Note: I wrote the piece with the above title as an expression of some very deeply held feelings.
I was direct, confrontational, and perhaps “hyperbolic.”
Believe me, it cuts both ways. I have been accused of no longer being a Christian simply because I believe God gave the role of spiritual leadership to men.
But quite frankly I am tired of having to defend my own feelings. I never should have hit the “publish” button.
I deleted the post.
This is the second in my series examining the current situation of the Churches of Christ from my own unique perspective. As the old commercial repeated endlessly – your mileage may vary. These thoughts are submitted to promote conversation, not to dictate policy.
The connection between this post and my last post is undeniable and in many ways immeasurable. The working of economics is intimately connected to politics. Where there is a significant change in one you will always find a change in the other. Sometimes that change is for the better, often it is a very negative change. In my last post I suggested that the United States has seen its last conservative (even remotely conservative) president for the next generation, maybe for the next century. There are huge economic implications for this shift, and the Churches of Christ had better be thinking in terms of the following major ramifications in our economy:
- Changes in our political system will result in unprecedented changes in immigration. These changes may be positive, some may not be so positive. However, the church needs to be prepared to reach out to and to assist a significant number of new immigrants, many of whom will not be prepared to participate in this new society.
- Our aging population, combined with the new “Affordable Health Care Act” will significantly change the economic landscape for our senior citizens. When health care becomes a rationed commodity the aged and the sick will be the most affected. How will the church respond?
- The ACA itself will have huge repercussions on our economy. The law has not even been in effect long enough to be enforced and yet the ripples from its more draconian aspects are beginning to hit average citizens. Millions are losing their health care packages even as I am typing this blog. Millions of others will have to pay significantly higher premiums to maintain what they have. How will the church respond when these individuals have no ability to pay for what is legally mandated that they purchase? HInt: don’t look to the government – they are the ones who created this boondoggle.
- The United States is witnessing the creation of a permanent unemployed/underemployed class of people. How will the church respond when millions of young people cannot attend college and/or cannot find jobs after college because the economy simply does not have enough work for them to do?
These are serious, generation shaping questions that must be addressed if the church will have any kind of message to reach the young people now coming of age and the most vulnerable generation – our aging seniors. Someone who disagrees with my earlier post might argue that the way to solve these problems is to elect a fiscally and morally conservative president. As I pointed out in my last post – that simply is not going to happen (at least unless there is a MASSIVE shift in public opinion in the next 12-18 months. America has become a dependent society – absolutely dependent upon the government, and it is the Democrats (and I might add, Liberal Democrats) who are viewed by the majority of Americans as being the best protectors of that benevolent government. President Obama’s reelection over Mitt Romney was beyond comfortable. And that margin of victory illustrates the seismic shift in the outlook of the American voting public. Speaking generically, we do not want to take care of ourselves anymore, we want the government to take care of us.
The lie that will be revealed, of course, is that the government is not capable of taking care of all of us – at least not to the degree that everyone expects it to – so at some point this fragile house of cards is going to come crashing down.
Once again, I return to the theology of men such as Barton Stone, Tolbert Fanning, and David Libscomb. Lipscomb’s aversion to the Christian’s participation in politics is well documented. What may not be as well know, however, is his very “this worldly” outlook when it came to taking care of those most devastated by the powers of oppression. The most well known of his benevolence works involves his ministry to the sick and his assistance of medical personnel during an outbreak of cholera in the city of Nashville in 1873. Lipscomb stayed in the city, ministering to the predominantly black community who were unable to flee the epidemic. Lipscomb, ever the theological conservative, gave buggy rides to the Roman Catholic sisters who also stayed behind to help the poor.
In other words, the members of the Churches of Christ are going to have to relearn that theological and biblical conservatism do not a priori eliminate social activism. In a perverse sort of way, many ultra-conservative members of the Churches of Christ are the most theologically liberal when it comes to “loving your neighbor as yourself.” These Christians scream loud and long when the issue of assisting the oppressed is raised, and to what do they point as the savior of these economically oppressed? The liberal government of the United States that they love to hate!!
Lipscomb’s apocalyptic worldview allowed him to realize that human governments were not the solution to mankind’s problems. He fiercely resisted the siren call of politics to “make this world a better place.” He firmly believed only the gospel of Christ could do that. Yet, he was theologically sound enough to know that if the gospel of Christ called for him to make the world a better place, it was the church that was to be the community from whence that change would occur. And, to Lipscomb, this was not simply an idea to discuss in a journal – he put his life at risk to make it happen.
The United States is becoming more socially liberal by the election. This includes morals as well as economics. As stated earlier, each layer of governmental assistance that is accepted by and therefore eventually required by, the citizens of the country makes it that much more unlikely for a fiscally or morally conservative leader to be elected much beyond the local level. That is, or will soon be, the new normal.
And nothing could possibly be further away from the Kingdom of God as is described in the New Testament.
So, members of the Churches of Christ have a decision coming – will we continue to buy into the false, and falsely comforting, message that all we need to do is elect one of “our” people in the next election?
Or will we return to the faith of at least some of “our” founding fathers and hitch up the old buggy and start taking care of our economically oppressed neighbors the way God intended us to – by the means of local congregations of the Church of his Son?
Next up – the Church and the Religious World
“Chocolate Cake for Breakfast”
Anyone familiar with the comedian Bill Cosby has surely heard this story. His wife leaves him in charge of the children for a few days and the first crisis he meets is what to feed the kids for breakfast. They clamor for chocolate cake. He refuses. He is thinking in terms of healthy foods like eggs and milk. They beg, wheedle, demand and otherwise make it obvious they want chocolate cake. He still refuses, but something happens. He reviews the ingredients that comprise the chocolate cake. Eggs. Milk. Wheat. Healthy stuff. The kids get chocolate cake for breakfast.
The Churches of Christ in the United States over the past 200 years or so have been anything other than monolithic. The only thing that members of Churches of Christ universally agree on is that we cannot agree universally on anything. Well, almost anything. There is probably someone out there who even disagrees with what I just wrote. So, with that caveat clearly understood, what I have to share in this series of articles is purely my own observations and reflections. I speak for no one but myself unless a person so desires to publicly agree with me.
It might be argued that in its deepest psyche the Churches of Christ in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries have been bi-polar. I believe this position could be sustained by the careful examination of two of the brightest lights in the formation of the group that now bears the name, “Church of Christ” – Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell. While similar in certain respects, these men held vastly different views of human nature and the nature of the restoration to which they were committed.
Briefly summarized, Barton Stone was a deeply spiritual man who was convinced that the Holy Spirit was active in the early years of the 19th century to lead the church back to a pure form of worship. He was distrustful of human nature, and especially human government, and believed that while God would ultimately make things right, humans had very little or no power to do so. What humans could do was to follow the leading of the Spirit and submit completely to the will of God, particularly as revealed in the New Testament. Alexander Campbell was equally as spiritual as Barton Stone, but in many ways was the reverse image of Stone. Just as convinced in the power of the human being as Stone was distrustful, Campbell believed that humans could, and in fact were in the very process of, ushering in the millennial reign of Jesus on earth. Where the two agreed was in the normative power of the New Testament to guide the “restoration” of the church to a pure, apostolic form. Thus the two agreed to merge their fledgling movements under one broad canopy, but philosophically the two were nowhere close to being united.
Barton Stone’s “DNA” was carried down through the middle and late years of the 19th and into the 20th centuries by men such as Tolbert Fanning and David Lipscomb. In their writings we see this distrust, even blatant rejection, of human political structures and a greater reliance upon the Holy Spirit. While not exactly premillennial in outlook, their spirituality has been described as being “apocalyptic,” and that word accurately communicates what they believed and taught. As much as they looked back to the time of the apostolic church, they looked forward to the kingdom of God being made manifest on earth, and they knew that humans had no control over that event occurring. It would occur when, and how, God wanted it to.
It is extraordinarily difficult to remain apocalyptic in outlook when everything in the world seems to be proving that mankind does have the ability, and perhaps even the responsibility, to make things perfect on earth. So, little by little the influence of Stone, Fanning and Lipscomb disappeared from the ethos of the Churches of Christ. The first World War almost eliminated this counter-culture viewpoint. By the time the Japanese had crippled the American navy at Pearl Harbor the thought of remaining critical of, and aloof from, the American flag and “the republic for which it stands” was simply unthinkable. Except in small and isolated situations the Churches of Christ made the leap to equating faithfulness with patriotism, and the twain have never since been sundered. So, today a pacifist would not only be viewed as being “unAmerican,” he or she would be viewed as “unchristian.” Pleas for responsible gun control efforts are most vehemently rejected by ministers of the Churches of Christ who point, not to Scripture, but to the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution, for their support. Prayers for the members of American military forces are routinely offered during worship services, but any mention of the civilian victims of American military actions are never confessed, repented of, or even mentioned. The one area where church and state are most certainly NOT separated is in the auditoriums of many Churches of Christ, where God, church and country are fused into one uniform entity.
Which, after over 900 words, brings me to the main point of this first reflection – (and to admittedly sweep with too large a brush) I suggest that a large majority of members of the Churches of Christ are far too wedded to the prince of this world than they are the slaughtered Lamb of God. And, if I am correct, within the next three years this incestuous marriage will have profound and irreversible implications for the future of the church.
The presidency of Barak Obama has pushed the United States past a tipping point. Never before has a president been able to achieve the legislative and moral changes as has President Obama. From sweeping judicial changes, to the passage and implementation of a radical new health care mandate, to the unparalleled changes in the moral distinction of homosexual behavior, this president has indeed accomplished his goal of transforming America. If I am not mistaken, this surge past America’s previous conservative worldview will only accelerate after the presidential elections in 2016. As I view the political landscape the only thing that will prevent Hillary Clinton from becoming the first female president of the United States is if she declines to run, or if she should die before being elected. There are several solid reasons for my conclusion. The primary one is that President Obama has turned the citizens of the United States into wards of the state. Everyone is now dependent upon the government to a greater or lesser degree. Our national debt is exploding, but no one wants to surrender his or her entitlements. No true conservative, one who openly suggests that our government is out of control and must be scaled back, has much of a chance to defeat a progressive who will suggest that, far from being too intrusive, the government needs to take a greater role in directing the lives of its citizens. Simply stated, America’s narcissism virtually guarantees the victory of the nominee of the Democratic party in 2016, especially if that nominee is Hillary Clinton. I do not foresee any realistic chance of a conservative winning the election even if another Democrat should become the nominee.
Which, then, brings me back to my main point – because the majority of members of the Churches of Christ have not only been complacent as this political and moral metamorphosis has taken place, but have actually aided and abetted it with their defense of and subjection to the Constitution of the United States, a radical change is going to have to occur in the hearts and minds of these members of the Church if the Church is going to survive in any meaningful way deep into the 21st century.
In other words, we are going to have to reject the Campbellian (and utopian) view that mankind is smart enough and spiritual enough to direct its own footsteps. We are going to have to return to the Spirit led, overtly counter-cultural and biblically apocalyptic world view of Barton Stone, Tolbert Fanning, and David Lipscomb.
The New Testament begins with a radical sermon – one that calls upon its hearers to reject man-made philosophies and to accept whole-heartedly the vision and Spirit of the God who created this world. The New Testament ends with the most majestic description of this counter-cultural kingdom – a kingdom in which the godless powers of worldly governments are cast like large stones into the abyss. In between the sermon and the vision are the words of God revealed through the power of the Spirit, and not one single word teaches or even suggests that the way in which the final Kingdom of God will be revealed is through the power of a human government. While citizens of this kingdom must temporarily live in subjection to the laws of a human government, the worship of the citizens of the Kingdom of God must never be divided.
Either we worship God, or we worship the political powers of this world. There simply is no other choice.
In one respect I fear for the future of the Church of Christ. I fear because we are too American, too incestuously married to the spirit of this world. We depend more upon the Constitution of the United States than we do the inspired word of the eternal God. We allow politicians, comedians and common men and women to mock and despise the teachings of the Bible, and yet when our “rights” or “entitlements” are even remotely threatened we become apoplectic. Some members of the Churches of Christ have more of the Bill of Rights memorized than they do the Sermon on the Mount. And that, my friends, is truly pathetic.
On the other hand, my faith is not in the Church of Christ, but in the God who created this world and who established the church of Christ for a dwelling place for his faithful people. The church of Christ will survive, even if the Church of Christ should one day disappear.
I am an unabashed and proud member of the Restoration Movement in general and the Church of Christ in particular. I believe deeply in her goals and aspirations. I am firmly committed to the precepts and objectives of men such as Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell. I am also well aware of their failings and short-sighted goals, even the well-intentioned ones. I am aware that they were human, lived and breathed the hubris of the time in which they lived, and that as any human being, they made mistakes in what they taught. I also believe they were brilliant men whose vision far exceeded the time in which they lived. Those of us today who love and respect their work are truly standing on the shoulders of giants – and I will never, not for one moment, surrender that heritage.
But as a child of God and an heir of the Kingdom of Heaven I must also be aware of the fact that any human association can fall from its pure intentions. So, while I am deeply committed to the Church of Christ (capital letter C), I am first and foremost a member of and committed to the church of Christ (little letter c, meaning that assembly devoted to Christ whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life). Some say the two are identical. I cannot – for the very reasons that I have articulated. Far too many members of the Church of Christ have surrendered to the beast and proudly wear the number of its name. They want to walk, and talk, and do business with the beast while demonstrating the semblance of submission to the Lamb. While here on earth it is impossible to fully recognize those charlatans, but I rest in full assurance that God knows who is His and who is not. That will be made clear at the last judgment.
In other words, I just want to be a disciple of Christ. I do not want the additives that turn the Church into something that it never was intended to be. I certainly do not want to be a part of a religious institution that is simply a front for, and defender of, a godless and corrupt government. I want to be lead by the vision of the Kingdom of God as described by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and in the Revelation to John. While respecting my heritage and its respect for the past, I want to be pulled forward by the biblical vision of the Bride of Christ. As I have previously written, you cannot fly an airplane by looking in a rear-veiw mirror.
A juvenile world wants chocolate cake for breakfast, lunch and supper. Our government says, “Look at all this wonderful cake – full of sweetness and covered with all this luscious icing.” The Church must recover its apocalyptic voice and renew its strength to be able to say, “No. We will not be fooled. Politics is the play toy of the damned. We are children of the King. We will serve our God and worship Him only.”
Church, it is time to grow up. And if that means we must leave the chocolate cake on the table and be viewed as unpatriotic traitors, then so be it.
“I lift my eyes to the hills – from where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth.” Psalm 121:1
Sources: I rely on many fine works related to the history of the Restoration Movement, and the Churches of Christ specifically. Of particular interest in regard to this subject are: David Edwin Harrell, Quest for a Christian America and Sources of Division in the Disciples of Christ 1865-1900; Richard T. Hughes, Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of the Churches of Christ in America and Reclaiming a Heritage: Reflections on the Heart, Soul and Future of Churches of Christ; C. Leonard Allen, Richard T. Hughes and Michael R. Weed, The Worldly Church: A Call for Biblical Renewal; and Richard T. Hughes and C. Leonard Allen, Illusions of Innocence: Protestant Primitivism in America, 1630-1875. Beyond my love for Churches of Christ, I have been deeply touched and challenged by the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, these writings are simply too immense to list individually. His complete works are published by Fortress Press and can be found in the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works series, 16 volumes which includes all of his major writings, letters, sermons and theological reflections. In addition to Bonhoeffer’s original works, there are numerous secondary works of significant value. Chief among them would be Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Society; and Keith L. Johnson and Timothy Larsen, eds. Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture; and a book I am currently reading, Mark Thiessen Nation, Anthony G. Siegrist, and Daniel P. Umbel, Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking.
This series has been building, like a slow developing thunder storm, for the past few months. I have been reading several recent and not-so-recent books on the changing face of Christianity among American teenagers, and while the material does not focus exclusively on young members of the Churches of Christ, I feel that the substance of the books very accurately describes the situation within the Churches of Christ. I also sense a paradigmatic change in American culture; one that has already started and if I am correct, will be made virtually unchangeable subsequent to the next presidential election in 2016. Theologically speaking, I have been working carefully through the book of Revelation for a college class that I am teaching. Reading and hearing the word of Christ through John has re-ignited a fire in my bones regarding the fate of the Lord’s church. When these issues are combined with the already observable changes in the religious landscape of our narcissistic 21st century I believe the result will either (a) utterly destroy what is already a weak and beggarly religious institution or (b) prove to be the furnace of purification for a vibrant church that is unduly burdened with generations of worthless slag.
Where to begin?
Let me say that as I currently envision this series, the beginning will be a discussion of the relationship that the Churches of Christ have had with the political realm of the United States from the time of Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell down to the current day. If history is prediction, the church must learn from her past and be prepared for the future.
Second, I want to gaze in my crystal ball and hazard some projections as to where this country is headed in terms of economics, and what those predictions might have in store for the life and work of the Churches of Christ.
Third, I want to examine the tenuous relationship that Churches of Christ have maintained with the rest of the religious world, and in particular, the surrounding churches that proclaim allegiance to Jesus and yet hold to doctrines and practice actions that make it difficult, if not impossible, for members of the Churches of Christ to claim fellowship with these groups. That, and also work on creating shorter sentences.
And, finally, hopefully, I can wrap everything up in one whiz-bang finale.
I will attempt to keep these posts somewhat close to my average of 1,200 – 1,300 words or so (give or take a few hundred) but they will not be your typical sound-bite size post. I will have a lot of ground to cover in a brief time, so I will generalize when possible and document when necessary.
I cannot promise a time-line either, as much as I would like to. My work load this semester (teaching 4 university courses plus a growing campus ministry) has stretched me to my limit. Yet, this blog is a passion of mine, so I will attempt to tend to this series with due diligence.
For my brothers and sisters within the Churches of Christ, I would love to have your comments, questions, and observations. For those outside of the fellowship of the Churches of Christ, I would also appreciate hearing from you – how do you see your faith group in this discussion and how accurately do you see my observations? To everyone – thank you for reading and especially to those of you who follow this blog on a regular basis. Your support is humbling, and I strive as my goal to create and share valuable material for you to ponder and either accept or reject as you see fit.
9.11 is always a tough day for me. A dozen years ago I was a pilot. I was flying an FAA mandated check ride, flying between Albuquerque and Las Cruces, NM. We, my check pilot and I, had overheard some chatter about some planes hitting some towers, but with only one ear on the radio and never once considering that the “towers” were anything more than some radio towers we never even turned the radio up.
What a difference 15 minutes can make.
I’ve blogged about this before, and probably will every year. 9.11 changed everything - the way we navigated, the way we identified ourselves in the air, the way we thought about airplanes. It even changed what we as pilots could carry onto our airplanes.
You would think, if you were a sober person and not intoxicated with the wine of global superiority, that in the dozen years since 9.11.01 we would have learned a thing or two about making and keeping peace. But you would be wrong. We are just as war mongering today, if not more so, than we were 12 years and 1 day ago.
Even as I type this our “Nobel Peace Prize” winning president, the Grand Poobah of stupidity, is preparing to throw the United States headlong into another senseless civil/religious war that we have no business getting involved with. Adolf Hitler was wrong on so many things, but on one thing he is reported to have said he was absolutely correct. Every generation needs its own war. It seems even winning a Nobel Peace Prize does not keep a power hungry maniac from starting his own war.
So, every 12 months America will pause to remember the tragedy of 9.11.01, and every year hundreds, if not thousands, of young men and women will put on the uniform of the United States Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force and National Guard. They will train relentlessly with the most up-to-date methods for exterminating entire nations of people. Our politicians will strut like a bunch of little Bantam Roosters and throw around empty phrases like, “preserve the peace” and “defend our nation’s honor,” all the while being complicit in the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians a half a world away whose only crime is that they live in a different country and speak a different language.
There is no national honor in killing children and old people with guided missiles shot from unmanned arial drones.
We live in a schizophrenic country. We claim to follow the Prince of Peace, the crucified Lord of life, and yet our most fervent prayers and most solemn national holidays all revolve around our ability to kill soldiers of other nations. The closest holidays we have that might possibly relate to spiritual thoughts are now all about football and “Black Friday” and greed and consumerism. There is not enough Christianity in modern day celebrations of Thanksgiving and Christmas combined to fill up a decent sized worship service. And that is being generous.
So, to make a too-long post even longer, every year I remember 9.11.01 – but not in the way that most people do. I observe it with regret; regret that we have not learned any valuable lessons from that horrible day. Regret that I, too, was sucked into a poisonous nationalism. Regret that our civil leaders will still send young men and women to their deaths for no other purpose but to buttress a “national honor” that has become tarnished. Regret that after 12 years we still have to carry bright young men and women home in stainless steel coffins covered with an American flag.
We need those young people at home. We need them to be safe. We need them to be working on principles of peace rather than strategies of death.
9.11.13 – God, in your infinite wisdom and your immeasurable patience, please give us the courage to follow your Son and his way of the cross. We need that message today more than at any time in history. We are so close to destroying not only ourselves, but this incredible world you have given us. Lord, as in the days of your servant Jeremiah, please bless us with a humiliating defeat so that we may once again learn to trust only in you. Humble us, strip us, starve us until our bodies and our souls long only after you. And then, having chastened us with a pure and holy love, please restore us to your healing presence, for it is only in you that we live, and move, and have our very being.
You’ve all seen the bumper stickers on cars that identify the car owner’s particular brand of theology. Everything from “I found it” to the little outline of the little fish to the one that has all the religious symbols that supposedly spells out “Coexist.” I’ve often wondered why anyone would want to put a saying or slogan on the rear end of their car, but religious expressions truly mystify me, and some even anger me. Can we really reduce the gospel of Jesus Christ to a 3 – 5 word slogan? It seems to me that some of the worst enemies of the church of Jesus Christ are the religious hucksters that try to promote it.
But those obnoxious little pieces of glued on vinyl do not even hold a candle to the pseudo-religious bumper-sticker theology that is being paraded around in the recent (and very emotionally laden) battles over abortion, homosexual rights, and even the immigration debate. Just this past weekend the local newspaper editor opined that the very fact that the Old Testament prohibition against homosexuality is found in the same book as the prohibition against wearing a garment with two types of material woven together makes it obvious that the prohibition against homosexuality is a silly, superstitious and ridiculous belief to maintain in today’s far more intellectually developed world.
In my pantheon of truly outstanding theological observations that rates right up there with, “Jesus never condemned homosexuality.”
But how about, “Jesus commanded his followers to never judge anyone, so who are you to judge (and you can take your pick here) someone who has an abortion, someone who practices homosexuality, someone who follows Mohammed, Buddha or doe not follow any religion at all?”
I suppose in a way I could put up with that kind of theology if it were not for one thing: much of it is being promoted by individuals who consider themselves to be disciples of Christ – blood bought, Spirit filled, Word of God believing followers of the Son of God.
I’ve often wondered why there are no clear “frontal assault” types of attacks against Christianity in the western world today. I am not denying that in certain parts of the world simply to confess Jesus is a certain path to death. But here in the United States, and in Europe, and to a very large extent in South America, there are no outright pogroms against Christianity. That has been a curiosity to me. Why, if God and Satan are locked in a never-ending cosmic battle, is the western hemisphere so “off-limits” to a no-holds-barred, bare knuckle fight to the finish?
I cannot speak for any other geographic area, but I have come to the conclusion that at least in the United States, Satan does not have to expend that much energy fighting against the church because the so-called “Christians” are doing such a good fighting his battle for him. It is the “Christians” who are fighting against each other and splitting the churches. It is the “Christians” who are consuming the alcohol and propping up the pornography industry. It is the “Christians” who are keeping the abortion mills operating at peak capacity. It is the “Christians” who are promoting and supporting the homosexual agenda. How could it be otherwise? If, in poll after poll and in survey after survey a majority of people in the United States professes at least a marginal belief or following in Christianity, how could these behaviors be supported and promoted if it is not for the fact that so-called “Christians” are doing the supporting and the promoting? (Polls that reveal a decline in church attendance do not reveal a corresponding lack of allegiance to “Jesus Christ.” What people are saying is, “Jesus yes, church no.” It is that particular form of “Christianity” that I speak of here.)
Simply put, if everyone who even marginally claimed to be a “Christian” actually started following in the footsteps of the Crucified One, this country would change profoundly, and it would change virtually overnight.
But that is not going to happen. It is not going to happen because most Americans believe that the church is God’s concept of a constitutional republic. Every man, and every woman, gets his and her vote. If you don’t like the results, lobby for a new election and get more people to vote with you. If you don’t like the law, simply vote in another one. Morality is what the majority says it is. Faithfulness is being true to your own self, and the self that you woke up with this morning, not necessarily the one you woke up with yesterday. There is no universal truth, only a universal desire to be loved and appreciated. The greatest sin is thinking that sin exists.
I believe that as the gap between biblical faithfulness and contemporary “religiosity” grows the inevitable result is going to be that the true church of Christ will have to “grow” smaller in numbers and greater in faith and resolve. There really can be no other way. If there is no difference between the “world” and the “church” then there is no church. God’s people are to be holy, distinct, separate from the world (Leviticus, 1 Peter). If we, as disciples of Christ, fail in that calling we will not only doom ourselves to an eternity of separation from God, we will doom our generation from the chance to know that God.
But, we are NOT going to convince this world of the need to know God with insipid theological slogans slapped on the rear bumpers of our cars. Especially not the ones that make Satan proud to be our father below. (With obvious thanks to the work of C.S. Lewis and his Screwtape Letters).
Today’s excursion in daily Bible reading brought me to 2 Timothy 2:1. As I am reading in this cycle through the God’s Word Translation, I came across this reading:
My Child, find your source of strength in the kindness of Christ Jesus.
Not remembering ever having heard this verse phrased this way my figurative ears were pricked immediately. The God’s Word Translation is more of a dynamic translation, meaning that the translators focused on translating the thought of each portion of the text rather than slavishly following a word-for-word translation, so I asked the questions, “Are they accurate here?” “Have they taken extreme liberties with the literal text?” “Why is this reading so different from some of the more formal, or word for word translations?”
I am far from a scholar of the Greek New Testament, but a little research brought me to a rather firm conviction: this translation of this verse is very appropriate, and very powerful.
To cut to the chase, the key word here in this verse is transliterated, endunamou. Both my Analytical Lexicon and my Parsing Guide identify this word as a 2nd person singular, imperative middle verb (I don’t truly trust my own parsing skills). So, in layman’s terms, this is an imperative, a command, but it is in a middle construction – that is it is an action that a person does to or for himself or herself. The basic meaning of the verb form from which this verb is derived is to make strong. Therefore, the command Paul gives Timothy is that he (Timothy) is to make himself strong.
But here is the kicker – how is Timothy supposed to make himself strong? The older (and many of the newer) translations translate the next important word as “grace.” So, for example, the RSV translates, “You, then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” That is basically how I remember this verse. There is certainly nothing wrong in that translation.
However, the force that the GWT brings out is that the verb is actually something that a person is to do, to engage in, to make oneself stronger. The RSV simply as a form of the English verb “to be.” It is one thing to say, “be strong” and another thing to say, “make yourself strong” or even “make yourself stronger.” And, the GWT adds a flavor to the word “grace” that, in my most humble opinion, really brings out the irony, or the paradox of the command Paul is giving Timothy. Paul is telling Timothy to “make himself strong” or to “strengthen himself” in the kindness of Jesus.
Now, one might quibble that the word kindness is borrowing too much from the concept of grace. But I would counter that “grace” has become such a loaded, and very often twisted, religious concept that sometimes a synonym is valuable, provided it is not too far afield of the word’s basic meaning. I happen to really like this phraseology – “Timothy, make yourself stronger by remembering and patterning your life on the kindness of Jesus” (Paul Smith paraphrase).
Americans have, perhaps to overgeneralize, a John Wayne theory of strength. Get the most people, arm yourself with the biggest guns, build the biggest bunker, obtain the most and the highest educational degrees, write the most books, attend the most conferences. Each of these makes you “stronger” than someone who has fewer people, smaller guns, a tar-paper shack, a high school education, who is illiterate, or who refuses to pay extortionist fees to attend conferences. How many times have you been encouraged to “make yourself stronger” by practicing kindness? Or grace, even?
This is why I love reading from different translations on a regular basis. We become comfortable with phrases that become set in our minds, and very often we skip over very important topics simply because our eyes, and our ears, become numb to the words we read or hear. A new translation causes us to hear the common in uncommon ways. Sometimes these translations are not so good, and sometimes they are very good.
I think we need to do more preaching about making ourselves stronger by lifting the weights of kindness. Not just any humanistic, “do-gooder” kindness, however. We must be limited to the “acts of kindness” or the “grace” that is in Christ Jesus. But that should give us enough to work on while we are on this earth.
I think that is a gym at which we all need to buy a membership.
Please read carefully. Do not put words in my mouth. I have a hard enough time defending my own statements. I refuse to try to defend statements I have not, nor would I ever, make.
The landscape regarding LGBT behavior and religious freedom just got a lot more complicated. Up to this point in the recent debate the question pressed most forcefully was one of belief, or orientation. It was argued by the LGBT promoters that a person could not be discriminated against because of their orientation. The argument was tied closely to that of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960′s. That argument drew both praise and condemnation from the African American community. Some saw the connection as legitimate, others saw a vast discrepancy between being born black and the choice of a homosexual lifestyle. That argument was prominently on display recently in a decision by the New Mexico Supreme Court to rule against a photographer who had refused to take pictures of a same-sex marriage. The photographer stated that it was against her religious beliefs to support same-sex marriage, and referred the lesbian couple to other photographers who would comply with their wishes. That was not good enough for the lesbian couple; they sued, saying that the original declination by the first photographer amounted to discrimination. The Supreme Court agreed.
The thrust of the Supreme Court decision was that in a civil society sometimes we have to go against our feelings in order to create an equal playing field. With the landmark legal decisions of the Civil Rights Movement clearly in view, the court argued that if a company is serving the public at large, the company does not have the right to limit its services to only those who agree with it. The photographer could cease to offer any wedding services, and thereby comply with the law, but if she offered wedding services to heterosexual couples, she had to offer the same to same-sex couples.
The first amendment to the constitution just got blown out of the water.
First, the photographer was not arguing that the couple did not have the right to get married, nor to have their wedding photographed. She was arguing that she should not be forced to support, and promote, that wedding by taking their pictures for them. Here is a critical issue, that if not overturned on appeal, destroys the very foundation of the right of free speech. It was not the orientation of the couple that offended the photographer, it was their behavior. She said she had no issue with taking portraits of LGBT people – that would be analogous to refusing to serve black people at a lunch counter. What she objected to was being forced to use her studio to support (promote) the behavior of the couple in getting married. So, just as a restaurant cannot deny service to a person because of their race, they can still deny service to an African American or Hispanic, or Asian, or Native American, or Anglo for that matter, if that person attempts to enter their place of business without a shirt or shoes, or because they are falling down drunk.
In my opinion this is what the SCONM totally ignored, and their unanimous decision does not speak at all about the photographers right to object to behavior that she clearly views as abhorent specifically because of her religious convictions. If a Christian cannot object to homosexual behavior on religious grounds, on what basis can we object? And that, my friends, is exactly what I believe the “Homosexual Agenda” is blatantly trying to coerce through these legal rulings.
Second, at what point would the SCONM rule that a company does not have to comply with the demands of a customer? What if an atheist walked into a devoutly Muslim catering firm and demanded that they prepare a roast pork dinner for his company? Well, you could argue that if pork was not on the menu then the caterer would not be forced to prepare it. But that obscures the point: the photographer in this situation did not have “Illegitimate Weddings for Same-Sex Couples” on her menu. What she offered was photographic services for weddings. If she did not recognize the event as a wedding (which she obviously did not, and for religious reasons), then the service was simply “not on the menu.” What if a white supremacist walked into a Jewish advertising agency and demanded that they design, create, and produce handouts and flyers for the next Ku Klux Klan meeting? What if a group of hate-filled Christians walked into the offices of a pro-gay magazine and demanded that they publish an ad in their magazine that stated, “God Hates Fags.” Would the SCONM side with the homosexual oriented magazine or the hate-filled Christians?
Yeah, I thought so too.
All during the fight for equal rights for same-sex couples there has been a war of words between promoters and detractors. On the one hand there is the belief that there is an all encompassing “Homosexual Agenda” and there are those who flatly deny such a thing exists. I believe that this case proves beyond any shadow of a doubt that, at least for some homosexuals, there clearly is an all encompassing agenda, and that agenda will not be completed until all voices of religious dissent are silenced. With this ruling the SCONM has stated that religious beliefs DO NOT matter in the effective functioning of society. Religious beliefs, especially Christian religious beliefs, must be subverted in the cause of promoting so-called equality and justice. The only problem is, the hard-core LGBT promoters do not want equality – they want the power to suppress and remove any objections to their lifestyle.
The Supreme Court of New Mexico just made it a lot easier for them to do so. Now, the question will turn to religious groups themselves. If a single individual cannot “discriminate” against homosexual behavior on religious grounds, on what constitutional ground can a church (which promotes those biblical teachings) stand if it refuses to perform or to permit homosexual weddings to take place in their facilities? The individual is simply a inter-connected part of the whole. If the fruit of the tree is poisonous, how long will it be before the entire tree is declared poisonous?
Stand by, folks. This will get very interesting. Jesus warned his disciples that they would be hated, not just ridiculed or made fun of. If Christians stand firm on this issue the secular world will unleash a torrent of vitriol the likes of which have not been seen since Adolf Hitler decided to eradicate the Jewish people. Of that I have no doubt. The question will be whether we as disciples of Christ have the moral integrity and the strength of character to stand and face the hatred of the world.
The question we will be forced to answer is, which do we love more – the praise of man or the blessing of God?
If you listen to the pure theorists times could not be better for American education. Young people are learning more, are learning faster, and are entering the work place more prepared than at any other time in American history. They would point to the fact that many high school students are provided with the opportunity to earn college credit during high school. Many students enter college as second semester freshmen, or perhaps even at a sophomore level. Some states even allow high school graduates to earn both a high school diploma and an Associate degree from a nearby college. In the world of these theorists, everything has a distinctly rosy tint.
If you walk a mile in my moccasins, or talk to some of the fellow university instructors that I know, you would get the exact opposite reaction. College freshmen may come more highly credentialed than ever, but they also come with a corresponding inability to produce freshman level college work. Many cannot construct a coherent English sentence; do not even think about making them construct an entire coherent paragraph. Many do not know the difference between a noun, a verb, and a participle. They cannot spell. These students have been propped up and puffed up their entire educational career, and they expect that college and university instructors will continue the pattern of praise and adulation. Sadly, many do. It is difficult to tell a young man or young woman who is academically in their second, third or even fourth year of college that they are not even writing at a 12th grade level.
And, believe me – with the advent of on-line “miseducation” and the proliferation of on-line college degrees the level of incompetence in high school and even college graduates is simply going to explode.
What does this have to do with a blog on theology? Much, and I’m glad you asked.
Once upon a time (and it really was not that long ago), sermons and Bible classes were exercises in serious exegesis and discovery. Texts were painstakingly worked through. Forty-five minute sermons or lessons were the norm, not the exception. It was expected, even demanded, that the audience was capable of following lengthy, carefully constructed arguments, including an occasions side-track or two.
But then the technology revolution hit – especially television. The medium of television itself is not evil, but television producers, writers, actors and cameramen all needed to be paid, so along with television shows came television commercials. That meant that an hour long show was broken up into a number of smaller segments, demarcated with a couple of minutes of commercials. The attention span of the average American dropped.
Then, almost imperceptibly, hour-long shows became 30 minute shows – still broken up into shorter and shorter segments. The American attention span grew even shorter.
Today there is not only TV, but a myriad of other electronic media that demands our attention – computers and tablets and phones and digital music storage devices. We as Americans get bored faster and in spite of more stimulation than any other culture before us. And that head-long rush into lethargy is carried right over into our worship experiences.
It is no surprise to me that the very same generation that invented the “X Games,” a collection of high risk, extreme sporting events, is now demanding the same type of experiential high from their worship services. Apparently it is no longer enough to raise your voice in song; now there has to be ear- splitting, roof-rattling music and mind-bending special effects. Even in the more “sedate” religious groups the simple projection of words on a screen is no longer considered acceptable. No – now there must be multiple images as well as the introduction of other sensory stimuli in order to raise the level of spirituality in the increasingly more passive and yet technologically demanding audience.
Parallel with this movement toward a more “experiential” worship service there is a marked decline in the acceptance of a rigorous hermeneutic that demands a careful and extended study of the text of Scripture. Sermons must be 20 minutes (or less) and should be directed to today’s “felt needs” or in some other way “relevant” to our immediate culture. Long gone are the days in which the church was expected to shape culture – now the church must bend and twist and morph itself in order to comply with the demands of an ever-changing culture that also happens to be diametrically opposed to the message and mission of the church of Christ.
And, as technology becomes a mainstay even with pre-schoolers, I do not see any change in this intellectual/spiritual collapse any time soon.
When he was just a teenager, Dietrich Bonhoeffer had virtually every option open to him in regards to his life’s work. He was intelligent enough, and had the connections, to become a scientist, a legal scholar, or follow in his father’s footsteps in the field of medicine. He was talented enough musically to have become a professional musician. Instead, he shocked (and disappointed) his family when he announced that he would become a theologian. According to his friend Eberhard Bethge, his family tried to tell him that the church was a “… poor, feeble, boring, petty and bourgeois institution.” Bonhoeffer was undeterred. “In that case I shall reform it” he smugly responded. (Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, p. 36)
The amazing thing is, he did! With the exception of his friend and mentor Karl Barth, no early 20th century theologian has had as deep and as lasting effect on the church as Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But he did not reform it by adding praise bands, or praise teams, or glorified visual presentations, or by adding bells or incense. Bonhoeffer reformed the church, and his writings continue to exert his influence, by a serious, deep and sustained return to the foundations of discipleship: prayer, Bible study, meditation, confession and Christian service.
Basic spiritual disciplines – what a concept!
May God raise up another Dietrich Bonhoeffer for this generation. Or, maybe 100.
I love the book of Jeremiah. I don’t know why. Most people love Isaiah. Isaiah is majestic, beautiful, poetic – Isaiah is a lot of captivating things, that is for sure. But Isaiah is also very white-collar. Although there are several passages in the book of Isaiah that resonate with me, the overall feel of the book just eludes me. Jeremiah, on the other hand, connects with me. Jeremiah shakes his fist at God and has the audacity to accuse God of taking advantage of him. Jeremiah is blue-collar, dirt under your fingernails, sweat dripping in your eyes kind of prophecy. Isaiah gets to see the throne room of God; Jeremiah gets thrown into a stinking, muddy cistern. Jeremiah can at times rise to the heights of Isaiah, but he does not do so nearly as often, and when he does he does not stay there nearly as long as does Isaiah.
So, my daily Bible reading has me in the book of Jeremiah for a while. I am going to enjoy the next few days reacquainting myself with this “weeping prophet.” Today I read one of the more well-known of Jeremiah’s teachings/lamentations:
My people have done two things wrong. They have abandoned me, the fountain of life-giving water: They have also dug their own cisterns that can’t hold water. (Jeremiah 2:13, God’s Word Translation)
Here Jeremiah identifies two tragic, catastrophic decisions that the people of Judah have committed. One, they rejected God. That is the tragedy, but if that was the only thing they had done, a remedy would be available. When you reject something you can eventually return to it, because there is a likelihood that you will come to miss that which you have rejected. You will learn you really needed it. Unless it was absolutely worthless, you will come to recognize that you are not complete without that which you rejected, and you will seek it out once again.
But, if you find a cheap substitute for that costly item the temptation, indeed the likelihood, will be that you will be content with the impostor and you will not feel the need to return to the genuine article. This is the catastrophe of the Judean “faithful.” They not only rejected the priceless and irreplaceable life-giving water that came straight from God, they replaced that treasure with a bunch of broken, worthless, meaningless cisterns.
In these words from Jeremiah we can hear the pathos of God. It is God’s voice we hear through the pen of Jeremiah. It is God Himself who is being rejected – not some physical chemical composition. Even though we often say that God is omniscient (which is a Greek concept, not a Hebrew one, by the way) there are some things that God does not understand. He does not understand why His people can wallow in the riches and greatness of his love, and then almost in the blink of an eye replace that heavenly comfort with the filth and muck of an earthly pigsty.
One of the great evangelical past times today is lamenting the decline of the American moral situation. I suppose that is tragic – it would be far better and far healthier for us if our culture would return to a more “Christian” framework. But, tragic as that might be, it could be remedied if it were not for the catastrophe that has followed the tragedy. The catastrophe is that the American “Church” has followed American culture into the pigsty of relativism. Once the church decided it could hew out its own cisterns, broken and worthless as they might be, it decided that it no longer needed the life-giving water from above.
There is no hope for American culture if the American church has given up on God.
I read and hear evidence of this collapse every day. “The church needs to listen to the people who are leaving.” No it does not. The church needs to listen to God! Do we need to hear what the people who are leaving have to say so that we can correct unchristian attitudes and behaviors? To be sure. But there is only one voice that we need to listen to and that is the voice of God. “The church needs to be more open and affirming.” Affirming of what – sin? How can we “affirm” a sinful lifestyle and even remotely proclaim to be a holy people. We are commanded to be holy, but I can not think of a single passage of Scripture that commands us to be affirming – especially when it comes to affirming unholy lifestyles. “The church needs to be more modern, more relevant to today’s culture.” This one is truly fascinating. In the midst of today’s utter and complete moral chaos, people are asking for more rootlessness and subjectivity, as if getting drunk for longer periods of time is the ultimate cure for alcoholism. No – the answer to today’s moral and religious vacuum is the return to solid ground. The church needs to be the one place where people can have a safe refuge from the endless and meaningless cycle of change and relativism.
Jeremiah had it right – but the people refused to listen to him, and what he prophesied came true. Jerusalem was destroyed. You can recover from a tragedy, but not if that tragedy is compounded by the willful, catastrophic rejection of the only thing that can save you.
Are we going to go back to the pure, life-giving water from God, or are we going to continue to depend upon our broken cisterns?