As promised, a review of the book that spurred my last post. Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, eds., (Nashville: B&H Academic Publishing Group, 2006) 352 pages.
I admit that the purchase of this book was more title and cover than anything. I knew nothing about the editors, or the authors. I soon discovered that the editors and authors of the individual chapters are committed Baptists, and they repeatedly made that point obvious throughout the book. That should be of little issue, unless you have a passionate dislike for Baptist authors. I try to be as eclectic in my reading as I can. My favorite (and the best academic book, IMHO) on the subject of baptism is by another Baptist, G.R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament. My favorite book on prayer was written my a Jesuit priest. So, I do not judge books by the authors, although I will sometimes buy one if the cover strikes me as interesting.
This book is a collection of 10 chapters, each written by a different author. The first three chapters cover the topic of baptism in the gospels, Luke-Acts combined, and the New Testament epistles. There follows chapters on Baptism and the Relationship between the Covenants, Baptism in the Patristic Writings, Confessor Baptism (the Anabaptists), Baptism and the Logic of Reformed Paedobaptists, Meredith Kline and Suzerainty, Circumcision, and Baptism, and (very interesting to me) Baptism n the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, and concluding with a final chapter on Baptism in the Context of the Local Church.
Because this is a collection of works in one volume, it is to be expected that there would be some unevenness among the chapters, and that is most certainly the case. In my estimation the chapters ranged from the simply dreadful (and academically suspect) chapter on the Patristic Writings to an outstanding demonstration of proper academic writing in the chapter on Baptism and the Logic of the Reformed Paedobaptists and to a lesser degree in the chapter on Baptism in the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement (unfortunately, the author focused entirely on Campbell, which seriously affected his work. He should have named the chapter, “Baptism in the Writings of Alexander Campbell” as that is what he discussed.) The chapter on the Patristic writings was full of summary statements that had no documentation and other statements that were questionable as to whether the author took the quoted passage out of context. In contrast, the chapter on the the Reformed doctrine of paedobaptism provided adequate documentation and allowed the reader to decide (at least I believe it did) whether the passage was in or out of context.
The volume is valuable primarily as a defense of believer’s baptism (or, confessor’s baptism, as one author suggested). That is its intended purpose. It is not, and should not be used, for a text defining the purpose and meaning of baptism. For that purpose I suggest the aforementioned text by Beasley-Murray, or Baptism and the Remission of Sins: An Historical Perspective by David Fletcher, or Baptism: A Biblical Study by Jack Cottrell. This volume is devoted specifically to the question of whether paedobaptism (infant baptism) is biblical, and seeks to explain the practice of paedobaptism especially within the Reformed (Calvinistic) evangelical churches. Very little mention is made of the Roman Catholic or Lutheran practices.
I genuinely enjoyed several of the chapters, especially the one on the Anabaptists. This chapter was among the strongest, and one that provided me with the most food for thought, both positively and negatively. I am becoming more and more convinced that the Churches of Christ should be paying more and more attention to the Anabaptist movement (with which we have tertiary connections), both for doctrine and especially for praxis.
The chapters covering the biblical texts were uneven, with some good insights and some aggravating defenses for the sake of denominational ties. On the other hand, there were examples of significant diversion from “standard” Baptist theology, with several examples where the authors stated that baptism is indeed inseparable from the forgiveness of sins (although, to be sure, each and every one of them rejected “baptismal regeneration” and salvation ex opere operato, salvation simply by the administration of baptism.) I found the chapter on baptism and the Restoration Movement to be extraordinarily even handed, and it was valuable to see the writings of Alexander Campbell through the lens of a Baptist theologian. I reject his suggestion that anyone should follow the lead of Oak Hills church in San Antonio Texas, because from my perspective that congregation has completely forsaken biblical teaching concerning baptism (among other things) and their heritage within the Churches of Christ, and I reject that they speak for anyone who wants to remain faithful to the Restoration plea.
One other note in passing. I wrote my last post before I read the concluding chapter, and in that chapter the author discussed the very question I raised among Churches of Christ. In that chapter he provided a statistic that among Baptist churches between the years 1977 and 1997, the numbers of baptisms of children under the age of six increased 250 percent! According to a doctoral dissertation that examined this phenomenon, one of the leading causes of this trend was, “social pressures on the pastor.” (p. 347). In an immediate classic turn of phrase, the author who reported the statistic referred to the practice as “infantile baptism.” (see page. 346, note 23. The title of the study is “The Practice of Infantile Baptism in Southern Baptist Churches and Subsequent Impact on Regenerate Church Membership” in Faith and Mission, vol. 18, no. 3 (Summer 2001): 74-87).
Overall this was an enlightening book, and one I can recommend for the express purpose of the discussion of infant baptism. As I mentioned earlier, if you are looking for an exposition on the meaning and purpose (theology) of baptism, you would be better advised to read Beasley-Murray, Fletcher or Cottrell. Fletcher’s book is particularly strong in examining the question of the relationship between baptism and the remission of sins. Beasley-Murray simply set the standard in terms of New Testament passages on baptism, and although the book is older, it is still well worth the purchase price.
I have been reading a book on believer’s baptism (note: review upcoming), and because of that I have been evaluating what I have heard taught in the Churches of Christ, and what I have taught myself as a minister within the Churches of Christ.
A little bit of background – for my first graduate work I wrote a paper on the topic of baptism in the early days of the Restoration Movement. I wish I still had that paper, but alas, it was consigned to the landfill many, many years ago. What I learned was equal parts fascinating, reassuring, and troubling. Speaking as a whole, the views of baptism within the Churches of Christ have not been monolithic, and, sad to say, not always biblical.
Cut forward to the book I am reading now. The book is primarily devoted to refuting the theology and practice of infant baptism, and it is written by a group of Baptist scholars. This second fact is made obvious by the many references to the manner in which Baptists have historically believed something, or believe something today (I wonder if the authors/editors think that Baptist thought is really that monolithic?) So, the book is not genuinely a theological exposition on the meaning of baptism, although that is a major component of the argument for believer’s baptism and against infant baptism. As I will discuss in a future review, I have learned much about the practice of infant baptism, and serendipitously, I have learned much about my belief in baptism for the remission of sins.
However, in this post I want to share some concerns I have about the teaching of baptism as I hear and read in various reports concerning Churches of Christ. I write as an insider, and a concerned (but hopefully not negative) critic of our words and our practice. Here are some things that have occurred to me as I have been forced to review what I believe about baptism:
1. Churches of Christ claim to disavow infant baptism, but as I have witnessed, toddler or young children baptism seems to be increasingly the norm. We cannot claim to profess “believer’s baptism” or “confessor’s baptism” when the subject of the baptism is barely in elementary school. I have to confess – I too have been a perpetrator of this practice. I baptized a young person who then frequently showed up at church services with a toy in hand to occupy the time during the sermon.
We baptize little children for a variety of reasons – and none of them are especially attractive nor defendable. A child wants to be baptized so they can take communion. Or they are baptized because an older sibling has been baptized, and they want to have the same attention shown to them. Or, they are baptized because their father is being considered for the role of elder or deacon, and Dad will not be confirmed if a child is not a “believing member.” Or, a child is baptized because he or she is the last one is his or her class to be baptized, and peer pressure is just too great. We make all kinds of good sounding excuses – “He has reached the age of accountability, and we do not want him to go to hell if he dies.” “She knows everything there is to know about baptism – we cannot deny her this request” (excuse me, who knows everything there is to know about baptism?) “Her grandparents are here and we want them to be able to share in her baptism.” Perhaps the worst reason is that multiple baptisms make the resume of ministers and youth ministers look really attractive when they want to move on to a higher paying ministry position somewhere.
The point is we are baptizing younger and younger children. We may say we do not believe in infant baptism, and I have not seen an actual infant being baptized (yet), but what about 6, 7, 8, 9, or 10 year olds? Let me ask you a quick question: would you allow an 8 year old to decide he or she is old enough to drink wine or beer? Would you allow a 10 year old to take the family car and stay out until 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning? Would you allow a 9 year old to decide who she can date, when and where her dates will be, and if she wants to have sex with her partner, would you allow it because she is now an adult and can make her own decisions? Why is it that youthful offenders are categorized entirely different than adults in our judicial system? It is because the young brain is simply not advanced enough to fully understand actions and consequences. And yet, young (and younger) children are being baptized in Churches of Christ by the dozens, if not hundreds.
This, my dear brothers and sisters, is a refutation and rejection of what the Bible teaches about the importance of faith, repentance and commitment that is demonstrated in the event of baptism.
2. Related to that last point, I fear many members of the Churches of Christ function with what the authors of the book I am reading describe as an ex opere operato understanding baptism. That is a Latin phrase meaning that the practice of baptism is efficacious in and of itself, regardless of the subjective beliefs of the recipient. Thus, in baptism, the child may not know anything at all about baptism, or may hold entirely erroneous beliefs about baptism, but the very fact that they are baptized (especially if the right words are used and it is in a Church of Christ baptistery) then the child is “saved” because of the rite itself. This is what has been communicated to me, although in not so Latiny language. When I express my uneasiness about baptizing a child, the response is usually, “Well, even if he/she does not know everything, at least he/she will be baptized, and then he/she can learn.” So, let me get this straight – we will not accept the baptism of an infant that was baptized in a church that practices infant baptism, but we will baptize an 8 or 9 year old for exactly the same reason?? What is it about hypocrisy that we do not understand?
3. I do not want to make this post too long, but I will add here that I believe Churches of Christ need to “restore” (to use a good word we are all associated with) a healthy, biblical understanding of faith, repentance and confession when it comes to baptism. But none of these concepts have any meaning unless we restore a biblical concept of sin. A couple of very simple questions to conclude this paragraph – how can we teach that baptism is for the forgiveness of sin, when we routinely baptize children who cannot have a mature understanding of sin, let alone have any experience with that sin? Are we really so callous as to believe God would send the soul of a deceased 9 or 10 year old to hell for sassing his or her parents? Is our concept of God that grotesque? Heaven help us if it is.
I have much more to say, but this post is already well over 1,000 words. The Churches of Christ have been accused of over-emphasizing baptism, even to the point that others accuse us of works salvation. Nothing can be further from the truth – that is biblical truth. Whether we have been guilty of preaching “salvation in the water” is up to God to judge – I am sure that many within the fellowship of Churches of Christ do stand guilty of that charge.
What is sad to me is that I am witnessing in a fellowship that has for over two centuries stood on the claim to teach what the Bible teaches and only what the Bible teaches a refutation and a rejection of that basic principle.
I care not what others accuse us of, unless what they accuse us of is being unbiblical and that accusation is true. I read, and hear, far too many members of the Churches of Christ who are rejecting the biblical teaching of baptism.
And, for whatever it is worth, that really bothers me.
I started out my devotional time this morning with a prayer. Funny for me to admit this, but I usually do not – I usually pray to conclude my Bible reading time, but only infrequently will I pray before. That is something I need to change, but I digress.
I guess I felt a special need to pray this morning. This is not a happy time for me right now. For the second time in 12 months my wife and daughter are going through a significant period of loss. A year ago it was the death of a precious friend and mother of my daughter’s friend. This year it is a loss by relocation – but a significant and painful loss nevertheless. I’m also struggling with a number of other things – nothing major, yet nothing trivial either. Just life.
So, I prayed. I asked God for help. I asked Him to speak to me through his word. I wanted some comfort, if not some specific answers.
Then, I turned, as I always do, to my first section of reading, from the Psalms. This is what I read –
Don’t put your confidence in powerful people; there is no help for you there. When they breathe their last, they return to the earth, and all their plans die with them. But joyful are those who have the God of Israel as their helper, whose hope is in the LORD their God. (Psalm 146:3-5, NLT)
I could quote the entire Psalm, and if you are interested you can read it. It is a powerful message of faith, and quiet confidence.
I am sick to death with our “government” in the United States. The Supreme Court just ruled that individuals who pervert the most sacred gift God has given human beings now have the right to “marry” each other in all 50 states. It is sickening. But what is just as sickening is that the Chief Justice, John Roberts, flapped his jaws about how the ruling was all about imposing the will of the Supreme Court instead of upholding the Constitution, when it was HIS pathetic and inexcusable imposing of HIS will that permitted the greatest rape of the Constitution in decades with the Affordable Care Act. The man must have no conscience at all.
Yea, I know – inflammatory rhetoric and all that hogwash. Well, like I said, I am not in a happy place right now, and I tend to be a little blunt at times. But, as angry as I am with the entire miscreant government that we now have, I am only too aware that human governments are human governments, and human governments are steeped in sin and perpetuate sin. So, the ruling by the SCOTUS this morning was sickening, but fully expected. I would have been shocked had the decision gone the other way. When sinful people are given that much power, it is folly to expect a Godly outcome.
What really, really upsets me (and here I WILL bite my tongue – er, keyboard) is that the CHURCH is just as culpable. Yes, you read that – We, the people of God, share absolutely in this decision. For years, decades, and now going on centuries, we have put our faith, our trust, our hope, in the fallible minds and hands of the congress, the president, and the constitution. We have given what is holy to the dogs and we have cast our pearls before swine. We have sown the wind, and we are reaping the whirlwind (tornados, for those of you in West Texas). So, before we go marching off to some rally and demand that we elect more sinful, fallible, broken human beings to a sinful, fallible and broken system of government, maybe we should get down on our knees and profess our faith and submit our heartfelt repentance before a Holy and Transcendent God.
It sickens me to see what our country has lost. It sickens me far more to see the church, God’s people, become so compliant by trusting in the human system that created this cesspool. We can pray all we want, and say “In God We Trust” all we want, but if our initial reaction to today’s ruling is, “We have to elect more Republican (read, “God Fearing”) Senators, Representatives, and a Republican President” then we deserve every single one of the Godless rulings this SCOTUS has handed down over the past decade or more.
No, dear Christian friend. Electing sinful, broken and power-hungry Republicans will not solve any of our problems.
We need to start acting like we actually believe Philippians 3:20 and Hebrews 13:14. We need to start acting like our hope is in the LORD our God, and not some empty suit in Washington D.C.
The early Christians turned the world upside down, and basically converted most of the known world, when the ruling government actively sought to destroy them. Homosexuality and other sexual perversions were rampant. Violence was systemic, not occasional. And, yet, the Christians prevailed, because they believed their LORD was in heaven, not in Rome.
Over the past few posts I have been working through a “skeleton” version of my doctoral dissertation. At the end of those posts I have mentioned that I am also in the process of creating a seminar in which I will work through my study and my conclusions. As a part of that seminar I would very much like to make a version of my dissertation available for sale (as well as have the book sold on a much larger basis). If I can find a publisher, I will edit the book to make it less of a “dissertation,” and I will also re-title it, and expand some of the chapters in the book.
The publishing part of the equation has become a problem. Without going into great detail, suffice it to say that no publisher is willing to accept the book. That leaves me with the option to self-publish. This I would be happy to do, but to be perfectly honest, I do not currently have the funds to do so. This leaves me with somewhat of a conundrum.
First, I believe in the book. I believe it is important, especially within the Churches of Christ, but within the larger world of Christianity in general. I believe my conclusions are valid, and that the information I provide can be useful to congregations and to individuals within those congregations.
But, second, I understand the publishing business. I am an unknown author, and the subject is, at least on first blush, too abstract. No one goes into business to lose money – and publishing first books of unknown authors is a very risky adventure.
So, I am left with perhaps one other option – to find someone (or a group of someones) who are also interested in the topic, who are (at least somewhat) familiar with my work, and who would be willing to help me finance this adventure. From what I have been able to discover, I will need approximately $2,000.00 to publish the book with a reputable self-publishing company with connections to a very well-known and established publishing house. If the book does well in sales, there is the possibility of the publishing house picking up the book as one of its own.
Here are at least three options for a supporter to help me out:
1. A straight gift. You simply want to see the book published and expect nothing in return.
2. A “no-interest” loan, whereby I can repay you over a period of time, but with nothing expected beyond the return of your capital investment.
3. A formal loan with a one-time dividend to be paid with the final repayment, whereby I can repay you over a period of time, as well as include a little “return” on your investment.
I will be able to repay any loans given enough time – whether the book sells well or not. However, depending on how well the seminar is received (the first seminar is in October, and hopefully I will be able to schedule subsequent seminars after that time) it may take me a while to repay.
I realize this is a sizable request – but I also know that if I do not make the request and let those who have supported me so much in the past know of my needs, I will never be able to finish the work that I started out to do so long ago.
Thanks for reading my blog – and if anyone can assist me in this ministry please contact me with your contact information via my personal email account at abqfr8dawg (at) msn (dot) com.
I promised some time ago to work through the conclusions of my doctoral dissertation. I hope to do so in a general way, although for the “brass tacks” specifics you will have to wait awhile.
I chose that creepy picture that accompanies this post for a reason. I am not afraid of many things, although a few issues really creep me out. Heights for one, and I do tend to be claustrophobic. But, Black Widow Spiders?? I would just as soon hit my thumb with a hammer as to have to deal with BWS (for short). I have no idea why God created them, and he can just un-create them as far as I am concerned. Do not talk to me about the “balance of nature” – as God could have created umpteen other ways to get rid of flies and other nasty bugs. Black Widow Spiders? – my back is icky just typing the words.
One of the main conclusions of my dissertation is that the overwhelming majority of members of the Churches of Christ are either afraid of our history, or are at best ambivalent toward it. That is to say that you would be hard pressed to find 1 out of 10 or 10 out of 100 members that either enjoy learning about the history of the Restoration Movement, or even care about it. That leaves more than 90% of our fellowship (and I imagine the number is much higher) that either hate the idea of Restoration History or simply do not care one way or the other. The end result is the same – our history is steadfastly belittled or ignored.
Those who hate, or fear, our history can be divided into two groups. On the far conservative side are those who simply deny we have a history, and it terrifies them to consider the fact that, yes, we do have a very real physical history, and we are descendants of very real, fallible, sinful human beings. Go back as far as you wish, but you can trace our spiritual heritage to a handful of men – visionaries and spiritual giants all – who observed that the Christian church as they saw it was corrupt and corrupting. They could see in the New Testament a better way, and a far more simple concept of the church. They all sought to “restore” that vision of the church. Some attempted it in ways we would be proud of; some in ways we would disagree with. All of them, however, were human and all of them failed in lesser or greater ways. That is not to criticize nor to idolize. It is simply to acknowledge reality.
On the far other extreme we have those who acknowledge our history, are perhaps are acquainted with it in greater or lesser degrees, but who are equally terrified of that history. These are the “intelligentsia” of our movement, those who would claim to be leading us to more verdant pastures than our forebears. Instead of denying the history of the Restoration Movement, these leaders do not want the hoi poloi, the common people, to learn about the theology of Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, and their immediate disciples because there is something profoundly compelling about these early 19th century spiritual pilgrims. When we open up the pages of the Christian Baptist or the Christian Messenger we see real genius at work. We see Christian leaders trying to throw off the yoke of the “guaranteed results of modern scholarship” and simply go back to what the New Testament taught about being a disciple of Christ. I think these individuals are afraid that, if the real wisdom of Campbell and Stone (and Fanning, and Lipscomb, et. al.) were widely disseminated it would destroy their grip on the hearts and minds of the average, pew sitting Church of Christer today.
Caught in the middle between these two opposite, yet strangely married extremes, are the vast majority of church members. They hear first the one side, more strident obviously, but they they also hear the murmurings and whispers of the second group. Held in ignorance by both sides, and unwilling to face the wrath of the first group and not willing to be labeled as Luddites by the second group, they simply maintain their silence and go about their business as if there was no real issue to begin with.
This is tragic! The modern day heirs of the Restoration Movement have one of the richest, the most compelling histories in the wide and complex history of the Christian movement itself. As just one (admittedly puny) example, much of what is being preached today by elements of the “Emerging Church” and the “Missional Church” comes straight out of the theology and praxis of Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone. But, because we (speaking generically, of course) are so ashamed of our history we do not even recognize the fact, and because we have not claimed our history and proclaimed it’s strengths the world does not know that we could be at least 200 years ahead of the ecclesiastical curve, if not more.
So, to make a long post much shorter, in my dissertation I begin by looking at our history with as clear a set of spectacles as I could. I could not address ALL of our history, as that would take volumes. But I did examine how our history was affected by philosophical beliefs as well as theological conclusions, and how this combination worked against the practice of confession within the Churches of Christ.
Beginning in October of this year (2015) I will begin presenting the conclusions reached in the process of preparing my dissertation in a weekend seminar format. If you are interested in learning more about the biblical practice of confession, and especially how Churches of Christ need to “restore” the practice of biblical confession, send me a personal note to abqfr8dawg (at) msn (dot) com, and I will be happy to get back with you quickly. The first seminar will be in Portales, New Mexico, in October, so perhaps you can attend that seminar, or I will be happy to come to your congregation and present the material to you.
Question – What do you get when you cross a bad scientist with a poor theologian? (Hang with me here, this is not a bad joke!)
Answer – An atheist
I just finished reading a book in which the author stated, unambiguously and quite proudly, that he can prove that God exists. Foolproof, airtight, with not the slightest chance that there could be a mistake proof that God exists. I was quite in awe until I read what his “proofs” consisted of – a long list of arguments that have been put forward for centuries. A long list, I might add, that has been particularly ineffective in proving the existence of God, except for those who already believe in God. If you already believe in something, it is quite easy to prove it exists. It is when you try to convince someone who is utterly certain of the falsity of your proposition that your “proofs” tend to get shredded. I happen to believe in God, so I also happen to appreciate many of the “proofs” that the author put forward. I also know atheists who laugh out loud at the supposed “iron-clad” arguments that are set forth. Now, disbelief in one proposition does not equal proof of the opposite proposition, but still, poor arguments deserve to be destroyed.
Notice in the famous picture of the creation of Adam in the Sistine chapel. God and Adam reach toward each other, but there is a gap – an existential difference between the two. God urges us as humans to seek for him, but still, we are flesh and he is God, and we will always be just a hair short of fully understanding the nature of God. John even said of Jesus, the incarnate God on earth, “He came to his own home, and his own people received him not.” (John 1:11)
I am one who happens to believe that good science and good theology should not be enemies. They are different fields, and ask (and search for answers) to entirely different questions. Good science attempts to answer the questions “what” and “how”. Theology attempts to answer the questions “who” and “why”. That is why I suggest that when you mix bad science and bad theology all you end up with is an atheist. A good person, no doubt, but someone who has placed their trust in something that is not God.
I feel very strongly that if you have to prove the existence of your god, you have a very small god. In fact, if you CAN prove the existence of your god then you have succeeded in creating an idol larger than any god – yourself. Step back and work through this – if your science (whatever it may be) can prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that your god exists, then your god is smaller than your science. That is to say your science can explain your god; ergo, your science is bigger, more complex, and more profound, than your god. You have just made your intellect your idol – you may worship a “god,” but just like the story in Isaiah of the man who cuts down a tree, cooks his food with half of it and fashions a god out of the other half, your god is still a thing of your creation (see Isaiah 44:9-17). You can manipulate it, define it, examine it, and ultimately prove that it exists by some physical test.
Now compare that with the God of the Bible. Since we were just in Isaiah, let us stay there. Read Isaiah 40:9-31 (for just one passage). Now – how do we “prove” a God such as this exists? To what do you compare something that is incomparable? By what standard do you measure something that is beyond measure – or even comprehension? The folly of the peanut scientific mind is that it thinks it can define, measure, describe or explain that which cannot be rationally bounded.
Writing in the early 11th century A.D., a theologian by the name of Anselm formulated what is often referred to as the “ontological argument” of the existence of God. Strictly speaking, however, it is not a positive argument, but the expression of the impossibility to create such an argument. It goes something like this – If I can conceive of something bigger than God, that thing that I have imagined must be God. But this is a logical impossibility, as God is the most comprehensive being that can be conceived. God, therefore, is “that than which nothing bigger can be conceived.” God is bigger than any science, any scientist, and even any proof of his own existence.
We need to give up this infantile attempt to figure out a “bomb-proof” argument or proof that God exists, and simply get back to worshipping the God that scoffs at all our puny little attempts to control him.
“And without faith it is impossible to please him. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6, RSV emphasis mine.)
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.
One of the joys I have is teaching and learning from some really great young people. The other day following class a few of us were discussing various topics, and one of the things we were talking about was faithful obedience. The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and their great statement of faith came up,
O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If it be so, Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace; and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up. (Daniel 3:16-18, RSV)
One of the students told the group he had prepared a lesson on the difference between faith and fear. The lesson is profound, so I share it with you.
Fear says, “What if . . .” Fear says, “What if I fail, what if I get sick or die, what if this solution costs too much or does not achieve the goal for which we out to overcome, what if the people reject me, what if there are unforeseen setbacks, what if, what if, what if.”
Faith says, “Even if . . .” “Even if I fail, even if I get sick or die, even if this solution costs more that the value returned, even if the people reject me, even if there are unforeseen setbacks, I am going to follow God and his word, and I am not going to give in to fear.”
It was a powerful moment. Far too often I have collapsed under the weight of the “what ifs.” I am cautious by nature, almost to a fault (maybe certainly to a fault). I like to see the end before I take a step. Could I have uttered the words of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego? I shudder to think.
How many times do we worship false gods because we are afraid of the “what ifs.” How many good projects are not even attempted because of the “what ifs.” How much good could be accomplished if we would just say, “even if.” We really need to have the courage to swim against the crush of the crowds – the courage of our convictions.
I needed to hear that message. I hope it helps you too.
This semester’s schedule calls for me to get back into Christian ethics. So, in addition to the basic text I am using, I have been reading some sources that are “new” to me, John Howard Yoder, in particular. Yoder is perhaps the most persuasive and well-known among pacifist writers. Whether you agree with Yoder, disagree with Yoder, love him or hate him, if you are going to wade very deep into Christian ethics you have to deal with Yoder and the application of his views.
This, however, is not really a post about Yoder. Perhaps I will do that at another time.
What Yoder got me thinking about was how diluted Christianity has become. With very, very, few exceptions, most congregations of virtually every stripe or color of Christians have become conformational. This fact is astounding, given the reality that Jesus called upon his disciples to be transformed, and transformational, and the apostle Paul wrote emphatically that disciples of Christ are to be transformed and transformational. (see Romans 12:1-3)
To explain my terminology here, conformational Christianity is a Christianity that has conformed itself in one or more aspects to the culture in which it resides (for us Americans, that would be a free-market, capitalistic, militaristic, representative republic). We look like good Americans, we act like good Americans, we talk and buy and sell and defend and basically exist as if America was the “promised land” of which Moses spoke to the Israelites.
Transformational Christianity, both individual and communal, would examine that culture (or cultures) and work with the remnant of ideas that might be God affirming, and would reject or transform everything else in order to live fully and whole-heartedly within the “reign of God” on earth. A transformed Christianity would look nothing like its surrounding culture, except as that culture has itself been transformed by the Christian leaven working within it. A transformed people would be known by their inexplicable love for one another. They would be known for their total devotion to the ethics of the Kingdom of God. They would not be concerned about money or power or prestige or whether or not they were being treated fairly under the Constitution. A transformed church would live as if this world was a transition to a better world, a re-created Garden of Eden in which Christians will all share in a re-established image of God.
Conformational Christianity asks, “What is culture saying that we must do in order to appeal to consumers looking for the best religious deal?” Transformational Christianity asks, “How has Christ changed my life, and how can I go out and change my world.” Conformational Christianity asks, “What can we do to keep our young people from choosing another church or to leave the church altogether?” Transformational Christianity says, “I have no idea what you are talking about, our kids are begging for opportunities to serve and lead.” Conformational Christianity worries that maintaining any tradition will hamper its effort to “be relevant.” Transformational Christianity rejoices in traditions that keep its message pure and alive, while willingly looking for new ways to express its faith – with no regard whatsoever for the issue of “relevancy.” Transformational Christianity knows intuitively that a person cannot make the church “relevant” (what ever that means), it knows that the church is relevant for the purpose of transforming people’s lives as a basic, fundamental part of its existence.
I know of too many churches that are sell-outs to cultural pressure. They define the term, “conformational Christianity.” They conform to both the style and content that the western culture demands of them. In the words of Jesus’ parable, they are worthless, their fate is to be thrown on the dung heap.
Transformational churches are salt and light in the midst of a bent and broken world. Jesus called on his disciples to be transformational people (Matthew 5-7). Paul echoed that call in Romans 12. Peter called on the churches to whom he was writing to be a Holy people, just as the God they worship was Holy (1 Peter 1:13-16).
Be Holy. Be Transformed. Be Transforming. That is the challenge given to the Church of Christ. I pray we have the courage of our convictions, and that we can accept this challenge without fear or favor to any earthly power.
I want to conclude this little mini-series on mysticism with some thoughts on how mere mortals can join the ranks of the mystics. As with virtually everything else that I write, I cannot claim any true originality here, only in the sense of putting these ideas together in the manner that I have.
To begin with, it should go without saying, but you must first of all desire to submit to the reign of God. This is so obvious, but then again, I am the master at discovering what everyone else already knows. If you do not want God to reign in your life, or in anyone else’s life, He simply will not force himself upon you. To want God to reign in your life you must be willing to surrender every other king in your life – money, prestige, power, status, country, possessions, even people. To say, “Thy kingdom come” means just that – not a democracy or a meritocracy, but a monarchy. Those who say they want God to reign in their life while continuing to submit to the principalities and powers of this world are deceiving themselves – and God cannot be deceived.
We are to seek God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength. It is an all-or-nothing adventure. To join with Peter walking on the waves of the storm-washed sea we have to be willing to let go of the boat. This is the problem I see with most “Christianity” in America today. We are half-hearted at best. We want God plus America (or America plus God). We want God plus the Constitution. We want God plus the greatest armed forces the world has ever known. We want God plus every technological discovery that we have or ever will create. We do not want God, we want God plus something else. We want God.1. That is NOT seeking the kingdom of God. That is NOT seeking God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. That is not seeking God’s kingdom first, and allowing him to add “all these things.”
Next, a person seeking the reign of God in their lives will conform their life to the pattern of Jesus. They will study the life and teachings of Christ as their only sure guide to learning the will of the Father. The beatitudes become no longer a list of virtues to emulate, but the reality of everyday life. The parables no longer serve as topics for academic study, but an entrance into the kingdom. Along with the life of Jesus they will absorb as much of the rest of Scripture as they possibly can. They will learn from the great inspired mystics – from Moses and Isaiah and Jeremiah and Daniel and Paul and Peter and John. Every page of the Bible will be to them a treasure of untold value – revealing the heart and will of God in heaven, whose reign they purely and entirely seek. Jesus, however, will be the center around which every other detail of Scripture revolves. Christ is the center, the norm, of a mystic life. It was Christ who inaugurated the ultimate reign of God, and it will be Christ who returns to fully embody that reign.
Third, a person seeking the reign of God will decide, based on what the Scriptures and Jesus teach them about the reign of God, whether they want to accept that reign or refuse it. Just because the reign was fervently desired in the first place does not mean that every person will decide to accept that reign. The rich young ruler went away sorrowful, even while he was on the very threshold of accepting the kingdom of God. The apostle Paul wrote of a certain Hymenaeus and Alexander who had made a shipwreck out of their faith, and who had apparently decided to rescind their allegiance to the reign of God. Experience tells me that many fit Jesus’ parable of the seed that falls on the weedy soil – the heart accepts the message with gladness but there is just too much “stuff” that chokes out God’s kingdom. So, following desire and discovery there comes the point of decision. Is God going to reign, or not? There is no other question, there is no other answer.
Finally, the one who places God as the king in their life will actually live as if God is the king of their life. How do you think Abraham had the courage to leave his father’s faith and country? How do you think Joseph was able to risk his life to remain pure? How do you think Moses had the nerve to stand up to Pharaoh? How do you think Daniel and his three friends had the courage to defy the king? How do you think Paul could stand up to Herod? How could John write from Patmos to tell the seven churches to stand up against Caesar? The answer to each and every situation was that these faithful, these disciples, these mystics, all had the kingdom of God securely implanted in their heart. They knew who was the king, and the earthly power that threatened them was simply not worthy of their fear, and certainly not of their devotion.
We are a nation of sanctimonious cowards. We fear the government. We fear losing our Constitution. We fear what will happen to us if, by some horrible circumstance, we are caught without our fully loaded handgun on our person. We fear what will happen if we stop building multi-million dollar airplanes to drop multi-million dollar bombs. We fear losing our freedom, yet we are too ignorant to realize that is striving for every human comfort and safety we have sacrificed our greatest freedom – the freedom to live in and expand the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God knows nothing of Constitutions and guns and airplanes and bombs. The symbols of the kingdom of God are a towel and a cross. The towel is to serve this world, and the cross is to die to it and for it.
As I started this series, I said that the world does not like mystics. The world punishes, persecutes, and even kills mystics. Jesus predicted his followers would be hated. Paul predicted his churches would face tribulation. John saw only martyrdom for those who remained faithful to the word of the cross. To share in the resurrection of Jesus we must first share in his death. When we invite the kingdom into our life, the hatred of the world will soon follow. But if we are to follow Jesus, how can it be any other way?
The cross is not the terrible end of a pious, happy life. Instead, it stands at the beginning of community with Jesus Christ. Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
One day the Pharisees asked Jesus, “When will the kingdom of God come?” Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God can’t be detected by visible signs. You won’t be able to say, ‘Here it is!’ or ‘It’s over there!’ For the kingdom of God is already among you. (Luke 17:20-21, NLT)
The kingdom is among us. I pray we want it. I pray we are searching for it. I pray we care enough to learn what it means. I pray we decide to accept it, and live like we accept it.
I pray we all, in whatever measure we can, will accept the call to be mystics – and begin to live as if the kingdom has arrived.