Sometimes life is just stranger than fiction. Sometimes you want to make something up and even what your imagination can create does not equal what occurs in 3-d real life.
As I was contemplating the next step in my series of personal reflections on the Churches of Christ I happened to come across this blog post: The post is a scathing indictment of the Churches of Christ and an attempt to explain why “so many” young ministers are leaving the Churches of Christ. Note that I am not recommending the post, but I am providing a link so that I am not accused of sensationalizing or misquoting a source.
I was going to deal with another subject, but I simply cannot let this blog post go unanswered. Because it touches on the subject I was about to address, I will respond to this post here first, and then return to the series as I had originally intended it.
First of all I am simply staggered by the attitude revealed in the title of the post. “My problem is not me, my problem is you. You are the source of my angst, my anger, my feelings of insecurity and sickness.” Now, I am well aware of the technique of creating a title that is hyperbolic – extreme – in order to gain attention. However, I do not think that is what the author of this particular piece is doing. I think he is being honest and up front: the problem with many ministers who are leaving the Churches of Christ is the Churches of Christ. The ministers themselves do not have any hang-ups, psychoses or spiritual issues. They are perfect – God’s own gift to the religious world. The problem is the sick, broken, misogynistic and moribund Church of Christ.
What are the main grievances that this author identifies as being the reasons these ministers are leaving the Church of Christ? He lists three: the refusal to allow women to take a leadership role in worship and in church governance; issues with leadership; and the refusal to allow instrumental music in worship which he sees as the main symptom of an unyielding adherence to tradition. That is it. Churches of Christ can be completely defined (and dismissed) in these three categories – misogynistic patriarchalism, an unthinking allegiance to acapella music, and stodgy leaders.
I really do not know where to begin in critiquing this attitude. Words simply do not suffice. “Narcissistic” comes close, but I think this even exceeds narcissism. I believe this type of “blame the Church for my issues” reveals a pathological hatred of the Church and that is something that will not be healed by simply pulling up stakes and leaving the Church of Christ for some other “greener pasture.”
To begin with, those who share these feelings (and judging by the comment section, quite a few ministers do feel this way) believe that they are so smart, so spiritual, so welcoming, so egalitarian and so important that the Church of Christ simply will not survive if they leave the fellowship of the Churches of Christ (at least, they hope it won’t so that they can be proven correct). The young ministers of whom this author and others who share his opinion speak are always described in the most glowing terms: they are well educated, they are erudite, they are deeply spiritual, yet they are conflicted by powers that are beyond their control, they are victims of a brutal and uncaring system that does not recognize their brilliance. Notice how those descriptions frame the antagonists of these poor, misunderstood spiritual giants. Their opponents are ignorant – even if an opponent has the same or greater degree of education it is defective. The opponents do not care about the Spirit; they are slaves of the carnal and only care about power and patriarchy. Their opponents are mired in the muck and mud of a tradition that stifles any kind of creative thought or ministry. This is not a battle between two different approaches to biblical interpretation, this is a battle between the Archangel Michael and the beast from the depths of the abyss.
The main problem I have with this scenario is that it is so abjectly wrong on so many levels.
First, I do not dispute the degree of education that these ministers have obtained. They are very gifted scholars. I will grant that. I will also grant that these ministers are deeply spiritual. I will not deny that that they have come to their conclusions honestly (but I will challenge the correctness of those conclusions). But why does that mean that their opponents are ignorant hayseeds? Why must someone who believes in male spiritual leadership always be portrayed as some kind of knuckle dragging Neanderthal who just came crawling out of his cave? There are many brilliant theologians, both within the Churches of Christ and outside of the Churches of Christ, who hold to the pattern of male spiritual leadership and their degree of scholarship simply cannot be dismissed with a contemptuous sniff and wave of the hand.
And, just for the record, a great many of the staunchest defenders of the concept of male spiritual leadership are females, both within the Churches of Christ and outside of the Churches of Christ. These women are virtually always ignored in the rants and screeds produced by these super-spiritual apostles of egalitarianism. The claim in this post is that women are made to feel like “second class citizens” in a church where men are expected to lead. I have lived my entire life in the Churches of Christ and I have never served or worshipped in a congregation that suggested that women were second class citizens. Were there women in those congregations who felt that way? Maybe – there were undoubtedly men who felt like second class citizens as well. The point is that is not the official, nor unofficial, position of the Churches of Christ and those who make this accusation need to apologize to the men and women who directly and emphatically teach otherwise.
In one of the truly stunning ironies of this whole discussion, it is the egalitarian males who are turning the female defenders of male spiritual leadership into second class citizens. These egalitarian males reject the arguments and silence the voices of those females with whom they disagree. If you are not a liberal female androphobe you simply do not matter to these men.
In regard to non-instrumental music, or a preference for acapella music, this subject has been beaten to death over the past 100 years or so within the Churches of Christ/Christian Church split. What the proponents of instrumental music refuse to acknowledge is that there are a number of other Christian faiths who do not use instruments, and they use the same arguments a put forward by leading scholars within the conservative Churches of Christ – i.e., the New Testament does not authorize the use of instrumental music, and the history of the Christian church clearly demonstrates that the use of instrumental music in worship is a descent from, not an ascent to, a more pure form of praise to God. But this gets back to the intelligence and education issue once again. Those who defend the use of acapella music in worship are just a bunch of ignorant, misguided fools, and if they could ever just sit down and get some real education they would find out that these young ministerial mavericks are absolutely correct and almost 2,000 years of church history can be re-written.
Yeah, that Harvard degree that Dr. Everett Ferguson earned was just a worthless piece of paper.
In regard to tradition and traditionalism, I will agree that the second is bad, but the first is absolutely necessary for the healthy functioning of any community, secular or religious. Those who leave the Churches of Christ because of the traditions within the Churches of Christ will do one of two things. They will either join another group that has just as formal and rigid a set of traditions as the Churches of Christ (albeit different ones), or they will go off and begin a new community of worshippers who will, within the first generation create an entirely new set of traditions that will become just as rigid and inflexible as the ones that now considered so repulsive. The only difference is that in the first scenario the ministers will choose a new set of traditions to form their worship, and in the second scenario they will create the new traditions. But they will not be able to eliminate any sense of tradition. If they were able to do so they would become the most psychologically damaged people on earth. We cannot live without our traditions.
I realize this post has been uncharacteristically harsh. Believe me, I have edited down what I had originally intended to say. But I am sick of this condescending, narcissistic, pre-adolescent criticism of the Church of Christ by a bunch of self-identified spiritual heroes. When I hear someone unreservedly and unapologetically blame others for their problems I immediately think of a spoiled rotten two year old child. When I hear these ministers say, “I have a problem and it is all your fault” all I can think about is a generation was raised in which every team got a first place trophy and every player received a most valuable player medal. This staggering sense of entitlement is almost beyond comprehension when I see it in the secular world, but to hear it from those who have proclaimed an allegiance to the crucified Son of God?
To quote a phrase from a popular movie a few years back: I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.
Do you have issues with the Church of Christ? Fine – so do I. I’ve had issues with the Church of Christ beginning with the day that I wanted some crackers and grape juice and my parents told me “no.” But if you have issues with the Church of Christ and you cannot see where you can conscientiously stay as a part of the fellowship then at least have the courage of your convictions and leave. Just get out. Say goodbye, and don’t expect us to turn out the lights when you leave.
If you have issues with the Church of Christ and you feel like you can be a constructive voice within the fellowship to lead the fellowship to greener and more healthy pastures, then by all means share your voice. But, in doing so make sure that you do not insinuate that because someone disagrees with your conclusions that they are ignorant, or a knuckle-dragging troglodyte, or a moribund traditionalist.
In other words, you might want to use some of your brilliant intellect, effusive education and profound spirituality to consider Matthew 7:1-5.
(Note: I have corrected one section of this entry. I had misquoted the three points the author made regarding the reason why ministers are leaving the Churches of Christ. His three points are women’s role, leadership, and traditionalism. Earlier I had listed women’s roles, acapella music, and traditionalism.)
It’s funny to me how some people will trip over themselves to prove they are the most dedicated Bible believing, scripture quoting people and yet carve out significant chunks of the Bible that they believe no longer applies to them. In reality, what they are is the most selective Bible believing, scripture quoting people around.
I have in mind 1/10, that is, 10% of the 10 Commandments – “You shall remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”
“Oh, but that does not apply to us today, because we are New Testament Christians, and that only applied to the Old Law.”
It’s pretty hard to say you follow the teachings of the Bible if you only start with a 90% standard of completion to begin with. Or, make the less that 50% if you remove the entire Old Testament. Who want to boast about following 40% of the Bible? “Yes, I’m a 40% Christian.” Sounds kind of lukewarm to me.
Speaking only of the United States, but I believe we have to be the most neurotic, psychotic, and paranoid culture to have ever lived – or at the very least we are in a tie with a long lost civilization.
We rush, push, hurry, manipulate, worry, fret, drink, consume volumes of pharmaceuticals, drive ourselves to ulcers and destroy our mental and physical bodies in a 24/7/365 cycle of narcissism and compulsion. All for what result? More money, more prestige, more opportunities to regret doing what was most important to begin with.
And way back yonder on Mount Sinai God told Moses, “Rest one day in seven – oh, you can do your chores – milk the cows and feed the chickens, but take the day off. Rest. Sleep. Play with the kids. Let your servants rest and sleep and play with their kids. Call off the planting and the harvesting and the committee meetings and the hustle and the bustle. If you have nothing to do for 24 hours you can think about Me. Think about creation and how I take care of the whole world and yet I found time to take a day off for some rest and relaxation. Now, if I, your God, can take a day off and things work out okay then certainly you can take a day off and let the world run itself for a while.”
But we refuse to take God’s word for it. Why, if we stopped worrying and fussing and having our committee meetings and working 24/7/365 then the whole world would just go spinning off its axis into the great abyss.
I’m exhausted. I am just mentally and physically fried. I can remember being this spent only one other time in my life. It was not pretty. But God did not put me in this place. My supervisors did not put me in this place. My family or my friends did not put me in this place. I put myself in this place. I have not practiced Sabbath in a long, long time. The human body is just not designed for this kind of wear and tear. I’m not a doctor nor a psychiatrist, but I read the Bible. God designed me and he said “Sabbath – that is what my people need, Sabbath.”
Rest. Relax. Recreate. Refocus on God. Watch the world go around and realize that it will continue to go around whether I meet my next deadline or not.
I want to restore that 10% of my Bible that I have been cutting out for far too long.
The Sabbath was God’s gift to his people, not a law to bind and trap them into legalism.
I want to claim that gift. I want my Sabbath back.
Occasionally I get a song stuck in my head. Sometimes it drives me batty – at others times I rather enjoy singing the song over and over again.
Today I have one of my favorite songs on endless loop. It is, “We Shall Assemble”
We shall assemble on the mountain
We shall assemble at the throne
With humble hearts into his presence
We bring an offering of song
Glory and honor and dominion
Unto the Lamb unto the King
Oh hallelujah, hallelujah
We sing the song of the redeemed
And at the end of the journey
We shall bow down on bended knee
and with the angels up in heaven
We’ll sing the song of victory
Glory and honor and dominion
Unto the Lamb unto the king
Oh hallelujah, hallelujah
We sing the song of the redeemed.
I’ve often said that we sing a much better theology than we preach, and I think this song is worthy of that praise. This is a true hymn, a song of praise and glory to God. So many modern “praise” songs are nothing but icky, narcissistic collections of lyrical drivel. It takes some forethought and some musical know-how to create a song that has both theological and musical punch. I think “We Shall Assemble” is just one of those songs, and if you are around me very much chances are you will hear me sing or hum it quite a bit.
I’m personally looking forward to singing that song of victory…
I find it to be one of ministry’s greatest temptations. Following Matthew’s rendering, it was Satan’s third and ultimate temptation of Jesus. According to the apostle Paul it was what derailed the faith of Demas. The temptation has a long and illustrious history of blowing up entire congregations and perhaps even movements.
“It” is the all consuming desire to be welcomed by the world, to be loved by the world, to be worshipped by the world. How many preachers want to climb down the ladder of worldly success? How many churches celebrate smaller numbers? How many elders ask prospective preachers how many spiritual parasites they have driven away from the worship assembly? How many modern followers of Jesus would have the mental or spiritual temerity to look the rich young ruler in the eye and tell him that with his current love affair with his checkbook he could not be a part of their church?
You see, you cannot be the preacher for one of the largest congregations in a metroplex and have an out-dated view of worship and how the congregation is supposed to sing. You cannot sell millions of books and be invited to speak at all the Evangelical church conferences if you have a restrictive view of what it means to be a disciple of Christ and what it takes to be a part of the body of Christ. You cannot have a nationally known presence among the theological glitterati if you hold to viewpoints that are considered to be patently conservative or traditional.
No, in order to be welcomed, feted, wined and dined you must look like the world, smell like the world, act like the world.
So, if the world demands certain practices to be included in a worship service, you include them to keep the world from hating you. If the world says that your belief about entry into the kingdom of God is too restrictive you modify your belief so that the world will not hate you. If the world says your interpretation of a passage of Scripture is too restrictive then you broaden your interpretation of Scripture so that the world will not hate you.
Your church may grow bigger. You may sell more books and get invited speak to all the glitzy conferences. You may earn more points in the hallowed halls of academia. In short, the world may shower you with its love and adoration.
As I said, it is probably the most powerful and subversive temptation known to ministry. Who among us can honestly say we have never felt the twinge of the realization that if we do or say or teach some point of doctrine “the people of the world will hate us.”
If you find the godless world is hating you, remember that it got its start hating me. If you lived on the world’s terms, the world would love you as one of its own. But since I picked you to live on God’s terms and no longer on the world’s terms, the world is going to hate you. John 15:18-20, The Message
Jesus told us, way back yonder, what was going to happen. If we follow the world, the world will love us. If we follow Jesus, the world will hate us.
So why do we spend so much time worrying about whether the world will love or hate us? We already have the answer!! Now it is up to us to go out and live like we love and want to follow Jesus.
I’m tired of people wringing their hands and worrying that if we do not have a rock band, or at the very least, a “Praise Team,” the world is going to hate us. Or if we have a sectarian name on our building the world is going to hate us. Or if we teach the doctrine of baptism the world is going to hate us. Or if we insist on making men wear the pants in the congregation (figuratively, not altogether literally) the world is going to hate us. Or if we actually have the guts to say that marriage is for a man and a woman, and that if you cannot figure out by looking in a mirror whether you are a male or a female then you need serious psychological and spiritual counseling, the world is going to hate us.
Folks, that bus left that station a long time ago. Jesus said if we don’t play the world’s game by the world’s rules, the world will hate us.
And the flip side is that if the world does love us, what does that say about our allegiance and faithfulness to Jesus?
Jesus said, “The world is going to hate you.” I am just old-school enough to believe what Jesus said, and as lonely as it can be to stand on biblical principles, I have to remember that no one has hanged me on a cross yet. As tempting and as insidious as that “love of the world” siren song can be, I must develop the fortitude to willingly be alone if being in a group is the wrong place to be.
And, brothers and sisters, that means even if, and occasionally especially if, that group of people claims to be followers of Christ. That is the true test of discipleship over popularity.
The differing emphases of unity or doctrinal purity has divided the American “Restoration” Movement almost from its very beginning in the late 1700s and early 1800s. What started as a unity movement through a restoration of biblical teaching soon was sidetracked with the realization that what some demanded of unity was impossible to maintain if others were to demand of a restoration of biblical, and especially New Testament, patternism. That two-pronged emphasis became a two-headed monster that finally consumed the heart of the movement by the turn of the century, and in 1906 the first split was recognized as official – and there have been numerous smaller splits since that time.
Today that discussion continues, as a new generation has awakened with a fresh desire to see the warring factions of Christendom united under a common flag of solidarity. On one hand I welcome this breath of fresh air. It is certainly better than to hear the bitter sectarianism that marked the middle decades of the last century. But on the other hand when the pendulum starts to swing back the danger is that it will not stop at the bottom, but will carry way too far over to the other extreme. The process will then repeat – with the sectarians taking over and old battles will be fought once again.
With my advancing age and deepening understanding of not only my own heritage, but also the greater history of the church and of philosophical movements, I have this caveat to offer to those who are pushing for a greater unity among those who profess to be Christians:
I must say I am repulsed by the hyper-reactionaries that demand that their interpretation of Scripture be followed down to the flourish of every jot and tittle. Legalism exists in every sect and denomination – it is a flaw in the human psyche. Legalism flourished in Jesus’ day, and his apostles had to fight against it in the early years of the church, so I will not frustrate myself by thinking that we can avoid it today. But that does not mean we have to cave in to it. Those who profess to be disciples of Jesus must declare that there is “no room at the inn” for narrow-minded Phariseeism and Spirit killing legalism.
However, adherence to orthodox biblical doctrines is just as important to the health of the church as is striving for unity. And this is where I see so many young people making a serious, and ultimately fatal, mistake in their very right-minded push for Christian unity.
Simply stated, if two or more sects – or denominations, or churches, or whatever you want to identify them – hold to doctrines that are diametrically opposed to each other there cannot be genuine unity between them. There may be unity of purpose in certain activities, there may be a certain kindred spirit shared among them, but there is no Spiritual unity of the kind that is commanded by the apostle Paul in the letter to the Ephesians, chapter 4. In that chapter Paul specifically states that “there is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father.” To argue otherwise is to flatly contradict inspired Scripture.
If I teach that baptism is essential for the forgiveness of sins and inclusion into the body of Christ, and another teacher says, “no, we are saved and added to the church by praying the sinners prayer and then we are baptized to signify that salvation” then there is no unity between us, even though we both profess the name of Jesus. If I teach that there is only one head over the church and human beings are simply caretakers of that church I cannot be in union with someone who teaches that there is one human being exalted above all others and who is the “head” of the church on earth. If I teach that the Bible is the inspired word of God and that I must submit all of my understanding to that word, I cannot claim to have fellowship with someone who believes that the Bible is simply a record of how mankind came to view God in their limited cultural experience. That is to say I cannot share in solidarity with someone who believes he or she can simply re-write the Bible to account for cultural changes regarding gender issues or the changing mores of sexuality. If I believe the Bible is the inspired word of God I cannot be in fellowship with someone who follows a “second word” of God, no matter how much they claim to follow Jesus.
I hear a well intentioned but critically flawed naivety in this neo-unity movement. I need to point to only one passage of Jesus’ teaching to make my point. In Matthew 7:21-23 Jesus uttered this chilling prediction:
Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will say to them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evil-doers.’
You see, thousands, maybe millions, of people profess the name of Jesus, and perform all kinds of wonderful works, and perhaps achieve great successes – all in the name of Jesus. And according to his own very words he will have nothing to do with them. Notice the contrast in the passage – not every prophecy (or, teaching) not every exorcism of demons, not every working of a miracle, is the “will of God.”
If I interpret that correctly, not even the “unification” of the disparate churches under one banner will be the “will of God” unless it is in full and complete surrender to his will as revealed in the one Word we have.
I pray for the unity of the church. Jesus commanded that we work for the unity of the church. I am in full agreement with the young people who see the strife and sectarianism of the churches and who long for one united church of Christ. But that will never happen as long as major doctrines as taught by Jesus and his apostles are ignored or diluted.
There is only one path to the unity of the church of Christ. That path both begins and ends at the cross of Jesus. We must begin our quest for unity by dying to our selfish demands, and we must realize that our unity will only be found once we come to truly worship the crucified and risen one. Until we do that we are simply trying to purify a tomb by coating it with whitewash. The rotting flesh inside will never be purged, and the prayer of Jesus will never be fully realized.
You’ve all seen the bumper stickers on cars that identify the car owner’s particular brand of theology. Everything from “I found it” to the little outline of the little fish to the one that has all the religious symbols that supposedly spells out “Coexist.” I’ve often wondered why anyone would want to put a saying or slogan on the rear end of their car, but religious expressions truly mystify me, and some even anger me. Can we really reduce the gospel of Jesus Christ to a 3 – 5 word slogan? It seems to me that some of the worst enemies of the church of Jesus Christ are the religious hucksters that try to promote it.
But those obnoxious little pieces of glued on vinyl do not even hold a candle to the pseudo-religious bumper-sticker theology that is being paraded around in the recent (and very emotionally laden) battles over abortion, homosexual rights, and even the immigration debate. Just this past weekend the local newspaper editor opined that the very fact that the Old Testament prohibition against homosexuality is found in the same book as the prohibition against wearing a garment with two types of material woven together makes it obvious that the prohibition against homosexuality is a silly, superstitious and ridiculous belief to maintain in today’s far more intellectually developed world.
In my pantheon of truly outstanding theological observations that rates right up there with, “Jesus never condemned homosexuality.”
But how about, “Jesus commanded his followers to never judge anyone, so who are you to judge (and you can take your pick here) someone who has an abortion, someone who practices homosexuality, someone who follows Mohammed, Buddha or doe not follow any religion at all?”
I suppose in a way I could put up with that kind of theology if it were not for one thing: much of it is being promoted by individuals who consider themselves to be disciples of Christ – blood bought, Spirit filled, Word of God believing followers of the Son of God.
I’ve often wondered why there are no clear “frontal assault” types of attacks against Christianity in the western world today. I am not denying that in certain parts of the world simply to confess Jesus is a certain path to death. But here in the United States, and in Europe, and to a very large extent in South America, there are no outright pogroms against Christianity. That has been a curiosity to me. Why, if God and Satan are locked in a never-ending cosmic battle, is the western hemisphere so “off-limits” to a no-holds-barred, bare knuckle fight to the finish?
I cannot speak for any other geographic area, but I have come to the conclusion that at least in the United States, Satan does not have to expend that much energy fighting against the church because the so-called “Christians” are doing such a good fighting his battle for him. It is the “Christians” who are fighting against each other and splitting the churches. It is the “Christians” who are consuming the alcohol and propping up the pornography industry. It is the “Christians” who are keeping the abortion mills operating at peak capacity. It is the “Christians” who are promoting and supporting the homosexual agenda. How could it be otherwise? If, in poll after poll and in survey after survey a majority of people in the United States professes at least a marginal belief or following in Christianity, how could these behaviors be supported and promoted if it is not for the fact that so-called “Christians” are doing the supporting and the promoting? (Polls that reveal a decline in church attendance do not reveal a corresponding lack of allegiance to “Jesus Christ.” What people are saying is, “Jesus yes, church no.” It is that particular form of “Christianity” that I speak of here.)
Simply put, if everyone who even marginally claimed to be a “Christian” actually started following in the footsteps of the Crucified One, this country would change profoundly, and it would change virtually overnight.
But that is not going to happen. It is not going to happen because most Americans believe that the church is God’s concept of a constitutional republic. Every man, and every woman, gets his and her vote. If you don’t like the results, lobby for a new election and get more people to vote with you. If you don’t like the law, simply vote in another one. Morality is what the majority says it is. Faithfulness is being true to your own self, and the self that you woke up with this morning, not necessarily the one you woke up with yesterday. There is no universal truth, only a universal desire to be loved and appreciated. The greatest sin is thinking that sin exists.
I believe that as the gap between biblical faithfulness and contemporary “religiosity” grows the inevitable result is going to be that the true church of Christ will have to “grow” smaller in numbers and greater in faith and resolve. There really can be no other way. If there is no difference between the “world” and the “church” then there is no church. God’s people are to be holy, distinct, separate from the world (Leviticus, 1 Peter). If we, as disciples of Christ, fail in that calling we will not only doom ourselves to an eternity of separation from God, we will doom our generation from the chance to know that God.
But, we are NOT going to convince this world of the need to know God with insipid theological slogans slapped on the rear bumpers of our cars. Especially not the ones that make Satan proud to be our father below. (With obvious thanks to the work of C.S. Lewis and his Screwtape Letters).
If you have not already guessed, today’s post is the bookend to yesterday’s post. In it I discussed the possibility, and in some people’s minds (mine among them) the growing probability that at some point there will be a direct conflict between an aggressive LGBT proponent and a church or religious figure who refuses to perform a same-sex marriage or allow that the same-sex marriage be performed in their facility. I hope this is a “chicken little” fear and that nothing of the sort occurs, but viewing the trajectory of court decisions and even popular referendums I cannot but think that such a confrontation is not that far off in the future.
However, today I want to “flip the coin” and look a one possible reaction that is frequently discussed among Christians, especially conservative Christians, that I hope does not happen. That reaction is to push for greater and more restrictive legal measures that would attempt to change the outward behavior of homosexuals by legal fiat.
You may think that I have lost my mind, but bear with me here. There is a meaning to my madness.
The attempt to coerce or even more minimally adjust moral actions and thoughts through the process of legal demands has never worked. It never will. You can legislate the legality or illegality of certain behaviors, but you cannot enforce moral behaviors and thoughts. As an example, you can legislate that prostitution is a behavior punishable by fines or imprisonment, but you have hardly begun to touch the underlying reality that women are going to sell their bodies if men are willing to pay for sex, and men are going to pay for sex if they can find a willing partner. The act may be illegal, but a glance in the local phone book will tell you that it is hardly curtailed.
We could, theoretically at least, pass a law tomorrow that made all homosexual behaviors illegal and what would we accomplish? Absolutely nothing except to alienate an already alienated group of people and exacerbate an already deteriorating social conflict.
So, if legislation will not solve the problem (and I defy anyone to prove that passing any kind of law will solve any moral problem) what are we to do? Are disciples of Christ simply to surrender, to walk away from the struggle, to “hunker and bunker” and await the coming apocalypse? No, no, no and no.
Abraham was in a numerical and moral minority when he left everything to follow the unimaginable call of God. Moses was in the numerical minority when he faced the awesome power of the Egyptian army. Daniel was in the numerical and moral minority when he stared down the king of Babylon. Jeremiah was virtually a solitary individual fighting against an immoral Jewish leadership. Jesus was born in a time in which the Jewish nation was a numerical and moral minority. The Pharisee Saul left the comfort of numerical superiority to claim both numerical and moral minority status as a disciple of Christ. The apostle John wrote to an oppressed and clearly minority group of people spread out throughout Asia and told them that in spite of their numerical insignificance they were still the army of God. It would appear from even a cursory reading of the Bible that God works His greatest wonders and reveals His glory to be the brightest when it appears from a human standpoint that He is outnumbered and on the losing end of the moral battle.
I do not want to use the weak and beggarly tools of Satan to attempt to coerce the behavior of those who disagree with me because I believe God has a far greater plan in mind. And I do not mean the coming apocalypse.
God’s plan, quite simply, is for His people, His chosen and redeemed sheep, to start living like they actually believe the words they have been mouthing for centuries.
I want disciples of Christ to actually start acting like they believe marriage is a holy and inviable commitment between a man and a woman. I want disciples of Christ to start raising their children instead of turning them over to the state to raise. I want disciples of Christ to start treating all men and women as if they are created in the image of God and to stop using derogatory terms of hate and ignorance. I want disciples of Christ to start actually worshiping God instead of creating more hedonistic practices to soothe guilty consciences. I want disciples of Christ to start honoring and praising the differences between the genders instead of working with the prince of this world to blur the distinctions between male and female. I want disciples of Christ to repudiate and work against the destructive powers of pornography and the sex trade. I want disciples of Christ to actually stand up and be counted as advocates for the preservation of life – all life- instead of just mouthing a few mantras concerning being against abortion. I want disciples of Christ to acknowledge that it is theologically impossible to be pro-life and to advocate a military complex that is designed to obliterate entire nations and not simply for the defense of one’s homeland.
In other and far more simple words, I want disciples of Christ to start living the Sermon on the Mount. All of it, and not just the parts we like.
We will never be able to coerce behavior and thoughts by people who look at us and only see bigotry, hypocrisy and immeasurable pride. We cannot preach chastity if we are spiritual whores. We cannot preach moderation if we are spiritual gluttons. We cannot preach humility if we are arrogant spiritual jerks.
I predict the next few years will be profoundly disturbing to many people, myself included. I pray that we, as disciples of Christ, will be able to stand in the face of the coming maelstrom and respond with the love and fortitude of Jesus. Love, that we not hate and demean our opponents. Fortitude, in that we do not betray him nor his and our Father. The coming years will, in all likelihood, be difficult.
But, has not God called us for this very hour and purpose?
My thoughts turn today to a conversation between Peter and Jesus. It is a loaded conversation, and deserves far more than this little space can give it. Maybe I will return to this conversation another time.
The conversation is found in Luke 22. I quote it here from the Revised Standard Version (If the RSV was good enough for St. Neil Lightfoot of Abilene, then it is certainly good enough for me.)
Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren. Luke 22:31-32
Have you ever read that passage carefully? Meditatively? Have you ever stopped to consider the time references that Jesus incorporates into that one little sentence? And, of the profound theological implications of what Jesus told Peter?
First, Jesus was telling Peter that there was a great cosmic fight over Peter! Satan and Jesus, fighting it out over some run-of-the-mill fisherman from Galilee. Of what possible use could some salty sea-dog be to Satan? Who knows, but we all know (because we know “the rest of the story” as Paul Harvey would say) how important Peter was to Jesus.
I do not want to make a “one-to-one” comparison here. Not all of us can be a Peter – or a Mary sister of Martha for that matter. That is an hermeneutical shipwreck that destroys a lot of really important passages. We are not all Jeremiah’s in the sense that God does not call each and every one of us from our mother’s womb. We are not all Job’s in the sense that God and Satan duke it out when we have a severe medical crisis. Putting ourselves in the sandals of our biblical heroes is theologically suspect, and psychologically destructive as well. Let us focus on who we are and learn from these characters without trying to duplicate them.
That having been said, I do believe that we can learn something from this passage about our worth, both to God and Jesus and to the great deceiver. Is it possible that Satan wants you, not because that you would be of any particular value to him, but because you could be of so much greater value to Jesus? Just as not everyone has it in themselves to be another Peter of Galilee, very, very few of us have it within us to be another Adolf Hitler. But, Satan does not need us to be another Adolf Hitler. All he needs us to do is to minimize Jesus and his church in our life. His perverted will is thereby accomplished, and to the world around us we can still be “good, moral” people.
Second, Jesus prayed for Peter, but he knew that Peter was going to fail Him, and thus in one sense his prayer was NOT going to be answered. Peter’s faith did fail, at least momentarily, and in a profound way. Not, mind you, to the degree that Judas’ faith failed him. But Peter had three chances to confess Jesus, and despite being specifically warned what was going to happen, Peter denied Jesus anyway.
Now, you may argue that Jesus, knowing Peter would deny him, just prayed that Peter would eventually return. But that is not the way I read that text. Jesus’ prayer was that Peter’s faith would not fail. Pete’s denial could hardly be described as a stellar display of faithfulness. That is why I said, “in one sense” Jesus prayer was not answered. Certainly Peter ultimately returned to Jesus, and so that aspect of Jesus’ prayer was answered. But let us not gloss over the significance of the totality of what Jesus is saying.
Many people have the concept that, “if I pray for it, in full faith, God has to give me what I want.” Did not Jesus tell us the same? Yet, why were some of Jesus’ most fervent prayers not answered? Why did Peter deny him in the courtyard? Why did Pilate not release him? Why did Judas betray him? Why did he have to drink that “bitter cup?” I wish I had the answers to all those questions. But, I would rather live in the reality of the mystery of God than try to create and live in the falseness of a human idol. The fact is that Jesus prayed for his disciples, and they let him down repeatedly. We pray for our children, and they fail us. We pray for our sick parents, and they die. Not every prayer is automatically granted. If we could control God with a few selfish whims He certainly would not be a God worthy of worship.
But, third, Jesus told Peter, “when you have turned again.” Jesus did know the “rest of the story.” More than that, he was instilling within Peter the belief that Peter was ultimately a worthy disciple. I just wonder how much those words would meant to Peter in the first few days following the crucifixion, and in those first few days following Pentecost. They had to be amazing words for Peter to remember and to take comfort in.
I don’t remember much about my football career. Mostly because it was over my freshman year in high school (the Minnesota Vikings never knew what they missed!) But I remember one practice with such crystal clarity that it might as well have happened yesterday.
We were working on a drill we affectionately called “hamburger.” Two players faced each other, then lay down on the ground with about a yard separating their two helmets. On the coach’s whistle the players were to jump to their feet and try to get past the other player in any way they could. Four posts marked a very small “battle zone” so there was no running around a bigger opponent (my preferred method of “winning.”) Well, one day it turned out that I stood against Bubba Baker, who was to be my opponent. Now, Bubba was our first string full-back. The coach placed me as the fourth string full-back simply because we only had four full-backs and he had no other place to put me. So, I mostly stood on the sideline, safe in the knowledge that it was a statistical impossibility for the three guys in front of me to all get hurt in the same game.
So, anyway, back to my story – here we were, our very big and very hard hitting first string full-back was staring at me and then looking at the coach as if to say, “hey coach – I really don’t want to hurt the little guy.” I was staring at Bubba and then looking at the coach as if to say, “hey coach – listen to Bubba!!” The coach, having that sixth sense that most coaches have, looked at both of us and said, “what are you two guys waiting for – get down!” And then he uttered the only four words that I can remember from that entire season - “Smith can do it.”
I honestly remember very little of what happened next. I remember the whistle, and I kind of remember jumping to my feet, and then I remember hearing the loudest bang and feeling the most incredible pain I have ever experienced shooting down my neck through my shoulder and all the way down to my finger-tips. I never lost consciousness, but I sure felt weird the rest of the day. I can pretty confidently say that I did not win that battle, but those four words were absolutely etched into my psyche. If coach White said that “Smith can do it” I would have run into a brick wall thinking that I could knock it down. To his great credit, Bubba apologized for knocking me into the middle of the next week, but he was doing his job the best he knew how.
So, in a very small way, I kind of know what Peter must have felt when Jesus spoke to him by the sea when he asked him three times, “do you love me?” And then Peter could remember those five words Jesus spoke to him, “when you have turned again…” Then Peter the denier became Peter the preacher, and eventually, Peter the martyr.
What an amazing couple of verses. What an amazing story. What an amazing Lord and Savior we have.
I love the book of Jeremiah. I don’t know why. Most people love Isaiah. Isaiah is majestic, beautiful, poetic – Isaiah is a lot of captivating things, that is for sure. But Isaiah is also very white-collar. Although there are several passages in the book of Isaiah that resonate with me, the overall feel of the book just eludes me. Jeremiah, on the other hand, connects with me. Jeremiah shakes his fist at God and has the audacity to accuse God of taking advantage of him. Jeremiah is blue-collar, dirt under your fingernails, sweat dripping in your eyes kind of prophecy. Isaiah gets to see the throne room of God; Jeremiah gets thrown into a stinking, muddy cistern. Jeremiah can at times rise to the heights of Isaiah, but he does not do so nearly as often, and when he does he does not stay there nearly as long as does Isaiah.
So, my daily Bible reading has me in the book of Jeremiah for a while. I am going to enjoy the next few days reacquainting myself with this “weeping prophet.” Today I read one of the more well-known of Jeremiah’s teachings/lamentations:
My people have done two things wrong. They have abandoned me, the fountain of life-giving water: They have also dug their own cisterns that can’t hold water. (Jeremiah 2:13, God’s Word Translation)
Here Jeremiah identifies two tragic, catastrophic decisions that the people of Judah have committed. One, they rejected God. That is the tragedy, but if that was the only thing they had done, a remedy would be available. When you reject something you can eventually return to it, because there is a likelihood that you will come to miss that which you have rejected. You will learn you really needed it. Unless it was absolutely worthless, you will come to recognize that you are not complete without that which you rejected, and you will seek it out once again.
But, if you find a cheap substitute for that costly item the temptation, indeed the likelihood, will be that you will be content with the impostor and you will not feel the need to return to the genuine article. This is the catastrophe of the Judean “faithful.” They not only rejected the priceless and irreplaceable life-giving water that came straight from God, they replaced that treasure with a bunch of broken, worthless, meaningless cisterns.
In these words from Jeremiah we can hear the pathos of God. It is God’s voice we hear through the pen of Jeremiah. It is God Himself who is being rejected – not some physical chemical composition. Even though we often say that God is omniscient (which is a Greek concept, not a Hebrew one, by the way) there are some things that God does not understand. He does not understand why His people can wallow in the riches and greatness of his love, and then almost in the blink of an eye replace that heavenly comfort with the filth and muck of an earthly pigsty.
One of the great evangelical past times today is lamenting the decline of the American moral situation. I suppose that is tragic – it would be far better and far healthier for us if our culture would return to a more “Christian” framework. But, tragic as that might be, it could be remedied if it were not for the catastrophe that has followed the tragedy. The catastrophe is that the American “Church” has followed American culture into the pigsty of relativism. Once the church decided it could hew out its own cisterns, broken and worthless as they might be, it decided that it no longer needed the life-giving water from above.
There is no hope for American culture if the American church has given up on God.
I read and hear evidence of this collapse every day. “The church needs to listen to the people who are leaving.” No it does not. The church needs to listen to God! Do we need to hear what the people who are leaving have to say so that we can correct unchristian attitudes and behaviors? To be sure. But there is only one voice that we need to listen to and that is the voice of God. “The church needs to be more open and affirming.” Affirming of what – sin? How can we “affirm” a sinful lifestyle and even remotely proclaim to be a holy people. We are commanded to be holy, but I can not think of a single passage of Scripture that commands us to be affirming – especially when it comes to affirming unholy lifestyles. “The church needs to be more modern, more relevant to today’s culture.” This one is truly fascinating. In the midst of today’s utter and complete moral chaos, people are asking for more rootlessness and subjectivity, as if getting drunk for longer periods of time is the ultimate cure for alcoholism. No – the answer to today’s moral and religious vacuum is the return to solid ground. The church needs to be the one place where people can have a safe refuge from the endless and meaningless cycle of change and relativism.
Jeremiah had it right – but the people refused to listen to him, and what he prophesied came true. Jerusalem was destroyed. You can recover from a tragedy, but not if that tragedy is compounded by the willful, catastrophic rejection of the only thing that can save you.
Are we going to go back to the pure, life-giving water from God, or are we going to continue to depend upon our broken cisterns?
Every year, or at the very least, every other year, I try to read some of the classics of Christian spirituality – whether ancient or modern. One book that I return to frequently is Richard J. Foster’s Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home. No matter how many times I read it I am encouraged, challenged, and hopefully I grow just a little bit more in my prayer life. I highly recommend the book.
Today, as I was finishing the book for the I don’t know how many times, I came across this little phrase. Foster was talking about “authoritative prayer,” the prayer that occurs when we call upon God’s power to act immediately in this world. He was discussing the possible pitfalls to such prayer, and in particular, his own reticence in even using authoritative prayer. And then he said this, “In my concern over falling off the deep end, I realized that I just might fall off the shallow end.” (Richard J. Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, p. 235).
I’m a sucker for beautiful phraseology, and Foster is one of the most gifted Christian authors I have read. This book is full of memorable quotes and powerful, life changing lessons. But perhaps none is quite so powerful as the idea of being so afraid of doing something wrong that we fail to do anything at all. That particular fear has been expressed for millennia – but I have never heard of the fear of falling off the shallow end.
Anyone who has gone swimming knows the fear of being in water that is “over our head.” That means we cannot touch the bottom of the pool, lake, ocean, river, etc. We must depend upon our swimming skills, or at the very least, our floating skills. But who is ever afraid of going into the kiddie pool? Who is afraid of knee-deep water? Who is afraid of falling off the shallow end? It is a beautiful metaphor.
But metaphors are useless if we fail to understand the deeper message behind the image. When we fear that which should cause no fear at all we betray our lack of faith in God. If God can and does give us the ability to swim, or at least float, when we have fallen off the deep end, why are we so terrified of the wading pool?
The church has never been defeated, and will never be defeated, by the great cataclysms of life. In fact, in the face of great trials and persecutions the church has not only survived, it has thrived.
The church in the United States has only recently started to experience a major exodus, a major weakening of numbers, and it has occurred at precisely the moment when the church is the most affluent and protected that it has ever been. We have failed to speak with boldness and clarity on social issues and political issues and moral issues that are confronting us every day and from every possible angle. We are being defeated not by the enormity of the opposition, but by the inadequacy of our own faith. Increasingly the church is viewed as irrelevant and archaic. We have feared “falling off the deep end” and we have succeeded in drowning in the wading pool.
Foster’s book is powerful and challenging. No matter how many times I read it I gain new insights and am pricked to deepen my prayer life. I need to pray each of the chapters that Foster discusses. I need more inward, upward and outward prayer. I need to have more faith in the God who not only gave me the avenue of prayer, but commanded me to use it. I do not want to be guilty of thinking that I can do everything by myself. I want to be more thoughtful of others in prayer. And I want to tap into the awesome power that God has promised me through the avenue of prayer.
And, I especially do not want to be guilty of falling off the shallow end of the pool anymore.