I write this the day after the first of the “winnowing” elections in the 2016 presidential election cycle. The war drums from almost all of the partisan camps are beating loudly today – well, except from those who had to drop out due to non-existent support. Next up, New Hampshire. From there – it won’t end until November.
Long-time readers of this space should know I am very conservative when it comes to issues of politics and the Christian faith. Conservative, yes; but not in the manner that most expect a conservative to write. I confess a different type of conservatism, one that is more intentionally based on “conserving” the teachings and implications of the apostolic writings, as opposed to the American Revolutionary fathers.
In that vein, I must say I am deeply concerned with the current association of the ideas of “patriotism” with that of the principles of Christianity. During these heated election cycles we are lectured time and time again that it is our “patriotic” duty to go forth and cast our ballot, and that, in no uncertain terms, it is our Christian duty to do the same.
I challenge the first concept, and flatly reject the second.
First, where is it framed as any kind of law or principle that voting is equal to a patriotic act? It seems to me that the only way voting could be construed as a “patriotic” act is if the act of not voting would be actively destroying the principles upon which the country was founded. The problem is we vote for people, not principles. It seems to me that if we are forced to vote for someone who clearly is working to overturn the principles upon which this country was founded, it would be more patriotic NOT to vote. I have listened to most (albeit not all) of the candidates for president this election cycle, and I can assure you that NONE of them espouse a purely Christian viewpoint. Admittedly, some are more acceptable (from a purely secular viewpoint) than others, but what part of patriotism says I have to hold my nose and close my eyes when I pull the lever at the ballot box? I am not going to vote for someone as a “patriotic” duty, only to see the principles upon which this country was founded be trampled and trashed.
But, second, and by far the most important to me: where is it written in Scripture that it is the duty of a Christian to vote? The closest anyone can come is a mis-application of Romans 13. The only thing Paul (and Jesus!) had to say about the government was that it is the duty of a Christian to live in such a way as to not bring reproach upon the Kingdom of God. If the government forces us to pay taxes – then pay taxes we must. However, the process of casting a ballot is a freedom, a choice, and one that should only be used with the greatest care and only with Kingdom principles as the goal. To say that we have to vote for brand “X” because he/she is marginally better than brand “Y” is just foolishness – and dangerous to the extreme!
Shortly before World War II, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was asked what he would do if war broke out. He said that he would have to pray that Germany would be defeated, in order for Christianity to survive in his country. The government would view that sentiment as treason – the ultimate act of anti-patriotism. Not so! Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the ultimate patriot. He loved his country so much that he wanted it to be defeated in war – so that it could survive in peace.
That, my friends, is patriotism. So do not lecture me about how I have to go vote for someone (anyone) that I am convinced will only work to violate God’s Kingdom principles.
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.
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.
Andrew Root, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker: A Theological Vision for Discipleship and Life Together (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014)
I am a Bonhoefferophile. Happiness to me (if I cannot be fly fishing somewhere on a cold trout stream) is a big cup of Earl Grey tea, a book by or about Bonhoeffer, and a long afternoon. But, that having been said, there is nothing worse than a bad book about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Regardless of how much you like steak, there come a point that if it is cooked poorly, even a filet mignon is a wretched piece of meat. So, when I heard that a book about Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a youth worker had been published, I was immediately and deeply suspicious. Possibly no theologian has been used and abused more than Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Liberals see Bonhoeffer as the consummate liberal, conservatives see Bonhoeffer as a flag carrying conservative. I was afraid to find that Mr. Root would make Dietrich Bonhoeffer out to be the paragon of modern “pizza and praise God party” youth minister. I read some encouraging reviews, so I cautiously bought the book. The siren call of another study on Bonhoeffer was just too strong to resist.
Boy, am I glad I did.
My fears of Mr. Root transposing American youth ministry onto Bonhoeffer were dispelled on p. 3 when he wrote, “Actually, as we’ll see in the chapters below, Dietrich Bonhoeffer more than likely would have been strongly against many of the forms American youth ministry has taken since its inception.” Mr. Root is still too kind, but at least he put my mind at ease. The rest of the book served this summary well – he clearly demonstrated the vast difference between Bonhoeffer and American elitist, entitlement based youth ministry.
Root’s work is divided into 14 chapters and runs 208 pages long – so the book moves quickly. Root takes a chronological approach to studying Bonhoeffer’s work with youth, which is not the only way to study Bonhoeffer’s theology, but it works very well in this case. Root demonstrates that throughout his work with youth (which is far more extensive than most people realize), Bonhoeffer was consistent and demanding. Bonhoeffer was a theologian first and foremost and not at all concerned with the “bottom line” that defines so much American youth ministry. However, he was particularly adept at recognizing the capacity of his audience to perceive and adopt theological concepts, and so Bonhoeffer was a master at pedagogy as well as theology. Reading this book illuminates how important it is for a youth worker to be firmly grounded in theology, as well as methodology to convey that theology. (Note especially chapter 6, “Tears for Mr. Wolf: Barcelona and After”, and chapter 9, “They Killed Their Last Teacher! The Wedding Confirmation Class.”)
I am afraid that many (if not most) American youth ministers will not like this book – if they even understand what Root is saying. Most American youth ministry creates idols out of young people. “Do this, or we will lose our youth!” “Don’t do that, or say that, because our young people will not like it and they will leave!” Most critical, youth ministry in America treats theology like the plague – you can do just about anything, but for crying out loud stay away from theology. Even if you have to (horrors) talk about God, make sure he comes across as a BFF, so that you will not scare the poor little darlings.
Bonhoeffer, as Root so powerfully and eloquently demonstrates, viewed young people as individuals who were both capable and responsible for learning about the great and deep things of God. And Bonhoeffer viewed youth ministry as a critical part of the entire congregation – Bonhoeffer never wavered from his insistence that the church, and especially the congregation, was the center of the world for the Christian. I think Bonhoeffer would be aghast at the way our youth ministries pull young people away from the church – we actually destroy the community of the saints by isolating one of its most critical components.
Root demonstrates beyond question that for Bonhoeffer, theology had to be the center for youth ministry. How he managed to accomplish what he did is another story – certainly not everyone is going to be as gifted as Bonhoeffer in working with youth. But, if you love young people, if you are concerned about the young people in your church, and especially if you are currently involved in ministering to young people, this is one book you need to buy, read, and most important, fit into your ministry.
Just do not expect to find a 21st century youth minister in Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was not, and for that we should all be very grateful.
Mystics are not popular people. Mystics get arrested, shot, hanged, burned at the stake, crucified. Oh, there are mystics who say popular things from time to time, and occasionally you will find a group of people who popularize the teachings of a mystic, but with very few exceptions mystics are just not very popular. Mystics see things that the overwhelming majority of people cannot see, and for that reason they are considered dangerous. Dangerous people must be removed, so that the rest of us can be comfortable.
Jesus was a mystic. The apostles Paul and John were mystics. Peter was a clumsy mystic, but he was a mystic. Isaiah and Jeremiah and Daniel and Ezekiel preceded them in a long line of Divinely appointed mysticism. These were not mystics because they retreated to the desert and slept in caves and ate exotic bugs. No, Jesus and Paul and Isaiah were mystics because they were able to see with the eyes of God.
Mystics do not see what is not there. Mystics do not call people to a life that cannot be lived. Jesus was a mystic not because he was obscure and bizarre and said incomprehensible things. Paul was not a mystic because he was blind for three days and then went into the Arabian desert. Isaiah and Jesus and Peter and Paul all saw the kingdom of God with a clarity that eludes those who think that mystics are weird people that sane people should stay away from.
Jesus said, “Blessed are you when you are persecuted” and “The last shall be first” and “The kingdom of God is among you.” Paul said, “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live” and “When I am weak, then I am strong.” John saw the heavens open and the new city of God descend upon the new earth. These are mystical sayings and events, but they are not delusional. Mystics say that the lion shall lie down with the lamb and the child shall play over the den of the viper not because these things are false, but because they are of a truth that only mystics can see. True reality is much more real that what most humans accept for reality. That which confronts us daily is not reality, it is a mirage of the devil’s making. We surrendered reality in the garden. The mystics see reality. Realists see only a distant shadow of that reality.
Mystics call for mankind to lay down the weapons of war. Realists say that is impossible, because realists cannot see peace, nor do they really want to see peace. They want to see war, because war is raw and passionate and “real.” Mystics do not see any division between races and nations. Realists want to keep nations and the human races separate, because separating the races creates animosity, and animosity will ultimately create war. Mystics call for equality, and that is something that realists simply cannot accept. Equality would lead to peace, and that is simply too high a price for realists to pay.
Mystics are some of my favorite people. Even when people cannot be fully described as mystic, there are times when the heavens open for them and they catch a glimpse of the real, and for that crystalline moment they are transformed into mystics. I think Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a mystic, although as with most mystics, I think he has been greatly misunderstood. I think Barton W. Stone had moments that bordered on mystical. I think David Lipscomb was the same way. They looked beyond the concrete and they saw the real – the kingdom as it will be, not what mankind has turned it into.
Fact is, I would rather be called a mystic than a realist. I don’t want to see the world the way it is. I want to see the world become what it should be. I want the Kingdom be among us. I want to see the lion and lamb gambol together. I want to swim with Great White sharks and not fear the teeth.
“The greatest insanity of all is to see the world as it is, and not as it should be.” – from Man of La Mancha, based on the book Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
I just discovered that one of my recent professors, Dr. Glen H. Stassen, passed away today. Dr. Stassen was the Lewis B. Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA. This is extremely difficult news to hear. I only knew Dr. Stassen through a couple of phone calls and his comments on my course work, but even those all-too-brief encounters with Dr. Stassen were life changing.
I was assigned to Dr. Stassen as my professor of record in a guided study on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I had visions that the course would be fairly easy – it was a topic of my own choosing and I knew nothing of Dr. Stassen. I guess I found out how serious a scholar and theologian Dr. Stassen was when he sent back some comments on my suggestions for my course work. He agreed with my list of books (although he had some comments) and he had a slight alteration on the book reviews I suggested. I suggested a page to a page and a half, double spaced. He said three pages. Single spaced. Oops – this was not going where I wanted it to go.
Well, I did the three pages, single spaced book reviews, and also some reviews of lectures that I heard on Bonhoeffer in Chicago, and a comprehensive paper comparing Bonhoeffer’s theology to that of the Restoration Movement, particularly Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone. It was over 90 pages of work. I really had no idea how Dr. Stassen would respond. I waited in equal parts terror and despair.
When I received my work back I was blown away. I was pleased that Dr. Stassen liked my submission, but what astounded me was the detail with which he responded to my work. He commented on all of my book reviews. He commented on my lecture reviews. He made extensive comments on my paper. He critiqued, he corrected my grammar, he added insights, he challenged, and when appropriate, he agreed with me.
Dr. Stassen was an accomplished author and leader in the realm of Christian ethics. I have a couple of his books, and now I am challenged to add to this collection. His epic Kingdom Ethics (co-written with David Gushee) is a masterpiece in the genre. His A Thicker Jesus is thought provoking and life changing.
I will remember Dr. Stassen for many things. He was an accomplished scholar in Bonhoeffer studies. He was a leader in proposing new steps in Christian ethics. His scholarship cannot be questioned. He demanded his students to perform at a high level, and he rewarded that high level of work. But, most of how I will remember Dr. Stassen is what a wonderful gentleman he was. He was so kind. The couple of phone conversations I had with him will be treasures in my memory. I will also treasure his written comments on my papers until I am no longer around.
Dr. Stassen’s death is a huge loss to the Bonhoeffer studies community, those who work in the realm of Christian ethics, and especially hard hit will be the Fuller Theological Seminary community. I was profoundly lucky to have had the opportunity to work with Dr. Stassen. One of the things that I was looking forward to in finishing my Doctor of Ministry program at Fuller was the chance I was going to have to meet Dr. Stassen in person. Now that opportunity is no longer a reality, but in a very small way I did get to meet Dr. Stassen, and I hope that as I finish my dissertation I will remember what he taught me and that I will create a final product that would have met with his approval.
Every year one of the more viewed posts on this site is a recommendation for a daily Bible reading schedule. I think most people are looking for a .pdf they can download or print out, and if that is what they are looking for, they will be disappointed when they arrive here. In past years I have discussed one of my favorite schedules of daily Bible reading, and this year I want to discuss another. However, this time it will cost you just a little bit of money.
The method, or schedule, that I want to discuss this year is one that is published by the Moravian Brethren and can be ordered through their website, www.moravian.org. There are several different editions to choose from, from a plain little book with the daily texts and prayer printed out, to my favorite edition, a spiral bound journal that has the texts, the prayer, and a short space at the bottom for reflections or journaling.
I was initially introduced to the Moravian reading schedule through the works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He used these readings for his daily Bible study, and frequently published the Scripture readings for his students and seminarians to read and meditate upon. I was curious, and with a little bit of research was able to find the website and ordered my first copy about four years ago. Since that time I have used them, either in part or completely, for my devotional reading and I have found I truly enjoy the Moravian schedule.
A brief word of explanation – the daily Bible readings from Monday through Saturday are divided into three sections: a Psalm, an Old Testament reading and a New Testament reading. (The Sunday readings will be discussed below). The readings are scheduled so that the entire Bible is read through once every two years. This is quite a change for me, as previously the least that I was reading through my Bible was twice in one year (see my reading schedules for 2012 and 2013). The slower pace means that the passages being read are much smaller, and that allows for more time to meditate and absorb the content of the reading. The selection of a Psalm, an O.T. reading and N.T. reading also allows the reader to have some diversity – some familiarity along with some unfamiliarity, as well as forcing the reader to work through the entire text of the Bible, albeit more slowly.
Any and every Bible reading schedule is created by man, and as such is going to have weaknesses and foibles. There is no “perfect” Bible reading schedule – the best one is the one that works the best for you, whether it is to read a verse, a chapter, or an entire book every day. As much as I like the Moravian reading schedule I am just a little disenchanted with some of the breaks in the readings. I feel like some readings need to go another few verses, or perhaps end a few verses earlier. Particularly in the Psalms I note that some are divided in strange places, or a Psalm that could be easily read in one sitting is divided into two parts. However, this can be seen as necessary in terms of dividing the 150 Psalms into two years worth of readings. So I simply read the Psalm more than once (all the way through on successive days) or if I note a problematic division in the reading I simply read ahead a few verses, or stop a few verses short of the printed schedule and make an appropriate note on the next day’s reading schedule. Honestly – if you cannot figure this out on your own maybe you should not be reading the Bible on your own anyway.
Each Sunday the readings come from the Revised Common Lectionary, and for those of you who do not know what the lectionary is, it is a collection of readings that allow for most of the Bible to be read through (although not anywhere close to sequentially) in a three year period. Each Sunday there is a reading from the Psalms, the Old Testament, a gospel, and a reading from a New Testament letter or the books of Acts or Revelation. For most of the year there is a common theme, either obvious or somewhat more disguised, found in each of the four readings. On some occasions there is no related them or connection between the readings at all.
The Moravian reading schedule also contains readings for “high” church days, such as feast and fast days, and for days that have special meaning to the Moravian church. You can read or omit these selections according to your personal preference.
I had originally intended to write this post about a month ago so readers who wanted to could order their copy and have it available by January 1, 2014. Perhaps that is still possible even at this late date, but even if your copy does not arrive until after the new year, you can still benefit greatly from this reading schedule. 2014 begins the reading cycle again, so we will begin reading with Genesis 1, Psalm 1 and Matthew 1.
Blessings on your daily Bible reading in 2014.
After a brief (although, in my mind, necessary) detour, I would now like to return to the series of posts I have been writing about my perspective on the current situation the the Churches of Christ find themselves in, and what I believe would be a biblical response.
In this entry I would like to discuss the relationship the Churches of Christ have had, and currently do have, with other churches in the Christian tradition.
To begin with, this subject has been a complicated one from the earliest days of the American Restoration Movement. The two men most frequently named as “founders” or “leaders” of the Churches of Christ (Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone) both believed with no hesitation that there were Christians within every denomination that existed in the early 1800s. It would have been simply unfathomable to these men to try to defend the statement that the church had “disappeared” from the face of the earth. The very point of their “restoration” movement was to call Christians who were in the denominations to leave those institutions, not because there was no way they could be Christian, but because these institutions demanded that the person be something else in addition to being a Christian. In order to be a Presbyterian (as both Campbell and Stone were) you had to subscribe to the rules of the Presbyterian church. Likewise the Methodist church, the Lutheran church, the Anglican or Episcopal church, and the Roman Catholic Church. In the early 1800s these denominations exercised far more “boundary discipline” than is exercised today, so it is hard for some people to understand the religious landscape to which Campbell and Stone were writing. The point that I want to make here is that neither Campbell nor Stone thought they were creating or re-creating anything. They believed in “restoring” the church, but that simply meant removing all the barnacles that had attached themselves to the hull of the great sailing ship “church.” In both of these gentlemen’s minds, if a person was to return to the teachings of the New Testament and New Testament alone, the resulting community, or “church” would be the pure New Testament church.
In my own very personal and, at least in my mind, educated opinion, the weaknesses of such “pure” restorationist thinking has been adequately revealed. There were some historical and philosophical realities the Campbell and Stone either were unaware of or chose to ignore. Thus, the movement that they helped spawn has had more than its fair share of divisions and brutal intramural fights. We have certainly not lived up the the concept of uniting on the essentials and having charity in the matters of opinion. But this basic beginning point of Campbell and Stone must be understood for the Church of Christ to move forward.
Explained in the most simple way I know how, the Churches of Christ have moved through three stages in dealing with the denominational churches.
The first stage has been noted above. It is the stage of engagement. Both Campbell and Stone sought to engage the denominations with a simple plea – return to a point of time in history when there were no denominations. Hence the term “non-denominationalism” was born. Campbell and Stone saw that, for all the unity with the various denominations, what divided them was not the New Testament (nor, for that matter, the Old Testament), but the later creeds and, more specifically, the Confessions of Faith that each denomination held as a barrier between them and the rest of the Christian world. The original message of the earliest restorers was to simply remove those Confessions of Faith as tools of division. In order to communicate this message the early restorers engaged the leaders of the denominational world. They went congregation to congregation and house to house explaining their plea. And, by any reasonable measure, they succeeded wildly. Entire congregations severed their denominational ties and joined the “Stone/Campbell” movement to unite all Christians.
However, disciples of prophets very rarely follow closely in their leader’s footsteps. And so another
group of leaders emerged that believed if a person should leave a denomination, that meant he or she could not be a Christian if he or she was a member of that denomination. So, even during the lifetime of Stone and Campbell the second phase of the relationship between the Churches of Christ and the denominational world developed, and that was the phase of debate. Now, to be sure, Campbell was a master at the skill of debate. But his debates were never to destroy the enemy, they were designed to convince the doubting. This was not enough for this emerging set of firebrands. They believed the gains made by Campbell and Stone were impressive, but that they were not enough, and those gains had to be defended at all costs. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the non-denominational plea espoused by Stone and Campbell was turned into call to enter into another denomination, the “Church of Christ.” A person could not be a Christian unless he or she adhered to each and every demand that a particular preacher, elder or editor saw was critical – whether it was baptism “for the forgiveness of sins,” the use of titles for ministers, paying ministers, using an instrument of music in worship, not partaking of the Lord’s Supper each and every Lord’s Day, having separate Bible classes for children, using women to teach Bible classes, supporting non-congregational “institutions,” and the list could go on and on. Each and every one of these topics became the fodder for debates, and for several generations a preacher’s skill was measured not by his spirituality or ministerial ability, but by how well he did in “debating the denominations.” Being labeled “soft on the sects” was enough to destroy many a good preacher’s reputation.
This then led to the third phase of relations between the Churches of Christ and their Christian neighbors, and that is our current situation. Many, although by no means most, of the members of the Church of Christ want to continue this position of ridicule/demean/hate the denominations. They have moved from being “non-denominational” to being “anti-denominational” in the worst possible sense of the word. They use words that are clearly not appropriate for a disciple of Christ to use in dialogue with someone of another belief. Quite frankly, they demonstrate a very unChristian attitude. However, on the other end of the spectrum there is a group that still wants to be identified as members of the Church of Christ but they have begun to embrace the main beliefs of the denominational world in an absolutely uncritical way. They hate all right, but they hate the Church of Christ. They ridicule the founders of the Restoration Movement every chance they get. They refuse to accept that anything positive has come from the heritage of the Restoration movement over the past 200+ years. They apologize for every perceived fault, and cannot wait to make fun of those who still believe in the premise of non-denominational Christianity. But, they stoically remain as ministers, elders and editors of “Churches of Christ” so that they can obtain some kind of martyr status by being criticized for their adolescent rejection of their spiritual father’s beliefs.
I have elsewhere stated that I am a staunch believer in the American Restoration Movement. I am a child of this movement, and, while I have been made aware of some of the presuppositional faults in the thinking of Stone and Campbell, I am never-the-less in awe of their spiritual foresight. They truly were prophets who could see 200 years into the future. Much of what the modern world is experiencing in the “Emerging Church” movement was pre-saged by Stone and Campbell. It is astounding for me to read of modern authors calling for a return to “apostolic Christianity” as if it were a novel idea, and Campbell and Stone were promoting that idea back in the early 1800’s. Just goes to prove the author of Ecclesiastes was correct – there is truly nothing new under the sun. But I digress.
While I am a child of the American Restoration Movement, I would like for the Churches of Christ to return to the ideal promoted by Stone and Campbell, and that was the process of engagement. I want to see us be able to engage the denominational world, but at the same time be secure enough in our own convictions that we do not embrace the denominational world. I hope it goes without saying that I reject the ridicule/hate position uncategorically.
As I close I want to make two final comments – to which I will return in depth in my final post in this series. One, we cannot honestly engage other faith traditions if we do not have a healthy understanding and appreciation of who we are. This is where I have such a deep seated distrust of and dislike of certain “leading ministers” in the Churches of Christ today who have virtually thrown the Restoration Plea under the bus. We cannot sit down at the table to have a dialogue with other faith traditions if we pathologically hate our own. To have a conversation in which we agree wholeheartedly with everyone around is is not a dialogue, it is a multi-person monologue.
But conversely, we cannot engage other faith traditions if we do not have a healthy understanding and appreciation of who they are. Truth, I have come to understand, does not reside only in one church building. I have been deeply touched and formed by a Lutheran (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, my favorite theologian), an Anglican (C.S. Lewis, although I’m quite sure he would not be an Anglican today), several Roman Catholics (Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, several others), a Baptist (Glen Stassen) and a number of others, some of which I know their traditions (Anabaptist, Mennonite, United Church of Christ) and some of which I do not. I can only come to the table to begin a dialogue with them if I first understand who they are and what they believe, and not to belittle or ridicule that faith, but to learn from it and grow from it. Just as I would hope they would come to hear me, and to learn from me and to grow from me.
So, my question is do we engage, debate, hate or embrace? In my most humble, but undeniably correct opinion (since, after all, this is MY blog), we have participated in the middle two for far too long and the last is just pure kissy face narcissism. Let us return to the process of engagement. And it is to that goal that I will direct my concluding thoughts.
“Chocolate Cake for Breakfast”
Anyone familiar with the comedian Bill Cosby has surely heard this story. His wife leaves him in charge of the children for a few days and the first crisis he meets is what to feed the kids for breakfast. They clamor for chocolate cake. He refuses. He is thinking in terms of healthy foods like eggs and milk. They beg, wheedle, demand and otherwise make it obvious they want chocolate cake. He still refuses, but something happens. He reviews the ingredients that comprise the chocolate cake. Eggs. Milk. Wheat. Healthy stuff. The kids get chocolate cake for breakfast.
The Churches of Christ in the United States over the past 200 years or so have been anything other than monolithic. The only thing that members of Churches of Christ universally agree on is that we cannot agree universally on anything. Well, almost anything. There is probably someone out there who even disagrees with what I just wrote. So, with that caveat clearly understood, what I have to share in this series of articles is purely my own observations and reflections. I speak for no one but myself unless a person so desires to publicly agree with me.
It might be argued that in its deepest psyche the Churches of Christ in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries have been bi-polar. I believe this position could be sustained by the careful examination of two of the brightest lights in the formation of the group that now bears the name, “Church of Christ” – Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell. While similar in certain respects, these men held vastly different views of human nature and the nature of the restoration to which they were committed.
Briefly summarized, Barton Stone was a deeply spiritual man who was convinced that the Holy Spirit was active in the early years of the 19th century to lead the church back to a pure form of worship. He was distrustful of human nature, and especially human government, and believed that while God would ultimately make things right, humans had very little or no power to do so. What humans could do was to follow the leading of the Spirit and submit completely to the will of God, particularly as revealed in the New Testament. Alexander Campbell was equally as spiritual as Barton Stone, but in many ways was the reverse image of Stone. Just as convinced in the power of the human being as Stone was distrustful, Campbell believed that humans could, and in fact were in the very process of, ushering in the millennial reign of Jesus on earth. Where the two agreed was in the normative power of the New Testament to guide the “restoration” of the church to a pure, apostolic form. Thus the two agreed to merge their fledgling movements under one broad canopy, but philosophically the two were nowhere close to being united.
Barton Stone’s “DNA” was carried down through the middle and late years of the 19th and into the 20th centuries by men such as Tolbert Fanning and David Lipscomb. In their writings we see this distrust, even blatant rejection, of human political structures and a greater reliance upon the Holy Spirit. While not exactly premillennial in outlook, their spirituality has been described as being “apocalyptic,” and that word accurately communicates what they believed and taught. As much as they looked back to the time of the apostolic church, they looked forward to the kingdom of God being made manifest on earth, and they knew that humans had no control over that event occurring. It would occur when, and how, God wanted it to.
It is extraordinarily difficult to remain apocalyptic in outlook when everything in the world seems to be proving that mankind does have the ability, and perhaps even the responsibility, to make things perfect on earth. So, little by little the influence of Stone, Fanning and Lipscomb disappeared from the ethos of the Churches of Christ. The first World War almost eliminated this counter-culture viewpoint. By the time the Japanese had crippled the American navy at Pearl Harbor the thought of remaining critical of, and aloof from, the American flag and “the republic for which it stands” was simply unthinkable. Except in small and isolated situations the Churches of Christ made the leap to equating faithfulness with patriotism, and the twain have never since been sundered. So, today a pacifist would not only be viewed as being “unAmerican,” he or she would be viewed as “unchristian.” Pleas for responsible gun control efforts are most vehemently rejected by ministers of the Churches of Christ who point, not to Scripture, but to the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution, for their support. Prayers for the members of American military forces are routinely offered during worship services, but any mention of the civilian victims of American military actions are never confessed, repented of, or even mentioned. The one area where church and state are most certainly NOT separated is in the auditoriums of many Churches of Christ, where God, church and country are fused into one uniform entity.
Which, after over 900 words, brings me to the main point of this first reflection – (and to admittedly sweep with too large a brush) I suggest that a large majority of members of the Churches of Christ are far too wedded to the prince of this world than they are the slaughtered Lamb of God. And, if I am correct, within the next three years this incestuous marriage will have profound and irreversible implications for the future of the church.
The presidency of Barak Obama has pushed the United States past a tipping point. Never before has a president been able to achieve the legislative and moral changes as has President Obama. From sweeping judicial changes, to the passage and implementation of a radical new health care mandate, to the unparalleled changes in the moral distinction of homosexual behavior, this president has indeed accomplished his goal of transforming America. If I am not mistaken, this surge past America’s previous conservative worldview will only accelerate after the presidential elections in 2016. As I view the political landscape the only thing that will prevent Hillary Clinton from becoming the first female president of the United States is if she declines to run, or if she should die before being elected. There are several solid reasons for my conclusion. The primary one is that President Obama has turned the citizens of the United States into wards of the state. Everyone is now dependent upon the government to a greater or lesser degree. Our national debt is exploding, but no one wants to surrender his or her entitlements. No true conservative, one who openly suggests that our government is out of control and must be scaled back, has much of a chance to defeat a progressive who will suggest that, far from being too intrusive, the government needs to take a greater role in directing the lives of its citizens. Simply stated, America’s narcissism virtually guarantees the victory of the nominee of the Democratic party in 2016, especially if that nominee is Hillary Clinton. I do not foresee any realistic chance of a conservative winning the election even if another Democrat should become the nominee.
Which, then, brings me back to my main point – because the majority of members of the Churches of Christ have not only been complacent as this political and moral metamorphosis has taken place, but have actually aided and abetted it with their defense of and subjection to the Constitution of the United States, a radical change is going to have to occur in the hearts and minds of these members of the Church if the Church is going to survive in any meaningful way deep into the 21st century.
In other words, we are going to have to reject the Campbellian (and utopian) view that mankind is smart enough and spiritual enough to direct its own footsteps. We are going to have to return to the Spirit led, overtly counter-cultural and biblically apocalyptic world view of Barton Stone, Tolbert Fanning, and David Lipscomb.
The New Testament begins with a radical sermon – one that calls upon its hearers to reject man-made philosophies and to accept whole-heartedly the vision and Spirit of the God who created this world. The New Testament ends with the most majestic description of this counter-cultural kingdom – a kingdom in which the godless powers of worldly governments are cast like large stones into the abyss. In between the sermon and the vision are the words of God revealed through the power of the Spirit, and not one single word teaches or even suggests that the way in which the final Kingdom of God will be revealed is through the power of a human government. While citizens of this kingdom must temporarily live in subjection to the laws of a human government, the worship of the citizens of the Kingdom of God must never be divided.
Either we worship God, or we worship the political powers of this world. There simply is no other choice.
In one respect I fear for the future of the Church of Christ. I fear because we are too American, too incestuously married to the spirit of this world. We depend more upon the Constitution of the United States than we do the inspired word of the eternal God. We allow politicians, comedians and common men and women to mock and despise the teachings of the Bible, and yet when our “rights” or “entitlements” are even remotely threatened we become apoplectic. Some members of the Churches of Christ have more of the Bill of Rights memorized than they do the Sermon on the Mount. And that, my friends, is truly pathetic.
On the other hand, my faith is not in the Church of Christ, but in the God who created this world and who established the church of Christ for a dwelling place for his faithful people. The church of Christ will survive, even if the Church of Christ should one day disappear.
I am an unabashed and proud member of the Restoration Movement in general and the Church of Christ in particular. I believe deeply in her goals and aspirations. I am firmly committed to the precepts and objectives of men such as Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell. I am also well aware of their failings and short-sighted goals, even the well-intentioned ones. I am aware that they were human, lived and breathed the hubris of the time in which they lived, and that as any human being, they made mistakes in what they taught. I also believe they were brilliant men whose vision far exceeded the time in which they lived. Those of us today who love and respect their work are truly standing on the shoulders of giants – and I will never, not for one moment, surrender that heritage.
But as a child of God and an heir of the Kingdom of Heaven I must also be aware of the fact that any human association can fall from its pure intentions. So, while I am deeply committed to the Church of Christ (capital letter C), I am first and foremost a member of and committed to the church of Christ (little letter c, meaning that assembly devoted to Christ whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life). Some say the two are identical. I cannot – for the very reasons that I have articulated. Far too many members of the Church of Christ have surrendered to the beast and proudly wear the number of its name. They want to walk, and talk, and do business with the beast while demonstrating the semblance of submission to the Lamb. While here on earth it is impossible to fully recognize those charlatans, but I rest in full assurance that God knows who is His and who is not. That will be made clear at the last judgment.
In other words, I just want to be a disciple of Christ. I do not want the additives that turn the Church into something that it never was intended to be. I certainly do not want to be a part of a religious institution that is simply a front for, and defender of, a godless and corrupt government. I want to be lead by the vision of the Kingdom of God as described by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and in the Revelation to John. While respecting my heritage and its respect for the past, I want to be pulled forward by the biblical vision of the Bride of Christ. As I have previously written, you cannot fly an airplane by looking in a rear-veiw mirror.
A juvenile world wants chocolate cake for breakfast, lunch and supper. Our government says, “Look at all this wonderful cake – full of sweetness and covered with all this luscious icing.” The Church must recover its apocalyptic voice and renew its strength to be able to say, “No. We will not be fooled. Politics is the play toy of the damned. We are children of the King. We will serve our God and worship Him only.”
Church, it is time to grow up. And if that means we must leave the chocolate cake on the table and be viewed as unpatriotic traitors, then so be it.
“I lift my eyes to the hills – from where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth.” Psalm 121:1
Sources: I rely on many fine works related to the history of the Restoration Movement, and the Churches of Christ specifically. Of particular interest in regard to this subject are: David Edwin Harrell, Quest for a Christian America and Sources of Division in the Disciples of Christ 1865-1900; Richard T. Hughes, Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of the Churches of Christ in America and Reclaiming a Heritage: Reflections on the Heart, Soul and Future of Churches of Christ; C. Leonard Allen, Richard T. Hughes and Michael R. Weed, The Worldly Church: A Call for Biblical Renewal; and Richard T. Hughes and C. Leonard Allen, Illusions of Innocence: Protestant Primitivism in America, 1630-1875. Beyond my love for Churches of Christ, I have been deeply touched and challenged by the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, these writings are simply too immense to list individually. His complete works are published by Fortress Press and can be found in the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works series, 16 volumes which includes all of his major writings, letters, sermons and theological reflections. In addition to Bonhoeffer’s original works, there are numerous secondary works of significant value. Chief among them would be Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Society; and Keith L. Johnson and Timothy Larsen, eds. Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture; and a book I am currently reading, Mark Thiessen Nation, Anthony G. Siegrist, and Daniel P. Umbel, Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking.
If you listen to the pure theorists times could not be better for American education. Young people are learning more, are learning faster, and are entering the work place more prepared than at any other time in American history. They would point to the fact that many high school students are provided with the opportunity to earn college credit during high school. Many students enter college as second semester freshmen, or perhaps even at a sophomore level. Some states even allow high school graduates to earn both a high school diploma and an Associate degree from a nearby college. In the world of these theorists, everything has a distinctly rosy tint.
If you walk a mile in my moccasins, or talk to some of the fellow university instructors that I know, you would get the exact opposite reaction. College freshmen may come more highly credentialed than ever, but they also come with a corresponding inability to produce freshman level college work. Many cannot construct a coherent English sentence; do not even think about making them construct an entire coherent paragraph. Many do not know the difference between a noun, a verb, and a participle. They cannot spell. These students have been propped up and puffed up their entire educational career, and they expect that college and university instructors will continue the pattern of praise and adulation. Sadly, many do. It is difficult to tell a young man or young woman who is academically in their second, third or even fourth year of college that they are not even writing at a 12th grade level.
And, believe me – with the advent of on-line “miseducation” and the proliferation of on-line college degrees the level of incompetence in high school and even college graduates is simply going to explode.
What does this have to do with a blog on theology? Much, and I’m glad you asked.
Once upon a time (and it really was not that long ago), sermons and Bible classes were exercises in serious exegesis and discovery. Texts were painstakingly worked through. Forty-five minute sermons or lessons were the norm, not the exception. It was expected, even demanded, that the audience was capable of following lengthy, carefully constructed arguments, including an occasions side-track or two.
But then the technology revolution hit – especially television. The medium of television itself is not evil, but television producers, writers, actors and cameramen all needed to be paid, so along with television shows came television commercials. That meant that an hour long show was broken up into a number of smaller segments, demarcated with a couple of minutes of commercials. The attention span of the average American dropped.
Then, almost imperceptibly, hour-long shows became 30 minute shows – still broken up into shorter and shorter segments. The American attention span grew even shorter.
Today there is not only TV, but a myriad of other electronic media that demands our attention – computers and tablets and phones and digital music storage devices. We as Americans get bored faster and in spite of more stimulation than any other culture before us. And that head-long rush into lethargy is carried right over into our worship experiences.
It is no surprise to me that the very same generation that invented the “X Games,” a collection of high risk, extreme sporting events, is now demanding the same type of experiential high from their worship services. Apparently it is no longer enough to raise your voice in song; now there has to be ear- splitting, roof-rattling music and mind-bending special effects. Even in the more “sedate” religious groups the simple projection of words on a screen is no longer considered acceptable. No – now there must be multiple images as well as the introduction of other sensory stimuli in order to raise the level of spirituality in the increasingly more passive and yet technologically demanding audience.
Parallel with this movement toward a more “experiential” worship service there is a marked decline in the acceptance of a rigorous hermeneutic that demands a careful and extended study of the text of Scripture. Sermons must be 20 minutes (or less) and should be directed to today’s “felt needs” or in some other way “relevant” to our immediate culture. Long gone are the days in which the church was expected to shape culture – now the church must bend and twist and morph itself in order to comply with the demands of an ever-changing culture that also happens to be diametrically opposed to the message and mission of the church of Christ.
And, as technology becomes a mainstay even with pre-schoolers, I do not see any change in this intellectual/spiritual collapse any time soon.
When he was just a teenager, Dietrich Bonhoeffer had virtually every option open to him in regards to his life’s work. He was intelligent enough, and had the connections, to become a scientist, a legal scholar, or follow in his father’s footsteps in the field of medicine. He was talented enough musically to have become a professional musician. Instead, he shocked (and disappointed) his family when he announced that he would become a theologian. According to his friend Eberhard Bethge, his family tried to tell him that the church was a “… poor, feeble, boring, petty and bourgeois institution.” Bonhoeffer was undeterred. “In that case I shall reform it” he smugly responded. (Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, p. 36)
The amazing thing is, he did! With the exception of his friend and mentor Karl Barth, no early 20th century theologian has had as deep and as lasting effect on the church as Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But he did not reform it by adding praise bands, or praise teams, or glorified visual presentations, or by adding bells or incense. Bonhoeffer reformed the church, and his writings continue to exert his influence, by a serious, deep and sustained return to the foundations of discipleship: prayer, Bible study, meditation, confession and Christian service.
Basic spiritual disciplines – what a concept!
May God raise up another Dietrich Bonhoeffer for this generation. Or, maybe 100.
The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer edited and introduced by Isabel Best (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 210 pages.
There are so many ways to introduce this review…
I have spent many years as a pulpit minister. I have preached hundreds, perhaps thousands, of sermons. I have three degrees in ministry/theology and am working on a fourth. Suffice it to say I love the church, theology, preaching and ministry. And when I come across books on preaching like this one I realize just how much of a failure I have been in serving in these various ministries. I have often said that I am just an apprentice in the field of ministry, but there are times I do not even feel qualified to say I am an apprentice. Sitting at the feet of Bonhoeffer is just one of those times.
I have 15 out of the 16 volume set of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English (to the best of my knowledge, vol. 14 is still forthcoming at this date). I have both Eberhard Bethge’s and Eric Metaxas’ biographies of Bonhoeffer. I have numerous other volumes about Bonhoeffer. Needless to say I know his story, if not well, then at least better than most. I was genuinely excited to get word that this volume had been printed, and I bought it at the first chance that I had.
My review in a nutshell – if you love preaching, or if you are interested in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or both, then you need to buy this book!
Many writings by Bonhoeffer are difficult for the modern reader to understand. For one reason, Bonhoeffer was writing in a different historical, theological and philosophical realm than what we are living in today. Classic liberalism (which Bonhoeffer was writing to largely reject) was in the flower of its youth. Even though the world had just experienced World War I, there was still the idea lurking that it was the “war to end all wars.” The evils of Adolf Hitler were still to be unleashed as Bonhoeffer penned and delivered most of these sermons. Technologically the world was still a toddler compared to our current day. The atom had not yet been split (although physicists on both sides of the Atlantic were getting closer by the day) and so many things that we take for granted were not even on the drawing boards.
Two, unless you know how to read German (and theological German at that), you are forced to read Bonhoeffer in translation. That is where I am. That limits your understanding to the quality of the translator and the overall translation. Any literary work suffers in translation. Bonhoeffer’s complex and very intricate arguments are no exception.
However, (and getting back to the point of this review), Bonhoeffer’s sermons are very different. Whereas Bonhoeffer’s early theological writings can almost be opaque, his sermons shine with a clarity that is remarkable. You can see Bonhoeffer’s theology through and through his sermons, but he wrote and delivered them with the common person in mind. He wrote them to be challenging, to be sure. But he wrote and delivered them to be effective, and the spoken word cannot be effective if it is not understood. Bonhoeffer’s sermons in his collection are brilliant examples of how to make the complex understandable. Take the following as an example:
One cannot understand and preach the gospel concretely enough. A real evangelical sermon must be like holding a pretty red apple in front of a child or a glass of cool water in front of a thirsty person and then asking: do you want it? We should be able to talk about matters of our faith in such a way that the hands reach out for it faster than we can fill them. (p. 34).
It is impossible for me to identify my “favorite” among these sermons, but if I absolutely had to pick one, it would be the sermon on Gideon, delivered on Feb. 26, 1933 (p. 67-74). Quite honestly, I do not think that I have read or heard a finer sermon in my whole life.
One word about style. Many people are so used to the “three points and a poem” type of preaching that nothing else fits the bill. That person would be terribly disappointed in this collection. Bonhoeffer did not preach topically, and he hated reducing the gospel to mere moralization. In these sermons Bonhoeffer simply took a single text (often based on the church calendar that the Lutheran church followed) and preached it – he made the text come alive. When you understand the political events that were taking place as Bonhoeffer delivered these sermons you realize just how courageous he was. As Isabel Best notes in her introduction, Bonhoeffer did not preach overtly political sermons, and yet he spoke to the political situation of his day in virtually every sermon that he preached. But he let the text do the convicting – he simply “explicated” the text so that the message of the text could come through. His technique was brilliant, and yet if you heard one of these sermons delivered in their original setting I doubt you would have notice “technique” at all. You simply would have heard the word of God.
Someone who knows me and my theology well might be surprised that I am able to write such glowing reviews about Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor educated in the thick of German Classical Liberalism. My response is this: the gospel is not denominational. When Bonhoeffer preached the text there is simply no finer explication and application of God’s word. I am not so naive as to suggest that every word in these sermons is absolute truth. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran, and when he gets closer to Luther than he does Jesus it is obvious. He preached salvation by faith only – something that neither Jesus nor Paul preached, but something that Luther did. So be it – I am smart enough to sift the wheat from the chaff. It is just that (in my most humble and otherwise brilliant opinion) there is very, very little chaff in these sermons.
Another positive note about this collection in particular. There is a brief introduction to the entire collection, and each individual sermon receives a brief historical note. Isabel Best is highly qualified to be the one to introduce and edit this collection, and if you are unfamiliar, or just barely familiar, with Bonhoeffer’s life and work her historical notes will be invaluable in helping you “hear” these sermons.
And now the one huge burr under my saddle about this book. It received the title, “The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer” and yet even in the introduction it is admitted that there are 71 extant sermons or homilies recorded in the collected works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This book only includes 31. Therefore, it should not have been labeled “The Collected Sermons” but something like “A Collection of Sermons” or even “The Collected Sermons, Vol. 1.” That is a small quibble, I grant you. But you cannot call something “The Collection” if you are only including less than 50% of the total of whatever it is you are collecting.
There is so much more I would like to say – but I am already over 1,300 words. But this book is a gem, and I love reading beautiful books.
This book is not just for preachers, but it is for serious Bible students. If you use books that include short devotional readings for your personal prayer time this would be a wonderful guide for your devotions. These sermons are not long – there are no 45 minute harangues in this collection. If you are a preacher and you want to be fed by one of the best, I highly recommend you obtain this book. It will push you in your interpretation and in your delivery of your sermons. I really, really, really wish I had the opportunity to read this book back when I was 22 and just getting out of college. It would have changed the course of my career significantly. As it is, I am thankful I had the opportunity to read it, and it will help me for as long as I have left to preach the gospel.