Blog Archives

Three Special Requests

To all my wonderful readers out there in the fog –

I have three small requests of you today. You may not personally be able to help with any of them, but if you might know of someone who can help, I would appreciate if you would pass along this site and if you will leave me a comment with some way to reach you, I will contact you privately.

First, I am currently looking for a ministry to relocate to, and so if anyone is aware of a teaching position involving Bible or theology, I would greatly appreciate having that information. Also, if you are aware of a congregation of the Churches of Christ that is looking for a pulpit minister, I would love to have that information as well. In return, you can pass along the information to this site and let them get to know me a little. I guess I should say I am a little more curmudgeonly in writing (a little??) than I am in person, so those of you who know me can pass that along as well.

Second, the ministry where I am currently serving, the Greyhounds for Christ at Eastern New Mexico University, is in need of some short and long term financial support (NOT the reason why I am leaving – just passing along a special need!) This is a wonderful ministry with a GREAT group of college students, and due to the confluence of a number of reasons, we could use some one-time contributions and also some long-term supporters. If you, or someone you know, is looking for a mission point then please put them in contact with me and I would love to visit with them about this opportunity.

Finally, the leaders here will be looking to fill the campus ministry position here, hopefully by the first of August. Did I mention this is a GREAT place to minister with a really great group of college students? I can recommend this position, the leadership here, and the ENMU students 100%. If you know of a young man who has a special love for, and understanding of, college students, please let me know about him, and once again you can put him in touch with me.

Well, thanks for the brief commercial break, and I promise to return you to our irregularly scheduled meanderings through the fog here shortly. Until then, please remain in your seats with your tray tables in the upright position . . .

Dialog vs. Fellowship?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comments? Feedback? Threats of excommunication?

Thanks for flying in the fog today . . .

What is Education? (revisited)

Funny that something so basic can be so misunderstood. So much of what is passed off as “education” today is nothing of the sort. This is how I have come to understand education.

First, all education begins with a challenge to what we have previously known or accepted as true. You simply cannot learn something that you already know or believe. You can be reminded of something that you once learned and had forgotten, but to use the terms learn or education concerning something that you already know is to misuse the terms.

Second, one takes the challenge of the new thought or idea and puts it to a critical analysis. Here is where the student says, “I’ve never thought of this before, or in this way. I wonder what others have to say about this.” In elementary school the final source of truth might be our parents, but usually we confirm a new idea before we accept it as our own. If we do not have an “ultimate authority” we keep knocking the idea around with others until we can confirm or deny the new concept.

Learning does not stop with critical analysis, however. A third step involves returning to that which I already know, and either assimilating or rejecting the worth of the new idea. Most of what I read concerns thoughts or ideas that I have not previously experienced. I can confirm that those thoughts and ideas are, indeed true and correct as far as they go. Much of that, however, are thoughts and ideas that are not important to me and I basically ignore or forget them as soon as I learn them (sort of the study, test, and dump that most students practice on a regular basis). Yes, you can say that I have learned a great deal about the grammar of the Greek language – but I can assure you I have assimilated very little of it. I have to go back repeatedly and remind (there’s that word again) myself of concepts I have previously learned. On the other hand, if I need to know something, and can use it immediately and repeatedly, that fact or practice becomes a part of my life. Thankfully I did not have to remind myself of the principles of landing an airplane every time I took off. I learned it, and it became “second nature” in a very real way.

The final step in education then returns to the first step, and we are prepared to challenge ourselves, or be challenged by, another thought, idea, concept, or practice. The circle, or spiral, continues as long as we live, or at least as long as we aspire to learn. It is certainly true that we can remind ourselves of a great many things – and a great many things are worth our time to pull out and remember from time to time. But, to expand our mind we must challenge, analyze, assimilate and challenge again.

I fear the misnaming of education is a mistake that is all too frequently made in church settings. In far too many Bibles “classes” challenge is not accepted. The only thing that can be discussed is what is already known, approved, and accepted. Not even the teacher is allowed to study things that are new or challenging, for fear that some of his new “learning” might infiltrate his presentations. If there is no challenge there can be no critical analysis. In fact, there cannot be any critical analysis of things that are already accepted and approved. There can be no “what” or “why” questions – unless the subject involves an outsider, and we wonder what or why “they” think the way they do. If there is no critical analysis, there can be no assimilation, no “building” upon a previous foundation. Only that which is approved can be approved. That is circular thinking, and that is not education.

My greatest mentors over the first half of my formative years were all devout (and brilliant, by the way) members of the Churches of Christ. I learned from men such as Everett Ferguson, John Willis, Ian Fair, Neil Lightfoot, Bill Humble, Lemoine Lewis, and Eugene Clevenger. These are men who epitomize education to me. Most, or at least many, of them obtained their doctoral degrees from the pinnacle of Ivy League (and, not to be redundant, liberal) universities. Yet, they remained true to the Restoration plea that the Bible, and the Bible alone, is the ultimate authority to which all new ideas and concepts must be compared. My greatest mentors over the last few decades of my life have been outsiders to this circle of faith – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, C.S. Lewis, and even more recent, N.T. Wright. Having a solid foundation, I can compare what is new, unfamiliar, and in some cases unsettling, with what I previously learned to be true. I have come to learn (pardon the pun) that much of what these “outsiders” teach is actually true – true in the biblical sense, but perhaps not true in the sense of my tradition. Not all, to be sure – I do have to exercise my critical analysis muscles quite a bit!

I am distressed by those who refuse to be challenged, and so to expand their education. I am equally distressed to read, and to hear, of those who claim to be leaders in the Churches of Christ today who begin with the challenge, and then jump straight to assimilation without the critical analysis phase. How did Everett Ferguson come away from that bastion of liberalism known as Harvard with such a conservative understanding? Because his feet were well grounded, and he was not swayed by “every philosophy” that blew his way.  Suffice it to say that our pulpits are full of preachers who catch wind of a new idea, and, embarrassed by their suffocating “tradition,” blithely follow that new idea where ever it blows, even if it blows up. Jumping on every new and sexy idea is not education. Forcing your congregation to follow you into your folly is not leadership. However, I am afraid we have idolized those who are the least worthy of our following, and we have mistakenly identified blind allegiance as true education.

I am, by nature and by nurture, an educator. I simply adore teaching. I love it when my students “get it.” But I don’t want it to be easy. I want there to be some struggle, and I do not necessarily want them to accept every “i” and “t” as I present them. I want my students to get an education – and some day it would be a great honor for one of them to teach this old dawg a new trick or two.

*Note: Arrrrgh. I just realized I posted under this exact title some time ago. That is the thing about my memory – it works so irregularly that almost everything is brand new to me. Sorry for any whiplash that folks might have experienced.

What We Have Here, Is a Failure to Communicate

I had a strange dream last night . . .

It appeared that I was summoned as a visitor to a sublime and dreadful courtroom scene. A preacher (whom I recognized, but will not identify to protect his guilt or innocence) sat forlornly at the defense table, while the prosecutor’s table was empty. Instead of one judge, there were a number of men, dressed in strange robes that resembled bedouin clothing more than that of modern judges. The gallery, of which I was a small part, was quiet – acting almost fearful, as if we were not really wanting to watch the events that would unfold before us.

The heavy tone of the room was broken when one of the judges cleared his throat and spoke. “Mr. __________, you have been summoned to stand before this tribunal before your death, rather than following your death, for a very special reason. Your record of service in the name of the one who sits on my left is impeccable. You have devoted the better part of your life to promoting the good name of Jesus and furthering his church. However, it was determined that you have recently become guilty of hypocrisy, and of a type that borders on treason against the kingdom. You will now stand and respond to our questions, for the purpose of ascertaining whether you will be returned to earth to continue your mission, or if you are to be removed from an earthly life altogether. Let us proceed . . . ”

Another of the judges spoke. “Mr. ___________, for the record, let us clarify. When you began your ministry, you professed to speak only of things spoken by Jesus, and written by myself and my partners on this tribunal, is that not correct?”

The preacher, pale and quivering, nodded and mumbled a quiet “yes.” Apparently he was aware of the identity of his interlocutors, although their specific identity was still hidden to the rest of us.

“Thank you.” Replied the second speaker. “Now, based on that confession, we have some questions we would like to pose to you to determine if, indeed, you have been faithful to that promise.”

“Is it not true” spoke a third judge “that as a young minister you spoke often and lovingly about the need to openly identify the Lord’s church through clear references to his name, or title?” “Yes, I did” replied the accused. “Then, why, here in these later years, have you chosen to identify your assembly as “_________________”? (name redacted for privacy reasons). “Well, it became obvious to me that by using the name under which I was first serving, that many people were put off, and refused to give my message any hearing. I wanted to lead as many as I could to my Lord, so I had to change the name on the building in order so as not to offend.”

At this comment the character seated in the middle of the group of judges raised his eyebrows, but remained silent.

“Let it be entered into the record that the accused withdrew any reference to the name or title of our Lord because such a reference was embarrassing and he believed it to be a negative influence” spoke the third judge. The other judges nodded in agreement, “So be it.”

The second judge once again spoke. “Mr. _________, you have stated many times in your early ministry that the record we who are seated before you must be listened to wholeheartedly, and obeyed faithfully, is that not true?” Another nod of the head and a mumbled “yes.” “Then, your proclamations in these later years are very troublesome. Just to name a few – you caused a serious defection in your congregation when you insisted the addition of practices into the worship service which are clearly not present in our writings, and you openly ridiculed certain other practices which are clearly given. You devalued the leadership qualities of men while encouraging women to step outside of their blessed and holy giftedness. You have even gone so far as to recently suggest that marriage vows can be exchanged between members of the same sex, provided those vows remain faithful. How do you answer?”

“That is easy,” the preacher said tremulously. “Modern scholarship has unequivocally determined that many words attributed to my esteemed judges did not, in fact, come from your pens. As a faithful minister I could not preach what was not the word of God. I could not continue to promote a false and dehumanizing gospel. Once that veil was lifted from my eyes, how could I return to chauvinistic and homophobic traditions?”

The gasps from the gallery drowned out the whispered conversations among the judges. The first judge rapped the bench with his gavel, ordering silence.

“So, Mr. ____________, are you telling these judges that the accumulated wisdom of over 2,000 years has been ‘unequivocally’ overturned by your ‘modern scholarship?” A quiet wave of laughter spread through the gallery. The preacher did not answer, but dropped his eyes. We in the gallery could see his face turning red.

The third judge who had spoken earlier resumed the questioning. “Mr. ____________, these are serious allegations, but throughout the history of the church on earth, many similar serious issues have plagued the Lord’s people.  God’s grace is certainly able to cover a multitude of misunderstandings – but we are not here to issue your final judgment, only to determine your fitness to return to your ministry. Far more troubling are some of your more recent lectures regarding the very nature of our Lord’s saving sacrifice.”

A fourth judge now entered the conversation. “Mr. ____________, your declaration to speak only the words of Jesus has been duly noted. Yet, you have repeatedly and clearly stated in recent sermons that the sign of solidarity with our Lord is no longer a necessary act of obedience to him. Baptism into our Lord’s death, a symbolic lowering into his grave, and a triumphant resurrection from that grave is, to quote your most recent offering, ‘something that is beneficial for the life of the believer, but cannot be made a requirement for salvation.’ Do I quote you accurately?”

Once again the preacher said, “yes,” but his mood had changed. Rather than meek submission, he was growing irritated with the line of questioning, and his ire was beginning to show. “Listen, I learned from my conversations with people from many different churches and even different religions that there are a lot of wonderful people out there, people who do not believe in baptism, but believe in Jesus. People who are good, moral, upstanding individuals with whom I could not find anything to question. Once again, I could not find any words that were clearly written by you all that would keep those people out of heaven.”

Finally the character in the middle of the group of judges raised his voice, along with his arched eyebrows. “I must disagree – for did not my inspired apostles record my very specific words, ‘Whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved”? Did not my inspired apostles speak clearly and repeatedly throughout my new covenant about the sacredness and importance of the new birth into my blood and resurrection? Did not my apostles make it clear that there are most decidedly two groups of individuals, one who trusts in my words of promise and obeys my commands, and one who because of willful rebellion refuses to accept my authority and/or my clear instructions?”

As the final words were fading into the background, a thick and heavy silence fell upon all the assembled – far more thick and heavy than was at first.

After what seemed like hours, but what could have only been a few minutes, the first judge spoke once again. “Mr. ________, you have been accused of hypocrisy and actions that are treasonous to the church that you have pledged your life.”

“It is the decision of this court that . . . ”

Just as suddenly and mysteriously as my dream started, it came to a terrifying end. What was the verdict? What would happen to this well known and popular preacher? Would he be allowed to return and continue his ministry? Would he be sent back to correct his errors? And why was I given this privy information?

“What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

Rest assured, brothers and sisters, the failure does not lie with the source.

I will not go to sleep comfortably any time soon . . .

2016 – A Year of Proclamation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2016 – A Year of Decision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review – Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision (Paul R. House)

Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision: A Case for Costly Discipleship and Life Together. Paul R. House (Crossway:Wheaton, Illinois, 2015) 197 pages.

One thing that you can say about my book reviews is that I am NOT generally on the “cutting edge” of literary publications. Chances are I am reviewing books that are anywhere from five to fifteen years old – or maybe even older. Every once in a while, however, I do get ahold of a book that has been published in the preceding twelve months, and luckily for me this book is one such example.

418wR785imL._AA160_

Paul R. House has given words to something that I feel very deeply. The fact that he did so by incorporating the theology and practices of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is just icing on the cake to me. In fact, I initially bought the book because of the connection to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (I am hopelessly enthralled with Bonhoeffer, and the title of this volume piqued my interest). However, I quickly came to realize that the real value of this book lies in House’s critique and solutions he gave to a critical issue facing seminaries and schools of theology.

 

I write from my own perspective, and so others may have a very different opinion based on their experiences, but I will go out on a limb and say that, with few exceptions, Churches of Christ do not do a very good job of preparing ministers. The Bible departments in our colleges and universities, our graduate schools, and our schools of preaching do a passable job in teaching the content of what a preacher needs to know (and some do that better than others), but on an over-all basis the schools that are tasked to prepare the next generation of congregational preachers do not do a very effective job of forming the life of the minister. There is a kind of silent code that states, “our job is to provide a student with the skills he will need to be a preacher, it is up to the candidate to be the kind of Christian he will be.” This was certainly the case when I was in school 30+ years ago; I am not sure how true it is today. Just a hunch based on some very unscientific observations, but things have not changed much in the product, however much has been changed in the theory end of the equation.

If my observation is valid at all, that would mean that the Churches of Christ fare no better, although probably not any worse, than the situation House describes. He challenges the notion that ministers of the gospel can be trained in sterile, “academic” settings exclusively. He especially challenges the idea that a minister can be shaped or formed through the process of “on-line” courses which basically amount to nothing more than the transfer of data between two computers. House is no neophyte – he has a Ph.D from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and has been involved in seminary education for over 30 years. His academic credentials are impeccable. What he says needs to be heard, whether you ultimately agree with him or not.

Basing his argument on two of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s more popular (and readable) works, Discipleship, and Life Together, House defends his argument that theological education – at least the kind of theological education that shapes and forms a minister’s life – needs to be done in community. While rigorous academic work must be a part of the seminary experience (the part I think our schools excel at), there must be a high level of face-to-face mentoring and spiritual formation that occurs as well. House demonstrates that Bonhoeffer had his greatest impact on the future of the church through the experiences he had with his seminarians, beginning at Zingst, and then moving to Finkenwalde and ultimately to the collective pastorates in Kosslin and Gross Schlonwitz. Bonhoeffer was a demanding educator – he expected a high level of exegetical acumen from his students, but he was equally concerned with who the young men were, and what they were training to become. Bonhoeffer did not just want to share information or pass along esoteric tidbits of theological trivia. He wanted to form ministers who could go out into one of the most demanding, and physically terrifying, situations in church history and not only survive, but to thrive and help their church members to thrive.

The fact that a majority of Bible majors in universities and colleges associated with Churches of Christ do not plan to or even want to enter into congregational ministry* is a devastating indictment against the education they are receiving. Various reports are suggesting that there are not enough students enrolled to adequately serve the number of congregations who presently need ministers, and with the baby boom generation of preachers getting ready to retire or are no longer able to serve the congregations, the need for additional servant-ministers will soon become acute. The ultimate answer to this need is no doubt far more extensive than the suggestions in this thin volume, but if you are looking for a place to begin, the wisdom in this book would be my first suggestion.

*Based on a personal report of one prominent university dated some years ago. Other colleges and universities may have a much higher proportion of students who not only desire, but are actively planning, to enter into congregational ministry. My apologies if my brush is painting with too broad of a stroke.

Speaking in an Echo Chamber and Totally Missing the Point

(Note: this should probably go without saying, but this is my reaction to a recent series of events, so, if you have another take on the discussion, good on ‘ya.)

Another “tempest in a teapot” amid a larger hurricane has erupted in the fellowship of the Churches of Christ. To summarize, Matthew Morine wrote an article in the Gospel Advocate excoriating those who advocate for gender egalitarianism in the Churches of Christ. Deeply offended, yet feigning magnanimity, Mike Cope responded in Wineskins, excoriating Matthew Morine and anyone who would dare agree with him. Together the two articles accomplished nothing but to establish that a deep division regarding this issue has already occurred in the Churches of Christ. Unless one side or the other experiences a major manifestation of the Holy Spirit, there will be no repairing it.

First, a little background for those who might be confused. Matthew Morine’s article in the GA was written as red meat for the most entrenched, conservative segment of the brotherhood. It was something akin to a warm-up before the key-note speech at a political convention. Was it thoughtful, carefully reasoned, and tactfully delivered? No, no and no. I’m not sure it was supposed to be. Morine is something of a wunderkind to the conservative right, and he is a favorite author in the GA fold. Mike Cope, on the other hand, is one confirmed miracle away from being canonized as a saint in the progressive left of the brotherhood. His writings serve as the red meat entree for the progressives. Politically speaking, Cope is Barak Obama to Matthew Morine’s Ted Cruz. It is matter, meet anti-matter.

The problem is that Morine has expressed (however provocatively) a concern that many – conservative or moderate – feel is a legitimate critique of the egalitarian left’s position: it is biblically and theologically weak, fueled mainly, if not exclusively, by cultural pressure. Cope, presented with an opportunity to take the high road and explain his position in clear biblical terms, totally wiffed, choosing rather to express his umbrage that Morine would dare attack his motives.

Well, at the severe risk of causing Cope and his followers even more emotional pain, a great many people do look at his conclusions and question his motives. Morine may have been too acerbic (actually, he was too acerbic), but his challenge was spot-on. I would say that my main problem with Morine’s content was that he misidentified the hypocrisy of the egalitarian left. It is within that element of the brotherhood that the loudest complaints about “proof-texting” a position can be heard. Yet, when it comes to gender egalitarianism, their entire argument is built on one single verse from the book of Galatians, and it is completely taken out of context, and twisted into something Paul never intended. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.

Neither Cope, nor any other egalitarian I have read, has adequately addressed Morine’s basic observation: their position is based on a misinterpretation and misapplication of Galatians 3:27-28, and in order to defend this misinterpretation, they must either excise or condescendingly dismiss several other passages of Scripture which contradict their position. Harrumph if you want, but throwing a temper-tantrum when your conclusions are challenged is not an effective apologetic technique.

The issue as I see it is that both Morine and Cope are speaking in an echo chamber and talk completely past each other. Morine could have been, and should have been, much more respectful. He, or someone at GA should have edited his article to be less acerbic and confrontational. Cope totally missed Morine’s point, choosing rather to express hurt feelings rather than address issues. I honestly have to ask why Cope was even concerned with Morine and the GA. Does he even think that his readers are going to care about the GA?

I said above, and I fully believe, that a schism equal to the instrumental music division of the last century has already occurred within the Churches of Christ. Just as it is impossible for two groups to worship simultaneously with and without instruments (however congregations try to paper over this division with “separate” worships services), you cannot worship simultaneously as a male-led congregation and a matriarchy. Just my opinion here, but it seems to me that there needs to be a clean break and we need to stop this illusion that we are all one big happy family. There needs to be a “Churches of Christ” and a “Churches of Christ / Instrumental and Egalitarian” (Funny, but the two “improvements” are virtually inseparable.)

One other observation about Cope’s response. He added that his “journey” from a male-led leadership to an egalitarian position was “painful.” That is a common thread in “journeys” from traditional convictions to progressive ones. I wonder why that is? If you move from a conviction that worship in song should be acapella to an acceptance of instrumental music, your “journey” is harrowing, painful and gut-wrenching. Why? It seems to me that if you can throw off the shackles of hundreds of years of bad exegesis and even worse theology, the process would be enlightening, exhilarating, and joyful. Same with egalitarianism. Why the angst? Why the pain? It seems to me that if you can scrape 2,000 years of encrusted barnacles of patriarchy off of your congregational cruise ship, why would that be so painful? I would think you would be ecstatic. The whole thing just sounds a little too “Oprah Winfrey” to pass my sniff test.

If someone can explain to me, using established methods of exegesis and hermeneutics, how Galatians 3:27-28 can have any association with male or female leadership in the Lord’s church, I am ready to listen (or read). If anyone can explain how Paul can be so clearly right in Galatians 3:27-28, but be so clearly wrong in Corinthians and Timothy, let me know. If someone can convince me that Jesus could overturn virtually every oppressive and Spirit-rejecting religious aspect of his culture but the one issue of male spiritual leadership – please enlighten me. But, be forewarned, my  obfuscation meter is set to high sensitivity – so don’t try the “Hillary Clinton” condescension trick or the “Bart Ehrman” re-write the New Testament trick. As the old saying in this part of the country goes, this ain’t my first rodeo, ma’am.

(Note: I have been informed that Matthew Morine was queried about the article by the GA editorial staff, and wanted the article to be published as it was written, and so I retract my comments about the editors at GA missing an opportunity here to help Matthew.)

How Have We Lost the Love of Bible Study?

Yesterday I shared how I almost came to hate the guitar – something that for virtually all of my life I have loved. I focused on how my instructors (who were undoubtedly good people, and who only had the best intentions, I am sure) almost drove my love of the instrument from me. I drew the conclusion that as teachers we have a tremendous burden, and responsibility, not to kill our student’s love of the Bible by promoting our own agendas. Today I want to look at the equal but opposite issue of a lack of desire and love of the Bible by many who would consider themselves faithful Christians.

Now, right of the bat I want to explain that I KNOW we are not supposed to worship or venerate the Bible. It is the word of God that points us to the Word of God – we are to love and worship God and his Son, not the message that teaches us about God and his Son. However, just as a musician loves the piece of paper that contains the notes that he or she will eventually transform into a glorious piece of music, so too we must love the medium that leads us to the author of our faith. And, for Christians, that medium is the Bible.

I understand my observations here are largely anecdotal, but in my half-century or so in observing the church I have noticed a decline in the interest in serious Bible study. I believe there are several reasons for this decline – some more understandable than others, but real never-the-less:

  1.  As I mentioned yesterday, I believe bad teachers drive a love of Bible study away from us. On the one hand are teachers that make it sound like they, and they alone, can climb Mt. Biblius, the great peak from which all spiritual wisdom is obtained. Only they can see the great truths of the subject at hand (which makes we wonder if that truth is even there, but that is another story). Everyone else in the class is just plain ignorant, and this teacher communicates that feeling in a number of verbal and non-verbal ways. On the other hand is the teacher who never comes to class prepared, quickly reads over the class text about 10 minutes before class starts, and then “teaches” a class that revolves around reading one verse at a time, and then asking that most penetrating of questions, “What do you think [insert author here] meant when he wrote that?” Brilliant discussion question, that.
  2. There is a pervading sense of anti-intellectualism among Christians, and I have especially seen and heard that mentality expressed among members of the Churches of Christ. It is almost as if class members prefer their teacher to be uneducated – that way if they say something that is incorrect (or even incomprehensible) they cannot be corrected. There is something intimidating about being the presence of someone who can answer virtually any question you throw at them, and when it comes to questions of religion, sometimes we do not want all our questions answered or statements evaluated. I find that this is ONLY in regard to the Bible, as NO ONE wants a surgeon who barely squeaked by with C’s or D’s on his transcript, or a lawyer that passed the bar exam on his 10th try by answering one question correct more than the minimum needed to pass. We want the best surgeons to open our bodies, the best lawyers to argue our cases, the best pilots to fly our airplanes; I would suggest we need to demand the best Bible teachers as well.
  3. With regard to full time ministers, we do not allow for the kind of study required to actually teach a Bible class. If uncle Bob goes in for a 6 hour surgery, we expect Bro. Jones to sit with the family in the waiting room for every minute of those 6 hours. Plus there is the Kiwanis Club meeting, the luncheon at the Senior Center, 15 absentees to visit and cajole, and the ever-present high school football game or drama presentation. Between phone calls and “drop-in” visits, the average preacher gets to spend maybe an hour or so on his Bible class lesson (the rest of his non-existent preparation time is devoted to his sermon or sermons). With our demands on his time, we are in effect telling the minister – “Hey, we really do not want in-depth Bible lessons – just give us the warmed-over re-runs from some lesson you prepared in the past. We are not going to remember what you say 15 minutes after class anyway, so why spend so much time preparing your lesson?”

And that leads me to my final point – and the bookend to my last post. Many preachers and teachers can get by with teaching pabulum simply because the audience does not care. In their mind they can check the box that says “Attended Bible Study” and that is all that matters. The actual content is inconsequential, and actually if the teacher makes demands of time and mental acuity, the response is emphatically negative. How dare the teacher demand that the students actually buy a study book? How dare the teacher demand that the student perform homework? How dare the teacher expect that the text for the lesson be read and studied before the class period begins? How dare the teacher expect that the student actually does something with the lesson (like put it into concrete, identifiable, practices)?

I stated yesterday, and I firmly believe, that teachers bear a tremendous burden. That burden is to nurture and support the love of learning that a student brings to a Bible class. It may be ugly, it may be messy, it may not fit the “technique” that a teacher has in mind, but the goal of education is the transformation of a life, and if a student comes wanting to learn, the teacher must find a way to help that student learn.

But there are some things a teacher cannot do – and chief among them is to create that love of learning. I have stood, Sunday after Sunday, in front of a class of uninterested, uncaring, and unmotivated church members whose only purpose in being present is to fulfill a legal requirement. They do not want to to be challenged in any way – mentally or physically. They verbally say “We are here for Bible study” but their hearts are far from God. (See Isaiah 29:13-14; Proverbs 17:16) They sit with glazed-over eyes, or they trim their finger nails, or they fumble absentmindedly with some object they happened to have discovered on the pew or in their pocket.

Bad teachers are responsible for a number of sins. But when we as God’s children do not demand high-quality, serious Bible study, we should not be critical when we get the kind of lessons that put us to sleep and kill whatever interest there might have been in any kind of profitable Bible study.

I mentioned yesterday that the Bible is accessible – it can be mastered, though not in the sense that we can know everything about it or can answer every question that can be posed to us. But every part of the Bible can be taught, and can be understood, if the heart to learn and the heart to teach are both there.

God, give us a heart to learn! And, God, give us teachers who will not quit until our thirst for learning exceeds their thirst for teaching!

Quantity, or Quality?

This is kind of a follow-up to yesterday’s post about the church becoming so focused on not offending someone that it loses its sharp message. Related to political correctness is a belief that the church is to measure its success based strictly on numbers. That is a false assumption, but it drives virtually every mission that the church seeks to promote.

I have been a part of the Church of Christ for all of my life – and a paid minister for much of that life. I can attest that whenever a new mission is being evaluated, or an old mission is being reviewed, one of the most important questions that must be answered is, “How will this help us grow numerically?” The question may not be asked in such bald terms, but whether it is blatant or more covert, the question is still there. If we are going to invest dollars in a mission, we want to see numerical results.

This eventually leads to the problem I discussed yesterday – if we want rear-ends in the pews we cannot preach or teach anything that might offend large numbers of our target audience. If we are a large, up-scale, predominantly white and affluent congregation the talk of greed, avarice and selfishness must be banished. If we are poor, lower-class and predominantly dependent on government aid we cannot discuss that issues of envy or resentment. If a large percentage of our congregation is borderline obese forget hearing a sermon on gluttony. If we live next door to a military base do not even think about hearing a sermon on the evils of military aggression and the need to obey Christ’s call to lay aside the weapons of destruction. The point is the overwhelming majority of the content of our sermons and lessons is determined not by the content of Scripture, but by the location of our church buildings and the make-up of our congregational membership rolls.

Believe me, I have been both perpetrator and victim of this mentality. Much of my job security has revolved around the stability, if not the growth, of the numbers of the ministry I have been associated with. I have been all too much a promoter of the “we have to have more and more people here” kind of thinking. But, I have also been burned by the same mentality. You are not invited to speak at all the brotherhood soirees if your only claim to fame is that you drive people away from your building.

I don’t think Jesus was all that hung-up about numbers. In fact, he was just as willing to see the slackers and the hangers-on turn around and leave him as he was to see the faithful follow him. He lamented the fact people would turn their back on him, but he never promised to bring in donuts and coffee if they would stay.

What Jesus was vitally interested in was the quality of the life of the disciple. If you said you were “in” with Jesus, he wanted to make sure you understood what that “in” meant. The cost of discipleship varied with the person, and Jesus would not expect the same effort from a 75 year old convert that he might expect from a 25 year old convert. But he would expect the same amount of love and commitment.

Churches of Christ are in a major quandary these days, as are congregations of virtually every religious stripe. Some of the issues confronting the churches have been created by our opponent, Satan. Some of the wounds we are seeking to heal, however, are purely self-inflicted. Part of the problem, although not all of it by any stretch of the imagination, is the fact that for several generations now we have been measuring success by the quantity of numbers in our pews, and not the quality of discipleship in those who sit in the pews.

In an odd sort of way, Jesus may be happier with us if we had fewer congregations made up of smaller memberships, if those members were fully committed Christians. The interesting thing is, if that were to happen, my guess is the numbers of the members of the church would grow exponentially. I believe people want to be a part of genuine Christianity. I think they are just sick and tired of the pseudo-christianity that is being peddled by so many number-hungry churches today.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 453 other followers

%d bloggers like this: