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Dialog vs. Fellowship?

Okay – contrary to my usual over-wordiness, this post will be relatively short (yea, right, I bet you’ve heard that one before).

The subject comes from a conversation that I had yesterday with a peer (and to hide everyone’s identity – I will speak in the most general of descriptions). We were discussing many things theological, and in the middle of the conversation he mentioned a distinction that I do not think I have used, or even been aware of. Maybe I have, and just forgot it. Anyway – it was striking to me and so I thought I would throw this out and see if it resonated with anyone, or if anyone had any comments or feedback.

The comment was this: he is a member of a large denomination, one in which there are some smaller fellowships. His particular association is fairly conservative, and another of the groups which share the same name is, in his estimation, beyond liberal. So, in our conversation he mentioned that he is in dialog with many religious groups (both inside and outside of his denomination) even though there might not be any true “fellowship,” but he (and his association) cannot even be in dialog with this other group which, (at least nominally) they should be in fellowship with.

That got me to thinking – what difference does it make to be in “dialog” with a group, but at the same time refuse to be in “fellowship.” What “lines” exist for deciding that fellowship cannot be maintained, but healthy dialog can occur? And, at the next level, what line (or lines) must be drawn that, when crossed, mean there can be no “fellowship” between groups, or individuals within those groups?

Clearly, as the New Testament is silent on the issue of “denominations” (in the New Testament there is only the church, and heretics and schismatics outside of the church), there can be no clear and unambiguous teaching from the pen of the gospel writers or the later apostolic letters. However – is there no counsel at all?

Somehow this is a new concept for me (sorry if you have traveled down this road before – more than one person believes me to be a Luddite, but I digress). I would love to be in dialog with a number of individuals – but in order for there to be dialog there must be some basic assumptions, and one of those assumptions is that there must be mutual respect. I can dialog my peer with whom I was conversing, even though we come from very different perspectives, because he is firmly convinced of his own position, but, at least in my presence, is respectful and generous to listen to what I have to say.

Sadly, he is more willing to listen to my convictions than are some of my “family members” within the Churches of Christ. That is why what he had to say about dialoging with groups outside of his denomination, even though dialog with those who share the name of his denomination was no longer possible, resonated with me so powerfully. I’ve been there too, I just could not verbalize it the way he said it. It’s the same experience I had at Fuller Theological Seminary. I could not “fellowship” with many of my classmates, but we had some wonderful (and at times heated) dialog.

Comments? Feedback? Threats of excommunication?

Thanks for flying in the fog today . . .

2016 – A Year of Proclamation

Yesterday’s post was the “glass half empty” view of the year of elections that we are facing in 2016. My good blogging friend Tim Archer pointed out in a comment that I was sort of hyperbolic in my statement, and I have to plead mea culpa. I understand various election cycles in our history have been, well, beyond the realm of what would be considered appropriate or meaningful.  My experience has been that while campaigns have been hard fought, they have rarely (although perhaps occasionally) been as poisonous as this cycle has demonstrated – and I fear it will get worse. So, yesterday my goal was mostly “negative” in the sense that I wanted to challenge our commitment as Christians to the Kingdom of God. Today, I want to look at the “glass half full” side. I want to demonstrate the positive side of withdrawing from partisan politics.

First, when Christians pull out of the vitriol and mud-slinging of partisan politics, we demonstrate that we follow a greater power. When a Christian says, “I know God is in control, but we have to win this election or I will lose my freedom/job/security/safety (whatever the threat might be),” in effect what he or she is saying is, “I really don’t think God is in control, so I better fix things myself.”

Let me put it another way – whatever you are afraid of losing is that thing that you worship. If you are afraid of losing your guns, then your guns are your idol. Are you afraid of losing your security? Then your well-being is your idol. Are you afraid of losing your job? Then your work productivity has become your idol. Jesus’ call to discipleship is radical – I’m afraid we really do not understand just how radical that call is. I do know, however, that a good many people have had to discover that. I could explain, but that is the source of another blog.

Second, when Christians pull away from the nastiness of partisan politics it frees up a massive amount of time, energy, motivation, and money to invest in the kingdom of God. Just think how much money will be wasted on TV, radio, computer, billboard, newspaper, magazine, and other forms of advertising in every form of media over the next 10 months. The total will be staggering. For what purpose? The purpose will be to get some person (or persons) elected to an office where they can return the favor by providing their benefactors with staggering amounts of federal or state funding. That would be bad enough if that is where it started and stopped – but thousands (dare I say millions) of these dollars will be contributed by Christians who will then not have that money to support their local congregations or national or international charities. It is a monumental waste of financial capital. Beyond finances, however, what about the time that will be dedicated to campaign issues, and mental and physical exertion that will be devoted to the election? Christians who would not devote so much as one week out of the year to attend a special gospel meeting will now spend months putting up signs, going door-to-door to talk to voters, handing out leaflets, and other forms of public interaction in order to get “their guy” elected to some state or federal office. You might want to argue that “major elections only happen once every four years – so I am not spending that much time in politics.” To which I would respond – “Jesus is only going to come back once.” I think that should figure into our priorities.

Third, and perhaps most important, when Christians separate themselves from partisan politics it will elevate the standing of Christ’s church. To me there is nothing more unbecoming of a body of Christians than the impression that the kingdom of God can be identified with one political party or the other. How wonderful it would be if everyone in the United States could look at Christ’s church and see something so different, so radically new, so amazingly transformed that they would learn to become ashamed of their broken ways. The more Christians lower themselves into the muck of partisan politics the less likely that is to happen. “Why do I have to change my ways when you Christians act no better than I do?” is a legitimate question. On the other hand, a church that has been pulled out of the pig-pen of human politics by the blood of Christ should act, look, talk, and think in ways that are radically different from the world. Our citizenship is in heaven, Paul wrote. Christians need to start acting like we are kingdom people, not partisans.

In no way am I suggesting that Christians should remove themselves from critical issues facing our country. Issues of equality, fair trade, human exploitation, poverty, health, and a number of issues should be addressed by the church. But, the critical point is that these issues should be addressed from the point of view of the gospel, and not from the Capitol building or the White House. Christians have for too long abdicated the greatest power in the world – the power of the cross. We have come to believe that only a President or a group of Senators or Representatives can change anything. The early church believed a rag-tag group of fishermen, tent-makers, and tax-collectors could turn the world up-side-down. And, because they believed that (and believed in the one who gave them the power), that is exactly what they did.

2016 will indeed be a year of decision – and for the Church of Jesus Christ it can be a great year of proclamation as well. A year to proclaim that we have been called to a higher righteousness, a greater glory, and a deeper reality. A year to proclaim that we have had enough of the world, now we are going to follow the cross. A year to proclaim that, although some human form of government might be necessary, that government does not have the authority to enslave its people. Jesus came to set God’s people free – free from sin to be sure – but free from all human bondage as well, and that includes a representative democracy.

I need to hear that message as much as anyone. Enough of the half-full glass. My cup is supposed to “overflow.” Let us be done with the empty and vain machinations of abusive power. Let us become what we have been called to be.

2016 – A Year of Decision

And so it begins. 2016 will be a year of significant change, or changes, for Americans. I am not convinced as Christians we are prepared for those changes.

One change for certain is that by the end of the year (unless our Lord returns before then!) we will have a new president, and likely a large number of new senators and representatives. On the local level there will be new governors and state representatives. Not a single vote has been cast in the 2016 elections, and already the vitriol has reached levels never seen before. And that is just within one party – the partisan sniping has yet to even begin in earnest.

2016 will prove to be a pivotal year, I am convinced. This might be true for the country, but I am actually more concerned about the church. Whether the union survives is ultimately inconsequential. How the church weathers this storm will have eternal consequences.

Every election cycle since I have been old enough to vote has been labeled “the most important election of this generation.” The phrase has become so overused I am tired of it. There can only be one election that is the most important of this generation. All the others pale in comparison.

Jesus told Pilate in no uncertain terms, “My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world.” (John 18:36, RSV)

I’m afraid that in 2016 far too many “Christians” will elect a new king. They will elect a king from this world – actually they will elect this world as king, with a human being as the face of the power. Already my Facebook and Twitter feeds are full of hateful and unchristian postings, “shares,” and “likes.” Many are so full of error as to be scandalous for a Christian to be associated with. Paul would tell his student Timothy, “Shun youthful passions and aim at righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call upon the Lord from a pure heart. Have nothing to do with stupid, senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.” (2 Timothy 2:22-23) I may be in the minority here, but I simply cannot understand why someone would jeopardize their eternal salvation over something so stupid and senseless as a partisan election.

2016 will be a pivotal year. Choices will be made. Elections will be held, some candidates will win, some will lose. The greatest tragedy will not be that one political party or the other will gain ascendency. The greatest tragedy will be that some children of the King will renounce their eternal heritage for a mess of temporal soup. They will exchange the glory of their Father for the rags of a demonic imposter. They will echo the tragic refrain of those Jewish leaders some 2,000 years ago, “We have no king but Caesar.”

Choose you this day whom you will serve. (Joshua 24:15) Choose partisan politics and you will never know peace. Choose Christ, submit to His kingdom, and you will never have to worry about the results of some meaningless popularity contest.

Book Review – Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ (Schreiner and Wright, eds.)

As promised, a review of the book that spurred my last post. Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, eds., (Nashville: B&H Academic Publishing Group, 2006) 352 pages.

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I admit that the purchase of this book was more title and cover than anything. I knew nothing about the editors, or the authors. I soon discovered that the editors and authors of the individual chapters are committed Baptists, and they repeatedly made that point obvious throughout the book. That should be of little issue, unless you have a passionate dislike for Baptist authors. I try to be as eclectic in my reading as I can. My favorite (and the best academic book, IMHO) on the subject of baptism is by another Baptist, G.R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament. My favorite book on prayer was written my a Jesuit priest. So, I do not judge books by the authors, although I will sometimes buy one if the cover strikes me as interesting.

This book is a collection of 10 chapters, each written by a different author. The first three chapters cover the topic of baptism in the gospels, Luke-Acts combined, and the New Testament epistles. There follows chapters on Baptism and the Relationship between the Covenants, Baptism in the Patristic Writings, Confessor Baptism (the Anabaptists), Baptism and the Logic of Reformed Paedobaptists, Meredith Kline and Suzerainty, Circumcision, and Baptism, and (very interesting to me) Baptism n the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, and concluding with a final chapter on Baptism in the Context of the Local Church.

Because this is a collection of works in one volume, it is to be expected that there would be some unevenness among the chapters, and that is most certainly the case. In my estimation the chapters ranged from the simply dreadful (and academically suspect) chapter on the Patristic Writings to an outstanding demonstration of proper academic writing in the chapter on Baptism and the Logic of the Reformed Paedobaptists and to a lesser degree in the chapter on Baptism in the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement (unfortunately, the author focused entirely on Campbell, which seriously affected his work. He should have named the chapter, “Baptism in the Writings of Alexander Campbell” as that is what he discussed.) The chapter on the Patristic writings was full of summary statements that had no documentation and other statements that were questionable as to whether the author took the quoted passage out of context. In contrast, the chapter on the the Reformed doctrine of paedobaptism provided adequate documentation and allowed the reader to decide (at least I believe it did) whether the passage was in or out of context.

The volume is valuable primarily as a defense of believer’s baptism (or, confessor’s baptism, as one author suggested). That is its intended purpose. It is not, and should not be used, for a text defining the purpose and meaning of baptism. For that purpose I suggest the aforementioned text by Beasley-Murray, or Baptism and the Remission of Sins: An Historical Perspective by David Fletcher, or Baptism: A Biblical Study by Jack Cottrell. This volume is devoted specifically to the question of whether paedobaptism (infant baptism) is biblical, and seeks to explain the practice of paedobaptism especially within the Reformed (Calvinistic) evangelical churches. Very little mention is made of the Roman Catholic or Lutheran practices.

I genuinely enjoyed several of the chapters, especially the one on the Anabaptists. This chapter was among the strongest, and one that provided me with the most food for thought, both positively and negatively. I am becoming more and more convinced that the Churches of Christ should be paying more and more attention to the Anabaptist movement (with which we have tertiary connections), both for doctrine and especially for praxis.

The chapters covering the biblical texts were uneven, with some good insights and some aggravating defenses for the sake of denominational ties. On the other hand, there were examples of significant diversion from “standard” Baptist theology, with several examples where the authors stated that baptism is indeed inseparable from the forgiveness of sins (although, to be sure,  each and every one of them rejected “baptismal regeneration” and salvation ex opere operato, salvation simply by the administration of baptism.) I found the chapter on baptism and the Restoration Movement to be extraordinarily even handed, and it was valuable to see the writings of Alexander Campbell through the lens of a Baptist theologian. I reject his suggestion that anyone should follow the lead of Oak Hills church in San Antonio Texas, because from my perspective that congregation has completely forsaken biblical teaching concerning baptism (among other things) and their heritage within the Churches of Christ, and I reject that they speak for anyone who wants to remain faithful to the Restoration plea.

One other note in passing. I wrote my last post before I read the concluding chapter, and in that chapter the author discussed the very question I raised among Churches of Christ. In that chapter he provided a statistic that among Baptist churches between the years 1977 and 1997, the numbers of baptisms of children under the age of six increased 250 percent! According to a doctoral dissertation that examined this phenomenon, one of the leading causes of this trend was, “social pressures on the pastor.” (p. 347). In an immediate classic turn of phrase, the author who reported the statistic referred to the practice as “infantile baptism.” (see page. 346, note 23. The title of the study is “The Practice of Infantile Baptism in Southern Baptist Churches and Subsequent Impact on Regenerate Church Membership” in Faith and Mission, vol. 18, no. 3 (Summer 2001): 74-87).

Overall this was an enlightening book, and one I can recommend for the express purpose of the discussion of infant baptism. As I mentioned earlier, if you are looking for an exposition on the meaning and purpose (theology) of baptism, you would be better advised to read Beasley-Murray, Fletcher or Cottrell. Fletcher’s book is particularly strong in examining the question of the relationship between baptism and the remission of sins. Beasley-Murray simply set the standard in terms of New Testament passages on baptism, and although the book is older, it is still well worth the purchase price.

Chilling Words from a WWI U-Boat Captain

During World War 1 a young naval officer received his country’s honor by serving as a captain on a U-Boat, the German submarine. Such service required the greatest bravery and patriotism.

During World War 2 that same young officer spent his days as a prisoner in the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. He was arrested at the command of Adolf Hitler because of that same bravery and patriotism. He loved Germany – he did not love Hitler.

Martin Niemoeller is not widely known as a Iron Cross recipient as a U-Boat commander. Such behavior is usually condemned today – especially because in WWI the use of submarines was considered cowardly and unethical. However, the nerve that shaped a naval commander was also the nerve that shaped a resistor, and it is Niemoeller the Protestant Pastor that is most widely known today.

You may not know the name, but it is virtually certain that you have read, or heard, his words –

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew.
And then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.

Today Christians have a choice. We can either stand up for those who are being pressured and bullied into cowering to the government, or we can wait until everyone else has been defeated and then there will be no one left to speak up for us. It does not matter whether it is a baker, a photographer, or a caterer, if we do not speak up for those who are being crushed by the “legal authority” of the government, we cannot complain when no one speaks up for the Christian church.

This generation’s battle line has been drawn. The confrontation over gender-bending, sexual ethics, and related issues has just begun – it has not been decided. The church must decide, and must voice its decision clearly, whether we stand for those who cannot and will not bow to the pressure of a tiny minority that is hell-bent on forcing its perverted views of sexuality on everyone or if we are simply concerned about our own little cloister.

After WWII, Martin Niemoeller became one of the most vocal proponents of pacifism. He learned his lesson. He knew he could never be another cog in a war machine. He was a soldier in another army – the army of the Prince of Peace.

Here is a question church – are we going to stand up for those with whom we might have minor disagreements because they do not take communion like we do, or they use a different prayer book than we do, or because they use no prayer book and do not take communion at all? Or are we going to stand with them and for them, because it is the right thing – the only thing – to do?

When “Love” Becomes Sin

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 shrewd in their own sight! (Isaiah 5:20-21, RSV)

They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace. Were they ashamed when they committed abomination? No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among those who fall; at the time that I punish them, they shall be overthrown, says the LORD. (Jeremiah 6:14-15, see also 8:11-12, RSV)

The word of the LORD came to me; “Son of man, speak to your people and say to them, If I bring the sword upon a land, and the people of the land take a man from among them and make him their watchman; and if he sees the sword coming upon the land and blows the trumpet and warns the people; then if any one who hears the sound of the trumpet does not take warning, and the sword comes and takes him away, his blood shall be upon his own head. He heard the sound of the trumpet, and did not take warning; his blood shall be upon himself. But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, so that the people are not warned, and the sword comes, and takes any one of them; that man is taken away in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at the watchman’s hand. So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, O wicked man, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way; he shall die in his iniquity, but you will have saved your life . . . Say to them, As I live, says the LORD God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and life; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel? (Ezekiel 33:1-9, 11 RSV)

The apostle Paul told his young student Timothy to “Preach the word of God. Be prepared, whether the time is favorable or not.” (2 Timothy 4:2, NLT). The time is not very favorable for the watchman to sound his trumpet, at least not in the western, individualistic American culture. Our culture is becoming less Christian by the moment, regardless of what any survey says, and the substitution of evil for good and darkness for light is becoming almost ubiquitous. We’ve lost the ability to blush. I’m not even sure some people know what it means to blush.

Perhaps the clearest example of how the words Isaiah and Jeremiah are being fulfilled once again in our world is the manner in which everyone, Christians in particular, and especially those Christians who have a more conservative or orthodox view of sexuality, are being told we have to “love” those who are willfully perverting God’s design for marriage and gender relationships.

Just in the past couple of days I have seen articles, published or highlighted in well-known Christian publications, that emphasize how holding conservative views on marriage or sexual orientation is somehow bigoted, hateful and unchristian. We are told repeatedly that to suggest that a homosexual lifestyle is sinful is itself sinful. We are to honor and support those who reject God’s division of humanity into “male and female.” Gender, our God-given maleness or femaleness, is something we can change, just like our clothing.

[This is just an aside here, but has anyone else noticed the hypocrisy of the LGBTQ language here? Society is being told that homosexuality is an inborn trait, something that cannot be changed; and yet our SEX is something that can be changed if and when someone decides they have been “born” into the wrong body? Would it not be equally true that someone who has homosexual urges has simply been “born” with the “wrong” set of urges and needs to undergo a proper sexual orientation procedure?]

Dear readers, at some point someone needs to stand up and say, ENOUGH. Love does not mean simply going along with whatever someone says or thinks. We love our children enough to spank their hand when they reach for a hot stove. We love our children enough not to let them play around loaded firearms. We love our children enough to limit their access to poisonous chemicals whether it is rat poison or Jack Daniels whiskey.

Would it be “love” if we saw our brother slowly killing himself by injecting heroin into his bloodstream to simply say, “well, that is my brother’s life, I cannot judge him because of Matthew 7:1, so I am compelled to love and accept his life.” Would it be love if we saw our sister destroy her life and others by snorting cocaine to simply say, “Well, according to Matthew 7:1, I cannot judge my sister, and she was born with this incapacity to handle cocaine, but I can offer her love and acceptance and make her feel welcome in my home.” Would we say to a young woman who is selling her body for enough money to buy one more fix of methamphetamine, “Well, having sex is normal, you know, and who am I to judge another’s actions; besides it is her life and it is my responsibility to offer her love and acceptance and to let her know that her life is no worse than any other life.”

Speaking from a biblical perspective, what the moral revisionists want us to believe is “love” is not biblical love. Biblical love confronts sinners (all of us) with the truth – it is confrontational when it needs to be confrontational; is is disciplinary when it needs to be disciplinary; it names sin when sin needs to be named.

When love exchanges light for darkness, when love exchanges good for evil, when love shouts “peace” when there is no peace, and when love silences the trumpet when the watchman sees the sword approaching, then love is no longer love. At that point “love” has become sin.

Book Review – The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Thomas E. Bergler)

The Juvenilization of American Christianity Thoms E. Bergler (Grand Rapids: William E. Eerdmans, 2012) 229 pages and 37 pages of endnotes. 51+3XPP+nvL

I’m not exactly sure the process that encouraged me to read this book – I had a bunch of “irons in the fire” over the past couple of years, and a note indicates I bought this book in July of 2013 – so it has been a while since I have read it. It has taken me a while to get around to reviewing it, but that time delay does not reflect on the importance of the book.

There are some books that you read and you think, “Wow, I wish I had thought of that.” Other books you read and you think, “I’m not sure I agree with that, or I do not think the author made his case very well here.” And then there are the books that you read and you think, “Wow. I agree with the author, and I really wish that he was not right.” Bergler’s book fit that third category for me. I have felt that Bergler’s thesis was true for quite some time, but I could not have said it as powerfully or as eloquently as Bergler does.

Bergler’s thesis is given on pages 4 and 8:

Beginning in the 1930s and 1940s, Christian teenagers and youth leaders staged a quiet revolution in American Church life which can properly be called the juvenilization of American Christianity. Juvenilization is the process by which the religious beliefs, practices, and developmental characteristics of adolescents become accepted as appropriate for Christians of all ages.

And then this:

Adolescent Christianity is any way of understanding, experiencing, or practicing the Christian faith that conforms to the patterns of adolescence in American culture.

The main point of the book is that due to the influence of the adolescent culture shift that started in the 1930’s, the American church is basically a church of adolescents. This is not something that can be undone, according to Bergler. Indeed, he states emphatically that his book is NOT a manual on how to eliminate juvenilization – and the last chapter is dedicated to “The Triumph and Taming of Juvenilization.”

Bergler demonstrates how each of the major groups of American Christianity (Liberals andConservatives, Catholics and Protestants) have been affected by this trend. The one group that he points out that has managed to resist the process is the Black church. This is true because  Black Christians did a much better job of integrating their youth into the entire church and thereby fostered a greater degree of maturity as their youth matured.

In contrast, by creating, and by constantly re-creating age specific “youth groups” complete with their own “youth ministers,” the vast majority of the American church scene simply allowed their youth to stagnate in the period of life we call adolescence. The problem is that now “we are all adolescents” as the introduction is titled. Just think of the major issues in the American church today and you will find that at the root there is a systemic lack of Christian maturity. Everyone wants the church to be what they want it to be, not what Christ has called the church to be.

Having gone through adolescence in the 1970’s this book was a hard read for me. I loved the youth group that gave me so much strength as a young Christian. But I can see now how we have bent the church to try to match the demands of what can only be described as “adolescence” that we have lost sight of Paul’s instruction to “grow up into maturity . . . into Christ.” By allowing everyone to stay an adolescent, we have almost killed the church.

The one problem I have with the book is Bergler’s acceptance of the problem he identified. True, in the final pages he discusses how the process needs to be “tamed,” but I do not see how the issue he discusses can be dealt with short of ending it. Adolescence may be a necessary stage of growth for today’s young people, but in no way do we want them to stay stuck in adolescence. We want to move them to maturity – we want to move the church to maturity. We want, or maybe better put, we NEED to grow up!

I heartily recommend the book. It may open your eyes, it may challenge you, and you may thoroughly disagree with Bergler, but in my (humble) opinion you cannot disregard the issue that he reveals.

C. S. Lewis on Ecumenism

I have been reading a delightful book of letters written by C.S. Lewis, entitled Yours, Jack. I was actually wanting, and expecting, more from the book, but the letters do reveal a little more about the great author.

Lewis was not a professional theologian; he portrayed himself as an amateur writing for other amateurs in the field of religion. But I think he was far too self-effacing. Perhaps not a trained, “professional” theologian, but Lewis had some profound theological insights, and wrote some of the best “theology” (discourse about God) that is available. His writings are among the easiest to understand, but also contain some of the deepest spiritual insights. That is not easy to do, and reveals the greatness of the man.

Yesterday I came across this gem, written in 1958 in response to a question posed to him about ecumenical discussions (discussions intended to heal divisions and rifts between Christian churches).

I think, urgently, that it is false wisdom to have any ‘denomination’ represented for ecumenical purposes by those who are on its fringe. People (perhaps naturally) think this will help reunion, whereas in fact it invalidates the whole discussion. Each body should rather be represented by its centre. Only then will any agreements that are achieved be of real value. (Yours, Jack Harper One, 2008, p. 313.)

This is Lewis at his best: clear, concise, and devastatingly on point. This is also why Lewis,  once he is understood, is so out of popularity with mainstream Christian leaders today. Today the common thought is that only if a leader is willing to shed his groups’ basic core beliefs would he be a qualified candidate for ecumenical conversations. I am afraid this is why the current Pope is so popular with many main-line evangelicals. I think they see him as willing to jettison many traditional Roman Catholic beliefs, and so he is somehow baptized in an “evangelical” model. The problem is, if the Pope is not leading from the core of Roman Catholic teaching, he will only be able to speak for the disgruntled population within the Roman Catholic church, and not its broad middle.

I live, worship, teach, and write as a member of the Church of Christ. It bothers me deeply that the voices of ecumenism within the Churches of Christ are exactly what Lewis describes, outliers in the “fringe” of the church. Those who “want a voice at the ecumenical table” are sadly those who are the most willing to discard many of the main identifiers of our movement – adult baptism for the remission of sins, simple and unadorned worship experiences, male spiritual leadership, and an unwavering belief in the words of Scripture alone for understanding the mind of God. Visit the congregations where these leaders serve as ministers and you see nothing, absolutely nothing, that lets a visitor know that the worshippers are proud of, or even knowledgeable about, their spiritual heritage. Call that what ever you want to (and I have some choice adjectives), but it is NOT ecumenism.

As Lewis so urgently (his word) pointed out – ecumenism calls for those at the table to come from the center of their group. Only then will any discussions have any merit, any possibility of moving forward. What you see today is not ecumenism – it is syncretism, and a weak form of that. Syncretism is just taking bits and pieces of things you like and mushing them together to create a hybrid monster. Syncretism is not the mixing of ingredients to create a masterpiece, it is slopping all your leftovers to create goulash.

I have written earlier that the Churches of Christ today are facing many internal problems. It has always been that way, and most likely always will be that way. I defy you to find me a religious group that is not facing similar internal problems. I just wish that those who invite various “leaders” from the divided Christian church to sit down at an “ecumenical table” would invite someone from the Churches of Christ who actually are proud of our heritage, and can defend it, rather than being embarrassed by it and want to jettison it.

An Irrational Fear of Our History

I promised some time ago to work through the conclusions of my doctoral dissertation. I hope to do so in a general way, although for the “brass tacks” specifics you will have to wait awhile.

I chose that creepy picture that accompanies this post for a reason. I am not afraid of many things, although a few issues really creep me out. Heights for one, and I do tend to be claustrophobic. But, Black Widow Spiders?? I would just as soon hit my thumb with a hammer as to have to deal with BWS (for short). I have no idea why God created them, and he can just un-create them as far as I am concerned. Do not talk to me about the “balance of nature” – as God could have created umpteen other ways to get rid of flies and other nasty bugs. Black Widow Spiders? – my back is icky just typing the words.

One of the main conclusions of my dissertation is that the overwhelming majority of members of the Churches of Christ are either afraid of our history, or are at best ambivalent toward it. That is to say that you would be hard pressed to find 1 out of 10 or 10 out of 100 members that either enjoy learning about the history of the Restoration Movement, or even care about it. That leaves more than 90% of our fellowship (and I imagine the number is much higher) that either hate the idea of Restoration History or simply do not care one way or the other. The end result is the same – our history is steadfastly belittled or ignored.

Those who hate, or fear, our history can be divided into two groups. On the far conservative side are those who simply deny we have a history, and it terrifies them to consider the fact that, yes, we do have a very real physical history, and we are descendants of very real, fallible, sinful human beings. Go back as far as you wish, but you can trace our spiritual heritage to a handful of men – visionaries and spiritual giants all – who observed that the Christian church as they saw it was corrupt and corrupting. They could see in the New Testament a better way, and a far more simple concept of the church. They all sought to “restore” that vision of the church. Some attempted it in ways we would be proud of; some in ways we would disagree with. All of them, however, were human and all of them failed in lesser or greater ways. That is not to criticize nor to idolize. It is simply to acknowledge reality.

On the far other extreme we have those who acknowledge our history, are perhaps are acquainted with it in greater or lesser degrees, but who are equally terrified of that history. These are the “intelligentsia” of our movement, those who would claim to be leading us to more verdant pastures than our forebears. Instead of denying the history of the Restoration Movement, these leaders do not want the hoi poloi, the common people, to learn about the theology of Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, and their immediate disciples because there is something profoundly compelling about these early 19th century spiritual pilgrims. When we open up the pages of the Christian Baptist or the Christian Messenger we see real genius at work. We see Christian leaders trying to throw off the yoke of the “guaranteed results of modern scholarship” and simply go back to what the New Testament taught about being a disciple of Christ. I think these individuals are afraid that, if the real wisdom of Campbell and Stone (and Fanning, and Lipscomb, et. al.) were widely disseminated it would destroy their grip on the hearts and minds of the average, pew sitting Church of Christer today.

Caught in the middle between these two opposite, yet strangely married extremes, are the vast majority of church members. They hear first the one side, more strident obviously, but they they also hear the murmurings and whispers of the second group. Held in ignorance by both sides, and unwilling to face the wrath of the first group and not willing to be labeled as Luddites by the second group, they simply maintain their silence and go about their business as if there was no real issue to begin with.

This is tragic! The modern day heirs of the Restoration Movement have one of the richest, the most compelling histories in the wide and complex history of the Christian movement itself. As just one (admittedly puny) example, much of what is being preached today by elements of the “Emerging Church” and the “Missional Church” comes straight out of the theology and praxis of Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone. But, because we (speaking generically, of course) are so ashamed of our history we do not even recognize the fact, and because we have not claimed our history and proclaimed it’s strengths the world does not know that we could be at least 200 years ahead of the ecclesiastical curve, if not more.

So, to make a long post much shorter, in my dissertation I begin by looking at our history with as clear a set of spectacles as I could. I could not address ALL of our history, as that would take volumes. But I did examine how our history was affected by philosophical beliefs as well as theological conclusions, and how this combination worked against the practice of confession within the Churches of Christ.

Beginning in October of this year (2015) I will begin presenting the conclusions reached in the process of preparing my dissertation in a weekend seminar format. If you are interested in learning more about the biblical practice of confession, and especially how Churches of Christ need to “restore” the practice of biblical confession, send me a personal note to abqfr8dawg (at) msn (dot) com, and I will be happy to get back with you quickly. The first seminar will be in Portales, New Mexico, in October, so perhaps you can attend that seminar, or I will be happy to come to your congregation and present the material to you.

Submitting to the Reign of God (Or, How to Become a Mystic)

I want to conclude this little mini-series on mysticism with some thoughts on how mere mortals can join the ranks of the mystics. As with virtually everything else that I write, I cannot claim any true originality here, only in the sense of putting these ideas together in the manner that I have.

To begin with, it should go without saying, but you must first of all desire to submit to the reign of God. This is so obvious, but then again, I am the master at discovering what everyone else already knows. If you do not want God to reign in your life, or in anyone else’s life, He simply will not force himself upon you. To want God to reign in your life you must be willing to surrender every other king in your life – money, prestige, power, status, country, possessions, even people. To say, “Thy kingdom come” means just that – not a democracy or a meritocracy, but a monarchy. Those who say they want God to reign in their life while continuing to submit to the principalities and powers of this world are deceiving themselves – and God cannot be deceived.

We are to seek God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength. It is an all-or-nothing adventure. To join with Peter walking on the waves of the storm-washed sea we have to be willing to let go of the boat. This is the problem I see with most “Christianity” in America today. We are half-hearted at best. We want God plus America (or America plus God). We want God plus the Constitution. We want God plus the greatest armed forces the world has ever known. We want God plus every technological discovery that we have or ever will create. We do not want God, we want God plus something else. We want God.1. That is NOT seeking the kingdom of God. That is NOT seeking God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. That is not seeking God’s kingdom first, and allowing him to add “all these things.”

Next, a person seeking the reign of God in their lives will conform their life to the pattern of Jesus. They will study the life and teachings of Christ as their only sure guide to learning the will of the Father. The beatitudes become no longer a list of virtues to emulate, but the reality of everyday life. The parables no longer serve as topics for academic study, but an entrance into the kingdom. Along with the life of Jesus they will absorb as much of the rest of Scripture as they possibly can. They will learn from the great inspired mystics – from Moses and Isaiah and Jeremiah and Daniel and Paul and Peter and John. Every page of the Bible will be to them a treasure of untold value – revealing the heart and will of God in heaven, whose reign they purely and entirely seek. Jesus, however, will be the center around which every other detail of Scripture revolves. Christ is the center, the norm, of a mystic life. It was Christ who inaugurated the ultimate reign of God, and it will be Christ who returns to fully embody that reign.

Third, a person seeking the reign of God will decide, based on what the Scriptures and Jesus teach them about the reign of God, whether they want to accept that reign or refuse it. Just because the reign was fervently desired in the first place does not mean that every person will decide to accept that reign. The rich young ruler went away sorrowful, even while he was on the very threshold of accepting the kingdom of God. The apostle Paul wrote of a certain Hymenaeus and Alexander who had made a shipwreck out of their faith, and who had apparently decided to rescind their allegiance to the reign of God. Experience tells me that many fit Jesus’ parable of the seed that falls on the weedy soil – the heart accepts the message with gladness but there is just too much “stuff” that chokes out God’s kingdom. So, following desire and discovery there comes the point of decision. Is God going to reign, or not? There is no other question, there is no other answer.

Finally, the one who places God as the king in their life will actually live as if God is the king of their life. How do you think Abraham had the courage to leave his father’s faith and country? How do you think Joseph was able to risk his life to remain pure? How do you think Moses had the nerve to stand up to Pharaoh? How do you think Daniel and his three friends had the courage to defy the king? How do you think Paul could stand up to Herod? How could John write from Patmos to tell the seven churches to stand up against Caesar? The answer to each and every situation was that these faithful, these disciples, these mystics, all had the kingdom of God securely implanted in their heart. They knew who was the king, and the earthly power that threatened them was simply not worthy of their fear, and certainly not of their devotion.

We are a nation of sanctimonious cowards. We fear the government. We fear losing our Constitution. We fear what will happen to us if, by some horrible circumstance, we are caught without our fully loaded handgun on our person. We fear what will happen if we stop building multi-million dollar airplanes to drop multi-million dollar bombs. We fear losing our freedom, yet we are too ignorant to realize that is striving for every human comfort and safety we have sacrificed our greatest freedom – the freedom to live in and expand the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God knows nothing of Constitutions and guns and airplanes and bombs. The symbols of the kingdom of God are a towel and a cross. The towel is to serve this world, and the cross is to die to it and for it.

As I started this series, I said that the world does not like mystics. The world punishes, persecutes, and even kills mystics. Jesus predicted his followers would be hated. Paul predicted his churches would face tribulation. John saw only martyrdom for those who remained faithful to the word of the cross. To share in the resurrection of Jesus we must first share in his death. When we invite the kingdom into our life, the hatred of the world will soon follow. But if we are to follow Jesus, how can it be any other way?

The cross is not the terrible end of a pious, happy life. Instead, it stands at the beginning of community with Jesus Christ. Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

One day the Pharisees asked Jesus, “When will the kingdom of God come?” Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God can’t be detected by visible signs. You won’t be able to say, ‘Here it is!’ or ‘It’s over there!’ For the kingdom of God is already among you. (Luke 17:20-21, NLT)

The kingdom is among us. I pray we want it. I pray we are searching for it. I pray we care enough to learn what it means. I pray we decide to accept it, and live like we accept it.

I pray we all, in whatever measure we can, will accept the call to be mystics – and begin to live as if the kingdom has arrived.

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