The Church According to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ James W. Thompson, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), 289 pages including bibliography and indices.
I’ve noticed that most of the book reviews I write are on books that are years, if not decades old. So, it it nice to finally read (and review) a recent publication. This book has a 2014 publication date, so you cannot get much more recent than that. And, the subject matter is relevant to so many discussions regarding the church today.
Dr. Thompson’s main thesis is that in all of the discussions (written and oral) about the church today, the one voice that is missing is the voice of the apostle Paul, and since he had the most to say about the New Testament church, it just makes sense to go back and read what he had to say about the church. Throughout nine chapters this is exactly what Dr. Thompson does – examining such topics as the key themes in Paul’s ecclesiology, the corporate nature of the church, the visible manifestations of the church, spiritual formation and the church, justification, evangelism, the universal church, the relationship between the universal church and house churches, and leadership in the church. Dr. Thompson concludes with a summary chapter discussing the church after christendom. Dr. Thompson moves well beyond the Roman Catholic position, as well as the standard Protestant definition of the church. He also challenges the standard understanding of the church in the American Restoration Movement (I’m not so sure I agree with his views on Paul’s teaching regarding the importance of baptism, but that is a minor point in the book). Dr. Thompson explores the rich nuances of Paul’s ecclesiology in-depth, and opens the path to a much deeper and more vibrant understanding of what it means to be the church of Christ.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book – there is hardly a page in my copy that does not have multiple sentences underlined and maybe a passage or two with a star in the margin. The book is written in an academic style, but Greek words and phrases are transliterated so that the reader who does not know Greek can follow along. Dr. Thompson employs voluminous Scripture references – no one can accuse Dr. Thompson of avoiding the text. The reader may not agree with Dr. Thompson in every point (I did not, nor do I ever fully agree with an author), but you know that Dr. Thompson has done the heavy lifting to research his topic and to present his material in an easy-to-follow format.
Regarding those who will disagree with this book – those in the “the church has to be missional to be a church” crowd will not enjoy this book. Maybe that is why I enjoyed the book so much – the whole “missional” movement has left me utterly flat – few can define what they mean by “missional,” and even those who try to define it cannot do so with reference to the Bible. Usually what they end up doing is quoting some Latin phrase (missio dei) or some such and then grinning really big like they have said something important. (How about this for a quote, “The word ‘missional’ seems to have traveled the remarkable path of going from obscurity to banality in one decade.” p. 12, quoting Allan J. Roxburgh in footnote #55). Dr. Thompson challenges vapid thinking, and this book is a healthy and very much needed corrective to the pabulum being touted as the next thing to save the church from obscurity. But Dr. Thompson does not just attack the “missional” church movement and leave the scene of the fight. Dr. Thompson provides a healthy and scriptural response to those who follow the “missional or bust” movement.
Regarding the aspects of the book I did not appreciate – Dr. Thompson has an irritating habit throughout the book of making reference to “Deutero-Isaiah” and “the contested letters of Paul.” Now, I am fully aware of the controversy regarding the authorship of the book of Isaiah. But, we do not have an Isaiah, a “Deutero-Isaiah,” and a “Trito-Isaiah.” What we have in our text is the book of Isaiah. If you are quoting from the book of Isaiah, quote Isaiah, not from some unproven theory that there were multiple authors of Isaiah. If you are writing a commentary on Isaiah, or if you are writing a critical introduction to the book of Isaiah, then by all means cover the relevant arguments and state your conclusion. The same holds true with the “contested” letters of Paul. So what if the authorship is contested? Either they were written by Paul (if so, say so and move on) or they were not (if so, why even mention them in a book discussing Paul’s ecclesiology?) then state your reason for not including them in your book. Oh, well, that is why Dr. Thompson has his work published by Baker Academic, and mine won’t be. Still, it is irritating to constantly be confronted with these phrases, which, at least to me, are not just descriptive, but have crossed the line into being judgmental.
Dr. Thompson’s book is timely, and for those who are interested in the health of the church, is a much needed addition to the study of ecclesiology (the study of the church). Doubtless, Dr. Thompson’s conclusions will upset some people – he certainly challenged me in many healthy and beneficial ways. But, agree with him or disagree with him, you must appreciate the depth of the study and the imminently readable fashion in which Dr. Thompson writes. Sure, there are some things that I wish he would have changed, but this book should be on the “to read” list of any minister, elder, deacon, or Bible class teacher who is vitally interested in the health of today’s church.
I just made a discovery – about my own interpretive process. The process itself is not something new to me, I guess it is the way I have been thinking for quite some time. But the end result of my thinking has just become much more clear. You’ll have to wade through the whole post for my last sentence to make any sense. But it is where I am today.
Let me begin by saying dialogue is great. I heartily support dialogue. Dialogue is necessary and in most cases is quite pleasant. Dialogue is absolutely necessary if two people, or two groups, are to find common ground and negotiate a mutually acceptable position in the midst of a heated and bitter conflict.
Which is why the Church of Christ should never, ever, in any way, shape or form, enter into a dialogue with anyone or anything.
A dialogue takes place between two equals, or between a lesser who appeals to a greater, in the hopes of finding a mutual agreement. A dialogue is a prologue to a compromise. Married couples sometimes need to have a refereed dialogue. Big companies and organized labor quite often need to come to a bargaining table and have a refereed dialogue. Prosecuting and Defending attorneys dialogue quite often to avoid the bother and expense of a trial. On occasion antagonistic countries need to be brought to a negotiating table in order to have a peaceful dialogue.
The Church is not a marriage partner to anyone or anything in this world. The Church is not a big company, nor is it an amalgamation of unionized workers. The Church is not a country, or an aggrieved individual. The Church has no equal on this earth with whom it can compromise. When the Church compromises it loses its nature. It simply ceases to be the Church. To put it bluntly, the Church has no one or nothing with whom it can dialogue.
Over the past 50 years virtually every church group, religious group, denomination, whatever you want to call it, has entered into a “dialogue” with a group that wanted it to become more modern, more “relevant,” more in tune with secular practices and mores. The “Social Gospel,” militant feminism and now militant homosexuality are just three areas in which a religious group has “dialogued” and come out looking far more like the world than when it entered the conversation.
Can you name a major religious group, denomination, or independent church that is theologically more conservative or less “progressive” today than it was 50 years ago? I cannot. Some may not have changed (although, I would argue very few), but I cannot think of a single Christian faith group that is more conservative today than it was just a scant half-century ago.
The only way a group has been able to maintain any kind of conservative, narrowly biblical interpretive stance is to split off from a larger, more “progressive” movement. So we have seen huge defections from the Anglican/Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Lutheran Church and many Baptist and Church of Christ congregations. Whenever anyone says, “We need to reexamine our beliefs about….” what they are really saying is “we need to change our beliefs about…..” and “dialogue” becomes the vehicle by which that change is effected.
All of which makes me very nervous and very skeptical when I hear certain voices promote a new or ongoing “dialogue” between the church and atheist movements, or agnostic movements, or further dialogue with proponents of homosexuality or feminism or militarism or any other king of “ism” for that matter. This would extend, by the way, to “dialogues” with religious groups with whom I might share one or two core convictions, but who have chosen to make substantive departures from what I believe to be Scripture itself is to be viewed.
So my question for these proponents is this – what exactly do you mean by “dialogue?” The way I read the Bible, the Church of Christ does not negotiate anything. The Church does not have the power to compromise with anyone or anything. The Church of Christ is not an equal to any secular power or entity. Therefore, the Church of Christ is under no compulsion or expectation to “dialogue” with anyone.
Nor am I, as a member of the Church of Christ, authorized or deputized to “dialogue” with anyone or any group and speak for “The Church of Christ.” I can only speak for my own convictions, my own beliefs, and my own interpretations of Scripture. And, as much as they may want to argue, no one can speak for me based on his or her interpretations, convictions, or beliefs. I cannot even speak authoritatively for the congregation of which I am a part, and for which I serve as a minister.
In a sentence, the “Church” is a group of people who live their lives in a submissive relationship to the absolute authority of Jesus Christ the Son of God.
So, when you say “the church needs to dialogue with ……,” exactly what authority are you giving the Church that God himself has not given it? And who will speak for the “Church” that you think needs to enter into this dialogue? And what power or authority does that person (or persons) have to bargain with?
Membership in the Church is non-negotiable. That is the thing about the church that the world never has understood, does not now understand, and will not likely ever understand. Discipleship is a total and complete surrender to a Lord and Savior who demands our complete devotion.
So, when I say that I cannot enter into a dialogue with a certain group or with a certain person, I am not trying to be mean, nasty, ugly or unduly obstinate. I am simply living out my conviction that I do not have have the power, the authority, nor the freedom to “dialogue” with someone who refuses to accept the God under whom I have placed my life, and His Word, which I hold to be absolute in guiding my life. I can teach, I can “give a reason for the hope that is within me.” I can evangelize – that is – spread the good news. But I cannot, and I will not, lower my understanding of the nature of the Church of Christ to make it be something that is equal to or lesser than a vain philosophy of this world.
And that, dear reader, something that I am discovering in increasing measure, is profoundly unpopular.
This post has started out in several different forms. Each time I would erase a little, change a little, zig a little here, zag a little there. Every time I started out with the same goal, and each time I found myself traipsing down a path I had not necessarily planned on traipsing. Such is the nature of this post – I know what I want to say but the “getting out” is proving to be quite exhausting.
For those of you who do not keep up with religious bloggers, quite the hoo-haw has been raised over the past few days concerning Donald Miller’s confession that he does not like church very much. (He wrote a book entitled Blue Like Jazz in which he basically said the same thing, but in much more disguised and glowing terminology.) There have been dozens (hundreds?) of blogs written in response – some praising and some condemning. But what I find to be interesting is that so many of Miller’s compatriots in the “Emerging Church” movement have ended up in exactly the same place – they all claim to love Jesus exuberantly but for one reason or another cannot stand to remain in the “institutional” church (whatever that is) so they leave the church to join the ekklesia at large. I see that as a very high-brow way of saying, “I love to eat steak, but I would never condone the slaughtering of a cow. So I get my steaks at the restaurant.”
I might add, for those of you who think I am just reacting to everyone else’s reaction, I have had three classes in a doctoral level program that were either entirely or significantly focused on the writings of post-modern, “Emerging Church” theologians. I was interested in their writings (and I still am), but was then and remain now deeply doubtful of the long-term results of their shallow theology. They often indicate they are in agreement with orthodox Christianity, but when they spell out what they really believe in terms of practice it becomes clear that their doxy is quite anything but ortho.
I should also say up front that I too believe that the modern church is not what it could and should be. I think I am honest about my misgivings. If I am permitted to do so, I intend to direct my dissertation to an area of theology and practice that I believe modern Churches of Christ have completely (or to be more charitable, almost completely) omitted – and much to our spiritual loss. But, the Good Lord willing, I will write out of a position of love and healing, not a position of hate and rejection. Such is my plan, anyway, and my fate is currently in the hands of others, so all of this may be a bunch of blather about nothing.
But, returning to my original, thoroughly revamped post – I just wonder how anyone can proclaim any kind of love for Jesus or God and at the same time argue that the church is dead, or at least is on life support and should be extinguished. What kind of friend walks up to a groom and says, “Man, I love you like you were my own brother, but I have to tell you, that girl you just married is as ugly as the south end of a north bound donkey and has the personality of a witch.”
The book of Revelation ends with God’s redeemed people receiving a stamped, embossed invitation to the marriage feast between the Son and his bride, the Church. Jesus died for the church, his creation. Paul rejoiced that he was able to continue Christ’s afflictions for the church. It’s funny, but with all the warts and dysfunction and flat-out heresies that consumed the early churches, Paul never referred to them as anything other than God’s holy and precious children.
Yes, I love the church. Exactly why would take a whole book to explain – this blog is just too short. But suffice it to say that I love the church exactly because Jesus loved the church – enough to die so that it might have life. And it seems to me that if Jesus loved something enough to die for it then I should make every effort to love it as well.
It may not be popular, it may not be blue like jazz, but in the end God is not going to ask if we were trendy and hip – He will judge whether we have been faithful and devoted. I do not think that God ever expected the church on earth to be perfect – I think that is a dangerous myth that has led to some horrendous mistakes. But we can be faithful, honest and disciplined – all hallmarks of the church that God gave to us through the blood of Christ.
The church of Christ, the church of God, the church of the Firstborn Ones*, the universal ekklesia or the local congregation down the street, – whatever name you find in Scripture, just love the church. Help it get better. Point out where it is weak. Make it stronger. Just do not leave it and claim you are doing so for the love of Jesus.
*The word firstborn in Hebrews 12:23 is plural. This is not typically translated, as firstborns or firstborn ones are clumsy ways of translating the phrase. Think of the word “fish.” We can catch either one fish, or multiple fish, but we only rarely (and only archaically) catch more than one fishes. The context of the passage, however, makes the plural obvious.
Okay, so I am not going to start out 2014 with a happy, happy, happy post. But this post has been “building” inside of me for some months, and I finally decided to take some time to put it in writing. I hope it is not too depressing.
Let me begin with the word of the LORD, as penned by Jeremiah:
Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the LORD,
for my people have committed two evils;
they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters,
and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns, that can hold no water. (Jeremiah 2:12-13, RSV)
I have been studying and teaching over the past 18 months in the field of philosophy. Now, to be sure I am simply a neophyte in this field, my studies have been more along the lines of “tread water as fast as you can to keep from sinking” rather than any esoteric deepening of mankind’s understanding of itself. However, if I may say so myself, my studies have proven to be somewhat fruitful in that my eyes have been opened to the depths of understanding that I have hitherto been blissfully unaware.
As the old saying goes, “ignorance is bliss, when it is folly to be wise.” Or something like that.
The LORD revealed to Jeremiah two substantive sins: the sin of rejecting Him, and the sin of attempting to replace Him with a broken and useless substitute.
I have come to realize that the church is facing two equally critical sins today. Perhaps they are the same as the sins in Jeremiah’s day. They are certainly related.
In the language of philosophy, today’s church is facing a crisis of epistemology and ontology. Put those terms in “Freightdawg” language and what I am talking about is that the church is facing a crisis of knowing what is truth and how to determine truth on the one hand, and on the other hand it has lost its understanding of what it is supposed to be.
First, the church today has lost its confidence in Scripture. While there is much talk about listening to Scripture, and studying Scripture, and hearing the “Word of God,” much of what is being discussed is just a thin veneer of biblical language glued to a plank of particle board made up of human intuitions and interpolations. You only have to enter into a conversation regarding the role of women in the public worship service or the issue of homosexuality to discover how shallow this veneer really is. Passages of Scripture (both Old and New Testament) that have been viewed for centuries as being unambiguous are now discarded like yesterday’s newspaper. There are typically three reasons for excising certain passages of Scripture that are now seen as “controversial”: (1) the author of the passage was writing in a culture that was (according to the modern worldview) ignorant and repressive, therefore the writings of said author cannot be relied upon today; (2) especially in regard to the supposed writings of the apostle Paul, the passages which are viewed to be repressive and “unChristian” are delegated to the sub-apostolic time period, therefore nullifying their “Scriptural” authority, and (3) regardless of their inclusion in the Christian canon, these backward and repressive texts are superseded by the “progressive” nature of the Word of God in which the literal words of Jesus are supposed to take precedence over any previous or later misinterpretations of God’s ultimate will.
You see, we are to look beyond the text to see what Jesus REALLY meant, not look to the text to see what the Holy Spirit lead the New Testament (and, I might add, the Old Testament) authors to understand what the will of God is. But, this is all a mirage, a phantasm. We cannot move “behind” the text to find out what the will of God is. It is doubly dangerous to posit that we can determine what God’s “progressive” will would be, especially if that “progressive will” is seen to be in direct contradiction to his previous “revealed” will.
To bring in a picture from church history, what these neo-liberals are asking the church to swallow is a huge helping of Gnosticism, without the giblet gravy. We are not to trust the real Scripture, we are to seek some ephemeral, non-corporeal, ghostly “essence” of what Scripture should be.
And, amazingly enough, what these Gnostic-come-lately’s discover in their “proto-Scripture” looks exactly like them: postmodern intellectuals who want to be loved by everyone, accept every form of piety no matter how heterodox, and welcome every syncretistic practice and belief into the church no matter how foreign to the revealed Scripture.
This leads me to my second point: the church has lost its purpose. The church was never supposed to be a social club where all who wanted admission were granted membership simply upon the payment of annual dues and the memorization of the secret password. The church is the post-Pentecost identification of the “people of God” that formally dates all the way back to Abraham. This people is not identified by their desire to be a part of some earthly social organization, but rather they are identified by God’s choosing and their submission to HIS standards of belief (orthodoxy) and practice (orthopraxis).
Simply put, if you disagree with God, or you continually act in ways that are contrary to His revealed will, you cannot be a part of this “people of God.”
I have simply grown weary to the point of nausea with individuals who claim to have a high view of Scripture in one breath and then in the next breath (or in the next sentence) begin to explain why we cannot trust Leviticus or Paul’s letter to the Corinthians because these books or portions thereof violate some post-modern sensibility.
Either the author(s) of the Torah and the New Testament apostles were guided by God’s Holy Spirit or they were not. There really can be no middle ground, no “hedging” of our bets. We cannot have the revealed Word of God and at the same time look for another “intended” word of God. It is time the church demand of its leaders a firm commitment: in the words of Jacob Marley to Ebenezer Scrooge, “Do you believe in me or not?!”
The LORD told Jeremiah very succinctly: if you reject Him you must depend upon your own devices, your own strength, your own ability in order to survive. Realistically, all that means is you end up with a mess of broken cisterns. Those cisterns might sustain life on a minimal level, but nowhere close to the abundant life provided by the living streams of God’s Holy Spirit.
The church today is trying to exist by drinking muddy waters from shattered wells.
Let us go back to the pure water of God’s life giving words. Our eternal existence, and the future of the physical church, depends upon it.
I have been swamped by a mixture of pressing duties and an admittedly poor administration of time management. That has accounted for the paucity of posts over the past several weeks. However, now that I am in-between semesters, maybe I can do a little catching up.
One item of immediate business is to address some questions/comments that were made in response to my comments to the Churches of Christ. In particular is one rather animated individual who, at least in my initial impression, was genuinely off-put by some of my declarations. In subsequent comments it became more clear to me that while not quite so antagonistic as I had originally thought, this individual has some serious questions/challenges to the concept of restoration theology, and he provided me with a few of those questions. So, I have identified this individual as a generous antagonist: antagonist in that he clearly disagrees with me, generous in that he has engaged me with an accepting tone, albeit a pointed one. This is how it should be. If your position is not worth defending, it is not worth owning.
At the outset I want it clearly understood, however, that I am only defending MY position, and if you were to ask 100 other ministers within the Churches of Christ you would probably come up with 162 other opinions. That is because ministers within the Churches of Christ rarely agree, and even if they agree they have to share some unique twist or “improvement” on someone else’s opinion. So, I am not declaring divine inspiration here, but I do want to make my own understanding of the situation as clear as I can.
So for a general beginning, here is what I consider to be a very pertinent question:
So my question is, how do you justify the idea that there are 2,000 years of Christian history if the “true Church” left planet earth shortly after/during the apostolic era (who knows when?) and then popped up in the 19th century? Is it not more honest to suggest that your tradition only has less-than 200 years of history?
Perhaps a little background might be valuable. I was making the argument that the record of church history defended the use of acappella music as opposed to instrumental music. My interlocutor wondered, if the Churches of Christ disavow church history from “X” period of time up until Alexander Campbell “got it right” then how can we appeal to “church history” as a defense of acapella music in worship?
My answer in response to this and similar questions posed by the same individual is this: I do not believe the “‘true church’ left the planet earth shortly after/during the apostolic era (who knows when?) and then popped up in the 19th century.” I know there are some (perhaps many) within the Churches of Christ who do believe this, but my antagonist must ask them this question. As I do not believe the statement, I cannot defend it.
The phrase “true Church” is mystifying to me. That phrase communicates that there are true churches and false churches, real churches and fake churches, good churches and evil churches. The New Testament, continuing and building upon the Old Testament, communicates no such idea. In the Old Testament there were the “people of God” (sons of God, Children of Israel, the “faithful”) and there were “the nations.” In the New Testament we find this “people of God” being identified by a new communal name, “the Church,” but the concept is identical. There is “the Church” and there are the “nations” – those who either flat out disbelieve in God or who might accept that God exists, but who reject his commandments.
Now, within this Church there are a number of other “categories” that we might identify from phrases either found in Scripture or closely akin to terms used in Scripture. One would be schismatics, those who would divide the Church because of ego or some other non-doctrinal matter. John had his Diotrephes, Paul had his opponents in Corinth. These folks need to be disciplined, to be sure, but theirs is more a problem of ego rather than doctrine.
Another group would be those who would destroy the Church over matters of doctrine. Paul was much more severe with these individuals: Galatians is the best example of his address to these folks. However, there were some of these people everywhere Paul went – he told Timothy to watch out for Hymenaeus and Philetus. These two clearly had a false teaching related to the resurrection and Paul says they have “wandered away from the truth.” (2 Tim.2:17).
So, while we have schismatics and heretics, we only have one “Church.” While schismatics may seek to divide the Church, and heretics must be cast out of the Church, there can only be one “Church.” Jesus did not come to build many churches, but only one – His Church.
So, out of the dozens, if not hundreds, of “churches” in existence today, which is the “true” Church? Answer: the one that truly seeks to “love God with all of its heart, soul, mind and strength, and that loves its neighbor as itself” to borrow a phrase both from the Old Testament and Jesus’ teaching. The “true Church” is not defined by the name on the building, the legal documents that establish it with the state, the creed or confession that separates it from other “churches.” The true Church is the Church was created by Jesus, bought with his blood, and the one that lives its life in total surrender to the grace and command of God.
Now, please note: within that Church there may be many who are schismatics and heretics. The one group needs to be disciplined, the other needs to be removed. Just as with a human body, some diseases need to be cured; gangrenous limbs need to be amputated. In regard to the sheer number of “churches” in existence today that process appears to be impossible. But, I also believe in the power of the Holy Spirit and in God’s desire that His Church be as pure as is humanly possible. Therefore, I am a firm believer in, and defender of, the restoration movement.
However, let me be clear about this next point as well. The restoration movement that I see as my example did not begin with Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone. My example for the restoration of the Church began with the apostle Paul.
It is impossible to read Paul’s letters without noticing one overwhelming theme: Christ’s Church is to be focused on and lead by Christ. Just read 1 Corinthians and underline every mention of the names “Jesus,” “Lord,” “Christ” or any combination of the three. How many times in the prison epistles (Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, Philemon) is the phrase, “in Christ” used? Paul was not concerned about creating, developing or maintaining a human institution. He was concerned about being a people devoted to Christ. Paul was the archetypal restorationist. I believe in “restoration theology” because it is what the apostle Paul taught. The closer we as humans get to Christ, the more we become the “true Church” of Christ.
And, so, to my generous antagonist I will say this in answer to his question: the “apostasy” that affected the church affected it in the first century, and has repeated itself in every century since. The “restoration” of that church started in the first century, and has been necessary in every century since. To the extent that the Church fails to be the pure bride of Christ in any generation it has “apostatized,” and therefore a “restoration” becomes necessary. This was true in Ephesus, Colosse, Philippi, Rome, Jerusalem and it is every bit true in every place where there is a Church in 2013.
I will continue with some other very good and thought provoking questions in the days to come.
P.S. – It occurred to me in re-reading this post that I did not address the second part of the question above. To conserve space I would simply say “yes, it would be appropriate to admit that our ‘tradition’ is only approximately 200 years old, if by ‘tradition’ you mean that movement which was popularized and promoted by Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, and a host of others.” If, however, you mean by ‘tradition’ that we as a group of people seek to follow God the Father and Jesus as Lord in all that we do, then no, our tradition spans the entirety of history from the call of Abraham until today. Depending on the context and my audience, I will use ‘tradition’ in either sense, and in my opinion, justifiably so.
When you read broadly in the religious world today you begin to identify certain trends. Some of these trends are ostensibly about the direction the church is moving. Some of these trends are about what the trendy authors think the church is moving. I think it could be argued that the church is not moving at all, that its own lethargy and inertia is what is killing it. But that is a point for people far more schooled in trends within the church to figure out. I just read what they write.
However, I have identified one facet, or quirk, or “trend” if that is what you want to call it, that I find both significant and troubling at the same time. That trend has two opposite, and actually totally conflicting components.
The first is this: one group of analysts points out that the church has, over the past 50 years or so (if not much longer) become entirely consumeristic. We have identified a “target” audience, tailored a message to reach that audience, created an atmosphere that would attract that audience and put everything into motion in order to please that audience. So, we have whiz-bang youth ministries, tremendous toddler teachers, mothers day outs, senior Tuesdays – a ministry for every “niche” group there is from the bassinet all the way to the retirement home. The problem with this compartmentalization is that it cheapens the gospel. The church was never intended to be a shopping mall or a cafeteria, where you could walk down an aisle and say, “Well, I’ll take a helping of Tuesday morning moms day out, a side of young married’s class, two or three helpings of Super Teen night, and, while we’re at it, how about a helping of mind-bending worship service for dessert!” When a church fails to meet each and every demand from each and every socio-economic group in their “church,” the offended party simply goes shopping for a “church” that offers something to meet their perceived “needs.”
The second, and diametrically opposed component is this: another group of analysts have noticed that an increasing number of people, mostly young, are leaving the church and have proposed any number of “fixes” to get them to either stay, or to come back. Those fixes include making the worship experience more “experiential” – meaning more theatrics, more video, more “sensory” type experiences, as well as adding more “experiential” type activities so that a generation that has been raised with high definition TVs and complicated computer games will not be “bored” with an “old-timey” worship service.
Did you see the contradiction here? On the one hand we have become too consumeristic, we have bowed the knee to King Choice, we have completely given up on making the demands of discipleship plain, and on the other hand we need to create an entirely new set of consumeristic options in order to repair the leaky back doors on our church buildings.
Sometimes I wonder if these analysts even read what each other are writing. But it is enough to give the rest of us whiplash.
Personally, I am “all in” with the first group. As I look back on my teenage years I realize how the church bent over backwards to make sure I was a happy, contented, and active teen in the youth group. We had retreats and lock-ins and pizza parties and ski trips and I don’t know what else – and we even had a fairly large dose of teaching and service opportunities. But I really do not remember ever having a serious discussion of what discipleship was all about, and what it might ultimately cost me. Everything that was done was done with me and my age group as the main concern. In my most humble and beyond question correct opinion, that approach has failed miserably and we are reaping the fruit of the failure of that experiment.
And so, when I read or hear some 20 or early 30 something speak or write that the way to reverse the current exodus in the teen to young married age group is to bend even further toward the consumeristic side of the aisle I get pretty churlish. We have done everything under the sun to make people happy, to “meet their needs” to make the worship service “meaningful” (whatever that could possibly mean) and what has happened? More and more young people are leaving because every time we work to reach the bar, they just raise the bar a little higher. Instead of one screen with a simple PowerPoint presentation, we need three screens with multiple images and “surround sound” audio. We need incense so that we can have an olfactory experience. We need bells – literally, we need bells – to help our ears tingle. We need a blue-light special on aisle six. One song leader is just so twentieth century. Now we need a Praise Team to lead us so that our worship will be exciting and vibrant and, well, so today.
I say hogwash and balderdash. What we need to do is to return to a sane, healthy and challenging theology that exalts God as the creator and returns us to the position of created being. We need to return to the image of the book of Revelation where Christ is an awe-inspiring manifestation of strength and power instead of our best buddy. The church grew when it realized that God was God and not the local super-mall manager.
I look at the young people who are chasing their tails and I wonder what will happen when they turn 40 or 45 and observe that their children and grandchildren examine all their “perfect solutions” to the church and simply sniff and walk away. At some point (hopefully) these twenty-somethings will come to realize that the mere externals of what they are attempting to change means not one little bit if the internal commitment to Jesus and His church is not there. The fact is we have been trying to find the “perfect solution” for over a generation now and the answer is pretty clear – if you try to market the church, someone is always going to have a flashier preacher, a better sound system, a louder praise band, a flashier video projector. Trying to “out consumer” the king of this world is simply not going to work.
I have an idea – let’s try teaching discipleship: self-sacrifice, dying to self so that others might see Christ, giving instead of getting, blessing instead of searching for endless ways to be blessed, worshipping the King of kings instead of the tyrant inside our selfish hearts.
Let’s work on being the church of Christ for a change. We have a far better story to proclaim than the garbage that Hollywood and Wall Street are producing. Why can’t we see that?
One thing I want everyone to know about this post – I am attacking myself, not others (at least explicitly). When I refer to others it is to illustrate my failings, not to heap scorn upon derision. This is a confession, not a broadside.
I have been struggling mightily with something over the past few weeks, months, and maybe even years. It has finally bubbled up to the point that I either have to deal with it or it will destroy me. Possibly it has already overcome me, I don’t know. Maybe I won’t know for quite a while.
But, political correctness is killing me. I don’t mean the kind of sloppy journalism or political hatchet jobs that continually assail me. I am talking about my own political correctness and how I seem utterly unable to confront or defeat it. For those of you who follow this blog regularly you might be surprised at that admission. There are times in my writings in which I become (or surrender to) my acerbic self. But, interestingly, that is part of the problem. This is my own little space of the cyber world in which everyone is invited but no one is forced to enter, or stay. If someone does not like what I write they ignore me. Thousands upon thousands assiduously do so on a regular basis. Knowing that, I steam and vent about subjects that are important to me, but obviously not too significant for others.
No, my issue with my own political correctness has to do with those with whom I am forced to deal on a regular, or at least semi-regular basis. I fit the description that was leveled against the apostle Paul (although, to be fair, I believe he disavowed such an attack) that his letters were “weighty and powerful, but his physical appearance is weak, and his public speaking is despicable.” (2 Cor. 10:10) I have visions of being a Great White Shark, and ultimately all I manage to portray is a spineless little jellyfish.
There are times in this world in which a person must stand up – speak up and say what needs to be said. Of course, it should go without saying that such statements need to be made in the spirit of love and correction, not hate and malediction. But still, you cannot read the gospels without seeing a Jesus that was both loving and welcoming as well as direct and, to put it mildly, politically incorrect.
And so I struggle with the balance – and all too often I find myself swallowing my words, backing off of a confrontation that I think needs to be made, weakly surrendering to the pressure of the moment or of the possible consequences should my objection be objected to. I defer – and end up kicking myself for it. Joseph, Moses, Daniel, Jeremiah, Amos, Peter, Paul, Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer – all had the spine to stand up and confront not only the minions of politics but also the minions of religion and all either paid a huge price or at least had the threat of paying a huge personal price.
I’m tired of my own cowardice, but I’m not sure how to overcome it without being churlish and vindictive.
I’ve just had it to my eyebrows with the skinny jeans, t-shirt and goatee wearing crowd lecturing me about how to fix the church when they have already written the church off as being unimportant. I’m sick to my stomach of authors criticizing spiritual leaders who have been loving and serving the church longer than these twenty-somethings have been alive. I recoil when I hear some academically trained yet theologically ignorant sycophant use some word like “missional” or “incarnational” as if by wielding such verbal weaponry they can slay their Quixotic opponent.
I stand mute when I hear a racist or homosexual loathing comment made in a Bible class, and I offer no word of censure when the same racist or homophobe stands a few minutes later to implore God’s blessings over the table of His Son’s memorial feast. I do not confront the obvious and blatant misrepresentation of Scripture that is done in manifest adoration of “the ancient paths.” When someone who leaves his Bible on the church pew so he won’t forget it next Sunday upbraids me because my hours of preparation and reading the accumulated wisdom of centuries of scholarship do not match his preconceived ideas, I say nothing. It might cause a scene. And causing a scene is the last thing a politically correct minister wants to do.
I swallow hard, and walk away. I do so because I think that it is better to maintain peace than to cause a disturbance. The times that I have tried to stand up have not ended well. My blood does flow hot, and all too often I let passion get the best of me. But the opposite has been that I say nothing. “Keep your mouth shut and be politically correct.”
I wish, just once, I could justifiably kick over a few money-changing tables and toss some thieving scoundrels out on their ears.
Sometimes being politically incorrect is exactly what God expects. His house is no less a place of prayer and of healing for the nations today than it was in the last week of Jesus’ life.
Maybe someday I will find the balance between personal disgust and zeal for God’s house. Maybe someday before I die I will manage to find my teeth.
I can always hope.
For preachers – no one ever conquered without rising to a challenge. Challenge your listeners, man, challenge!
For congregations – if your minister is telling you exactly what you want to hear and exactly what you have always heard, it is time to find another preacher. If you are not being challenged, you are not hearing the Word of God!
Warning: ill-tempered rant immediately ahead.
Don’t lie to God. He takes a pretty dim view of people who lie to Him. Just a couple of examples –
In 1 Samuel 15 King Saul is given a specific command to destroy the people of Amalek. We recoil from the command because it sounds so genocidal. However, that was the command, and apparently King Saul understood it quite literally. So he marches off and almost completely and totally obeys the command. Then he lies to God about the “almost” part. “But I did obey the LORD!” Saul answered. (1 Sam. 15:20). Problem was, he did not. He had spared the king and the finest of the animals, ostensibly for sacrifice, but spared them none-the-less. In response Samuel said,
“Does the LORD take pleasure in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the LORD?”
Then Samuel told Saul that God had rejected him as king, and that meant that Saul’s sons would be rejected as well. There would be no Saul dynasty.
You see, when you lie to God you really cannot fool him, and he takes a pretty dim view of the attempt.
Example #2 – in Acts 5 the author Luke interrupts his litany of events about church growth and all the good things that are happening in and through the miraculous working of the Holy Spirit to relate a very sordid story. A married couple sells a piece of land and brings a portion of the proceeds to the apostles for distribution to the poor. The only problem is that they lied to God about the amount of money they had received. God took a pretty dim view of the deception. First Ananias and then his wife Sapphira fell dead before the church. A harsh end for such a little transgression, we might say. It just goes to highlight the importance God places on our honesty.
Don’t ever lie to God. He takes a pretty dim view of people who lie to Him.
I may be barking up the wrong tree here, but there are a couple of lies that I keep hearing that are really beginning to bother me – bother me deeply and with increasing passion.
Lie #1 – “I want everyone to know that I really, really, really love the church, but…” The sentence can come in many different shades of “really” but though the form may change the content never does. What follows this supposed confession of love for the church is invariably a lengthy screed condemning the church and everyone who would defend the church. The church is hypocritical. The church is corrupt. The church is hopelessly out of date. The church needs to wake up and start doing things the way the author deems critical or it will simply cease to exist.
Pardon me for being blunt, Mr. or Mrs. church critic, but it is obvious that you really do not love the church. Your opening line is designed to get me to lower my defenses. “Oh, I should not judge Mr. or Mrs. Critic so harshly” my inner voice is supposed to lecture me, “see how much he or she loves the church.” Except that it is a bogus love, a false love, a poisonous love served up in a golden goblet.
To love the church means that you love something that is filled with humans and by that very definition itself means that it is imperfect – tainted with sin, broken and in need of Christ’s healing. Here is some news for you, Mr or Mrs. church critic – the church will never be perfect. It has never been perfect and it will not be perfect even after you get through lecturing it. It will not be perfect even if it followed every one of your perfect solutions. Until Jesus comes to claim his Bride the church will still have its blots and blemishes. That is why Paul prayed daily with tears and great anxiety. He knew that Christ has called his church to be pure, but he also knew that the people who made up each individual congregation were far from pure.
I find it personally repugnant that so many of the people who are ostensibly in love with the church (and yet who make a healthy living out of disciplining the church) have given up on the idea of serving a local congregation. Now that I have “shown my cards” so to speak maybe I should just go ahead and reveal how I really feel. But if Mr. or Mrs. church critic is not covered in the muck and mud of daily congregational ministry I just really do not care about what they have to say about fixing the church (or abandoning the church). And that is especially true of all these 20 somethings who have never been in a position to truly minister to a bent and broken local congregation and who are writing all those books and blogs and producing all the videos that carp and criticize the efforts of those who are spending their days and nights wallowing in the muck and mud of exhausting congregational ministry.
Hey, Mr. or Mrs. church critic – if you don’t smell like sheep then what business do you have to tell me how to shepherd mine? Or, to be more theologically correct, what business do you have to tell me how to shepherd God’s sheep?
And while I’m at it – how about a word to our schools who are preparing and sending these twenty-somethings out into the world to criticize something they have no experience in serving? How dare you claim to be producing servants of the Crucified One when the majority of your graduates have no intention of serving God’s people in a local congregation? How can you defend taking young men and women and filling their heads with the idea that the church is something to be studiously avoided? How can you claim that you study the opening chapters of virtually all of the apostle Paul’s letters (Galatians notably excepted) and at the same time suggest that serving a local congregation is somehow beneath the dignity of your esteemed graduates? Maybe you are trying to get them to go into congregational ministry and they simply refuse. Maybe. But if a majority of your graduates have no plans to enter congregational ministry does that not speak poorly of the emphasis you place upon the local congregation and its value in the Kingdom of God?
Don’t lie to God. Really – just don’t.
Lie #2 – “I really, truly, deeply, love Jesus – I just don’t love the church.” Everything I said about lie #1 applies to lie #2, except that lie #2 is more insidious. Who would ever think of challenging someone who really, really, truly and deeply loves Jesus, especially if they have the audacity to admit they do not love the church? Except, once again, that is an outright lie. You cannot love Jesus and at the same time dislike the church.
Here is a quick test – for whom did Jesus die? If you said “me” or “each person” you get half credit. Jesus did not die for individuals, to create an individual salvation, so that each person could imagine an individual heaven where he/she can individually worship God. Jesus died for the sins of all people collectively, in order to create a new community of those who believe in Him, and for the purpose of establishing a new and eternal kingdom where untold thousands from “every nation, tribe, language and people” are gathered together to live in perfect unity in worship to God. On earth that kingdom is called the church. If you do not love the church, if you dislike the church, if you do not want to have anything to do with the church, then by that very admission you no longer love the one who died to redeem that community for God. We in America have taken “individualism” to such an extreme that we have utterly corrupted the communal view of the Kingdom of God. I cannot think of a single passage of the New Testament that speaks of Jesus dying for an individual separate and apart from the community of other redeemed sinners. Perhaps one exists, but I would hasten to add that if such a passage exists it is written within the immediate context of the community of the saints. The inspired authors of our New Testament simply did not write to bless our American view of individual salvation.
I was going to say I wonder about how God feels about so many people lying about their relationship with Him. But, I really don’t have to wonder at all.
God takes a very dim view of folks who lie about Him. Just ask a deposed king and a couple of suddenly deceased land owners.
That has to be the longest title to a blog that I have ever written. I hope the post is not correspondingly as long.
I was really not zoned into the “blogosphere” when Pope Benedict XVI was selected, so I really cannot say that I heard or read much about his selection. But I have been following the election of Pope Francis with some interest. I will have more to say about my thoughts about that in a moment.
I have to say I have truly been disheartened by some of my fellow non-Catholics in their response to this event. Honestly, brothers (and maybe a sister or two), if I was a Roman Catholic and I stumbled across some of your invective disguised as teaching I would not even pay you the common courtesy to give you the time of day if you were to ask. Talk about speaking misrepresentations of opinions in a tone of hatred. Some of the articles have even offended me, and I am not a Roman Catholic. I especially despise those brilliant thinkers who imagine themselves to be profound apologists and recommend to any Roman Catholic who happens to be reading (and there are precious few, I guarantee) that they read the Bible. That is so special. And inflammatory. And so grossly stereotyped. And just so patently wrong.
I spent a year serving in a hospice (an organization designed to ease the suffering of those who are dying). I was able to serve many individuals from an amazing number of spiritual and non-spiritual backgrounds. Being in New Mexico the largest number of patients I served were Roman Catholics. Most, (but certainly not all) were deeply committed, very devoted and had a profound love for the church. Now I realize that I was dealing mostly with the elderly, and that was a generation where members of all religious groups were very committed, devoted, and had a profound love for the church. But what I found among the Catholics that I did not expect was a deep love for and respect for the Bible. I had always been told that Catholics never read the Bible, or only were concerned about what their priest said about the Bible. What I discovered was almost diametrically opposite to that stereotype. When I would approach them and ask what I could do to help them, they always asked for prayer and the majority also asked that I read a passage of Scripture. Some had a favorite text, many just wanted me to read to them – from the Bible and not from a Catholic publication. So, as I hopefully served them, I also received an education, one that I treasure to this day.
The second education I received came in my Doctor of Ministry program. I had the privilege of studying under a Franciscan priest who really opened my eyes concerning the functioning of the Roman Catholic church. As he explained it, the Roman Catholic church is truly a “big tent” concept. There are many communities within the larger framework of the church, each with a special life of its own, and some even eyeing each other with a certain amount of suspicion and envy. That is the ugly side of the church. The good side of that openness is that you do not have some “one size fits all” mentality that afflicts many non-Catholic groups. For example: when I was growing up all I ever heard was that if you were a Christian you had to be an evangelist/preacher/teacher/baptizer. If you did not baptize as many people as you could you might still be allowed to go to heaven, but you would only be allowed in the steerage section – you would never be allowed up to first class. I can’t tell you how many sermons I heard that asked me the question, “will there be any stars in your crown” as if a person baptized under your tutelage would entitle you to another star. I will not go into great detail as to how I loathe that theology.
Which brings me to my thoughts on Pope Francis. When I first heard his background and his chosen name I associated “Francis” with Francis Xavier, one of the men who established the Society of Jesus – the Jesuits – of which Pope Francis is a member. But later I was to read that he chose the name Francis in honor of Francis of Assisi. Now, having been raised in Santa Fe New Mexico, I have a special interest in St. Francis of Assisi. (The entire name of Santa Fe in English would be “The city of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi.” I’m sure glad I don’t have to print that on all my legal paperwork!) So, to make things short and sweet, the Roman Catholic church has in Pope Francis a Jesuit (deeply committed to the imitation of Jesus, and generally considered to be the scholarly circle within the Roman Catholic church) and a devoted follower of St. Francis who was the founder of the Order of the Friars Minor – an order devoted to preaching and to the care of the poor and dispossessed.
We have, in other words, the blending of two of the most radically different, although not opposed, circles within Roman Catholicism. This I find to be utterly captivating. Such a blending of viewpoints would be virtually unheard of within the church in which I was raised. I love my heritage, but it did not take me long to realize that within the Churches of Christ you either agreed with me or you were going to hell. And that included every possible minuscule detail. If you used too many cups in the administration of the Lord’s Supper or if you raised your hands during a song – I’m sorry, that’s it. You’re done.
I find that same spirit of demonization and hatred all too common in blog posts regarding the selection of the Roman Pope. And so, as the title of this post argues, it is far better to have people think you are a fool than to write a blog post and to remove all doubt. If you are looking for a few “amens” from the choir section, then go right ahead and spew your venom. If you are looking to invite Roman Catholic readers to consider your thoughts – well, let’s just say they have more constructive blogs to read.
I should be able to leave this disclaimer unsaid, but I will state it just for the record. I am not a Roman Catholic. I do not agree with much of the officially sanctioned dogma of the church. I believe that I am to base my faith on the person of Jesus as revealed in the clear teachings of Scripture, and that the rules and doctrines of men only serve to cloud and pollute those teachings. And so, while I understand where a great many of the teachings of the Roman Catholic church arise, I reject them as being man-made and ultimately contrary to the New Testament. I must add – this applies to my own heritage, and so I must be ever vigilant to guard my own thoughts and ideas against man-made traditions, something that is difficult and painful at times to do.
I have said in other posts that I have been deeply touched by Roman Catholic writers and theologians. If I had been a member of the “unchurched” and I came across a book written by Henri Nouwen or Thomas Merton I might have been convinced to become a member of the Roman Catholic church. I do not hold the gross excesses in the history of the church against modern Roman Catholics, any more that I wish to be blamed for the sins of the early settlers of the United States. I would like to judge a people, or a faith, based on their brightest lights, not their dimmest bulbs.
Which, by the way, is exactly why I do not want Roman Catholic readers to judge me by some of the hate filled, ignorant posts written by some of my non-Catholic counterparts.
(Oops – my first copy of this post identified the OFM as the Order of St. Friars Minor. My bad – that is the Order of the Friars Minor, the “Little Brothers” of St. Francis. I hope my slip is not showing too much.)