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.
After a brief (although, in my mind, necessary) detour, I would now like to return to the series of posts I have been writing about my perspective on the current situation the the Churches of Christ find themselves in, and what I believe would be a biblical response.
In this entry I would like to discuss the relationship the Churches of Christ have had, and currently do have, with other churches in the Christian tradition.
To begin with, this subject has been a complicated one from the earliest days of the American Restoration Movement. The two men most frequently named as “founders” or “leaders” of the Churches of Christ (Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone) both believed with no hesitation that there were Christians within every denomination that existed in the early 1800s. It would have been simply unfathomable to these men to try to defend the statement that the church had “disappeared” from the face of the earth. The very point of their “restoration” movement was to call Christians who were in the denominations to leave those institutions, not because there was no way they could be Christian, but because these institutions demanded that the person be something else in addition to being a Christian. In order to be a Presbyterian (as both Campbell and Stone were) you had to subscribe to the rules of the Presbyterian church. Likewise the Methodist church, the Lutheran church, the Anglican or Episcopal church, and the Roman Catholic Church. In the early 1800s these denominations exercised far more “boundary discipline” than is exercised today, so it is hard for some people to understand the religious landscape to which Campbell and Stone were writing. The point that I want to make here is that neither Campbell nor Stone thought they were creating or re-creating anything. They believed in “restoring” the church, but that simply meant removing all the barnacles that had attached themselves to the hull of the great sailing ship “church.” In both of these gentlemen’s minds, if a person was to return to the teachings of the New Testament and New Testament alone, the resulting community, or “church” would be the pure New Testament church.
In my own very personal and, at least in my mind, educated opinion, the weaknesses of such ”pure” restorationist thinking has been adequately revealed. There were some historical and philosophical realities the Campbell and Stone either were unaware of or chose to ignore. Thus, the movement that they helped spawn has had more than its fair share of divisions and brutal intramural fights. We have certainly not lived up the the concept of uniting on the essentials and having charity in the matters of opinion. But this basic beginning point of Campbell and Stone must be understood for the Church of Christ to move forward.
Explained in the most simple way I know how, the Churches of Christ have moved through three stages in dealing with the denominational churches.
The first stage has been noted above. It is the stage of engagement. Both Campbell and Stone sought to engage the denominations with a simple plea – return to a point of time in history when there were no denominations. Hence the term “non-denominationalism” was born. Campbell and Stone saw that, for all the unity with the various denominations, what divided them was not the New Testament (nor, for that matter, the Old Testament), but the later creeds and, more specifically, the Confessions of Faith that each denomination held as a barrier between them and the rest of the Christian world. The original message of the earliest restorers was to simply remove those Confessions of Faith as tools of division. In order to communicate this message the early restorers engaged the leaders of the denominational world. They went congregation to congregation and house to house explaining their plea. And, by any reasonable measure, they succeeded wildly. Entire congregations severed their denominational ties and joined the “Stone/Campbell” movement to unite all Christians.
However, disciples of prophets very rarely follow closely in their leader’s footsteps. And so another
group of leaders emerged that believed if a person should leave a denomination, that meant he or she could not be a Christian if he or she was a member of that denomination. So, even during the lifetime of Stone and Campbell the second phase of the relationship between the Churches of Christ and the denominational world developed, and that was the phase of debate. Now, to be sure, Campbell was a master at the skill of debate. But his debates were never to destroy the enemy, they were designed to convince the doubting. This was not enough for this emerging set of firebrands. They believed the gains made by Campbell and Stone were impressive, but that they were not enough, and those gains had to be defended at all costs. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the non-denominational plea espoused by Stone and Campbell was turned into call to enter into another denomination, the “Church of Christ.” A person could not be a Christian unless he or she adhered to each and every demand that a particular preacher, elder or editor saw was critical – whether it was baptism “for the forgiveness of sins,” the use of titles for ministers, paying ministers, using an instrument of music in worship, not partaking of the Lord’s Supper each and every Lord’s Day, having separate Bible classes for children, using women to teach Bible classes, supporting non-congregational “institutions,” and the list could go on and on. Each and every one of these topics became the fodder for debates, and for several generations a preacher’s skill was measured not by his spirituality or ministerial ability, but by how well he did in “debating the denominations.” Being labeled “soft on the sects” was enough to destroy many a good preacher’s reputation.
This then led to the third phase of relations between the Churches of Christ and their Christian neighbors, and that is our current situation. Many, although by no means most, of the members of the Church of Christ want to continue this position of ridicule/demean/hate the denominations. They have moved from being “non-denominational” to being “anti-denominational” in the worst possible sense of the word. They use words that are clearly not appropriate for a disciple of Christ to use in dialogue with someone of another belief. Quite frankly, they demonstrate a very unChristian attitude. However, on the other end of the spectrum there is a group that still wants to be identified as members of the Church of Christ but they have begun to embrace the main beliefs of the denominational world in an absolutely uncritical way. They hate all right, but they hate the Church of Christ. They ridicule the founders of the Restoration Movement every chance they get. They refuse to accept that anything positive has come from the heritage of the Restoration movement over the past 200+ years. They apologize for every perceived fault, and cannot wait to make fun of those who still believe in the premise of non-denominational Christianity. But, they stoically remain as ministers, elders and editors of “Churches of Christ” so that they can obtain some kind of martyr status by being criticized for their adolescent rejection of their spiritual father’s beliefs.
I have elsewhere stated that I am a staunch believer in the American Restoration Movement. I am a child of this movement, and, while I have been made aware of some of the presuppositional faults in the thinking of Stone and Campbell, I am never-the-less in awe of their spiritual foresight. They truly were prophets who could see 200 years into the future. Much of what the modern world is experiencing in the “Emerging Church” movement was pre-saged by Stone and Campbell. It is astounding for me to read of modern authors calling for a return to “apostolic Christianity” as if it were a novel idea, and Campbell and Stone were promoting that idea back in the early 1800′s. Just goes to prove the author of Ecclesiastes was correct – there is truly nothing new under the sun. But I digress.
While I am a child of the American Restoration Movement, I would like for the Churches of Christ to return to the ideal promoted by Stone and Campbell, and that was the process of engagement. I want to see us be able to engage the denominational world, but at the same time be secure enough in our own convictions that we do not embrace the denominational world. I hope it goes without saying that I reject the ridicule/hate position uncategorically.
As I close I want to make two final comments – to which I will return in depth in my final post in this series. One, we cannot honestly engage other faith traditions if we do not have a healthy understanding and appreciation of who we are. This is where I have such a deep seated distrust of and dislike of certain “leading ministers” in the Churches of Christ today who have virtually thrown the Restoration Plea under the bus. We cannot sit down at the table to have a dialogue with other faith traditions if we pathologically hate our own. To have a conversation in which we agree wholeheartedly with everyone around is is not a dialogue, it is a multi-person monologue.
But conversely, we cannot engage other faith traditions if we do not have a healthy understanding and appreciation of who they are. Truth, I have come to understand, does not reside only in one church building. I have been deeply touched and formed by a Lutheran (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, my favorite theologian), an Anglican (C.S. Lewis, although I’m quite sure he would not be an Anglican today), several Roman Catholics (Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, several others), a Baptist (Glen Stassen) and a number of others, some of which I know their traditions (Anabaptist, Mennonite, United Church of Christ) and some of which I do not. I can only come to the table to begin a dialogue with them if I first understand who they are and what they believe, and not to belittle or ridicule that faith, but to learn from it and grow from it. Just as I would hope they would come to hear me, and to learn from me and to grow from me.
So, my question is do we engage, debate, hate or embrace? In my most humble, but undeniably correct opinion (since, after all, this is MY blog), we have participated in the middle two for far too long and the last is just pure kissy face narcissism. Let us return to the process of engagement. And it is to that goal that I will direct my concluding thoughts.
Sometimes life is just stranger than fiction. Sometimes you want to make something up and even what your imagination can create does not equal what occurs in 3-d real life.
As I was contemplating the next step in my series of personal reflections on the Churches of Christ I happened to come across this blog post: The post is a scathing indictment of the Churches of Christ and an attempt to explain why “so many” young ministers are leaving the Churches of Christ. Note that I am not recommending the post, but I am providing a link so that I am not accused of sensationalizing or misquoting a source.
I was going to deal with another subject, but I simply cannot let this blog post go unanswered. Because it touches on the subject I was about to address, I will respond to this post here first, and then return to the series as I had originally intended it.
First of all I am simply staggered by the attitude revealed in the title of the post. “My problem is not me, my problem is you. You are the source of my angst, my anger, my feelings of insecurity and sickness.” Now, I am well aware of the technique of creating a title that is hyperbolic – extreme – in order to gain attention. However, I do not think that is what the author of this particular piece is doing. I think he is being honest and up front: the problem with many ministers who are leaving the Churches of Christ is the Churches of Christ. The ministers themselves do not have any hang-ups, psychoses or spiritual issues. They are perfect – God’s own gift to the religious world. The problem is the sick, broken, misogynistic and moribund Church of Christ.
What are the main grievances that this author identifies as being the reasons these ministers are leaving the Church of Christ? He lists three: the refusal to allow women to take a leadership role in worship and in church governance; issues with leadership; and the refusal to allow instrumental music in worship which he sees as the main symptom of an unyielding adherence to tradition. That is it. Churches of Christ can be completely defined (and dismissed) in these three categories – misogynistic patriarchalism, an unthinking allegiance to acapella music, and stodgy leaders.
I really do not know where to begin in critiquing this attitude. Words simply do not suffice. “Narcissistic” comes close, but I think this even exceeds narcissism. I believe this type of “blame the Church for my issues” reveals a pathological hatred of the Church and that is something that will not be healed by simply pulling up stakes and leaving the Church of Christ for some other “greener pasture.”
To begin with, those who share these feelings (and judging by the comment section, quite a few ministers do feel this way) believe that they are so smart, so spiritual, so welcoming, so egalitarian and so important that the Church of Christ simply will not survive if they leave the fellowship of the Churches of Christ (at least, they hope it won’t so that they can be proven correct). The young ministers of whom this author and others who share his opinion speak are always described in the most glowing terms: they are well educated, they are erudite, they are deeply spiritual, yet they are conflicted by powers that are beyond their control, they are victims of a brutal and uncaring system that does not recognize their brilliance. Notice how those descriptions frame the antagonists of these poor, misunderstood spiritual giants. Their opponents are ignorant – even if an opponent has the same or greater degree of education it is defective. The opponents do not care about the Spirit; they are slaves of the carnal and only care about power and patriarchy. Their opponents are mired in the muck and mud of a tradition that stifles any kind of creative thought or ministry. This is not a battle between two different approaches to biblical interpretation, this is a battle between the Archangel Michael and the beast from the depths of the abyss.
The main problem I have with this scenario is that it is so abjectly wrong on so many levels.
First, I do not dispute the degree of education that these ministers have obtained. They are very gifted scholars. I will grant that. I will also grant that these ministers are deeply spiritual. I will not deny that that they have come to their conclusions honestly (but I will challenge the correctness of those conclusions). But why does that mean that their opponents are ignorant hayseeds? Why must someone who believes in male spiritual leadership always be portrayed as some kind of knuckle dragging Neanderthal who just came crawling out of his cave? There are many brilliant theologians, both within the Churches of Christ and outside of the Churches of Christ, who hold to the pattern of male spiritual leadership and their degree of scholarship simply cannot be dismissed with a contemptuous sniff and wave of the hand.
And, just for the record, a great many of the staunchest defenders of the concept of male spiritual leadership are females, both within the Churches of Christ and outside of the Churches of Christ. These women are virtually always ignored in the rants and screeds produced by these super-spiritual apostles of egalitarianism. The claim in this post is that women are made to feel like “second class citizens” in a church where men are expected to lead. I have lived my entire life in the Churches of Christ and I have never served or worshipped in a congregation that suggested that women were second class citizens. Were there women in those congregations who felt that way? Maybe – there were undoubtedly men who felt like second class citizens as well. The point is that is not the official, nor unofficial, position of the Churches of Christ and those who make this accusation need to apologize to the men and women who directly and emphatically teach otherwise.
In one of the truly stunning ironies of this whole discussion, it is the egalitarian males who are turning the female defenders of male spiritual leadership into second class citizens. These egalitarian males reject the arguments and silence the voices of those females with whom they disagree. If you are not a liberal female androphobe you simply do not matter to these men.
In regard to non-instrumental music, or a preference for acapella music, this subject has been beaten to death over the past 100 years or so within the Churches of Christ/Christian Church split. What the proponents of instrumental music refuse to acknowledge is that there are a number of other Christian faiths who do not use instruments, and they use the same arguments a put forward by leading scholars within the conservative Churches of Christ – i.e., the New Testament does not authorize the use of instrumental music, and the history of the Christian church clearly demonstrates that the use of instrumental music in worship is a descent from, not an ascent to, a more pure form of praise to God. But this gets back to the intelligence and education issue once again. Those who defend the use of acapella music in worship are just a bunch of ignorant, misguided fools, and if they could ever just sit down and get some real education they would find out that these young ministerial mavericks are absolutely correct and almost 2,000 years of church history can be re-written.
Yeah, that Harvard degree that Dr. Everett Ferguson earned was just a worthless piece of paper.
In regard to tradition and traditionalism, I will agree that the second is bad, but the first is absolutely necessary for the healthy functioning of any community, secular or religious. Those who leave the Churches of Christ because of the traditions within the Churches of Christ will do one of two things. They will either join another group that has just as formal and rigid a set of traditions as the Churches of Christ (albeit different ones), or they will go off and begin a new community of worshippers who will, within the first generation create an entirely new set of traditions that will become just as rigid and inflexible as the ones that now considered so repulsive. The only difference is that in the first scenario the ministers will choose a new set of traditions to form their worship, and in the second scenario they will create the new traditions. But they will not be able to eliminate any sense of tradition. If they were able to do so they would become the most psychologically damaged people on earth. We cannot live without our traditions.
I realize this post has been uncharacteristically harsh. Believe me, I have edited down what I had originally intended to say. But I am sick of this condescending, narcissistic, pre-adolescent criticism of the Church of Christ by a bunch of self-identified spiritual heroes. When I hear someone unreservedly and unapologetically blame others for their problems I immediately think of a spoiled rotten two year old child. When I hear these ministers say, “I have a problem and it is all your fault” all I can think about is a generation was raised in which every team got a first place trophy and every player received a most valuable player medal. This staggering sense of entitlement is almost beyond comprehension when I see it in the secular world, but to hear it from those who have proclaimed an allegiance to the crucified Son of God?
To quote a phrase from a popular movie a few years back: I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.
Do you have issues with the Church of Christ? Fine – so do I. I’ve had issues with the Church of Christ beginning with the day that I wanted some crackers and grape juice and my parents told me “no.” But if you have issues with the Church of Christ and you cannot see where you can conscientiously stay as a part of the fellowship then at least have the courage of your convictions and leave. Just get out. Say goodbye, and don’t expect us to turn out the lights when you leave.
If you have issues with the Church of Christ and you feel like you can be a constructive voice within the fellowship to lead the fellowship to greener and more healthy pastures, then by all means share your voice. But, in doing so make sure that you do not insinuate that because someone disagrees with your conclusions that they are ignorant, or a knuckle-dragging troglodyte, or a moribund traditionalist.
In other words, you might want to use some of your brilliant intellect, effusive education and profound spirituality to consider Matthew 7:1-5.
(Note: I have corrected one section of this entry. I had misquoted the three points the author made regarding the reason why ministers are leaving the Churches of Christ. His three points are women’s role, leadership, and traditionalism. Earlier I had listed women’s roles, acapella music, and traditionalism.)
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.
A word about surrender. Surrender does not mean that you fight to the last drop of blood of the last man and then call it quits. That is called, “being defeated.” The only way surrender can actually be defined as surrender is when the person, or persons, doing the surrendering actually have the capacity to keep on fighting, and possibly of even overcoming, their enemy. Surrender is taking your entirely healthy team and walking off the field in the third quarter when you are only down by a field goal. Walking off the field when you are down by 7 touchdowns, there is only three seconds left in the game and you are down to 8 players is not surrender. Let’s be honest about our terms.
A word about apocalyptic. An apocalypse is a written account of a special vision given to a messenger of God relating to an explanation of the reality of human events as seen from heaven’s perspective. It also contains a message about future judgment – of reward for the obedient faithful and punishment for the rebellious guilty. Apocalypses were written to encourage the faithful to keep the faith, to look at things from heaven’s perspective and not from the perspective of the world. Apocalypses are ultimately about victory. God is in control, even death cannot change the eventual outcome of the game.
So, why speak of an apocalyptic surrender? Simply this – the only way to achieve victory from the point of view of heaven is to quit playing the game from the world’s point of view.
In other words, surrender whether it looks like you might still win or you are hopelessly overmatched. Because, ultimately, if you win according to the world’s rules you will lose according to God’s rules.
I think the church needs to learn this. I think the church needs to learn how to surrender. We need one huge, global act of apocalyptic surrender.
We need to quit playing the game according to the rules of the world. We need to quit trying to make the church more pleasant, more attractive, more relevant, more beneficial, more consumer friendly. The one who established the church died on a cross, for crying out loud. And we are trying to “attract” people by making that cross – more attractive??
We need to quit playing power games. The world will not be transformed by political machinations. We can legislate until we are blue in the face and all we will accomplish is a deeper shade of blue. Jesus surrendered every form of power except the power of selfless surrender. In other words, Jesus embodied apocalyptic surrender. He looked at victory from God’s point of view, and transformed the concept of power to the idea of submission.
We need to quit playing public relations games. We need to regain the moral capacity to call sin, sin. We need to realize, and confess, that we are sinners – every stinking wretched one of us. We cannot be forgiven until we are condemned, and we cannot be condemned if we have eliminated the concept of guilt. But, when we say that sin exists and that we are guilty of sins as well as every other person is guilty of sins we violate every principle of public relations. Public relations demands that we whitewash over our own sins (to create and maintain a healthy “self-esteem”) and to whitewash over the sins of others (to create and maintain healthy inter-personal relationships.)
Apocalyptic surrender demands that we have a complete reevaluation of our behavior. We, as disciples of Christ, need to change not only the way we act, but even the way we think. In apocalyptic thinking losing is winning and winning is losing. We become victorious through surrender. The Lion of the tribe of Judah is the Lamb who, though slain, stands as conqueror.
I must admit, I’m not exactly sure how to do this. I am far too much a creature of the modern world. I just know that I need to quit. I need to surrender.
And at the end of the journey
We shall bow down on bended knee,
And with the angels up in heaven
We’ll sing the song of victory.
(from the song, “We Shall Assemble”)
It’s funny to me how some people will trip over themselves to prove they are the most dedicated Bible believing, scripture quoting people and yet carve out significant chunks of the Bible that they believe no longer applies to them. In reality, what they are is the most selective Bible believing, scripture quoting people around.
I have in mind 1/10, that is, 10% of the 10 Commandments – “You shall remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”
“Oh, but that does not apply to us today, because we are New Testament Christians, and that only applied to the Old Law.”
It’s pretty hard to say you follow the teachings of the Bible if you only start with a 90% standard of completion to begin with. Or, make the less that 50% if you remove the entire Old Testament. Who want to boast about following 40% of the Bible? “Yes, I’m a 40% Christian.” Sounds kind of lukewarm to me.
Speaking only of the United States, but I believe we have to be the most neurotic, psychotic, and paranoid culture to have ever lived – or at the very least we are in a tie with a long lost civilization.
We rush, push, hurry, manipulate, worry, fret, drink, consume volumes of pharmaceuticals, drive ourselves to ulcers and destroy our mental and physical bodies in a 24/7/365 cycle of narcissism and compulsion. All for what result? More money, more prestige, more opportunities to regret doing what was most important to begin with.
And way back yonder on Mount Sinai God told Moses, “Rest one day in seven – oh, you can do your chores – milk the cows and feed the chickens, but take the day off. Rest. Sleep. Play with the kids. Let your servants rest and sleep and play with their kids. Call off the planting and the harvesting and the committee meetings and the hustle and the bustle. If you have nothing to do for 24 hours you can think about Me. Think about creation and how I take care of the whole world and yet I found time to take a day off for some rest and relaxation. Now, if I, your God, can take a day off and things work out okay then certainly you can take a day off and let the world run itself for a while.”
But we refuse to take God’s word for it. Why, if we stopped worrying and fussing and having our committee meetings and working 24/7/365 then the whole world would just go spinning off its axis into the great abyss.
I’m exhausted. I am just mentally and physically fried. I can remember being this spent only one other time in my life. It was not pretty. But God did not put me in this place. My supervisors did not put me in this place. My family or my friends did not put me in this place. I put myself in this place. I have not practiced Sabbath in a long, long time. The human body is just not designed for this kind of wear and tear. I’m not a doctor nor a psychiatrist, but I read the Bible. God designed me and he said “Sabbath – that is what my people need, Sabbath.”
Rest. Relax. Recreate. Refocus on God. Watch the world go around and realize that it will continue to go around whether I meet my next deadline or not.
I want to restore that 10% of my Bible that I have been cutting out for far too long.
The Sabbath was God’s gift to his people, not a law to bind and trap them into legalism.
I want to claim that gift. I want my Sabbath back.
I find it to be one of ministry’s greatest temptations. Following Matthew’s rendering, it was Satan’s third and ultimate temptation of Jesus. According to the apostle Paul it was what derailed the faith of Demas. The temptation has a long and illustrious history of blowing up entire congregations and perhaps even movements.
“It” is the all consuming desire to be welcomed by the world, to be loved by the world, to be worshipped by the world. How many preachers want to climb down the ladder of worldly success? How many churches celebrate smaller numbers? How many elders ask prospective preachers how many spiritual parasites they have driven away from the worship assembly? How many modern followers of Jesus would have the mental or spiritual temerity to look the rich young ruler in the eye and tell him that with his current love affair with his checkbook he could not be a part of their church?
You see, you cannot be the preacher for one of the largest congregations in a metroplex and have an out-dated view of worship and how the congregation is supposed to sing. You cannot sell millions of books and be invited to speak at all the Evangelical church conferences if you have a restrictive view of what it means to be a disciple of Christ and what it takes to be a part of the body of Christ. You cannot have a nationally known presence among the theological glitterati if you hold to viewpoints that are considered to be patently conservative or traditional.
No, in order to be welcomed, feted, wined and dined you must look like the world, smell like the world, act like the world.
So, if the world demands certain practices to be included in a worship service, you include them to keep the world from hating you. If the world says that your belief about entry into the kingdom of God is too restrictive you modify your belief so that the world will not hate you. If the world says your interpretation of a passage of Scripture is too restrictive then you broaden your interpretation of Scripture so that the world will not hate you.
Your church may grow bigger. You may sell more books and get invited speak to all the glitzy conferences. You may earn more points in the hallowed halls of academia. In short, the world may shower you with its love and adoration.
As I said, it is probably the most powerful and subversive temptation known to ministry. Who among us can honestly say we have never felt the twinge of the realization that if we do or say or teach some point of doctrine “the people of the world will hate us.”
If you find the godless world is hating you, remember that it got its start hating me. If you lived on the world’s terms, the world would love you as one of its own. But since I picked you to live on God’s terms and no longer on the world’s terms, the world is going to hate you. John 15:18-20, The Message
Jesus told us, way back yonder, what was going to happen. If we follow the world, the world will love us. If we follow Jesus, the world will hate us.
So why do we spend so much time worrying about whether the world will love or hate us? We already have the answer!! Now it is up to us to go out and live like we love and want to follow Jesus.
I’m tired of people wringing their hands and worrying that if we do not have a rock band, or at the very least, a “Praise Team,” the world is going to hate us. Or if we have a sectarian name on our building the world is going to hate us. Or if we teach the doctrine of baptism the world is going to hate us. Or if we insist on making men wear the pants in the congregation (figuratively, not altogether literally) the world is going to hate us. Or if we actually have the guts to say that marriage is for a man and a woman, and that if you cannot figure out by looking in a mirror whether you are a male or a female then you need serious psychological and spiritual counseling, the world is going to hate us.
Folks, that bus left that station a long time ago. Jesus said if we don’t play the world’s game by the world’s rules, the world will hate us.
And the flip side is that if the world does love us, what does that say about our allegiance and faithfulness to Jesus?
Jesus said, “The world is going to hate you.” I am just old-school enough to believe what Jesus said, and as lonely as it can be to stand on biblical principles, I have to remember that no one has hanged me on a cross yet. As tempting and as insidious as that “love of the world” siren song can be, I must develop the fortitude to willingly be alone if being in a group is the wrong place to be.
And, brothers and sisters, that means even if, and occasionally especially if, that group of people claims to be followers of Christ. That is the true test of discipleship over popularity.
The differing emphases of unity or doctrinal purity has divided the American “Restoration” Movement almost from its very beginning in the late 1700s and early 1800s. What started as a unity movement through a restoration of biblical teaching soon was sidetracked with the realization that what some demanded of unity was impossible to maintain if others were to demand of a restoration of biblical, and especially New Testament, patternism. That two-pronged emphasis became a two-headed monster that finally consumed the heart of the movement by the turn of the century, and in 1906 the first split was recognized as official – and there have been numerous smaller splits since that time.
Today that discussion continues, as a new generation has awakened with a fresh desire to see the warring factions of Christendom united under a common flag of solidarity. On one hand I welcome this breath of fresh air. It is certainly better than to hear the bitter sectarianism that marked the middle decades of the last century. But on the other hand when the pendulum starts to swing back the danger is that it will not stop at the bottom, but will carry way too far over to the other extreme. The process will then repeat – with the sectarians taking over and old battles will be fought once again.
With my advancing age and deepening understanding of not only my own heritage, but also the greater history of the church and of philosophical movements, I have this caveat to offer to those who are pushing for a greater unity among those who profess to be Christians:
I must say I am repulsed by the hyper-reactionaries that demand that their interpretation of Scripture be followed down to the flourish of every jot and tittle. Legalism exists in every sect and denomination – it is a flaw in the human psyche. Legalism flourished in Jesus’ day, and his apostles had to fight against it in the early years of the church, so I will not frustrate myself by thinking that we can avoid it today. But that does not mean we have to cave in to it. Those who profess to be disciples of Jesus must declare that there is “no room at the inn” for narrow-minded Phariseeism and Spirit killing legalism.
However, adherence to orthodox biblical doctrines is just as important to the health of the church as is striving for unity. And this is where I see so many young people making a serious, and ultimately fatal, mistake in their very right-minded push for Christian unity.
Simply stated, if two or more sects – or denominations, or churches, or whatever you want to identify them – hold to doctrines that are diametrically opposed to each other there cannot be genuine unity between them. There may be unity of purpose in certain activities, there may be a certain kindred spirit shared among them, but there is no Spiritual unity of the kind that is commanded by the apostle Paul in the letter to the Ephesians, chapter 4. In that chapter Paul specifically states that “there is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father.” To argue otherwise is to flatly contradict inspired Scripture.
If I teach that baptism is essential for the forgiveness of sins and inclusion into the body of Christ, and another teacher says, “no, we are saved and added to the church by praying the sinners prayer and then we are baptized to signify that salvation” then there is no unity between us, even though we both profess the name of Jesus. If I teach that there is only one head over the church and human beings are simply caretakers of that church I cannot be in union with someone who teaches that there is one human being exalted above all others and who is the “head” of the church on earth. If I teach that the Bible is the inspired word of God and that I must submit all of my understanding to that word, I cannot claim to have fellowship with someone who believes that the Bible is simply a record of how mankind came to view God in their limited cultural experience. That is to say I cannot share in solidarity with someone who believes he or she can simply re-write the Bible to account for cultural changes regarding gender issues or the changing mores of sexuality. If I believe the Bible is the inspired word of God I cannot be in fellowship with someone who follows a “second word” of God, no matter how much they claim to follow Jesus.
I hear a well intentioned but critically flawed naivety in this neo-unity movement. I need to point to only one passage of Jesus’ teaching to make my point. In Matthew 7:21-23 Jesus uttered this chilling prediction:
Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will say to them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evil-doers.’
You see, thousands, maybe millions, of people profess the name of Jesus, and perform all kinds of wonderful works, and perhaps achieve great successes – all in the name of Jesus. And according to his own very words he will have nothing to do with them. Notice the contrast in the passage – not every prophecy (or, teaching) not every exorcism of demons, not every working of a miracle, is the “will of God.”
If I interpret that correctly, not even the “unification” of the disparate churches under one banner will be the “will of God” unless it is in full and complete surrender to his will as revealed in the one Word we have.
I pray for the unity of the church. Jesus commanded that we work for the unity of the church. I am in full agreement with the young people who see the strife and sectarianism of the churches and who long for one united church of Christ. But that will never happen as long as major doctrines as taught by Jesus and his apostles are ignored or diluted.
There is only one path to the unity of the church of Christ. That path both begins and ends at the cross of Jesus. We must begin our quest for unity by dying to our selfish demands, and we must realize that our unity will only be found once we come to truly worship the crucified and risen one. Until we do that we are simply trying to purify a tomb by coating it with whitewash. The rotting flesh inside will never be purged, and the prayer of Jesus will never be fully realized.
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.