It is spring break week here in the fog so I have been doing some catch-up reading. I am reading two books in particular, one that is stimulating and enjoyable and the other that is, well, just painful. What I find particularly disturbing is that the book I am being challenged by and the one that I am enjoying is written by someone with whom I have much to disagree. The book that I am reading just because I feel like I have to (for reasons that will go undisclosed) is written by someone who is a member of the Church of Christ. In fact, in certain parts of the country he would be idolized, yea worshipped, if he were to step up to a pulpit and start preaching. He is certainly no “average” member of the Church of Christ. He is about as far to the right as you can get within the fellowship of the churches of Christ without being anti-institutional, non-Sunday school or one-cup-only for the fruit of the vine during communion.
The one with whom I have doctrinal issues writes in a manner as to promote his beliefs without putting down any others, and with the intention of building up the body of Christ. The other uses derogatory terms to describe his “enemies,” makes no effort to mask his ridicule of their positions, and offers no apologies to “calling them out by name.” The first authors uses hermeneutical processes that are agreed upon by most scholars today; the other uses a hermeneutical principle that only he and a few others find convincing. The first author is willing to consider options other than his own conclusions; the second summarily dismisses any challenges to his conclusions as coming from someone who do not love God nor do they respect the Bible. Even when the second author makes a conclusion that I agree with I am frequently appalled at his logic and his condescending tone.
Have you ever agreed with someone you disagree with more than you agree with someone you agree with?
I have often said, and firmly believe, that I learn more from someone I disagree with, if they present their positions fairly and openly, than I do from someone that, for every other reason, I should agree with. Maybe I am weird that way. I would just much rather discuss religion with someone who knows and understands what he/she believes than with someone of my own faith group who simply parrots what some teacher/preacher/parent/friend once said. And that goes for those on both ends of the “conservative/liberal” spectrum. Wild-eyed liberals turn me off just as fast, if not faster, than closed-fisted reactionaries.
At the end of one of my undergraduate semesters a question was posed to our professor as to how we should respond when someone says/teaches something in error concerning the topic we had just completed studying (I am not sure whether it was Greek, Romans or Revelation – I can remember the professor and the statement, but not the subject). The professor paused for a moment as if to collect his thoughts. Very slowly he said, “Gentlemen, you must be very careful in those situations. Challenging someone’s long held beliefs is perilous work. But bad theology must be named as bad theology.”
In my 30-plus years serving the church in a number of capacities I have learned the truth of that statement over and over again, and have marveled at the wisdom of the professor who uttered it. Bad theology kills, no matter how loved or worshipped the speaker/writer/teacher is. Bad theology must be named as bad theology.
And doggone bad theology is the worst.
Regardless of who we are, what we do, or what we believe, we like to be around others who share the same interests and opinions. It is the most natural and logical of situations. We seek out those with whom we have the most in common and situations where we feel the most comfortable. It would be ridiculous to constantly want to be around people who disagree with us or to be in situations where we constantly feel threatened.
Nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than in issues of faith. Christians want to be with other Christians, not Muslims. Muslims want to pray in Mosques, not Cathedrals. Even more specific, Roman Catholics like to worship with fellow Catholics, Lutherans with Lutherans, and Baptists with Baptists. I choose to worship with fellow members of the churches of Christ. It is there that I am at home. I know the language. I am with family.
Even certain doctrines or beliefs within a specific faith or faith community have their own boundaries. Within the churches of Christ we have those who accept separate Sunday school classes for different ages, and those who believe the congregation should not be divided. We have those who believe it is wrong to eat a common meal in the church building, and those who have full sized gyms and coffee houses in their buildings. We have those who partake of the Lord’s Supper with one cup and one loaf, and those who have the oversized thimbles full of grape juice and multiple little crackers. Instruments of music, female worship leaders – every question creates new divisions and either creates or deepens animosities.
And every division creates a new echo chamber. It is impossible not to recognize that each position comes complete with a venue to promote that opinion. As early as the second generation of the Restoration Movement, members were divided as to whether they were “Advocate men” or “Standard men.” (Women, I suppose, were identified by their husband’s allegiance). Then there came the Firm Foundation, and the Gospel Guardian, and the Heretic Detector (I kid you not), and Contending for the Faith and the Spiritual Sword and then Image and then Wineskins – and the beat goes on. Each journal, and sometimes associated lectureship, has rules about who can, and more importantly, who cannot be included in their “circle.” Although in the early years of the Restoration Movement many journals carried written debates and articles that conveyed opinions contrary to the editor, that day has long since disappeared. Now, in order to be accepted by any journal or any lectureship a writer or speaker must be fully vetted, and if there is any shibboleth that cannot be explained, he (or she) is simply excluded.
Every journal and every lectureship within the fellowship of the Churches of Christ today is simply an echo chamber of the opinions and attitudes of those who edit/direct it. Oh, you may have the rogue conservative that travels out west or the closet progressive that manages to sneak in the midwest somewhere, but those situations are rare to the point of being isolated, and perhaps embarrassing to the powers-that-be once they are discovered.
So conservatives speak and write in echo chambers that simply reinforce their interpretations and opinions, and progressives speak and write in echo chambers that reinforce their interpretations and opinions. I am not exactly sure how to change that situation. Like I said, who wants to be in a place where they are threatened and made to feel like a lamb in the middle of a wolf convention? Not I, said this sheep.
But I just wonder (thinking out loud here), if some of the outrageously stupid things that were said in these echo chambers were spoken in a venue where they could be challenged and proven to be utterly baseless, would the condition of the average church member not be much healthier? I mean, to be absolutely honest and utterly frustrated here . . . it cannot be that it is scripturally wrong to hold or participate in a particular belief or practice and at the same time for that belief or practice to be scripturally right and blessed by God. One belief or practice is (a) wrong, and therefore a sin, or (b) right and therefore blessed by God or (c ) it is not a scriptural issue to begin with and therefore is neither (a) nor (b). But it cannot be both (a) and (b). Likewise, a passage of Scripture cannot have diametrically opposite interpretations and both (or all, if there be more than one radically different interpretation) be correct. One interpretation must be false. Jesus did not suggest that the Pharisees and Sadducees were merely mistaken. He called them blind guides and fools, and a brood of snakes. I get the impression Jesus believed the Pharisees and Sadducees were BOTH flat out, positively, absolutely wrong.
I have grown weary trying to hear a sane and honest, and yet direct, debate about some issues facing the Church of Christ today. There are a lot of people talking and writing and pontificating and lecturing and other sundry things. But they are all doing so in their respective echo chambers, where they receive standing ovations and feel-good reviews and everyone goes away happy. It is easy to feel good about what you hear in an echo chamber.
Problem is, Jesus did not say to listen to the voices in an echo chamber. He said to listen to his voice. God said listen to the voice of Jesus. It seems to me that the ONE voice we are not paying attention to today is the ONLY voice we should be listening to.
This semester’s schedule calls for me to get back into Christian ethics. So, in addition to the basic text I am using, I have been reading some sources that are “new” to me, John Howard Yoder, in particular. Yoder is perhaps the most persuasive and well-known among pacifist writers. Whether you agree with Yoder, disagree with Yoder, love him or hate him, if you are going to wade very deep into Christian ethics you have to deal with Yoder and the application of his views.
This, however, is not really a post about Yoder. Perhaps I will do that at another time.
What Yoder got me thinking about was how diluted Christianity has become. With very, very, few exceptions, most congregations of virtually every stripe or color of Christians have become conformational. This fact is astounding, given the reality that Jesus called upon his disciples to be transformed, and transformational, and the apostle Paul wrote emphatically that disciples of Christ are to be transformed and transformational. (see Romans 12:1-3)
To explain my terminology here, conformational Christianity is a Christianity that has conformed itself in one or more aspects to the culture in which it resides (for us Americans, that would be a free-market, capitalistic, militaristic, representative republic). We look like good Americans, we act like good Americans, we talk and buy and sell and defend and basically exist as if America was the “promised land” of which Moses spoke to the Israelites.
Transformational Christianity, both individual and communal, would examine that culture (or cultures) and work with the remnant of ideas that might be God affirming, and would reject or transform everything else in order to live fully and whole-heartedly within the “reign of God” on earth. A transformed Christianity would look nothing like its surrounding culture, except as that culture has itself been transformed by the Christian leaven working within it. A transformed people would be known by their inexplicable love for one another. They would be known for their total devotion to the ethics of the Kingdom of God. They would not be concerned about money or power or prestige or whether or not they were being treated fairly under the Constitution. A transformed church would live as if this world was a transition to a better world, a re-created Garden of Eden in which Christians will all share in a re-established image of God.
Conformational Christianity asks, “What is culture saying that we must do in order to appeal to consumers looking for the best religious deal?” Transformational Christianity asks, “How has Christ changed my life, and how can I go out and change my world.” Conformational Christianity asks, “What can we do to keep our young people from choosing another church or to leave the church altogether?” Transformational Christianity says, “I have no idea what you are talking about, our kids are begging for opportunities to serve and lead.” Conformational Christianity worries that maintaining any tradition will hamper its effort to “be relevant.” Transformational Christianity rejoices in traditions that keep its message pure and alive, while willingly looking for new ways to express its faith – with no regard whatsoever for the issue of “relevancy.” Transformational Christianity knows intuitively that a person cannot make the church “relevant” (what ever that means), it knows that the church is relevant for the purpose of transforming people’s lives as a basic, fundamental part of its existence.
I know of too many churches that are sell-outs to cultural pressure. They define the term, “conformational Christianity.” They conform to both the style and content that the western culture demands of them. In the words of Jesus’ parable, they are worthless, their fate is to be thrown on the dung heap.
Transformational churches are salt and light in the midst of a bent and broken world. Jesus called on his disciples to be transformational people (Matthew 5-7). Paul echoed that call in Romans 12. Peter called on the churches to whom he was writing to be a Holy people, just as the God they worship was Holy (1 Peter 1:13-16).
Be Holy. Be Transformed. Be Transforming. That is the challenge given to the Church of Christ. I pray we have the courage of our convictions, and that we can accept this challenge without fear or favor to any earthly power.
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.
Lo and behold – I am in the final stages of getting my DMin dissertation approved. It has been a wild ride. Soon, though, I hope to have it in my rear-view mirror. In 2015 I hope to present a series of posts here that will kind of summarize my dissertation, although I will probably add some comments here and there that were not necessarily pertinent to my academic paper.
One benefit of my paper was that I was introduced, and perhaps re-introduced in some areas, to some parts of my history that I was not aware of. Even now, as a result of reading a book that came into my vision as I was writing my paper, I realize that I know very little of my own spiritual history – the history of the Churches of Christ. This is odd, because before I started writing my paper I would have argued that I knew quite a bit of this history. I had classes in Restoration History, I have read extensively (so I thought) in Restoration history, and yet…I barely touched the “hem of the garment” as the old saying goes.
Why are members of the Churches of Christ so adverse, or afraid, of learning and teaching our history? As I address this and issues next year I will undoubtedly expand on some of my thoughts here, but here are some of the reasons that have occurred to me as I have worked on my dissertation.
1. We deny that we even have a history. Other churches have histories, we do not. We were created on the day of Pentecost, round about AD 33 in Jerusalem, and that is that. No need to study all that historical stuff that happened over the past 1900 + years. As Henry Ford has been quoted as saying, “History is bunk.” Just study the Bible and that is all you need to do. Sadly, this is the opinion of a great number of members of the Churches of Christ today.
2. Even if we admit that we have a history, there is no use studying it, because it really does not matter anyway. Studying history only dredges up old fights and issues that no one wants to deal with today. Let sleeping dogs lie. Besides, if I do not study what actually happened in my history, I can write my own history. That way my side is always right. Do not try to confuse me with the facts, my mind is made up.
3. We are simply mortified to find out that our history, is, well, so different that what I pictured it. I am stunned to discover that some members’ (even well educated members’) understanding of our history is so blatantly wrong. I have taught a couple of survey type courses on Restoration history in congregations, and without fail someone will walk up to me and say, “I never knew [insert subject] happened that way.” Usually it is in regard to the instrumental music question, but several other topics always seem to catch people off-guard. Case in point – recently a congregation had a “Friends Day,” always a perilous adventure in Churches of Christ because visitors are stunned to find that the band packed up and moved out. So, explanations must be made as to why there is no electric guitars, drum sets, or nary a piano to be seen. Now, a perfect opportunity exists to open visitor’s eyes to the depth of understanding that encompasses over 200 years of Restoration thought. But no, not for this congregation. No, the reason there was no band up front was because it is our tradition not to have instrumental music. No mention of the biblical, historical, or theological reasoning that lies behind that tradition. No mention that Churches of Christ are just one of many groups that recognize the power and beauty of acapella singing. Nope. Just a half-hearted dodge from someone who was terrified that a visitor might think that there was actually a defensible reason why there was no instruments of music in sight. You see, if your history embarrasses you, it is far better never to actually investigate that history.
4. Studying our history exposes our weaknesses and our failings. Here is where I spent most of my time briefly surveying the history of the Churches of Christ as it related to my specific topic. Everyone wants their history to be a history of nobility, honor and unimpeachable righteousness. How strange that the Churches of Christ would want to think this, seeing as how the entire history of the Israelite people (the original “Church of God”) is one long history of mistakes, faithlessness, and more mundane goof-ups. Why should we expect our history to be any different? The fact is the leading voices of the Churches of Christ have made just as many mistakes as they have made things right. But, admitting your weaknesses and failings is a painful, humiliating experience. Many, if not most, members of the Churches of Christ would just rather blithely go through their life thinking that the men (and sometimes women) that they have some vague connection to are enshrined as God’s cherubim and seraphim – blameless, holy, and untouchable.
I genuinely wish more members of the Churches of Christ would learn to appreciate our history. Our history is one of the richest, most exciting, and dare I say, most entertaining of stories. It is replete with triumph and tragedy, success and failure. This history is part and parcel of who I am – how can I deny it? And, for those who have come to the church late in life, it is an amazing story of the American spirit (for good or ill) and learning from this history explains much of the current religious situation in America today.
Why are we so afraid of our history? Maybe I know, and maybe I don’t know. But it bothers me that members of the Churches of Christ are so blatantly ignorant of our history. I pray that changes. Maybe the next generation will not be so phobic about pulling out some dusty history books and turning a few pages…
Tom Olbricht, Hearing God’s Voice: My Life with Scripture in the Churches of Christ (Abilene: ACU Press,1996).
I just finished writing my dissertation for my Doctor of Ministry degree. I learned so much in writing that paper. One of the things I learned was that no matter how much information I thought I had gathered on a particular topic or sub-topic, there was always one more (or a dozen more) reputable sources to consider. When men have been thinking and writing about the Church and Christian topics for almost 2,000 years it is just impossible to be original.
One of the sources that I discovered in the process of writing my paper was Tom Olbricht’s, Hearing God’s Voice. I have been vaguely aware of Dr. Olbricht – he was at ACU when I started my undergraduate program there. I was always intimidated by Dr. Olbricht. He was a large man, and it would be kind to say that his suits were never impeccably tailored. Scuttlebutt was that you only took Dr. Olbricht’s classes if you had a suicidal wish to blow up your GPA, or if his course was required. Because he was primarily in the grad program, I never had to make that decision. When I did finally enter ACU to earn my Masters degree, Dr. Olbricht had moved on to Pepperdine University in Malibu, CA. By that time I was not so easily led by whispers and gossip, and I took every course I could from Dr. Everett Ferguson. Since that time I have regretted not having had any classes with Dr. Olbricht. After reading this book I regret that lack even more.
Hearing God’s Voice is a book about hermeneutics within the Churches of Christ, but it does not read like a typical book on hermeneutics. It is mostly an autobiographical journey through Dr. Olbricht’s life, showing how hermeneutics (or how a person interprets the Bible) both shapes and is shaped by life experiences. It is a fascinating story, and if you are interested in the history of the Churches of Christ in the mid to late 20th century, you will want to get this book and read it. The book is part “who’s who” within the Churches of Christ, part pedagogy on how to obtain advanced academic degrees, part critique of the Restoration Movement, and, finally, part hermeneutic.
You have to get to the end of the book before Dr. Olbricht explores his hermeneutic in any great depth, except that you have to really read all of the early parts of the book, because his hermeneutic is inseparably connected to his life’s story. He did not just get his hermeneutic out of a book, and he does not want anyone to try to get their hermeneutic out of his book. At least, I do not think he does. I think, in perfect professor fashion, Dr. Olbricht would say, “Now that you’ve read my book, go forth and discover the art of hermeneutics!”
Dr. Olbricht is certainly one of the premier theologians within the Churches of Christ. Few men have attained the level of expertise, both theologically and in rhetoric, of Dr. Olbricht. I think I would still be intimidated by Dr. Olbricht, but having challenged myself with Dr. Ferguson’s classes, I think I would have greatly enjoyed listening and learning from Dr. Olbricht.
I do not agree with everything Dr. Olbricht says in this book – especially with his understanding of hermeneutics. After all I have said in praise of Dr. Olbricht, that may sound heretical, but no man is perfect, and, while I deeply appreciate many of the moves that Dr. Olbricht proposes in this book, I also identify some significant weaknesses in his approach. Perhaps the greatest is that I sense Dr. Olbricht’s approach is simply too open-ended. To use a sports analogy, he has an impressive wind-up, and the pitch leaves his hand in a blur, but by the time the ball gets to the plate it is barely rolling across the ground. I appreciate the emphasis that Dr. Olbricht places upon the reader (or auditor), but in the end it appeared to me that the reader/auditor had a greater place in Dr. Olbricht’s hermeneutic than the Scripture did. I believe his two examples illustrate that. And, today, approximately 20 years after the book was written and published, I believe that the steady march of same-sex relationships and gender-bending would support my contention.
Any hermeneutic, if it is to faithfully transmit God’s word to a new generation, must begin with the full and unquestioned authority of Scripture. We need to make sure the message of Scripture is heard in new and fresh ways, but the reader NEVER is to be allowed to determine the meaning of Scripture. The reader/auditor is to discover the meaning of the text, but the skill of discovery and the power of determination are two completely different concepts.
Oh well, sorry for the sermon. Bottom line – if you are interested in hermeneutics, and especially if you share a love for the Restoration Movement and the Churches of Christ, I highly recommend this book.
Have you ever watched a puddle of water evaporate? It seems like nothing is happening for the longest time, and then it is gone. Slowly, inexorably, the water just becomes vapor, then a damp spot, and then, nothing.
I feel like I am watching a puddle disappear, and that puddle happens to be the only church I have been a part of, loved, and occasionally argued with. The vast center of the Churches of Christ is simply evaporating. More quickly in some places, more slowly in others – but the tide of change is undeniable.
When I was a child, then a young man, and even into my young adult years certain things could be counted on. Death and taxes were two of the more unpleasant, but there was a definite comfort in knowing my faith family was solid. Oh, we had our crusty fundamentalists and our wild-haired “digressives,” but like most families the outliers were pretty much used for illustrations and family reunion jokes.
Now, the joke is on the middle.
The fundies and the un-fundies have long been sharpening their knives, and now the hostilities are fully engaged. The more progressive the one side gets, the more reactionary the other side becomes. This just infuriates the progressives (who steadfastly protest that they do not care what the fundies are doing) and so they "push the envelope" even further. Anyone who just wants to follow Christ and wear his name is accused on the one hand of being "soft" on doctrine and of being a cultural coward by the folks on the other side of the aisle.
I used to stand comfortably in the middle of this grand, varied, and sometimes confusing assembly. Now, I am not even sure where the middle is. I fear it is gone.
- I cannot believe in a 6,000 year old earth because I studied and learned how that number was ciphered out. I must be a liberal.
- But, I believe in the inspiration and authority of all of the Scriptures – even the ones that claim Moses wrote the greater part of the Pentateuch, and that Isaiah actually did write all of the book that bears his name. So, that makes me a reactionary.
- I have received multiple degrees from ACU and now have my Doctor of Ministry almost complete from Fuller Theological Seminary. By virtue of guilt by association, color me a flaming progressive.
- Except that I believe there is firm scriptural and theological evidence for such issues as baptism for the forgiveness of sins, acapella congregational singing, and male spiritual leadership. Avast, I’m a knuckle dragging troglodyte.
- I believe in the necessity of a highly trained, deeply educated “professional” ministry staff. Hefty lefty, am I.
- Except that I also know all too well the intoxication that comes with an advanced education that is divorced from reality. An education is only as good as the grounding of those who provide it – and a thermometer is not the only thing in this world with numerous degrees and no intelligence. I must be a tighty righty.
- I believe in the power and strength of a solid, healthy tradition to anchor our peevish human ways. Way out in right field! But I despise a stifling traditionalism that squelches the moving and leading of God’s Holy Spirit. So I’m so far out in left field that I’m selling popcorn and hot dogs.
I know I am introspective by nature. When I take one of those psych tests I raise the “melancholic” bar to impossible heights. It’s not fun always seeing the dark clouds behind the silver lining. If I sound like a bucket of cold water – well, that’s me. But I used to find solace in knowing my church family had my back.
I’m sorry, but the only thing I feel now is that one side or the other only wants to bury their knife in the middle of my back.
It’s not only lonely trying to be in the middle, now it is emotionally and spiritually dangerous.
If you are a child of the American Restoration Movement you are the product of debate. Not many of us realize that, but it is as certain as the brightness of the sun or the scent of a rose. We may describe it differently, but the reality exists. The overwhelming majority of our theological beliefs have been hammered out and refined through the process of written or oral debate.
While some criticize this, or bemoan it, in reality this is a healthy process. In fact, we can see the very first “ancestor” of the debate process in Acts 15. Two groups of people, each with differing opinions and with differing evidence to defend those opinions, meet together for an open airing of the differences and the resolution of the problem. In several of his letters the apostle Paul carries on “debates” of sorts with his readers. He offers what is, or what he believes might be, an argument against his position, and then demonstrates why that particular argument or statement is false.
Debate is NOT an evil thing.
However, I am growing more convinced by the day that civil debate in a modern setting is virtually impossible. There are many reasons why I think this is true, so let me list a few:
1. Theological positions become emotional positions, and the resulting language makes it impossible for the opposing side to articulate any kind of positive position. They are always on the defensive, and are in a no-win situation to begin with. Case in point: I just read a tweet (message on the social media Twitter) in which those who disagree with the full inclusion of women in every aspect of a Christian worship service are guilty of “gender injustice.” Now, because I disagree with the position that women can participate in every aspect of leadership within a congregation, including leadership within a worship service, automatically I am guilty of injustice. Let’s parse that for a minute – what does injustice mean to you? Cruelty? Viciousness? Overweening power and brutality? The denial of basic human dignity? How, might I gently respond, does a complementarian position in which women are viewed as equal in every sense of the word, but have differing roles to fulfill in the Christian economy, equate to injustice? Yet, the inclusion of that word precludes any rational debate.
2. Those who hold a particular opinion refuse to consider the weakness of their position, or any possible exceptions to their opinion. Case in point: growing up within the Churches of Christ I was taught from a very early age that the Greek preposition eis means “for the purpose of.” Thus it was crystal clear that when Peter said “Repent and be baptized eis the forgiveness of sins” he meant “for the purpose of receiving the forgiveness of sins.” Nothing could be clearer. I was told that those who translated the word eis as “because of” were completely wrong, both in Greek and in theology. Imagine my surprise, then, when in doing maybe the most exhaustive research that I have ever done for a series of sermons, that I discovered that there is, indeed, a use of the Greek preposition eis that has to mean “because of.” The passage is Matthew 12:41, where Jesus very clearly states that the men of Nineveh repented eis the preaching of Jonah. Now, eis cannot mean “for the purpose of” in this passage! It has to mean “because of” or “as a result of.” Now, do not get me wrong. I still believe eis in Acts 2:38 means “for the purpose of.” But I learned an important lesson. We cannot summarily dismiss every challenge to our conclusions without carefully considering the basis of that challenge. Yet, today, objections and challenges are routinely dismissed for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is mentioned in point #1 above, if you disagree with me all you are is a mean, nasty, inhuman person, and probably ignorant as well.
3. The differing sides cannot even agree on the measure that would be used to decide the truthfulness or falsity of any position. In Acts 15 the disciples relied upon Scripture and the leading of the Spirit to come to a unified position. Today that appears to be all but impossible. Returning to the issue of women and leadership roles in the church, I have repeatedly asked how it could be that Paul would so clearly and unambiguously state in Galatians 3:27-28 that women are to be full and equal partners in every possible scenario in the Lords kingdom, and yet in writings which were either possibly or even certainly produced much later than the Galatian letter reverse himself and teach that only men are to lead in certain aspects of the church. We are not simply arguing two different interpretations of Galatians 3:27-28. We are approaching the question from two entirely different philosophical and epistemological foundations. If we cannot even decide on a mutually agreeable measuring stick, how can we even begin to engage in profitable debate?
In pointing these issues out I have to admit my own weakness and shortcomings in the process. I am emotionally invested in my conclusions. After all, if a position is not worth defending it is not worth holding. And, as I pointed out in point #2, I have been guilty on more than one occasion of assigning false motives and conclusions to my opponents. I hope I am better now, and I hope I get even better with time, but human flesh is human flesh and I still catch myself violating my own standards from time to time.
I hope I am wrong, I hope that as disciples we could gather and join in a decent “conference” or debate and constructively address some of these issues. I just do not see that happening any time soon – and that saddens me.
For a people immersed and raised in the cauldron of discussion and debate we owe it to our forebears to be able to acquit ourselves better.
Stream of consciousness alert here – this post may not flow too logically. If you get confused, that’s okay. I am confused too.
Something Rush Limbaugh said the other day resonated with me. The only time I listen to Limbaugh is when I am in my car driving to my exercise or to lunch. I cannot give you the set up for the comment beyond he was discussing global warming (a massive hoax according to RL). The thing he said that made me start thinking was the overweening pride and arrogance that we who are alive today have when we think that we have everything all figured out, that we are the paragon of all human existence. In regard to global warming his point is that we think we have a real crisis here because the average temperature of the atmosphere has gone up a degree or so in the past 100 years or whatever. Of course, if we think that we are the be-all and end-all of civilization, we might have reason to be concerned. But if you look at the thousands of years of human civilization, who is to say that OUR atmosphere is the norm by which we should gauge all atmospheres? Maybe we have been living for the past 1,000 years in a atmospheric freak, and our world is just beginning to settle the score and get back to the way things were 1,000 years or more ago.
Whatever. You can have your own opinion about global warming or climate change or whatever you want to call it. But what does his theory have to do with spiritual issues? Have we decided that we, in the 20th/21st century have discovered what the sum total of godly living is? Are we going to measure all civilizations, past and future, against our vast and unchallenged spiritual maturity?
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As I was explaining to one of my classes this past week, if we viewed all of humankinds’ knowledge as one of our oceans, what we know right now at this moment in history amounts to about a sewing thimble full of water. Our arrogance, however, exceeds that of the distance between the earth and the sun.
Where this slaps me upside the head right now is in trying to figure out why so many young people who are raised in the church are leaving the church, and what we can do, if anything, to reverse the trend. In a moment that may be born more of fatigue and frustration I’ve come to think that what we have been doing for the past 40 years is exactly the wrong thing to be doing!
You see, I was lucky to be raised at a time in which youth ministry was just getting started. I was blessed to have some of the finest youth ministers in the Churches of Christ influence me – perhaps one of the finest ever in the person of Bobby Hise. But, looking back on the situation through the eyes of a (mumble, mumble) year old, I wonder if we are not doing more harm than good by trying to “meet the needs” of teenagers and trying to “make the Bible relevant” to teenagers. I see more time, money and energy going into youth ministries today than ever before with decreasing results – when the graduates of these programs enter college or young adulthood they leave the churches in droves. Why? What are we doing that is producing such negative effects?
I think part of the answer goes back to Limbaugh’s observation. We have convinced ourselves that the next generation is the only generation that matters, and we will do anything and everything to make sure they have it better than we did. We have flashier worship services, the latest and greatest (and hippest) songs, we have multiple screens for our video sermons and the teens can interact with the speaker on their smart phones. Yet, I can tell you emphatically that our college students know far less Bible now than my high school classmates did “x” number of years ago.
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My friends, in the local vernacular, we are all hat and no cattle.
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Okay, I’ll admit it – I grew up spoiled. I had the world handed to me on a silver platter and served to me with a silver spoon. We had youth rallies and special classes and impressive camps designed just for us. We got to sing our special songs and we even taught some of them to the adults. And, as good American parents we have even upped the ante with our children and grandchildren. We will move heaven and earth to make sure our children and grandchildren are pacified and satisfied in a church that they will believe is “relevant,” whatever in the world that means.
And, boy – just look at the results. Look around at the average congregation. How many college students do you see? How many 20-30 somethings do you see? Some congregations may be doing very well, thank you. I suspect most are not.
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I find it more than simply fascinating that at the exact moment in which Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ, the gospel writers emphasize that Jesus began to teach the disciples that being the Christ meant death on a cross. Not only that, but being a disciple meant following that death on the cross and perhaps even sharing in that death on a cross.
So, while we are teaching that the Christian life is cool and hip and everybody should be a Christian and churches should try to do everything in their power to make sure we are comfortable and satisfied and have all our narcissistic needs met (especially if we are young and beautiful), Jesus was saying, “Hold on here – you got the theology right, I am the Son of God. But do you really know what that means and what following me means?”
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The point is, when increased budgets and activity result in decreased results, maybe we have something backwards. Maybe we have had something backwards for over a generation now. Maybe we need to re-think the whole discipleship issue, from the ground up.
Maybe we should be teaching more about the cross and doing less spiritual spoiling of our children, grandchildren, and converts.
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.