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Book Review – “Dissident Discipleship” (David Augsburger)

I have not been posting much this summer (and probably will not, except for a stray column now and then). I am working on finishing my dissertation for my Doctor of Ministry program and I am up to my armpits in writing crises. I just have not had time for this space this summer.

But, some things are just too good to pass up.

As a part of my dissertation I was reviewing some material from earlier classes at Fuller Theological Seminary. I came across a book that I did not realize how important it was the first time I read it, but now after the passage of some time and the focusing of my dissertation I have an entirely new appreciation for  the material.

Cover of "Dissident Discipleship: A Spiri...

Cover via Amazon

The book is titled, Dissident Discipleship: A Spirituality of Self-Surrender, Love of God, and Love of Neighbor by David Augsburger. It is published by Brazos Press out of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and has a 2006 publication date. In a sentence, the book is a description of the Anabaptist view of discipleship.

I don’t want to spoil anything for those of you who are curious about my dissertation, but finding this book on my shelves again was huge. Augsburger works through eight core practices of discipleship: Radical Attachment, Stubborn Loyalty, Tenacious Serenity, Habitual Humility, Resolute Nonviolence, Concrete Service, Authentic Witness and Subversive Spirituality. Augsburger then concludes with six appendices, the most valuable to me was the seven “Core Convictions” of the Anabaptists. As you can tell from the chapter headings, this is not fluffy reading. Although Augsburger works through some heavy theology, the book is not written in “technical jargon” and is easily accessible, if the reader will simply devote some time to absorbing the material. The content will challenge you, regardless of whether you accept Augsburger’s conclusions or not.

Coming from a tradition that values reason and logic above all else, there was much in this book that was difficult for me to understand. I do not agree with everything that Augsburger says in the book – I never agree whole heartedly with any author (well, almost never). However, after the passage of several years, a whole heap of a lot of study, and the focus of my dissertation, all of a sudden I think I realize just how important, and how powerful, this book really is.

The fact that the book is based on the “radical” Anabaptist tradition will, no doubt, be distressing to many. If you judge a book, or an entire movement, by the fly-leaf of a book review or by the shallow lecture of someone who knows nothing about the tradition, then this is probably not the book for you. It would rattle your cage to the point you would probably lose your sanity.

However, If you are serious about learning about an often misjudged and abused people, then by all means buy and study this book. If you are serious about learning about what it means to be a disciple of Christ, then by all means buy and study this book. If you are interested in deepening your walk with God and your service to the church and world, then by all means buy and study this book.

But be careful, you just might end up becoming a dissident disciple.

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Christians and the U.S. Constitution

English: Painting, 1856, by Junius Brutus Stea...

English: Painting, 1856, by Junius Brutus Stearns, Washington at Constitutional Convention of 1787, signing of U.S. Constitution. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I apologize to my out-of-the-U.S. readers, but this is where I live, and if you do not have this problem consider yourself extremely blessed.

Yesterday I wrote what probably has been my most angry post. I am still fuming – and believe me, what I posted was nowhere near as vitriolic as what I deleted. Quite simply I cannot fathom why anyone would consider a personal “right” (whether it truly is or not is debatable) over the life of another human being, but especially the child of grieving parent. Enough of that.

The question I want to pose today is why do American “Christians” have such a morbid attachment to the U.S. Constitution? Why are American Christians so emotionally attached to that piece of paper? Can anyone explain that?

Really, people – its just a piece of paper. A bunch of human beings got together, wrote it down and then voted on what they wrote. It is as simple as that. There was no divine intervention, no words from Mt. Sinai, and there were clearly no words from Golgotha. It was a significant human achievement, I will grant you. But Americans, and Christians in America especially, act as if Moses carried down the mountain before the 10 Commandments. I mean, wasn’t Moses elected president of the NRA? That’s good enough for most Duck Dynasty fans, anyway.

Here is a little exercise for you – think of the most horrific thing that can happen to the U.S. Constitution. Was it destroyed? Did a foreign country overwhelm the U.S. and burn it to ashes? Did the President get it annulled? (Our current one is working on it, by the way). Got it? Now, what would change about your life?

Really, seriously – what would change if the Constitution was to be destroyed? Would you maybe lose your job? Would you become a slave? Would you have to go to an interment camp? Maybe your family would be killed? Maybe you would be killed?

Well, guess what, good Christian American – each and every one of those things has occurred to people as a direct result of the U.S. Constitution! If you doubt be ask the descendent of a slave. Ask a Native American Indian whose ancestors were beaten, raped, forced to live in “Reservations” (which is a really polite word for “Concentration Camp”) and, if they resisted, were murdered by the thousands. Ask the Chinese who were forced to work as virtual slaves as the country moved west. Ask the Japanese and German immigrants who were forced to live in interment camps during WWII simply because of their last names. Yeah, boy, we have a long list of Christian accomplishments – all at the power of the U.S. Constitution.

If the U.S. Constitution were destroyed tomorrow I will tell you what would still be true – God would still be God, Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross would still be effective for all who believe in him, disciples of Christ would still be able to live in the greatest free country in the world – the country of the Kingdom of God.

No human can ever be really free just because of the accident of his or her birth. No human can ever be a slave to anyone if that person has been set free by the blood of Christ. We are all, each and every human who has ever lived, ultimately the slave of whichever god we choose to be the ruler of our life. And that subjection is proclaimed most clearly by the things we protect the most fiercely and those things we absolutely refuse to give up.

So, I ask again, why are American Christians so devoted to the Constitution? Oh, I think I just answered my own question.

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“Jesus Was Not God”

balance scale

balance scale (Photo credit: winnifredxoxo)

Okay, I hope I did not vacuum someone in here that did not want to be here, and if I did I apologize. In no way, shape or form do I agree with the message of the title of this post (notice the quotation marks??). However, an increasing number of people do believe this, but not in manner that you might suspect. On a surface “intellectual” level they will say that yes, indeed, Jesus was the living embodiment of the eternal God. However, on a functional “gut” level they simply do not accept that Jesus is in any way the one, true, living God.

Just this week I was reminded (in reading another blog) that there is a deep seated repulsion of the idea that the loving, kind, and all-forgiving Jesus of the New Testament could be associated with the mean, nasty, wrathful and genocidal God of the Old Testament. This is especially true in two specific areas: capital punishment and homosexuality. The God of the Old Testament, it is averred, was a deity best described as cold, austere, vengeful and angry. Offer the wrong kind of incense and poof, God just zapped you dead. Touch the Ark of the Covenant in an unworthy manner and pay for it with your life. Simply go outside and pick up a few sticks on the Sabbath and kiss your next birthday goodbye. And that whole sex thing? That was just one entire death sentence just waiting to happen. It is a wonder any babies were born.

However, turn the page from Malachi to Matthew and all of the sudden we have Jesus – meek, mild, gentle little Jesus who cradled sinners and hobnobbed with the wretched. Jesus, it is proclaimed, never had a bad word to say about anyone, forgave everyone, and basically told his followers, “You know, all those stories about God punishing the unrighteous – well, that was true up until I was born, but now its ollie-ollie-in-come-free.” Why, we have Jesus getting drunk (or at least tipsy, so it is insinuated), thumbing his nose at all those restrictive 10 commandments (or at least that pesky Sabbath one) and promenading around with the promiscuous. Amazingly enough, Jesus looks just like a rebellious teenage or a baby-boomer looking for a second childhood.

Of course, all of this is post-modern deconstruction and re-historizing. Individuals who have this myopic view of Jesus and God have never done one, or perhaps either, of two things. They have never deeply read the Old Testament, and they have never deeply read the New Testament. For in the Old Testament we see God repeatedly begging His wayward people to return to Him and demonstrating time and again how He has made it possible for them to do so. Likewise, we see in the New Testament, especially in the words of Jesus, how God’s patience is limited. There will come a day of judgment in which some will be blessed and some will be punished. Jesus himself pronounced specific and eternal curses (woes) upon those who rejected his words, as well as offered tears because they would not.

Yes, God demanded strict obedience in the Old Testament, and He punished those who defied His Holiness. If I read Acts 5 correctly, He did so in the New Testament as well. And, yes, God forgave blatant sinners in the Old Testament (insiders as well as outsiders to the faith); and, clearly, He did so in the New Testament. So, you tell me – exactly how is the Jesus of the New Testament different from the God of the Old Testament? It seems to me that the entire point of the New Testament is that Jesus IS the God of the Old Testament – only briefly made human so that we could see and hear from Him directly (Jn. 1:1).

Please do not get caught up in this postmodern falderal. Of course it is not new – according to the writer of Ecclesiastes nothing is ever entirely “new.” But it is certainly becoming more prevalent. The New Testament portrayal of Jesus does not contradict the Old Testament portrayal of God. The gospel of Jesus is in the Pentateuch, the Writings, and the Prophets just as clearly as it is in the Gospels, Acts and the Epistles. However, the Holiness of God is just as prevalent in the Gospels, Acts and the Epistles as it is in the Pentateuch, the Writings, and the Prophets. We worship One God, not two. That God has one will, not two. There is one people of faith, not a pre-faith and post-faith. And we will all be saved by the one grace of God, and judged by the one revelation of that God.

Hear O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. (Deut. 6:4)

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God’s Counter-Cultural People

Politically Incorrect Area

Politically Incorrect Area (Photo credit: Scott Beale)

Another gem from my daily Bible reading today – Leviticus 18:1-5 (Yes, it is okay for Christians to read Genesis-Malachi):

 

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: I am the LORD your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not follow their statutes. My ordinances you shall observe and my statutes you shall keep, following them: I am the LORD your God. You shall keep my statutes and my ordinances; by doing so one shall live: I am the LORD. (NRSV)

This passage, of course, precedes the great holiness chapter in Leviticus 19 where the phrase, “I am the LORD” falls like a drumbeat on the ear. But maybe more on that another time.

 

I was struck this morning with the profound counter-cultural message of Leviticus 18:1-5. God cannot make it any more clear – do not be like the people that I am delivering you from, and do not be like the people that I am going to drive from you. You are my people, therefore you will follow my statutes and my commands and my ordinances.

 

I wish more religious/spiritual/Christian leaders would read the Old Testament. Especially the holiness passages.

 

Today what we hear from far too many spiritual gurus is that the Lord’s church has become too exclusive, too secluded, too provincial. What the church needs to do is get with the culture – become more affirming, more inclusive, more accessible.

 

To be specific, if the dominant culture dictates that there are no differences between the genders then the church must become gender neutral. If the culture dictates that marriage is simply a matter of “love” and physical attraction then the church must not only accept same-sex marriages, it must bless them. If the culture dictates that nationalism is synonymous with spirituality then the church must preach subservience to one’s country, and perhaps even one political party within that national structure. If the culture dictates what is acceptable in dress, in language, in entertainment then the church must alter its message to accept that clothing, that language, and that entertainment. If the culture dictates how a person is to spend his or her time, then the church must alter its schedule to find a time in which a person who is “busy” with soccer or softball or football or gymnastics or dance or whatever else may conflict with previously scheduled times of worship may attend without missing out on the “important” aspects of life.

 

To be perfectly blunt – the 21st century church has forgotten from whence we have been called and whither we are being called. We have forgotten that Egypt was our place of slavery and that Canaan is nothing but a spiritual cesspool.

 

Okay – we have never been slaves in Egypt and Canaan is all the way around the world, and several centuries removed from our experience. But the message of Leviticus is clear: our God is a Holy God and he expects us to disregard the culture in which we find ourselves and to follow only His commands, His statutes.

 

That means we have God’s commands as a priority when we find ourselves in an unfriendly culture and when we find ourselves in a friendly culture. Maybe especially when we find ourselves in a friendly culture.

 

For far too long Christians in America have soothed our consciences by repeating the mantra: “America is a Christian nation, America is a Christian nation, America is a Christian nation.” Well, whether that has been true in the past is a matter for debate (I, for one, do not think so). But it clearly is no longer true. We may not have moved to Canaan, but we certainly have allowed Canaan to move into the U.S.

 

Let us be done with cultural accomodation. Let us stand and be recognized for what we claim to be – God’s holy and chosen people. If that earns us scorn and ridicule and censure then so be it. Those are the promises given us by none other than our Savior, Jesus (Matthew 5:10-11; John 15:18-16:4). If the shoe is supposed to fit, maybe it is time we tied it on and started walking in it.

 

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Dialoguing On The Need For Christian Dialogue

not equal

not equal (Photo credit: holeymoon)

I just made a discovery – about my own interpretive process. The process itself is not something new to me, I guess it is the way I have been thinking for quite some time. But the end result of my thinking has just become much more clear. You’ll have to wade through the whole post for my last sentence to make any sense. But it is where I am today.

Let me begin by saying dialogue is great. I heartily support dialogue. Dialogue is necessary and in most cases is quite pleasant. Dialogue is absolutely necessary if two people, or two groups, are to find common ground and negotiate a mutually acceptable position in the midst of a heated and bitter conflict.

Which is why the Church of Christ should never, ever, in any way, shape or form, enter into a dialogue with anyone or anything.

A dialogue takes place between two equals, or between a lesser who appeals to a greater, in the hopes of finding a mutual agreement. A dialogue is a prologue to a compromise. Married couples sometimes need to have a refereed dialogue. Big companies and organized labor quite often need to come to a bargaining table and have a refereed dialogue. Prosecuting and Defending attorneys dialogue quite often to avoid the bother and expense of a trial. On occasion antagonistic countries need to be brought to a negotiating table in order to have a peaceful dialogue.

The Church is not a marriage partner to anyone or anything in this world. The Church is not a big company, nor is it an amalgamation of unionized workers. The Church is not a country, or an aggrieved individual. The Church has no equal on this earth with whom it can compromise. When the Church compromises it loses its nature. It simply ceases to be the Church. To put it bluntly, the Church has no one or nothing with whom it can dialogue.

Over the past 50 years virtually every church group, religious group, denomination, whatever you want to call it, has entered into a “dialogue” with a group that wanted it to become more modern, more “relevant,” more in tune with secular practices and mores. The “Social Gospel,” militant feminism and now militant homosexuality are just three areas in which a religious group has “dialogued” and come out looking far more like the world than when it entered the conversation.

Can you name a major religious group, denomination, or independent church that is theologically more conservative or less “progressive” today than it was 50 years ago? I cannot. Some may not have changed (although, I would argue very few), but I cannot think of a single Christian faith group that is more conservative today than it was just a scant half-century ago.

The only way a group has been able to maintain any kind of conservative, narrowly biblical interpretive stance is to split off from a larger, more “progressive” movement. So we have seen huge defections from the Anglican/Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Lutheran Church and many Baptist and Church of Christ congregations. Whenever anyone says, “We need to reexamine our beliefs about….” what they are really saying is “we need to change our beliefs about…..” and “dialogue” becomes the vehicle by which that change is effected.

All of which makes me very nervous and very skeptical when I hear certain voices promote a new or ongoing “dialogue” between the church and atheist movements, or agnostic movements, or further dialogue with proponents of homosexuality or feminism or militarism or any other king of “ism” for that matter. This would extend, by the way, to “dialogues” with religious groups with whom I might share one or two core convictions, but who have chosen to make substantive departures from what I believe to be Scripture itself is to be viewed.

So my question for these proponents is this – what exactly do you mean by “dialogue?” The way I read the Bible, the Church of Christ does not negotiate anything. The Church does not have the power to compromise with anyone or anything. The Church of Christ is not an equal to any secular power or entity. Therefore, the Church of Christ is under no compulsion or expectation to “dialogue” with anyone.

Nor am I, as a member of the Church of Christ, authorized or deputized to “dialogue” with anyone or any group and speak for “The Church of Christ.” I can only speak for my own convictions, my own beliefs, and my own interpretations of Scripture. And, as much as they may want to argue, no one can speak for me based on his or her interpretations, convictions, or beliefs. I cannot even speak authoritatively for the congregation of which I am a part, and for which I serve as a minister.

In a sentence, the “Church” is a group of people who live their lives in a submissive relationship to the absolute authority of Jesus Christ the Son of God.

So, when you say “the church needs to dialogue with ……,” exactly what authority are you giving the Church that God himself has not given it? And who will speak for the “Church” that you think needs to enter into this dialogue? And what power or authority does that person (or persons) have to bargain with?

Membership in the Church is non-negotiable. That is the thing about the church that the world never has understood, does not now understand, and will not likely ever understand. Discipleship is a total and complete surrender to a Lord and Savior who demands our complete devotion.

So, when I say that I cannot enter into a dialogue with a certain group or with a certain person, I am not trying to be mean, nasty, ugly or unduly obstinate. I am simply living out my conviction that I do not have have the power, the authority, nor the freedom to “dialogue” with someone who refuses to accept the God under whom I have placed my life, and His Word, which I hold to be absolute in guiding my life. I can teach, I can “give a reason for the hope that is within me.” I can evangelize – that is – spread the good news. But I cannot, and I will not, lower my understanding of the nature of the Church of Christ to make it be something that is equal to or lesser than a vain philosophy of this world.

And that, dear reader, something that I am discovering in increasing measure, is profoundly unpopular.

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Why I Love the Church

Little White Church

Little White Church (Photo credit: cwwycoff1)

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.

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God’s Monumental, Incomprehensible, and Staggering Incompetence

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.

Earth from Space

Earth from Space (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) off...

Great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) off South Africa (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

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Questions From a Generous Antagonist

Interior of the original meeting house at Cane...

Interior of the original meeting house at Cane Ridge, Kentucky (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

The World Hated Me…

American Idol

American Idol (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Unity? Or Naivety?

Together

Together (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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:

Doctrine matters.

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.

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