not want in any way to minimize what I believe is the clear teaching of Scripture. The point where egalitarians and complementarians fail equally is on the biblical concept of leadership. Anatomical appendages and the rite of baptism do not combine to confer the mantle of leadership. Leadership is learned. Leadership is earned. Leadership is a honor that should be given to few and honored by all. If every male is a leader simply by virtue of baptism then the entire concept of leadership evaporates, and it is “every man [will do] what is right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25).
Actually, the more I think about it, this is not funny at all.
My daily Bible reading had me in the book of Lamentations this morning. One of the real blessings of my daily Bible reading is that my schedule calls for me to read a section long enough to be challenging, yet not so long as to be oppressive (or, at least in my mind. YMMV). Just to let you know, I read anywhere from 7-8 chapters a day, not counting Sundays when I have a different schedule. Even though this is a lengthy reading, every so often one or two verses jump out at me as if I have never read them before. That is what I find so interesting about this particular plan. The text speaks to me in its own way, rather than me telling the text that it has to say something to me. Of course, sometimes I am so distracted that I can’t hear any of the verses, but that is okay because I know that tomorrow is a new day, and I will read that passage again in due course and at that time it may speak volumes to me.
So, as I was saying, today I was in Lamentations. Now, I don’t know about you, but I cannot recall ever hearing a sermon taken from Lamentations, and to the best of my recollection, I have only preached one. So, as I was reading along and following the prophet’s anguished cries over the destruction of Jerusalem I came across 4:13, which in my Common English Bible reads this way:
It was because of her prophets’ sins, her priests’ iniquities, those who shed righteous blood in the middle of the city.
Wow. Reading the books of Kings and Chronicles and the prophets you would get the idea that Israel and Judah were punished because of the sins of the kings. The author of Lamentations thinks otherwise. Oh, to be sure, the kings were a sinful bunch (at least all of Israel’s kings were, and a great many of Judah’s). But the author of Lamentations (Jeremiah?) saw through to the real lack of leadership – the spiritual leaders.
Today, especially among conservative pundits, bloggers, and preachers, the entire problem with the United States resides solely in the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives. Why, if we could just sweep out the mean, nasty, ugly heatherns that are making all those mean, nasty heathern laws, well we could fix up the country just like she should be.
I don’t think God is going to give our political leaders a pass when it comes to morality and the way in which they have led our country. But I think there is another group that is going to get a lot more scrutiny than I think they are going to be comfortable with, and that is all those conservative pundits, bloggers and preachers that are calling for the roof to fall in on all the liberal politicians.
Simply put, the people cannot go where they are not led. And if the so called leaders who are complaining the loudest are not forging a way for the people to follow, then they need to shut up. And if they are forging that path, then they need to shepherd those who are following instead of shooting arrows at the other guys.
Real leadership involves more than just identifying where the other guys are wrong. It means that you have to both teach and live the ideas that you believe are right. Leadership does not mean holding up a wind sock and then going in the direction of the prevailing current. It means setting your course and courageously maintaining that course whether the wind is at your back and the sun is shining brightly or if the wind blowing mercilessly against you and the sun is hidden by the clouds. The one who says, “I will take a poll and whatever my people feel is best, that I will do” is not a leader. That person is a charlatan. That person is a fake. That person is a coward.
Real leadership means standing at the point, and quite often standing alone, to take the arrows from the enemy in front and, quite frequently, arrows from the discontented hiding behind. Leadership is not acquiescing to the whims of the majority, but it is confidently proclaiming the way of truth and safety. Real leadership means that the leader makes demands that might at times cause his or her followers to make sacrifices. Fake leadership promises only blessings and success.
As I view the religious scene in the United States I see a lot of men (and women) who are comfortable in their positions who have done their homework well and know exactly where the winds of popularity are blowing. They know how to play the game of politics with brutal, almost demonic efficiency. They know how to play the fearless general when necessary and they also know when to pull out the robe of the martyred hero when the situation calls for it.
Jeremiah provides the perfect illustration of the concept of Godly leadership in a time of personal unpopularity. He tried desperately, with only minimal and fleeting success, to get the people to hear and accept God’s truth when virtually every power – political and religious – was against him. He may have lost the battle, but we have his story as a lasting tribute to the necessity of having spiritual leaders who are willing to go against the current of modern culture in order to speak the word of God.
I am really growing weary of preachers who stand in the pulpit and declare that the real problem with American resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. No. That person is just the result of the real problem with America.
The real problem with America stands behind the pulpit every Sunday morning and preaches a false word – a lying deception. The real problem with America is the spiritual leader who refuses first to hear the Word of God, and so refuses to proclaim it. The real problem with America are the so called “conservative” preachers who preach week in and week out “peace, peace” when there is no peace.
If the preachers in the pulpit would lead the people in the pew, then the president on Pennsylvania Ave. would be of no consequence. If our politicians have so much authority in the realm of morality and ethics, exactly whose fault is that?
Dum de dum dee dumm…..we finally arrive at # 15 in my trek through ruminations and explanations of the 15 Undeniable Truths For Theological Reflection. This has been an entertaining little jaunt down memory lane for me (some of these truths date back many years) and I hope these posts have at the least stimulated some thoughts for you.
Here is #15 and its corollary:
15. The practice of doing theology requires the honest appropriation of lessons learned from history. We cannot handle the text of Scripture honestly today if we ignore, or even worse, disparage the work of theologians in our near or ancient past. This is true both of those theologians with whom we agree, and with whom we disagree. To borrow a phrase, “Those who do not learn from history (or past theology) are doomed to repeat it.” History is a beautiful thing.
15a. However, the above truth does not mean that we slavishly follow every conclusion reached by earlier theologians. We must read theology with a discerning eye, knowing that all humans are capable of great spiritual insight, and all humans are capable of great sin. We are to respect our forefathers and foremothers, not worship them.
Those who read this blog regularly know that I am a member of, and minister to, congregations of individuals associated with the churches of Christ. At our best moments we live out the ideal of non-denominational Christianity, simply taking the Bible as the Word of God and, without adding to it or taking from it, we seek to follow all that God has revealed in the Bible. However, when we fail to live up to that ideal our failure is, well, spectacular. In many respects we have turned a movement of non-denominationalism into one of the most hardened denominations you can possibly imagine. Some of our more vociferous leaders have mouthed the words, “we speak where the Bible speaks and we are silent where the Bible is silent” only to speak volumes where the Bible is silent and to remain utterly silent where the Bible shouts. But, I dare you to find ANY religious body ANYWHERE that lives up to its stated goals and aspirations. I would far rather associate with a group that fails to meet heavenly goals than one that meets every earthly goal with absolute perfection. It does not take any courage to curse the darkness. It takes some real vision to light a lamp. I want to be one that lights a lamp.
Oops, kind of got off on a tangent there…
What I wanted to point out was that like many different groups, the Churches of Christ in America have all too often been guilty of a sense of “historylessness” that has crippled it as a movement. If you have a bent sense of humor such as mine this can and does make itself manifest in the strangest of ways. For example, a generation or two ago one of the most prickly invectives you could use against a member of the Church of Christ was to call him or her a “Campbellite.” This is because of the powerful influence Alexander Campbell had in the creation of what has been labeled the “American Restoration Movement.” This movement spawned three related religious groups – the Disciples of Christ, the Conservative Christian Church and the Church of Christ. So, to label a member of the Church of Christ as a “Campbellite” was a real slur, seeing as how Campbell never wanted his name to be associated with his efforts to restore New Testament Christianity, and indeed his goal was to go back to the New Testament and simply live those teachings. Now, what is funny today is that if you called a member of the Church of Christ (especially someone under the age of 40 or so) a “Campbellite” they would stare at you like you had a third eyeball right in the middle of your forehead. The irony is palpable. Older members do not want to be called “Campbellites” because they do not want to be tied to an early 18th century historical figure, younger members are absolutely clueless as to the existence of this early 18th century figure. And so many members of a group with one of the most richest, interesting, and provocative stories in the history of religion in the United States simply do not know of or they refuse to acknowledge their diverse and compelling history.
Hence my 15th Undeniable Truth For Theological Reflection. This one is for me – a reminder of who I am and what my brightest stars call me to be. I need to acknowledge the fact that I could not see as far as I can see if I were not standing on the shoulders of giants. I cannot read my Bible today without hearing the voice of my mentors – some of whom have joined that “cloud of witnesses” that awaits their final reward. But those men (and women!) all heard the voice of their mentors when they read Scripture, and on and on it goes back throughout all of history. You can only read the Bible once as if you had never read it before. Every other time your reading is influenced by your first reading, other teachers, other books, other influences. If we attempt to excise those influences we rip the fabric of our story – our history - and we lose far more than we gain in the process.
The more that I read of Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone and Moses Lard and “Racoon” John Smith and David Lipscomb and many others the more I am enthralled by their courage and their spiritual insights. These men were truly prophets crying in the wilderness. They saw something that was truly unique, and they attempted to get others to see, to understand, and to accept their vision. Their goal was a united church, one that could stand only on the pages of the New Testament, without all of the competing creeds and confessions of faith and human structures. They differed on a great many issues, some of which were substantial. For example, Barton W. Stone never felt comfortable with the concept of the Trinity, because he felt like that was a human word and not a divine word. They differed on the exact meaning of baptism (Campbell was more precise than Stone) and on the invitation to the Lord’s supper (Stone was a little more generous) but they all agreed that if we could return to the New Testament teachings then we could return to a pure church.
In addition to my closest spiritual relatives, however, I am also captivated by the insights of some more distant cousins. I love reading the Roman Catholic Henry Nouwen, and the Anglican C.S. Lewis wrote the second largest section of books in my library. The largest section in my library was written by the Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I also have selections from Ignatius of Loyola, St. John of the Cross, Thomas a Kempis, Julian of Norwich, Thomas Merton, Eugene Peterson, Richard Foster, and Richard Peace. In other words, I try to read as broadly and as deeply as I can, realizing that no one single group has a corner on truth, and that for all of their mistakes and misunderstandings, these men and women all communicated some profound spiritual truths. If the teaching initially comes from Scripture, I am not particularly concerned about who God uses to put it in words I can understand.
But now for the corollary - I must and do recognize that all of these men and women, Campbell and Stone included, are all merely mortal human beings. Yes, they all communicated some great spiritual truths. But they all had failings as well. Campbell and Stone were both blind to the fact that they were creatures of history, and that it was impossible to erase 17 hundred years of history to “restore” a culture that was long dead and buried. As much as I am transfixed by the spiritual insights of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I recognize that he had his blind spots as well. The moment we place anyone, in any time period, as THE model for our teachings or behavior we have created an idol, and God will have nothing of our idolatrous worship.
AND THAT INCLUDES MY INTERPRETATIONS AS WELL!
When everything is said and done I have one redeemer, one savior, one messiah – Jesus. I have one God, the Father and creator of all. The Bible is not to be an idol I worship, but a sign and a pointer to Jesus and His Father. It is they whom I am to worship, not my leather-bound Bible, nor my immediate mentors, nor my long distant and dead mentors. I can learn from all men – some more than others but none exclusively. I can give thanks to God for their insights, but I can never put any of them on a pedestal.
I have a rich history, and you can take it from me when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers. I will not surrender an inch, nor a decade, of what has been given to me. My parents gave me something that cannot be bought, measured or sold. They gave me a faith that is over 20 centuries old and is as new as the dew on the grass this morning. It is as real as my daughter’s gentle kiss and as profound as the love of my wife. I will never understand it, but I will always live in its shadow. And that might be my greatest undeniable truth of all.