This post has started out in several different forms. Each time I would erase a little, change a little, zig a little here, zag a little there. Every time I started out with the same goal, and each time I found myself traipsing down a path I had not necessarily planned on traipsing. Such is the nature of this post – I know what I want to say but the “getting out” is proving to be quite exhausting.
For those of you who do not keep up with religious bloggers, quite the hoo-haw has been raised over the past few days concerning Donald Miller’s confession that he does not like church very much. (He wrote a book entitled Blue Like Jazz in which he basically said the same thing, but in much more disguised and glowing terminology.) There have been dozens (hundreds?) of blogs written in response – some praising and some condemning. But what I find to be interesting is that so many of Miller’s compatriots in the “Emerging Church” movement have ended up in exactly the same place – they all claim to love Jesus exuberantly but for one reason or another cannot stand to remain in the “institutional” church (whatever that is) so they leave the church to join the ekklesia at large. I see that as a very high-brow way of saying, “I love to eat steak, but I would never condone the slaughtering of a cow. So I get my steaks at the restaurant.”
I might add, for those of you who think I am just reacting to everyone else’s reaction, I have had three classes in a doctoral level program that were either entirely or significantly focused on the writings of post-modern, “Emerging Church” theologians. I was interested in their writings (and I still am), but was then and remain now deeply doubtful of the long-term results of their shallow theology. They often indicate they are in agreement with orthodox Christianity, but when they spell out what they really believe in terms of practice it becomes clear that their doxy is quite anything but ortho.
I should also say up front that I too believe that the modern church is not what it could and should be. I think I am honest about my misgivings. If I am permitted to do so, I intend to direct my dissertation to an area of theology and practice that I believe modern Churches of Christ have completely (or to be more charitable, almost completely) omitted – and much to our spiritual loss. But, the Good Lord willing, I will write out of a position of love and healing, not a position of hate and rejection. Such is my plan, anyway, and my fate is currently in the hands of others, so all of this may be a bunch of blather about nothing.
But, returning to my original, thoroughly revamped post – I just wonder how anyone can proclaim any kind of love for Jesus or God and at the same time argue that the church is dead, or at least is on life support and should be extinguished. What kind of friend walks up to a groom and says, “Man, I love you like you were my own brother, but I have to tell you, that girl you just married is as ugly as the south end of a north bound donkey and has the personality of a witch.”
The book of Revelation ends with God’s redeemed people receiving a stamped, embossed invitation to the marriage feast between the Son and his bride, the Church. Jesus died for the church, his creation. Paul rejoiced that he was able to continue Christ’s afflictions for the church. It’s funny, but with all the warts and dysfunction and flat-out heresies that consumed the early churches, Paul never referred to them as anything other than God’s holy and precious children.
Yes, I love the church. Exactly why would take a whole book to explain – this blog is just too short. But suffice it to say that I love the church exactly because Jesus loved the church – enough to die so that it might have life. And it seems to me that if Jesus loved something enough to die for it then I should make every effort to love it as well.
It may not be popular, it may not be blue like jazz, but in the end God is not going to ask if we were trendy and hip – He will judge whether we have been faithful and devoted. I do not think that God ever expected the church on earth to be perfect – I think that is a dangerous myth that has led to some horrendous mistakes. But we can be faithful, honest and disciplined – all hallmarks of the church that God gave to us through the blood of Christ.
The church of Christ, the church of God, the church of the Firstborn Ones*, the universal ekklesia or the local congregation down the street, – whatever name you find in Scripture, just love the church. Help it get better. Point out where it is weak. Make it stronger. Just do not leave it and claim you are doing so for the love of Jesus.
*The word firstborn in Hebrews 12:23 is plural. This is not typically translated, as firstborns or firstborn ones are clumsy ways of translating the phrase. Think of the word “fish.” We can catch either one fish, or multiple fish, but we only rarely (and only archaically) catch more than one fishes. The context of the passage, however, makes the plural obvious.
As a conservative, Bible believing Christian I do not often speak about God’s incompetence. I rarely have opportunity to discuss his abject failure and blatant ignorance. But, thanks to so many wonderful bloggers out there I have been presented with this precious opportunity, and I shall endeavor to make the most of it.
It would appear that, according to these theological wunderkinder, God is basically able to create the world ex nihilo and part the Red Sea and feed 5,000 people with a couple of fish and some matzo crackers, but there are some things that are simply beyond God’s otherwise unimpeachable metaphysical prowess. Chief among these, or perhaps the ONLY thing God cannot do, is offend people.
That is right, you did not hear it first here, folks, but God is simply incapable of offending people. Let me explain it the best way I know how:
God can take an young, unmarried and very much virgin girl from a peasant village in a backwater strip of land known as “Palestine” and choose her to bear his very own Son. God is further capable of declaring through this Son His very nature – who and what it means to be God. Throughout this Divine Son’s ministry on earth he made a lot of people very, very angry. He called the religious leaders a bunch of snakes. He challenged the religious hierarchy and told them their precious temple would be destroyed. He even had the audacity to march in and kick over their money-changing tables and throw the bums out.
But, he never, ever, ever offended anyone.
His earliest disciples picked right up where He left off. They told the leading religious figures that ALL people, not just a chosen few, could enter into God’s kingdom. They challenged sexual practices, religious practices, economic practices, domestic practices, speech patterns and changed the liturgy of their worship.
But, they were careful to never, ever, ever offend anyone, because that is simply something God cannot do.
So, when a question arose over whether men should be the leaders of the family and church these early disciples were hit with a problem. Jesus never offended the tender sensibilities of the people by selecting a woman as one of his apostles, and all the way back to the garden of Eden there appeared to be an solid chain of male spiritual leadership, so these early disciples did what God was forced to do and what Jesus surrendered as well.
They strove mightily not to offend anyone who would be upset if a woman was selected as a spiritual leader.
So, we might see little hints and pointers that women are to be elevated into spiritual leadership positions, but they have to be extremely well camouflaged lest the words upset these fragile early followers of Jesus, and more important, the surrounding culture. So well camouflaged, I might add, that it took almost 2,000 years of some of the finest theology ever written to decode the carefully hidden messages.
So, when the apostle Paul encouraged the women to be silent in Corinth (well, according to the letter that was his message everywhere, but we do not want to confuse the situation any more than it already is) he was only faking it, what he really meant to say was, “OK gals, you’re in charge now – go for it!”
The same with Peter. Bless his heart, after almost letting the cat out of the bag in that ill planned sermon in Acts 2, he had to come back and redeem his socially acceptable self in his first letter when he referred to those “weaker vessels” that had to be gently loved by their husbands. Whew! That was a close call!
There is only one thing that I do not understand about this multi-act play. I don’t get it.
Why would this all powerful God, who from the very first page of Genesis to the last word of Revelation, demonstrates that he goes out of his way to delight in upsetting the status quo, suddenly be stricken with a case of total incompetence when it comes to the issue of spiritual leadership? Why would Jesus, who was a Great White shark when it came to touching all kinds of spiritually and physically unclean people and who allowed prostitutes to touch him, suddenly become a jellyfish when it came to choosing his immediate successors? Why would an apostle, in presenting arguments that would completely upend virtually every facet of common culture, suddenly balk and become impotent when the issue of female spiritual leadership came up?
And, much beyond those questions, if we can label certain teachings of these apostles as inferior and even spiritually false, how can we trust any of their writings? If Jesus and Peter and Paul could all be wrong about the gender thing, how can we trust they were anywhere close to being right about the grace thing? What about the ultimate question of God Himself? Is this all just an elaborate charade? Could it be that Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, et.al., are actually correct – that the Bible is nothing more than a bunch of fables used by certain power groups to maintain their hegemony?
You see, I just don’t buy the argument. If God is who He says He is, if Jesus is who He says He is and if he could do the things that the Bible records that He did, then by all means God could “upset the tender sensibilities” of a culture that placed men over women. God could have kicked over the tables of the misogynists and thrown the bums out. Jesus could have selected three or six female apostles, and the male apostles could have written emphatically that in the realm of spiritual leadership there is to be no gender difference.
But that is not the story that we have. That is not the Scripture that we have. So, we are faced with a question:
Is our God a bumbling, fumbling, incompetent buffoon who only occasionally gets a few things right, or is our God one who both knows the human psyche and who directs humanity’s footsteps, even in directions that we are not inclined to go?
I’m placing my faith in a God who is so much bigger and so much smarter and so much more powerful than I am.
And yes, I do happen to believe that God is capable of offending people.
I have been swamped by a mixture of pressing duties and an admittedly poor administration of time management. That has accounted for the paucity of posts over the past several weeks. However, now that I am in-between semesters, maybe I can do a little catching up.
One item of immediate business is to address some questions/comments that were made in response to my comments to the Churches of Christ. In particular is one rather animated individual who, at least in my initial impression, was genuinely off-put by some of my declarations. In subsequent comments it became more clear to me that while not quite so antagonistic as I had originally thought, this individual has some serious questions/challenges to the concept of restoration theology, and he provided me with a few of those questions. So, I have identified this individual as a generous antagonist: antagonist in that he clearly disagrees with me, generous in that he has engaged me with an accepting tone, albeit a pointed one. This is how it should be. If your position is not worth defending, it is not worth owning.
At the outset I want it clearly understood, however, that I am only defending MY position, and if you were to ask 100 other ministers within the Churches of Christ you would probably come up with 162 other opinions. That is because ministers within the Churches of Christ rarely agree, and even if they agree they have to share some unique twist or “improvement” on someone else’s opinion. So, I am not declaring divine inspiration here, but I do want to make my own understanding of the situation as clear as I can.
So for a general beginning, here is what I consider to be a very pertinent question:
So my question is, how do you justify the idea that there are 2,000 years of Christian history if the “true Church” left planet earth shortly after/during the apostolic era (who knows when?) and then popped up in the 19th century? Is it not more honest to suggest that your tradition only has less-than 200 years of history?
Perhaps a little background might be valuable. I was making the argument that the record of church history defended the use of acappella music as opposed to instrumental music. My interlocutor wondered, if the Churches of Christ disavow church history from “X” period of time up until Alexander Campbell “got it right” then how can we appeal to “church history” as a defense of acapella music in worship?
My answer in response to this and similar questions posed by the same individual is this: I do not believe the “‘true church’ left the planet earth shortly after/during the apostolic era (who knows when?) and then popped up in the 19th century.” I know there are some (perhaps many) within the Churches of Christ who do believe this, but my antagonist must ask them this question. As I do not believe the statement, I cannot defend it.
The phrase “true Church” is mystifying to me. That phrase communicates that there are true churches and false churches, real churches and fake churches, good churches and evil churches. The New Testament, continuing and building upon the Old Testament, communicates no such idea. In the Old Testament there were the “people of God” (sons of God, Children of Israel, the “faithful”) and there were “the nations.” In the New Testament we find this “people of God” being identified by a new communal name, “the Church,” but the concept is identical. There is “the Church” and there are the “nations” – those who either flat out disbelieve in God or who might accept that God exists, but who reject his commandments.
Now, within this Church there are a number of other “categories” that we might identify from phrases either found in Scripture or closely akin to terms used in Scripture. One would be schismatics, those who would divide the Church because of ego or some other non-doctrinal matter. John had his Diotrephes, Paul had his opponents in Corinth. These folks need to be disciplined, to be sure, but theirs is more a problem of ego rather than doctrine.
Another group would be those who would destroy the Church over matters of doctrine. Paul was much more severe with these individuals: Galatians is the best example of his address to these folks. However, there were some of these people everywhere Paul went – he told Timothy to watch out for Hymenaeus and Philetus. These two clearly had a false teaching related to the resurrection and Paul says they have “wandered away from the truth.” (2 Tim.2:17).
So, while we have schismatics and heretics, we only have one “Church.” While schismatics may seek to divide the Church, and heretics must be cast out of the Church, there can only be one “Church.” Jesus did not come to build many churches, but only one – His Church.
So, out of the dozens, if not hundreds, of “churches” in existence today, which is the “true” Church? Answer: the one that truly seeks to “love God with all of its heart, soul, mind and strength, and that loves its neighbor as itself” to borrow a phrase both from the Old Testament and Jesus’ teaching. The “true Church” is not defined by the name on the building, the legal documents that establish it with the state, the creed or confession that separates it from other “churches.” The true Church is the Church was created by Jesus, bought with his blood, and the one that lives its life in total surrender to the grace and command of God.
Now, please note: within that Church there may be many who are schismatics and heretics. The one group needs to be disciplined, the other needs to be removed. Just as with a human body, some diseases need to be cured; gangrenous limbs need to be amputated. In regard to the sheer number of “churches” in existence today that process appears to be impossible. But, I also believe in the power of the Holy Spirit and in God’s desire that His Church be as pure as is humanly possible. Therefore, I am a firm believer in, and defender of, the restoration movement.
However, let me be clear about this next point as well. The restoration movement that I see as my example did not begin with Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone. My example for the restoration of the Church began with the apostle Paul.
It is impossible to read Paul’s letters without noticing one overwhelming theme: Christ’s Church is to be focused on and lead by Christ. Just read 1 Corinthians and underline every mention of the names “Jesus,” “Lord,” “Christ” or any combination of the three. How many times in the prison epistles (Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, Philemon) is the phrase, “in Christ” used? Paul was not concerned about creating, developing or maintaining a human institution. He was concerned about being a people devoted to Christ. Paul was the archetypal restorationist. I believe in “restoration theology” because it is what the apostle Paul taught. The closer we as humans get to Christ, the more we become the “true Church” of Christ.
And, so, to my generous antagonist I will say this in answer to his question: the “apostasy” that affected the church affected it in the first century, and has repeated itself in every century since. The “restoration” of that church started in the first century, and has been necessary in every century since. To the extent that the Church fails to be the pure bride of Christ in any generation it has “apostatized,” and therefore a “restoration” becomes necessary. This was true in Ephesus, Colosse, Philippi, Rome, Jerusalem and it is every bit true in every place where there is a Church in 2013.
I will continue with some other very good and thought provoking questions in the days to come.
P.S. – It occurred to me in re-reading this post that I did not address the second part of the question above. To conserve space I would simply say “yes, it would be appropriate to admit that our ‘tradition’ is only approximately 200 years old, if by ‘tradition’ you mean that movement which was popularized and promoted by Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, and a host of others.” If, however, you mean by ‘tradition’ that we as a group of people seek to follow God the Father and Jesus as Lord in all that we do, then no, our tradition spans the entirety of history from the call of Abraham until today. Depending on the context and my audience, I will use ‘tradition’ in either sense, and in my opinion, justifiably so.
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.
“Postmodern” philosophy stands or falls on one basic premise: there is no ultimate truth. Postmodernists may not say this, because that statement basically admits to foundationalism (the foundation here is that there is no foundation). But from the French philosophers who birthed the idea to Brian McLaren and further on down there is a non-ceasing repetition of the concept that in “modernism” there was an assurance of truth, but now that humans have moved past that infantile concept, we can do away with any suggestion of an “absolute, bomb-proof truth.”
And, folks, that idea is gaining an incredibly strong foothold in the church. Just look at how major Christian fellowships have changed, and in some cases, even reversed, their public proclamations regarding same sex relationships.
So, today I was doing my daily Bible reading, and the New Testament passage was in Ephesians 4. I am reading in God’s Word Translation, as I am trying to vary my Bible reading so I can stay abreast of translation changes and also to get a fresh reading of the text. Because God’s Word Translation is written in an easy-to-read format the sentences are shorter, and so I will quote the text from v. 20, although the phrase I want to emphasize is found in v. 21:
But that is not what you learned from Christ’s teachings. You have certainly heard his message and have been taught his ways. The truth is in Jesus.
Wow. I have read Ephesians, like, probably a gazillion times, and yet because that last phrase is typically presented as a clause and not a complete sentence, its power never really hit me. Until today, that is. By putting the phrase in its own separate sentence the translators did us a huge favor. They brought out the power and the force of those five little English words.
(As an aside, this is why we are to read multiple translations. Sometimes even the best of translations get things wrong, and sometimes even the worst of translations get things right. I am learning to truly appreciate the God’s Word Translation, although I will admit that it too has its flaws. Every work of a human being will have weaknesses, but this is a solid translation, and worthy of a print purchase or download if such a option is available.)
Notice three things about this verse: (I apologize, I’m a preacher so I tend to think in triads)
1. There is a truth. Paul does not mince his words. I have been amazed at the myriad efforts that are made to deconstruct John 14:6, where Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” I would give you some of those deconstructions, but they are so confusing that I don’t understand them. How can you say that Jesus does not say something that he not only says, but emphasizes? And yet I had an instructor attempt to do that very thing. Jesus may have said it, but he did not mean what he said – and the reason he did not mean what he said was that we have to make room for all the Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Mormons, and other fringe religions to be able to make it to heaven. So, for the postmodern preacher, no effort should be spared to make Jesus say something he clearly did not say.
Obviously, Paul missed out on the postmodern interpretation. BOOM! In one incredibly powerful little sentence (or phrase, if you use an older translation), Paul says there is a truth.
2. That truth is identifiable. Paul did not speak about some nebulous, impossible to define concept that floats somewhere in the netherworld and is impossible for humans to obtain (as exists in a Platonic worldview). Nope, for Paul the truth was pretty easy to find, and in fact it is pretty easy to teach. Paul reminded the Ephesian Christians that they had, indeed, been taught this truth. They did not need to go to some postmodern seminar to be told that such a thing did not exist. They knew it existed, because they had experienced it.
3. That truth was located in a flesh and blood person, Jesus of Nazareth. The truth is in Jesus. “In Christ” or “in Jesus” or “in the Lord” are some of Paul’s favorite expressions. It is one of the most theologically pregnant expressions in the New Testament. You could study that phrase for months and not exhaust the depth of its meaning. But, suffice it to say here that this rock-solid, bomb-proof truth is found in the person of Jesus, and it is into this Jesus that we are baptized, and it is into his life that we are resurrected to walk as new creatures.
Many years ago a little girl wrote a letter asking if there was a real Santa Claus. A newspaper editor penned what has become a classic in 20th century journalism, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” Today millions of people all across the globe, but especially here in the United States and in North America are asking a fundamental question: “Is there a truth, and if there is, where can I find it?”
Yes, world, there is a truth. It is rock solid, it is bomb-proof, in fact it is Roman crucifixion proof. That truth is in Jesus of Nazareth. That truth is Jesus the Christ, resurrected and coming back.
That truth, my friends, will get you through a lot of foggy days!
In case you have not noticed, I am a religious exclusivist. Beyond that, I am a biblical exclusivist. Furthermore, I am a Christian exclusivist. I understand everything through the lens of what it means to follow Christ. These aspects of my life are as solid to me as the ground upon which I walk.
Because the entire thrust of our “postmodern” culture is to denigrate and exclude exclusivists (I love the irony of that concept), I wanted to post a defense of exclusivism, especially my view of Christian exclusivism.
I believe in biblical, Christian exclusivism because I believe the Bible communicates that particular viewpoint from Genesis to Revelation. In the Bible we see a clear distinction between right and wrong, good and evil, obedience and disobedience, faith and fear. In the opening scenes of paradise, there were two trees in the center of the garden – one of the knowledge of good and evil, and the other the tree of life (and therefore, its opposite would be death). Our first ancestors chose disobedience over obedience, fear over faith, and so the choice of everlasting life was removed and they were given death.
Throughout God’s most explicit law there were constant reminders to separate the clean from the unclean. The Aaronic priesthood, in particular, was to constantly teach the people of the difference between the holy and the secular, the pure from the profane, the good from the evil (Lev. 10:10). The prophet Ezekiel soundly criticized the leaders of Israel for that very failure – they ceased to separate the holy from the profane, and so even God’s holy Name was profaned (Ezekiel 26:23-31). The great prophet Isaiah preached a message condemning the people for reversing God’s order, and for calling “good, evil; and evil, good” (Isaiah 5:20). Getting even more specific, in the New Testament we read that Jesus himself told his followers, “I am the way, the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father but by me.” (John 14:6). The early disciples obviously learned this lesson well, as Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, told the Sanhedrin, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) If I am wrong in teaching that there is a clear divide between the Holy and the profane, the clean and the unclean, the sacred and the secular, then I believe I am in good company. It is the responsibility of those who believe otherwise to convince me of their belief. Likewise, if there is another path to God other than that of Jesus, it is the responsibility of those who believe that to convince me of their belief. But, to be honest, they have a tall order to overcome the plain teaching of the biblical text.
I offer these defenses of my position of biblical, Christian exclusivism:
1. Our actions betray our underlying beliefs. If I refuse to sail on the ocean because I believe that my ship will fall off into the abyss once I get to the edge of the horizon I am betraying that I believe in bad science. If I believe that “all roads lead to heaven” and that there is no ultimate distinction between the holy and the profane, the sacred and the secular, then I am betraying a flat moralistic view of humanity. In that regard there is no difference between Mother Theresa and Adolf Hitler. Each served his or her nature as he or she saw fit. I utterly reject that concept. There is a vast difference between that which is holy (marriage for example) and that which is profane (pornography, marriage’s ultimate opposite). Those who argue “there is no sacred/secular divide” reveal their humanistic epistemology. They decide truth based on their humanity, not upon God’s divinity.
2. Two people cannot hold epistemologically opposite beliefs (that is, two different truth claims) and be in “fellowship.” I cannot be in fellowship with a follower of Joseph Smith because I simply cannot accept the myth that he spoke to some angel named “Moroni.” I cannot be in fellowship with one who holds unswervingly to the teachings of John Calvin because I cannot accept the basis upon which he interpreted large sections of Scripture. I can agree with him or her that the Scriptures are the ultimate authority, but Calvin was working from a theory of human depravity that I simply reject. If I reject his view of human depravity, then I cannot follow Calvin’s concept of the redemption of that depravity.
This has very specific applications when it comes to relating to various religious, and I might even add, “Christian” groups. For a couple of critical examples, either baptism is or is not the defining moment of salvation (1 Peter 3:21). Note: it is not an experience of magic, but it is a critical event. Therefore, when someone tells me that baptism is optional, that salvation can be obtained through the incantation of a special “prayer” or “opening up one’s heart to Jesus” I have to object. That is not what the New Testament teaches, and if I am to be true to the teachings of the New Testament I have to reject these other human substitutions. Second, either the Lord’s Supper is or is not a central part of our worship experience. Here again, many would argue that it is optional, and that it can be observed on a haphazard schedule, or no schedule at all. Once again, that is not what the New Testament teaches, and if I am to follow what the New Testament teaches, I must take the Lord’s Supper far more seriously than that.
3. This leads me to my third point: even if someone tells me that they have a very high view of Scripture, if they take certain central teachings of the Bible and modify them to meet their cultural or historical practices, then I simply cannot trust that they do, in fact, have that high view of Scripture. A high view of Scripture means that we modify our beliefs and practices to match God’s word, not the other way around. I do not in any way question a Roman Catholic who believes in the inspiration and authority of the Bible, but I do have to question their application of that belief when they teach that Mary was conceived miraculously (devoid of any human lust) and that she has special mediator powers with Jesus and God. Likewise, I have to question the doctrine that a person can be saved “by grace alone through faith alone” when the apostle Paul never said anything remotely close to that. Paul did say we are saved by grace through faith, but he clearly taught a saving faith is expressed through baptism and, following that, a life of continual sanctification.
4. This leads me then to suggest that such a person cannot truly trust me when I hold epistemological beliefs in direct contrast with theirs. I often wonder how someone can consider me to be in perfect fellowship with them when I disagree with that person on virtually every doctrine they hold. “Oh,” they say, “we only differ on matters of opinion, but we are unified by our faith in Jesus.” Maybe we are. Maybe I am wrong. But when we disagree about what it takes to enter the body and blood of Jesus, when we disagree about the central commemorative event around which our worship is built, and when we disagree about the very process of that worship, then I have to ask, just how unified are we?
5. Which then leads me to my last point: Am I condemning the person with whom I disagree in the sense that I am speaking for God? NO! Absolutely not. Remember my Undeniable Truth for Theological Reflection #1. Such a person may be wholly obedient to God and God may in His wisdom and grace accept those with whom I disagree, just as I hope He forgives me of my theological errors and accepts my human failings. But, in my limited human understanding, I cannot be in fellowship with someone whose foundational beliefs differ from my epistemological beliefs so radically. I cannot say, “I believe ‘X’ is true, but if you believe ‘Y’ is true then that makes ‘Y’ true.” In matters where God has spoken, either ‘X’ is true or ‘Y’ is true, but they cannot both be true.
The advantage to being an exclusivist is that, if I am proven wrong, I can change my mind and hold to a greater understanding of truth. If I have said something here that is clearly false, I ask you to correct me. I can only learn from someone who disagrees with me, or who knows more about a subject than I do. A moral or theological relativist has nothing to offer me. (This is why, with some notable exceptions, I find very few theologians born in the late 20th century that are worth reading. No one believes anything anymore. No one holds any convictions. The theological landscape is just so pathetically vanilla now.)
Evil is not good. Wrong is not right. Dark is not light. Secular is not sacred. Profane is not holy. Truth is not what we decide it to be. Jesus did not die to free us to follow our own hearts. “I believe that Jesus is the Son of God” is not a morally, nor is it a religiously, relativistic statement.
Some beliefs just naturally exclude others, and that is where I am right now. As Martin Luther is so famously quoted as saying, “I can do no other.”