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Judged not by Fame but by Faithfulness

My daily Bible reading and devotional thought gave me quite a jolt today – but hopefully in a good way. I was reminded, once again, of how many different ways we as humans attempt to justify our existence by our awards, achievements, and accomplishments – the stuff of resumes. And, I was reminded of how virtually all of that striving is utterly rejected in the Kingdom of God.

That truth is especially meaningful to me as I survey the contemporary “postmodern” church scene. Scores of articles and research tools have been published informing church leaders how they are to modify their efforts in order to win and keep this or that generation of believers. The entire message can be encapsulated in the dictum that numbers mean everything, and if you are not growing you are not successful, you are just not “doing” church right. So we have to “re-imagine” church, or re-define church, or whatever the latest poll or survey says we need to do.

Preachers are especially vulnerable to this siren song. Perhaps it has always been this way, but is is clearly true today. Young men look to the trend setting churches and dream of preaching at such a “successful” church. Small congregations that do nothing but stay faithful to the gospel are not even given a second glance. Maybe one day they will be invited to speak at their favorite lectureship. You have to be a “senior” minister at a mega-church for that to happen, though. No “small congregation” ministers need apply. A church that is looking to hire a preacher demands “proven” success in evangelism and church growth. Lists upon lists are given as to what a preacher is to “do,” but very little about what he is supposed to “be.” Job descriptions can run multiple pages long. Sadly, many of the items listed could also describe a “community organizer.” Very, very few items pertain to the gifts of the Spirit.

Somewhere lost in all the search for praise and acclamation is the message of the towel and basin. Jesus gave the greatest lesson on leadership this world has ever witnessed, and he did it without a word. He took a towel, and a water basin, and washed his disciples’ feet. In the Kingdom of God, leaders are defined by service, not by stature. In the Kingdom, we descend upwards. The last will be first, the least shall be greatest.

This morning, I needed to hear a message from God’s word, and it was given to me:

In the Kingdom of God, we will be judged not by fame, but by faithfulness.

What is Education? (revisited)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luke 22:38 and Self Defense

In the many discussions of the “right to bear arms” and the “right of self defense” one passage of Scripture receives an amount of attention far beyond the weight it can support. This is increasingly true in the discussions generated by the recent terrorist attacks and the “right” of individual states to deny safe refuge to Syrians fleeing the unspeakable horror of ISIS (the Islamic State). That passage is Luke 22:35-38:

And he said to them, ‘When I sent you out with no purse or bag or sandals, did you lack anything?’ They said, ‘Nothing.’ He said to them, ‘But now, let him who has a purse take it, and likewise a bag. And let him who has no sword sell his mantle and buy one. For I tell you that this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was reckoned with transgressors’; for what is written about me has its fulfillment.’ And they said, ‘Look, Lord, here are two swords.’ And he said to them, ‘It is enough.’ (Luke 22:35-38, RSV)

I want to suggest to you that, first of all, this passage is enigmatic in that there are a number of interpretive issues involved, and second, that regardless of the clarity (or obscurity) of the passage, building one’s theology of the right to bear arms on one text is highly dubious. Using this text to defend a matter of constitutional law smacks of the worst kind of proof-texting. What is worse, if this interpretation of the text is, in fact, erroneous, it turns Jesus into something that he manifestly was and is not, therefore is dangerously close to blasphemy.

To begin, the interpretation that Jesus is in this text promoting the purchase and use of weapons for self-defense is to declare that Jesus is also completely rejecting his own words of comfort to his disciples. To illustrate, compare the last words of Jesus in John 14-16. At no point in this long message did Jesus ever hint or suggest that his departure would in any way limit the future work of the disciples. In fact, it was his departure, and the subsequent gift of the Holy Spirit, that would strengthen and embolden the disciples. If the interpretation of Luke 22:35-38 is that Jesus is encouraging the purchase of weapons for self-defense, the logic has to be that Jesus is telling his disciples, “Look, boys, I’m about to leave here, so you are all on your own. Better load up on the swords, ’cause your gonna need all you can get.” However, the words of Jesus as recorded in John flatly reject this logic. Jesus told his disciples the coming Holy Spirit would increase their work, and that his absence would be in their favor.

Second, the use of this text as a proof-text for the use of weapons for self-defense is in direct contradiction to the actions and words of Jesus that would take place in the garden in just a couple of hours time. We are familiar with the fact that Peter was only too willing to use one of those two swords (I wonder who the owner of the other was??), and Jesus rebuked him soundly, telling him, “Put your sword back in its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52, RSV) Not exactly a thunderous affirmation of the right of Peter to defend Jesus and himself with a sword. In fact, Jesus went on to tell Peter if he so wanted, he could call legions of angels down to defend him. Self-defense was not on Jesus’s agenda.

Third, some time later Jesus would yet again reject the idea that his disciples would, or even should, take up arms. In response to a political accusation by the Procurator Pilate, Jesus said, “My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world.” (John 18:36, RSV) This is somewhat ironic, as Peter DID take up arms to defend Jesus, but Jesus unequivocally rejected that Lilliputian effort. Once again, self-defense is not on Jesus’s agenda.

Please note that each of these examples comes after Jesus’s statement to “buy a sword.” So – if Jesus is clearly NOT interested in self-defense or the use of swords, what in the world was he talking about? I return to the concept of enigma – this is something that is clearly not an easy passage to decipher, but there are some clues in the text itself.

First, Jesus reminds the disciples of their previous mission and the ability for God to fully meet their needs. Now, unless we are willing to accept that God will somehow be unable to meet their needs in a future mission, we must ask ourselves why Jesus would suggest the carrying of a purse, a bag, and lastly, a sword. Was it because due to his repeated warnings of his impending arrest and death that the apostles were beginning to make defensive provisions? In other words, is it not fully reasonable to see Jesus using the rhetoric of irony here – “Remember how God has provisioned for you earlier, and now you are acting like a bunch of scared schoolboys??” I do not suggest that this is the only way in which these verses can be interpreted, but other clues lead me to believe it is at least a worthy option.

Second, Jesus quotes Isaiah 53:12 – but not the entire verse. Let us then examine Isaiah 53:12 –

Therefore I will divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out his soul to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” (RSV, emphasis mine)

Now, in the immediate context of those who heard Jesus’s words, who were the transgressors? Maybe those who were planning on an armed defense of their messiah? Namely, could it have been Peter and the unnamed apostle? Maybe it was the fog of exhaustion, or their basic inability to grasp what Jesus was saying, but the immediate retort was, “Look, Jesus, here we have two swords!” (a pitiful response to the armed legions of the Romans, and even the poorly armed police of the Jewish leaders). It is telling that as he was being arrested, Jesus made a special intercession on behalf of his apostles, at least one of which had just attempted an insurrection. Jesus plainly “made intercession” for the transgressors.

Third, Jesus words, “It is enough” are interesting. This is an idiom, and as an idiom is difficult to trace throughout the Bible, but a few references are illuminating. In Deuteronomy 3:26 the NIV (among other translations) render God’s rebuke to Moses as, “That is enough.” In other words, “Be quiet – the discussion is over.” In 1 Samuel 15:16, Samuel cuts King Saul’s excuse off with a brisk, “Stop!” In 2 Samuel 24:16, God stays the hand of the destroying angel with an emphatic, “Enough!” Interjections such as these have both a disjunctive and a corrective sense. They are used to stop the present flow of words or actions, and they indicate a different path of action or discourse will follow. Viewed in this manner, Jesus is simply telling his disciples to shut up; they have utterly misunderstood him yet again, but his last hours are drawing to a close and he does not have the time to enter into yet another time-consuming theological lecture.

Finally, we have to note the reaction of the apostles in the post-Pentecost age of the Spirit. Not once did they take up weapons to defend themselves. Not once did they advocate the use of weapons in the realm of self-defense. Not once did a disciple of Jesus take up a weapon to defend one of his peers. In fact, for the first three centuries one of the sharpest distinctions regarding the church of Jesus Christ was their unflinching and resolute avoidance of violence. To me, this fact is conclusive. The disciples may have misunderstood Jesus’s words in the upper room that night, but by the day of Pentecost they got it. They were transformed. And, with great courage and faith they proudly proclaimed the “right to bare arms.”

The argument is often presented that if a man’s family was being attacked, he has a right, and perhaps even a responsibility, to protect them at any cost. I cannot answer how I would face that situation, and I pray I will never have to make that decision. But one thing I do know: I cannot base my desire to purchase and use lethal weapons on Luke 22:35-38. To do so is an illegitimate use of Scripture. A man may have the right and duty to defend his family – but the scriptural defense of that right and duty must be found elsewhere (Exodus 22:2-3 comes to mind, although there are some problems there, too).

I began by saying this text in Luke is enigmatic. I do not suggest that the interpretation that I have proposed is the only way to interpret this passage, but I do suggest that it offers the fewest problems. It provides the greatest cohesion with the plain teachings of Jesus. It is in clear agreement with the words of Jesus spoken within hours, or perhaps even minutes, of the words recorded in Luke. So, while I may be incorrect, I choose to stand here, admitting my fallibility, but resting in the security that for centuries the early church stood on the same ground.

How Have We Lost the Love of Bible Study?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quantity, or Quality?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Political Correctness is Killing the Church

It’s been a long time since I have had two spare minutes to put together in a sequence, but I just finally decided that I was going to sit down and write again. So much has happened (in the big world, and in my little world). Where to begin . . .

As an observer and sometimes participant in the development of thoughts and ideas of people around me, I have noticed something that increasingly bothers me. The old idea of “political correctness” is just killing the church. I say that as someone who is both guilty and who abhors the idea. As Walt Kelley said through the mouth of Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Have you ever stopped to consider how much time we spend worrying about and finding ways NOT to offend someone? I work with and around a lot of young people, and regardless of where I am or who I am with, one major consideration about the words or the images that are raised in a discussion is this: will what I say, or even the manner in which I say it, be considered offensive to someone around me? I am not speaking about flagrant obscenities or obvious insults. I am talking about normal, everyday speech in which we use images or ideas that, for whatever reason, have been deemed “off-limits” by some group or conglomeration of groups.

One particular issue that troubles me about this “politically correct speech” creep is that it is creeping into the pulpits of our churches. Ever since the decision by the Supreme Court that homosexuals should have the right to marry, virtually every speech, sermon, or piece of writing begins with the same tepid caveat – “I don’t want to be misunderstood, and we are all sinners, and I do not want to be judgmental . . . blah, blah, blah.”

I can’t imagine the apostle Paul apologizing for his convictions. The idea that any of the church fathers, or Calvin, or Luther, or Charles Spurgeon, or any great preacher for that matter, backing up before he even said a word is just ludicrous to me. Do we want to be intentionally offensive in our speech or response to outsiders?? No, and I do not know who would suggest that we should be offensive or vicious in our speech.

I just do not see how we can “welcome” homosexuals into our congregations “with the intent to change their hearts” unless we say straight-out and up-front – “homosexual behavior is a sin.” Personally, I am deeply suspicious of the psycho-babble about “same sex attraction,” as I think it is just a circular way to minimize the seriousness of homosexual behavior, but I am willing to be taught is someone can prove such an animal exists.

I just do not see how we can discuss “allowable” or “acceptable” forms of abortion if our goal is to protect the lives of unborn children. Either abortion is the unlawful and murderous taking of a human life, or it is not. To equivocate is to surrender the morality of the question. Do we excommunicate or burn those who have experienced an abortion (a female) or one who has caused or paid for an abortion (a male)? No, but neither do we soft-pedal the seriousness of the crime.

And, this – which hits me squarely between the eyes – do we wink and look the other way when we see a couple who is blatantly living together although not married so that we can “teach them the gospel when they are at church”? No – once again, to equivocate is to surrender. We have swallowed the politically correct pill, and it is killing the church. We have lost our backbone and our nerve to confront ANY sin, much less the big moral collapses of the 21st century.

Please, do not think I speak as a perfect example of rigid moral perfection. I have, for way too long, been guilty of turning aside when the issue demanded firm, but loving, confrontation. Stated more baldly, I’m a wimp. But that does not excuse me, nor does it give me any comfort. How many people have I given the impression that their behavior is acceptable to God simply because I am afraid I might offend them or hurt their feelings? Too many to count.

We must wake up. We must grow a spine. We must learn to confront – with the spirit of Christ, for sure – but we must learn how to confront.

Remember – he did braid a whip and drive the godless from his Father’s house. That, my friends, was politically incorrect.

Confession of an American Heretic

(some idle ramblings after meditating on a message that was presented last evening . . . and no, I am not picking on the speaker, but rather extending his thoughts and owning up to my own convictions)

I am a part of a small group of Americans. Talk about minority, I bet we do not even show up on the list of endangered species – because there has to be a certain number to be counted in order to even be considered endangered. We could probably hold a national convention in a broom closet. My closest ally and my greatest enemy might both be looking at me from my mirror. Call me a heretic, a traitor, a renegade, a scandalous lout – each probably fits some form of my rebellion.

But, I just simply refuse to accept that America is a Christian nation, that God has specifically chosen America for any purpose (other than to display his grace and his judgment), that any one single political party has a corner on righteousness, or that it is a duty, or even a good idea, that disciples of Christ get mixed up (polluted would be another word) in politics.

Barton W. Stone and David Lipscomb are my heroes – and that is probably enough to get my membership cancelled in most Churches of Christ – especially if they know anything about Barton W. Stone and/or David Lipscomb.

My aversion to politics can be summed up thusly:

1.  God gave Adam and Eve a specific law in the garden – and that law did not keep them from acting immorally. God gave Cain a specific law – and that did not keep Cain from acting immorally. God gave the Israelites very specific laws (over 600 if the number is to be believed) and that did not keep the Israelites from acting immorally, even at the site where they received those laws. God sent prophet after prophet to remind the people of Israel of the laws to which they had bound themselves. That did not keep the children of Israel from acting immorally. You cannot make a person, a group of people (even the church), or a nation moral by passing laws. Not even God could do that. Why can’t we learn this? Why do we put so much emphasis on trying to accomplish that which cannot be accomplished?

2.  The sum total of politics can be described as: money, power, and compromise. If politics was a noble effort once upon a time (as in a fairy tale) it certainly is not now. It takes a staggering amount of money to simply be elected to a state office, let alone a national office. The role of county dog catcher might be different, but money drives politics. Second, politics is all about power. Power as in I have it, you don’t, do you have to do what I tell you. What was it that Jesus said about power and service? Oh, yeah, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28). Third, to be successful in American politics means you have to compromise, because while power is intoxicating and polluting, it is never absolute. There is always someone on the other side of the political aisle who has equal power among his or her constituents, and the only way to move anything in American politics is to compromise. The art of compromise might be acceptable if you are debating the color of carpet in the living room or the price of eggs. But, could someone please tell me how it would be possible to compromise on a question of morals? How can you ‘compromise’ on the question of abortion, or the ethics of the Affordable Care Act (which is neither affordable nor caring)? To say that abortion is wrong after “x” time period, but acceptable before that time period is simply disgusting. To say that homosexuality violates your personal code of religious beliefs, but that you have to vote another way because of some court ruling is to declare that you really have no controlling personal code of religious beliefs. Compromise is the opposite of the gospel call to absolute surrender to the will of God.

3.  No matter how you try to wiggle out of this, you cannot vote for someone to do something GOOD, without out equally being responsible for the EVIL that person creates/perpetrates. You cannot applaud and share in the advances of the causes you advocate, and reject the negative consequences. I learned this the hard way with Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Regardless of the good each was able to accomplish, each man certainly violated core biblical principles in decisions they made or did not make. I cannot take pride in one part of their legacy and disavow the other. If I voted for them, I am “guilty” for both. I do not think most Christians stop to consider that fact.

4.  I could list many Scriptures which call the American system of politics into question. However, one will suffice: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” (Matthew 6:24, RSV). You cannot be a ‘little bit’ political and a ‘little bit’ Christian. You cannot split your allegiance 50/50. You are either going to believe that politics is the answer to the problems of humanity, or you are going to look to the Word (Christ) and the will of God. If you think America is a Christian nation, and that the constitution of the United States comprises some kind of 28th book of the New Testament, then you are going to put your faith ultimately in the power and process of the American political system. You will also never be content, and you will always be in a position of aggression and enmity with your opponents, because they believe you are the enemy and they will not begrudge an inch of political landscape to you. And, by the way, you will never find an acceptable candidate to support unquestionably. No human is perfect, and so you will have to compromise some of YOUR beliefs in order to elect someone who is the “lesser of two evils” in some aspect of your religious beliefs. Sell your soul to the devil and you find some nasty repercussions.

Or, you can stand with Joshua as he gave his final challenge to the people of Israel, “Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell; but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” (Joshua 24:15)

Many suggestions are made as to why the Church is so ineffective today, why so many people are leaving the church, why, despite the huge numbers of attendees, there appears to be so little conviction among those who profess to be disciples of Christ. While I believe many answers are a part of the answer, I think one major reason is that so many church leaders, and therefore church members, have equated Christianity with the American political system. And, because Jesus actually expects total commitment, (that nasty verse about taking up your cross and following him daily) it is far easier to sign a registration card as a Republican or a Democrat and worship the god of politics and power that way. Simply put, politics IS the religion of the vast majority of Americans.

That’s why I am a heretic, a traitor, and a pacifistic scoundrel. That’s okay by me. As I look at the first three hundred years of church history (up until the great Constantinian debacle), I find myself in some mighty fine company. I may be alone today – but, boy, do I have some awesome ancestors.

Book Review – Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ (Schreiner and Wright, eds.)

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.

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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.

Churches of Christ and Baptism

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.

Gays, Guns, Flags . . . and Faith

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.

Get it?

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