And the Lord said: Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment of men learned by rote; therefore, behold, I will again do marvelous things with this people, wonderful and marvelous; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hid. (Isaiah 29:13-14, RSV)
I wish I had a dollar for every book and blog post that has been written describing the decline of the church of Jesus Christ today, or the prescription of the one single magic potion that would reverse this decline. Depending on the theological worldview of the author the church either has to become more modern or it has to go back to a pristine form of some past era. The worship needs to become more vibrant, relevant and “hip” or it needs to become more contemplative and dignified. The church needs to surrender the reigns of leadership to the younger people (whether in actual roles of leadership or at least in terms of the direction of the church) or it needs to “put the young ‘uns in their place” and reject any and every call for modernization. Just about everyone has a silver bullet or at least a silver plated bullet that will bring the church back from the brink of destruction to a full blossom of youth and vitality.
I am struck with the realization that most of these suggestions, while every one might be good intentioned and even healthy in some respect, can be described simply as window dressing. Hiring a younger minister, recruiting a praise time or removing the praise band altogether, removing the pews, creating a prayer labyrinth, lighting candles and incense – all of these external changes will amount to nothing if there is not a substantial change somewhere else. That change has got to be in the heart of the individual, and the collective heart of the congregation, or nothing anyone does is going to amount to anything at all.
I am also struck with the realization that the one voice that most people refuse to allow to be spoken in the church is the voice of the prophet. Hence, I turn to the prophets with increasing interest. I am convinced we cannot hear the voice of the Messiah correctly if we refuse to hear the voices of those who prepared for his arrival. I believe our focus on surface religion and our avoidance of the prophetic message are inextricably related. If we want to restore our church, we must learn to hear the prophets once again. No, that is not a “magic bullet.” But it is a necessary beginning.
Notice in the passage above – Isaiah did not say the people were not honoring God. Oh, they were honoring God all right – dressed in their finery and exuding all kinds of spirituality they worshipped with great pomp and circumstance. But, and this is a common theme throughout all the writing prophets, God would not be mocked with their false worship. He saw straight through their empty and vain ceremony. As Isaiah stated it, the process of worship that had devolved by the time of his writing was simply, “…a commandment of men learned by rote.” How many of our worship services can be described by that one dreadful line?
I have been involved in multiple ministry situations in a relatively broad sampling of congregations and there is one characteristic that defines virtually all of them. (Note: I have not been to every congregation, so if your congregation does not fit this description, simply move on). That characteristic is a lack of commitment. I am not accusing every member of every congregation – some members are amazingly committed. There is, however, a disturbing number of individuals who simply could not be any less interested in the mission of the church.
I have known members who would not miss a softball practice or game to save their life, but who cannot manage to get out of bed early enough on Sunday morning to attend a Bible study. I have known dear sweet little old widow ladies who would not miss their weekly card game if they had double pneumonia, but let them be afflicted with a case of the sniffles and they are nowhere to be found on Sunday morning. I know men who can quote the batting averages of the complete roster of their favorite baseball team who could not find a Scripture if they were handed a Bible with thumb indexes for each book. I have known church leaders who had a chest full of pins from their social club honoring their recruiting prowess who never, ever invited anyone to attend a worship service. I have known salesmen who would drop everything to make a sales call for their business but who were always “booked solid” when it came time to make an appointment to study the Bible with a friend or neighbor. I have known brilliant teachers who were always “too tired” to teach a class. I have known retirees who had plenty of time for the golf course, for the fishing stream, or for the lunch room at the senior center but somehow never had any time to volunteer for a congregational ministry.
Why is it that the auditorium will be full on Sunday morning, but on Monday or Tuesday night when the “rubber is meeting the road” there is only a handful of members show up? And why is it that even though they are so worn out, so tired, and so distracted, that they would not be any other place but the Bible study table, the prison visiting room, the nursing home, the soup kitchen? Is it not because deep inside their heart they have the love of their Lord burning brightly?
Somehow or another the softball diamond, the card table, the bowling alley, the social club, the Senior Center – all of these can make absolute demands of our time and we do not even flinch. But let the Lord’s servant speak the words “total commitment” and watch the fur fly.
How dare you expect me to be totally committed to the church! You are not my master. I have more important things to do.
And so Bible studies go untaught, lonely people go unvisited, critical ministries wither and rot when the willing servants finally get burned out or die. And the members who only know the “fear of the Lord as a commandment learned by rote” wonder why their country is “going to the dogs,” wonder why no one seems to have any moral values anymore, wonder why no one is attending their church anymore, wonder why there is no teacher for their class, wonder why no one will ever come to visit them. And they dream up such wonderful ideas as adding PowerPoint projectors to their auditoriums and building a prayer labyrinth in the weed patch behind the building. And, if they are really radical, they might even recruit a praise team to make their vain worship more relevant.
Sometimes I really have to wonder – Is God through with us yet? When is he going to do something marvelous with this generation? And will we have the spiritual eyes and ears to become aware of it when it happens?
God, revive us again, and please give us eyes to see, and ears to hear when your Spirit starts working in our desperate world.
Just sitting here ruminating on a subject that has been festering for a while. I really do not know who to address this to, so it will just be an open letter – directed at no one in particular and a lot of people in general.
To all those who are fed up with, cannot stand, and are otherwise angry at the church. I think I get your message. I want to say “I think” because to say “I fully understand” would be presumptuous. Because I have not met you personally, you may not fit every description that I mention in what follows. So, let me begin on a foundation of humility. I want to understand where you are coming from, and to a certain degree I think I get you. And, whether you believe me or not, in many areas I agree with you. But still, there is a yawning chasm between the two of us that bothers me…
The overwhelming majority of you are in your third decade of life. Some are much older, some are younger. That tells me that the majority of you simply have not had the opportunity to experience so much of life that longevity teaches. You may have traveled extensively, you may have lived with the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor. But, you are still young. Youth has its advantages, to be sure. But youth also has its severe limitations. There is a reason that God turned the leadership of the church over to a group of individuals we refer to as elders. Age does a lot of things to our bodies, but it is an incredible teacher for our hearts and minds. So, I am not necessarily criticizing you for your youth, but I am making a point. You have not seen a lot of things and experienced a lot of life simply because you are not old enough to have done so. Hang around a while – you will.
That leaves some of you who are my age and older who still angry at the church but for entirely different reasons. Maybe something I say will speak to you as well, but I fear the issues you have need another letter. Increased chronological age does not necessarily equate to increased maturity. An angry senior citizen is no improvement over an angry toddler.
I want to tell you that we – the older generation that you seem to be so bent on overcoming – have been where you have been and we have done what you are doing. With our grandfathers, or maybe for some of us our fathers, it was the “social gospel.” For many others of us it was that promising panacea called “youth ministry.” Then there was the “bus ministry.” Our pet phrase was “ministry with a social conscience.” Then we were saved by becoming “seeker sensitive.” We were given a healthy dose of “purpose driven.” Now we are told the only thing that can save us to to become “emergent” “incarnational” or “missional.” Next up – “discipling.” We have been transfixed with Billy Sunday, Billy Graham, Bill Hybels, Rick Warren and now Rob Bell and Brian McLaren. It has become so confusing that we need a scorecard to keep up with all the slogans and phrases and personalities. It’s just that we – the old gray head set – need bifocals to read all the small print.
As a member of the “traditional, fundamentalist, backward, Luddite” generation that provides so much of the anger that you are venting, I would like to suggest that you take a moment to analyze why it is that we are so wary of your efforts. After reading volumes of your books, scanning your blogs and watching your You Tube videos, I would gently like to suggest that you criticize without offering the least indication you have attempted to understand what it is you are criticizing. You think that you are criticizing the “established, traditional, fundamentalist church” but who you are actually criticizing are people. Real people. People who have stood where you are standing and who have asked the same questions and who have been through a lot more fights and defeats than you have.
You come across as selfish, arrogant, narcissistic, and vain. The very traits, I would suggest, that you criticize us for being.
You preach a tolerance of ideas and practices and yet you ridicule and reject the values and beliefs of the generations who have gone before you.
And, I say again lest I be misunderstood, we can recognize these failings because we pioneered them. You are simply perfecting the faults we instilled within you. But I hasten to add – the fact you have perfected them is no honor.
If we are hesitant to accept your panacea for church renewal I suggest that it is because we are tired of the rhetoric – the empty promises and of dealing with the burned out remains of ours and previous failures. The generation that is older than I am had to deal with me – they heard the same empty promises and they dealt with the same blown-up congregations and they had to pull out the bandages and try to put broken people and lives back together. And my generation blithely walked away from all the carnage and smugly patted ourselves on the back for being such faithful and devoted disciples of the Prince of Peace. Until it happened to us. Now we see the same thing that our forefathers experienced and it gives us a lot of heartbreak. We cannot undo what we did, but we are not much interested in having the same thing happen to us.
Believe me, many of us are looking for something better! We have not lost the idealism of our youth, but the scars and the broken bones have taught us to be a little careful about how we go about instigating change. We may need bifocals to read our old leather-bound Bibles, but we can see through the dim lights of your “new” worship. We may need hearing aids, but we hear nothing of substance in your theologically vapid praise bands. And we can smell a rat through the fog of your incense.
So, please – if you are asking us to give you the courtesy of listening to the next one greatest discovery that will save the church from every evil that befalls it, give us the courtesy of realizing we have heard this song before. We sang it too. We even added a few verses and an endless repeating chorus. Realize that we are not your enemy until you back us into a corner and give us no other option but to either leave or fight back. Yes, there are individuals who are my age and older who have demonized every word you say and every idea you put forward. I do not like them any more than you do. I reject their rhetoric and their hateful attitudes. Every mansion has a few cobwebs in the corners.
I appreciate your enthusiasm for the Lord and His church. I appreciate that you are not only willing, but also very capable of the skill of analysis and problem solving. I would suggest that one skill you are lacking significantly is the skill of the appreciation of history – your history, and your immediate history to be exact. I would also like to suggest that unless you seek to remedy this gap in your resume you will find yourself in an interesting situation in about 20 years or so – give or take a few.
You will be exactly where I am, peering through your new pair of bi-focals, writing an open letter to your children and grandchildren who have discovered the next latest and greatest saving prescription for the church they have discovered is old and stale and irrelevant.
The very church you are in the process of creating.
An old guy who is willing to listen, but justifiably cautious about swallowing every idea just because it is new.
I’m not exactly sure why, but I was inspired this morning with the thought that I have not really worked through the 10 Commandments in any kind of meditative or contemplative manner. I think that I have taught and /or preached through them, but I wanted to take another look at these great words. I hope my thoughts will be beneficial, but as with everything else in this blog, I am speaking primarily to me.
A word about my outline. I plan on taking one “command” per post, and then at the very end I plan on adding an essay about why I believe the 10 Commandments have been neglected in many circles of Christianity (especially so in the Churches of Christ) and what can be done to overcome that omission.
So, here is installment one.
And God spoke these words, saying, I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. (Exodus 20:1-2 RSV)
Most people think that the ten commandments begin with Exodus 20:3. That is our first mistake.
The ten commandments begin with Exodus 20:1. God is speaking to His people. He identifies Himself. But he does not identify Himself with any esoteric, profound ontological or theological definitions. God identifies Himself simply and profoundly by reference to His action. “I am your God. You know me because I am the One who just delivered you out of your miserable slavery. I am the LORD. I am the I AM. You’ve seen my mighty arm, now listen to what is in my heart.”
When we begin our study of this text in Exodus 20:3 we miss this monumental opening. We miss the main point. It would be like showing up at a wedding after the couple has departed for their honeymoon. Sure, there may be some cake left, and maybe a mint or two – but is that the point of going to a wedding?
We must see that the “10 Commandments” are built exclusively and entirely upon grace. “I am the LORD.” It is the greatest statement of grace in the Bible, repeated hundreds of times. Perhaps we are more comfortable with the “I am the good shepherd” of John’s gospel, but the meaning is the same. God is saying, “Don’t worry. I have your back. In fact, I have your front too. Just look at what I just did for you. Which would you prefer – slavery or freedom?” And that is the entire meaning of v. 2. God double identifies the place where the Israelites just were. “Out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”
Remember Egypt – the cruel taskmasters, the hours and hours of back breaking labor only to be beaten and humiliated? Bone crushing servitude with nothing to show for it? Do you remember that? Look at your hands, look at your feet, look at the backs of your neighbors – remember Egypt.
The ten commandments are all about grace. And if we miss that point we might as well not even try to study the actual commands. If we miss the grace concerning the deliverance from slavery all we do is return to the land of Egypt. Exodus 20:3-17 simply becomes another house of bondage if we miss v. 1-2. We become slaves to a legal code, a merciless task master that seeks only to impose it’s power over us. It beats us, brutalizes us, dehumanizes us. Built on the foundation of v. 1-2, however, and the commands become avenues of God’s grace.
It is interesting that in the original Hebrew text, the description for what follows are the “10 Words.” Not commandments, even though they may take the imperative form. No, this section of the inspired text is referred to as the “10 Words.” I believe that in the overall theology of the Bible this point is profound. In the beginning God spoke simple words and the world was created. In the book of Isaiah we read that “my words will not return to me empty.” In the prologue of the gospel of John we read that, “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
And the decalogue, the great charter of the Israelite nation, is referred to by these Israelites as the “10 Words.”
I like that. The 10 Words of Grace. That just sound so much more inviting, so much more welcome, so much more, well, God-like than the “10 Commandments.”
Mind you – these are still commands, they remain strictures about how a child of God is to think, act and believe. But they are primarily words of grace. And that makes them foundational for any understanding of the work of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God and the very personification of Grace.
May we hear these words always new, always fresh. Amen.
Warning: ill-tempered rant immediately ahead.
Don’t lie to God. He takes a pretty dim view of people who lie to Him. Just a couple of examples -
In 1 Samuel 15 King Saul is given a specific command to destroy the people of Amalek. We recoil from the command because it sounds so genocidal. However, that was the command, and apparently King Saul understood it quite literally. So he marches off and almost completely and totally obeys the command. Then he lies to God about the “almost” part. “But I did obey the LORD!” Saul answered. (1 Sam. 15:20). Problem was, he did not. He had spared the king and the finest of the animals, ostensibly for sacrifice, but spared them none-the-less. In response Samuel said,
“Does the LORD take pleasure in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the LORD?”
Then Samuel told Saul that God had rejected him as king, and that meant that Saul’s sons would be rejected as well. There would be no Saul dynasty.
You see, when you lie to God you really cannot fool him, and he takes a pretty dim view of the attempt.
Example #2 – in Acts 5 the author Luke interrupts his litany of events about church growth and all the good things that are happening in and through the miraculous working of the Holy Spirit to relate a very sordid story. A married couple sells a piece of land and brings a portion of the proceeds to the apostles for distribution to the poor. The only problem is that they lied to God about the amount of money they had received. God took a pretty dim view of the deception. First Ananias and then his wife Sapphira fell dead before the church. A harsh end for such a little transgression, we might say. It just goes to highlight the importance God places on our honesty.
Don’t ever lie to God. He takes a pretty dim view of people who lie to Him.
I may be barking up the wrong tree here, but there are a couple of lies that I keep hearing that are really beginning to bother me – bother me deeply and with increasing passion.
Lie #1 – “I want everyone to know that I really, really, really love the church, but…” The sentence can come in many different shades of “really” but though the form may change the content never does. What follows this supposed confession of love for the church is invariably a lengthy screed condemning the church and everyone who would defend the church. The church is hypocritical. The church is corrupt. The church is hopelessly out of date. The church needs to wake up and start doing things the way the author deems critical or it will simply cease to exist.
Pardon me for being blunt, Mr. or Mrs. church critic, but it is obvious that you really do not love the church. Your opening line is designed to get me to lower my defenses. “Oh, I should not judge Mr. or Mrs. Critic so harshly” my inner voice is supposed to lecture me, “see how much he or she loves the church.” Except that it is a bogus love, a false love, a poisonous love served up in a golden goblet.
To love the church means that you love something that is filled with humans and by that very definition itself means that it is imperfect – tainted with sin, broken and in need of Christ’s healing. Here is some news for you, Mr or Mrs. church critic – the church will never be perfect. It has never been perfect and it will not be perfect even after you get through lecturing it. It will not be perfect even if it followed every one of your perfect solutions. Until Jesus comes to claim his Bride the church will still have its blots and blemishes. That is why Paul prayed daily with tears and great anxiety. He knew that Christ has called his church to be pure, but he also knew that the people who made up each individual congregation were far from pure.
I find it personally repugnant that so many of the people who are ostensibly in love with the church (and yet who make a healthy living out of disciplining the church) have given up on the idea of serving a local congregation. Now that I have “shown my cards” so to speak maybe I should just go ahead and reveal how I really feel. But if Mr. or Mrs. church critic is not covered in the muck and mud of daily congregational ministry I just really do not care about what they have to say about fixing the church (or abandoning the church). And that is especially true of all these 20 somethings who have never been in a position to truly minister to a bent and broken local congregation and who are writing all those books and blogs and producing all the videos that carp and criticize the efforts of those who are spending their days and nights wallowing in the muck and mud of exhausting congregational ministry.
Hey, Mr. or Mrs. church critic – if you don’t smell like sheep then what business do you have to tell me how to shepherd mine? Or, to be more theologically correct, what business do you have to tell me how to shepherd God’s sheep?
And while I’m at it – how about a word to our schools who are preparing and sending these twenty-somethings out into the world to criticize something they have no experience in serving? How dare you claim to be producing servants of the Crucified One when the majority of your graduates have no intention of serving God’s people in a local congregation? How can you defend taking young men and women and filling their heads with the idea that the church is something to be studiously avoided? How can you claim that you study the opening chapters of virtually all of the apostle Paul’s letters (Galatians notably excepted) and at the same time suggest that serving a local congregation is somehow beneath the dignity of your esteemed graduates? Maybe you are trying to get them to go into congregational ministry and they simply refuse. Maybe. But if a majority of your graduates have no plans to enter congregational ministry does that not speak poorly of the emphasis you place upon the local congregation and its value in the Kingdom of God?
Don’t lie to God. Really – just don’t.
Lie #2 – “I really, truly, deeply, love Jesus – I just don’t love the church.” Everything I said about lie #1 applies to lie #2, except that lie #2 is more insidious. Who would ever think of challenging someone who really, really, truly and deeply loves Jesus, especially if they have the audacity to admit they do not love the church? Except, once again, that is an outright lie. You cannot love Jesus and at the same time dislike the church.
Here is a quick test – for whom did Jesus die? If you said “me” or “each person” you get half credit. Jesus did not die for individuals, to create an individual salvation, so that each person could imagine an individual heaven where he/she can individually worship God. Jesus died for the sins of all people collectively, in order to create a new community of those who believe in Him, and for the purpose of establishing a new and eternal kingdom where untold thousands from “every nation, tribe, language and people” are gathered together to live in perfect unity in worship to God. On earth that kingdom is called the church. If you do not love the church, if you dislike the church, if you do not want to have anything to do with the church, then by that very admission you no longer love the one who died to redeem that community for God. We in America have taken “individualism” to such an extreme that we have utterly corrupted the communal view of the Kingdom of God. I cannot think of a single passage of the New Testament that speaks of Jesus dying for an individual separate and apart from the community of other redeemed sinners. Perhaps one exists, but I would hasten to add that if such a passage exists it is written within the immediate context of the community of the saints. The inspired authors of our New Testament simply did not write to bless our American view of individual salvation.
I was going to say I wonder about how God feels about so many people lying about their relationship with Him. But, I really don’t have to wonder at all.
God takes a very dim view of folks who lie about Him. Just ask a deposed king and a couple of suddenly deceased land owners.
Dr. Glen Stassen, in his article on the fourteen triads of the Sermon on the Mount, says that, ‘The structure of the next triad is straightforward.” That is helpful because some of the triads have not been exactly “straightforward,” at least to a Western, linear thinker like me. So, having something be a little more obvious is always appreciated.
The “traditional teaching” is found in verse 1, and is very similar to the “You have heard it was said…” statements in chapter 5. Jesus simply repeats a proverbial statement that must have had some currency during his ministry: Do not judge, and you won’t be judged. Dr. Stassen views verse 2 as a continuation of the traditional teaching. However, I note that verse 2 could also be the beginning of the “vicious cycle” that virtually always accompanies some self-righteous judgement. If we apply some rigid form of judging, others will apply that same form against us, but usually they will add a little bit to it. We very rarely ever give back exactly what we have been given, we always all a little vinegar along with it. The vicious cycle is then discussed more completely in verses 3 and 4. Invariably what occurs is that we begin to examine others with a microscope when our own sins are so blatant they can be identified a mile away. A mile away, that is, by everyone but us. The illustration Jesus used is meant to be ironic and I believe meant to generate some uncomfortable laughter – at least until the reality of the irony sets it. We are always far more willing to remove specks when the log is protruding from our eye.
What, then, is the “transforming initiative?” It is really quite simple. It is called “repentance.” It is removing the very large and blatant sin in our own life so that we can see clearly to analyze the problem in the lives of others. I think something else is taking place here. Jesus is not giving us a blank check to start solving other people’s problems just as long as we superficially whitewash over our own. What Jesus is saying is, “If you are going to condemn someone, start with yourself. Examine your relationship with God. How pure are you? What is your attitude? How have you acted? What is your motive? And how have your actions been in line with the thoughts, intentions and motives of God?” When we really and truly place ourselves under the same microscope under which we love to place others something transforming should happen. One, we should see just how far we have fallen from the standard we would like to think we have exceeded, and two, we begin to notice that the “speck” in our brother’s eye is not so serious at all. It may need to be removed, yes. But instead of trying to remove it with a rusty pair of vice-grips we use sterilized tweezers and an appropriate amount of anesthesia. True biblical repentance should have a profound and lasting effect upon our willingness to condemn other people.
It has often been noted that the best teacher in any subject is the person who, as a student, had to struggle intensely to overcome any misunderstandings and setbacks. I can relate perfectly. As a flight student I had a bear of a time trying to master flying with reference only to my instruments. I had a mental block, and a pretty sizable physical problem as well. Things just did not seem to want to work for me. With patience and enough time I did earn my instrument rating, went on and earned my Commercial Certificate and both Flight Instructor and Flight Instructor/Instrument ratings. Then the day came for me to start teaching students how to earn their Instrument rating. Because I had made virtually every mistake known to flight students in my own instrument training, I picked up on most of my student’s mistakes very quickly. Not only that, but I was able to sympathize with them and give them encouragement. At my first instructor job I was given several of the “problem” students because either (a) I was good enough to get them graduated or (b) I was too sympathetic to turn them down or a mixture of both. But my success rate was pretty good – something that I look back on with a certain amount of pride.
But, the person who is only able to see the faults of others makes for a lousy teacher. That person makes for even a more lousy judge. That person makes for even a more lousy Christian. The life of discipleship is a life that demands first of all that a person is willing and capable of examining him or herself and making the necessary changes before there can be any confrontation of others.
I wonder how the national debate on homosexuality and same-sex marriage would change if the church would simply focus its attention on the sexual dysfunction of its own heterosexual members before it started to “fix” the homosexual population who has no intention of ever being a part of that church to begin with. That is just one example, but the general principle should be clear. The church has a huge blind spot regarding sexual sin, greed, covetousness, racism, compromise with political powers (idolatry) and the environment. How can we justify much of our own myopic rhetoric when we are so complacent toward and complicit with so many behaviors that God specifically condemns in His eternal revelation?
Our world is bent and broken, to be sure. Of that there is no question. But the church shares that same bentness and brokeness. If we do not seek to repent and remove the log in our own eye we will be incapable of helping the world see its own bentness and brokeness. The church’s great commission does not begin in Matthew 28:16-20. The church’s great commission begins in Psalm 51:1-19 (among many other Psalms of lament). If we do not have a broken heart, no amount of preaching and teaching will ever be acceptable in the Kingdom.
It has been a while since I have spent any time in the Sermon on the Mount, so if you are new to this series you may want to backtrack a little and pick up the context and the pattern for what we have been discussing.
In his article (“The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-7:12)”), Dr. Glen Stassen does a good job of demonstrating how 6:24 really fits the context of what follows rather than what precedes. The verse really sounds like a concluding pronouncement, but in light of what has been discussed so far, the argument in favor of linking v. 24 with vv. 25-34 is quite convincing. As we will see in a couple of articles yet in the future, this stylistic manner of looking at the Sermon truly does open it up to a greater degree of understanding.
So, using the pattern Dr. Stassen has identified throughout his article, the “traditional teaching” that Jesus begins with is, “No one can be a slave to two masters.” [With my tongue firmly in my cheek this is perhaps the clearest reason given in Scripture as to why polygamy is wrong.] The “vicious cycle” is either found in the next phrase or the last phrase of the verse. I tend to think that the vicious cycle actually begins with the loving the one master and hating the other. However, Dr. Stassen connects that phrase with the “traditional teaching” and identifies the “vicious cycle” as, “You cannot be slaves of God and money.” Verse 25 continues the vicious cycle – those who are torn between possessions and God are constantly anxious, worried about everything there is to worry about.
The “transforming initiative” is found in three imperatives given in verses 26-28, “Look to the birds, learn from the wildflowers, seek first the kingdom of God.” The behavior that changes everything connected to anxiety and worry is to consider how God takes care of his creation. If man truly is the pinnacle of that creation (which a solid theology of the opening chapters of Genesis clearly pronounces), then God will certainly take care of his highest creation. The most imperative of the three imperatives (not to be redundant) is the command to “seek first the kingdom of God.” This is the major theme that has been running throughout the entire sermon up to this point, although clearly enunciated here for the first time. The Beatitudes illustrate the life that is given over to the Kingdom principles. The discussion of the “traditional teachings” and “traditional practices” that we have examined so far are all illustrative of the vast difference between those who seek the kingdom of this world over the Kingdom of God. Jesus straightforwardly demands that we pray for God’s Kingdom to arrive on this earth just as it exists in heaven. And so here at this climactic point in the sermon, Jesus tells us that any attempt to serve this-worldly kingdom and God’s kingdom is doomed to failure. Quite bluntly Jesus announces that anyone who is worried about the things of this transitory world cannot be concerned about things of the eternal kingdom. Conversely, those who are truly concerned about bringing the eternal Kingdom to the earth will not be distracted nor consumed with the things of this temporary world.
The problem I see with the church today has been amply identified by individuals far more capable of discussing it than I am. The problem is not that the world has defeated the church. That can never happen. The problem is that the church has opened its doors far too wide and has swallowed too much of the world. The church is consumed with concerns that are only important to the kingdom of the Accuser. The church is worried about power (i.e., who is elected in the next cycle of elections), status (do we have the latest technology housed in the most beautiful building?), relevance (are we reaching the next generation?) and its own future. What the church should really be concerned about is love, justice, and mercy. The church should be concerned about Kingdom issues, not power or status or relevance issues. God does not care if we are powerful (because He is our power) our status (because our status is only important in Him) or relevance (it is absolutely blasphemous to think that WE can make God relevant). God is concerned about whether we are faithful in obedience to his commands, which are ultimately based in his grace. If we are disobedient, that is an indication that we either do not recognize or do not trust his grace.
The Sermon on the Mount truly is radical. And, if we would just believe it, would make us a radical church!
Sometime this summer the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) will issue its ruling on two major cases involving same sex marriage. I have a couple of iron-clad, crystal clear predictions. One, immediately after the rulings are made public there will be a massive amount of coverage on how the winning side is utterly convinced that the ruling in their favor changes everything and how brilliant the justices are and about how this makes everything right. Conversely, the losing side will shrug their shoulders, mutter something about how ignorant the justices are, and about how their side is still correct, even though everyone else may disagree with them. My second iron-clad crystal clear prediction is that regardless of the SCOTUS decision, the proponents of same-sex marriage will continue to press their agenda, moving from state legislature to state legislature until same-sex marriage ultimately does become the law of the land. For what it is worth, I fully expect the SCOTUS to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act and the Proposition 8 in California that outlawed same sex marriage in that state. I see no indication from these 9 justices that they are willing (as a group) to move in a radically conservative direction. I could be wrong – we will find out sometime this summer.
And, as bizarre as this may sound, I think the SCOTUS ruling in favor of same sex marriage might be the best thing to happen for the church of Christ in a long, long time. Let me explain.
For far too long the meta-narrative of the conservative population of the United States has been that the United States is a Christian nation. Conservatives trumpet certain writings of our founding fathers that mention God, Christianity, the church, the Bible, and other fundamentally religious concepts. In this “back story” there is a very deeply held conviction that “if we can just get back to what the founding fathers intended” everything will be set right in America. The only problem with this view of history is that it is factually incorrect. For, whatever some of the founding fathers may have believed and held as their private convictions, the public, legal documents that cemented the creation of this union of states are anything but Christian. If you doubt me just read them. Underline or highlight every reference to Jesus, the church, Christianity, the Bible – or even God for that matter. You may find a reference to the Creator, but that is a far cry from a reference to the self-sacrificing God of the Old and New Testaments. The simple fact is, as I have argued earlier in this blog, the founding fathers wanted to move away from a specifically religious foundation for the government, and they achieved their purpose with amazing skill, and in so doing ultimately made it impossible for anyone to argue that this is a specifically Christian nation.
However, in drawing a parallel between the church and the government, and thinking that somehow the government held the same views as the church, something very dangerous happened to the church. Chalk it up to the “law of unintended consequences.” The church handed over to the government some of its most treasured beliefs, and along with those beliefs, the ability to enforce those beliefs. Perhaps chief among these surrendered values was the institution of marriage. When the church allowed the state to define, legitimize, and limit the act of marriage, the church surrendered every right to define, legitimize, and limit the act of marriage. And so, in a perverse sort of way, the church has no one to blame for the current debate over same sex marriage than the church itself.
Today the church has no power over who can get married – the state defines those parameters. If a couple does not want to submit to the teachings of the church they can go to a secular authority and join each other in marriage. If the laws in their state would preclude them from getting married (one of them being under age, for example) all they have to do is find a state that has lower standards. But if they were to arrive on the steps of a church building and produce their marriage license there is nothing the church can do to refute that legal standing.
This principle is even more pronounced in regard to a divorce. No couple ever has to present their case before a church in order to receive a divorce decree. Everything is handled in a court of law in the state in which the couple resides. In New Mexico a divorce petition is granted automatically – one party can protest, but outside of property issues and child custody issues, the question of a final decree is moot – the divorce will ultimately be granted unless the petitioner rescinds his or her request. In the Roman Catholic church a couple must go before the church to receive an annulment, but an annulment is different from a divorce. In an annulment a decree is issued that the marriage never occurred, not that it was made and then ended.
Why is this important, and why does the impending ruling on same sex marriage have the possibility of redefining the church?
Just this one profoundly important reason: it may allow the church to reclaim its position as a counter-cultural institution that proclaims its allegiance to Jesus as the Christ and Lord. But this can only happen if the church so desires it.
As it stands today, the church has surrendered its allegiance of Lordship to Caesar. We say that Jesus is Lord, but we bend the knee to Caesar. We allow the government to tell us what is legal, right, and acceptable. We have complacently followed the lead of Caesar because we have been laboring under the false assumption that Caesar follows Christ too. But, if that was ever true in our history, (and I have major reasons to doubt it) it certainly is not true today. Caesar as the U.S. government is the latest in a long line of anti-Christs: those who would deny that Jesus is the Christ and that He is Lord of all. Caesar is all about power – lording it over its subjects with the sword of financial or penal punishments if anyone dares challenge its authority. We should have seen it coming with the ruling in favor of abortion, but after the impending ruling on same sex marriage we will no longer be able to deny this fact.
For the church to reclaim its counter-cultural and thus its radically subversive message it must make clear that, whatever punishment is meted out, it will no longer allow Caesar to define the rules of its existence. If the church and the government are seen as one and the same, there is no opportunity for the church to make heard its radical claim of discipleship to Jesus. But, if the government reveals itself to be what it has always in fact been, then the church can stand free and proclaim the message of God with clarity and courage.
Many will view the impending decision of the SCOTUS with dread and as a statement of defeat for the church. I, on the other hand, will view the decision (assuming I am right in my prediction) with a certain amount of relief. We, as the church of Christ, can no longer labor under the false pretense that the government is just one more extension of the church. We will have to face our destiny exactly as the first century church faced theirs, with nothing to grasp but the cross and nothing in our pocket but the supreme power of the God of hosts.
And that, my friends, is exactly where we should have been all along.
(I want to express my appreciation to Tim Archer for inspiring my thoughts along these lines. He wrote a post some time ago that got me thinking about this issue, and just recently followed it up with another fine post. You can find a link to his “Kitchen of Half-Baked Thoughts” in my list of blogs I follow.)
Hearing of a church (or part of a church) having worship in a bar is nothing particularly new – especially if you follow the writings of the Emergent Church. It has been the practice for some time for those who consider themselves to be a part of the “Emergent Conversation” to apply their “missional” theology and to establish worship communities in any number of venues – disco clubs, coffee houses, and yes, bars and pubs. Such endeavors are considered “edgy,” “missional” and “relevant” in our culture today. As I said, such endeavors have been in practice for quite some time now. What is new is for a fairly conservative church to do so. And so when a congregation of the Churches of Christ decided to establish a “Bar Church” and that decision was reported by the Christian Chronicle, quite a bit of fur flew. For some it was the first they had heard of such a thing. For others it was a “ho, hum” moment and they wondered why it took so long for a Church of Christ to do so publicly.
I responded to the article in the Christian Chronicle, but I felt that the issue demanded a more in-depth response than just a brief comment. So, for better or for worse, here is my understanding of the issues involved, and why I believe such an endeavor is wrong-headed even if it is right-hearted.
To begin with, I understand the thinking behind the “missional” movement, even if that term is so elastic as to be virtually worthless (and it is). I understand that for too many people the church has been an enclave of the pious and the self-righteous and they believe that the “established church” is either dead or dying, and something needs to be done about it. I get the heart. It is the head that I think is utterly wrong here, and when the head and the heart are going in two different direction the end result cannot be pretty.
One of the greatest weaknesses I see in the “Emergent” or the “Missional” church/movement/conversation is a blurring (or abject erasure) of the distinction between the holy and the profane. To set the table we must consider some of the foundational passages of the Israelite People of God:
The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.’” (Lev. 19:1, NIV)
You must distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean, and you must teach the Israelites all the decrees the LORD has given them through Moses. (Lev. 10:10 NIV)
Her priests do violence to my law and profane my holy things; they do not distinguish between the holy and the common; they teach that there is no difference between the unclean and the clean; and they shut their eyes to the keeping of my Sabbaths, so that I am profaned among them. (Ezekiel 22:26 NIV)
I will make known my holy name among my people Israel. I will no longer let my holy name be profaned. (Ezekiel 39:7 NIV)
Those quotations should be sufficient, although they are hardly exhaustive. There is a difference between the holy and the common, between the clean and the unclean. Repeatedly and emphatically the Israelites were commanded to observe the difference, and to keep the two separate. It should come as no surprise, then, when Peter wrote in his letter to the disciples dispersed throughout the Mediterranean world:
But just as the one who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:15)
Disciples have a hard time with holiness. For one thing, it is hard to maintain any kind of level of separation from the world today, let alone any kind of separation that would fit the description of “holiness.” Second, for generations now the big knock against Christianity has been that “you all are just a bunch of self-righteous, ‘holier than thou’ hypocrites.” So, in order to avoid being called “holier than thou” we run from anything that would separate us from the world.
Except, unless I misunderstand a major, repeated theme throughout Scripture, being separate and apart from the world is exactly what a disciple is called to be.
Returning to the issue of having a “church” or “worship” service in a place where intoxicating beverages are sold for the purpose of dulling senses, if not to the point of absolute drunkenness, then certainly as close to that line as possible. What is the purpose? This is the “heart” issue that I said I get. The intent is to reach people who would not ordinarily attend a “formal” worship service, especially among a group of people who use a special kind of language and dress and act in a way that is completely foreign to the way in which the “unchurched” person lives and speaks.
But what about the “head” issue? What is being communicated when we cease to make any distinction between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean?
I find it especially meaningful that in the Leviticus 10:10 passage I quoted above the immediate context relates to drinking intoxicating beverages when the priests were to enter into the Tent of Meeting to preside at worship. I also find it noteworthy that the apostle Paul in his letter extolling the perfection of the Church as the Bride of Christ uses the term “holy” as a bookend to both begin and end his thoughts (Ephesians 1:4, 5:27). Notice as well that in the Ezekiel 22:26 passage the removal of the distinction between the holy and the profane had a direct result of the profaning of the Sabbath. If you don’t know the difference between holy and profane, then you cannot separate yourself from the one in order to worship and praise the other.
Fellow disciples of Christ – we can have the best, the purest of intentions and still be woefully ignorant of both the error and the negative consequences of our actions. In Exodus 32, Aaron proclaimed a “festival to the LORD,” but the people were worshipping a golden calf and “afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.” (v.5-6) The apostle Paul had this to say about his fellow Jews:
Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from god and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. (Romans 10:1-3 NIV)
I am all in favor of reaching the multitudes of “unchurched” individuals, and I am fully in sympathy to those who see old and decaying churches as being utterly incapable of taking the initiative of reaching those individuals. But, honestly, moving worship to a bar? There can be no distinction between the “holy and the common, between the clean and the unclean” if the Holy Spirit is confused with 90 proof Tennessee sipping spirits.
As I stated in my comments regarding this right-hearted but wrong-headed endeavor: there are a lot of descriptions which might be used of such an effort. But “biblical, “missional,” “Christian,” or “holy” cannot be among those terms used.
May God give us a heart to reach the lost. But may he bless us with wisdom in our efforts so that the line between the holy and the profane, the clean and the unclean is never breached. God does read the heart. He knows our motivations. But the manner in which we exercise those intentions cannot be so profane that they ultimately defeat the intent of our heart. We must remain pure in motive and in practice!
A bit of a warning here for those readers who are not members of the Churches of Christ, the group that is most widely recognized as the most conservative wing of the American Restoration Movement. If you are not familiar with our history or our struggles this post may sound strange, if not worse. If you care to read on I do believe that what I say, or rather ask, is beneficial for any group, any disciple of Christ. I am writing from my own experience, my own heritage. Therefore, I do feel I have a right to voice these concerns.
As a member of the Church of Christ I have felt a special blessing. I have been raised from an infant in a heritage that treasures the written Word of God and seeks to measure all matters of faith and practice by this outside measuring tool. In addition, the history of the early church is often researched to illuminate various issues and to provide guidance where the Scriptures are silent, or are at least open to more than one interpretation. This is how we have lived and worked and studied and worshipped.
This dual basis of authority is seen in virtually every aspect that makes the Churches of Christ “unique” or “different.” In the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper we see where Scripture and the history of the early church point to both the immersion of adult believers and the weekly remembrance of the last supper. In matters of worship, where specifics are not readily forthcoming, we believe that the history of the early church validates our understanding of acapella singing and an emphasis on the preached word. In church organization we believe that each congregation is autonomous and that each congregation is to be led by a plurality of male leaders, known variously as elders, bishops, or overseers. We refer to ourselves as the Church of Christ (or little “c” church of Christ for some) as we do not want to be known as a denomination, but as an identity – the church which is known as being owned by Christ. The capitalization of the “c” has caused no small amount of ink to be spilled, and I do not wish it to be a symbol of denominationalism.
I know what to do if I was to challenge or to reject any or all of these identifiers, plus a number of others. Integrity would demand that I would say, “Listen, I love my heritage but I no longer believe ‘x’ ‘y’ or ‘z’ and so I am leaving the fellowship.” But what do you do if the church leaves you? What if you are standing where you think you need to stand, and you look around and everyone is looking at you as if you just cursed your mother?
I know I spend a large part of my life confused. But that is where I am right now. I am confused. Bamboozled. Flummoxed. Gobsmacked.
Part of my confusion may be my own limited point of view. Maybe I am just not seeing the whole picture. But it appears to me that a huge number, perhaps a majority, and perhaps an overwhelming majority, of members of the Church of Christ see absolutely nothing wrong with using violence and weapons of violence, perpetuating the cycle of violence, and even demanding that others perpetuate the cycle of violence all in the name of “self-defense” and the right to own guns.
There is nothing in the Scriptures which teach this – particularly the New Testament. Jesus clearly and repeatedly renounced violence and the use of weapons of violence. The early church, as evidenced in the book of Acts, certainly did not condone using weapons of violence and did not use them. Stephen and James went to their deaths as martyrs, not casualties of war. The other apostles and early disciples were arrested, but none resisted with force. What we see from the pages of the early church historians validates this adherence to a policy of non-violence.
The modern response to this biblical and early non-biblical evidence is, “well, of course they did not resist. They were in the minority. If they had resisted they would have all been killed.”
Oh. So the nations that have been trying to exterminate the Jewish people have not been able to do so because the Jews were more numerous and had better weaponry? From the days of Mt. Sinai until today? Is that your understanding of history?
It is far easier to exterminate someone who is unarmed than someone who is well armed. At least that is the argument that is being made to promote a violent response to violence. Why then was the church able to survive and even grow when their response to violence was pacifist? The church has grown the fastest in times of persecution. So, what exactly does that do to the argument that we must use violence to protect ourselves?
This turn of hermeneutics is a fascinating method of doing theology – especially for a movement that is known for being a biblicist movement. “Avoid weapons if you are a minority and will lose, because that is what the Bible teaches, but the moment you attain majority status and have access to better weaponry it is perfectly okay to use weapons of violence because that is what the Bible teaches.” I think I lost something in the logic there.
What I see happening is this discussion/debate is ultimately a battle over power. Those who own guns and teach that we ought to use them as a response to violence believe that they are in the ultimate power position and they refuse to consider leaving it. They do not want to surrender their power. And believe me, if you have a gun and I do not, or if you have a bigger gun than I do, you are in the power position. That is what is being taught, and it apparently is being followed by a great many people.
But, and correct me if I am wrong, did not Jesus teach a reversal of the power equation? Did he not come to surrender his power? Did he not come to teach us that the only way we are going to have peace on this earth is if we learn to do things God’s way? And is the cross not the ultimate image of the reversal of power? Is not the cross the picture of the Son of God surrendering all of his Divine power in order to bring peace and salvation to a violent world?
If you arm a half-dozen men (and women) in your congregation to guard against a violent encounter, you may never have that encounter. But you will not have peace in your assembly. You will have overcome evil by means of evil. You will have overcome the use of violence by the threat of greater and more lethal violence. That, by its very nature, means the absence of peace. You may not have open conflict. But the fear that destroys peace will always be present. It will always keep peace from your assembly. And, if I understand Jesus correctly, that means you lose.
So, what I am wondering is, what do you do when your church leaves you? I still believe in defining doctrine and practice by first examining Scripture and then by confirming my conclusions by examining the history of the early church. That is what I was taught, it is what I believe, and I cannot leave that position in good conscience unless someone teaches me that I have been wrong.
Now I am being told that Jesus’ words of non-violence, that the early church’s use of non-violent resistance and the clear evidence of the first couple of centuries of church writings are all to be ignored because of the 2nd amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the overwhelming need to arm ourselves for the purpose of self-preservation.
I am experiencing a major case of spiritual whiplash here. Everything that I was taught is being rejected, and everything that I was taught to reject is being promoted.
Am I wrong here? Did I, as Bugs Bunny so famously did so long ago, take a wrong turn in Albuquerque?
Who moved? And where am I supposed to go now?
For preachers: Serve every day as if you will retire at your present congregation, and plan so that if today is your last day your ministry will flourish without you. Make your predecessor proud of you and your successor love you to death.
For congregations: Hire the best man you can find, and then give him the best financial package you can afford (even if it means “stepping out in faith”) – spoil him and his family, make sure they will never, ever want to leave your service.