I have far more to add to this series, but it simply would become too cumbersome if I said everything I wanted to say. Also, I have had a wonderful conversation with a follower of this blog, and I promised I would address some of his questions, so many other topics await. And, this has been an extremely fertile period for me in terms of personal study, so my list of future topics grows relentlessly. But, we now rejoin our topic at hand.
As briefly and as emphatically and as passionately as I can, I want to say that the Churches of Christ share a heritage that is as rich and vibrant as any faith group on earth. The community that has (over a long period of time and through many struggles) come to be known as the “Church of Christ” was born of a profound vision. A large and diverse group of individuals came to see that denominational Christianity was and is corrupted Christianity. They were separated by time and by distance, but all came to a remarkably similar conclusion: a return to the apostolic teaching of the New Testament would eliminate the barriers that divided the Christian world. The two most well-known, and therefore most influential, of these men were Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell. Of the two, Campbell was wealthier and had more influence, and so for the greater part of the history of the Churches of Christ the group has followed more of Campbell’s theology than Stone’s. However, the two men had widely divergent viewpoints on many issues, and through careful study of the history that I call my own, as well as reading deeply in the faith traditions of others, I have come to see where in many respects Barton Stone was more faithful to the Scriptures than was Campbell. I see this especially in regard to Stone’s apocalyptic worldview. Whereas he was a “restorer” in the sense of desiring to return to apostolic Christianity, he was nonetheless drawn forward by his understanding of the coming Kingdom of God. I believe it is this forward facing apocalypticism that we must return to if we, the Churches of Christ, are to remain faithful to Christ in the 21st century.
Nowhere is this need more apparent than in the manner in which many (if not an overwhelming majority) of the members of the Churches of Christ have accepted nationalism, and in particular, Republicanism, as the most prominent manifestation of God’s kingdom. In the first century to which so many “Restorers” point, the first Christians were deeply aware of the fact that they were “sojourners” and “aliens” in a foreign land. Members of the Churches of Christ, particularly in the United States, have utterly lost that sense of homelessness. In fact, we actively argue against it every time we wrap the Bible (and therefore all of its teachings) in the American flag. We are totally and completely at home in this world, and our guiding book is not the Word of God, it is the Constitution of the United States. If you doubt me just pay attention to the Sundays leading up to an important election. Sermon after sermon, class after class, announcement after announcement is made declaring that it is not simply the Christian’s right to vote, but it is his or her duty and obligation to vote. And, not just cast a ballot, but that ballot had better be for the candidate of the Republican party. I guess the passage of Scripture that teaches that particular concept is found in 1 Opinions or 2 Interpretations, because I have searched for it all through my Bible and I cannot find it anywhere. Christians are citizens of the city that is above, and our allegiance is to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
There is a HUGE difference between obeying and submitting to a government as long as it does not conflict with Kingdom ethics (which is a biblical teaching) and supporting and furthering that worldly government with our passionate support (which is clearly a concept that is condemned in Scripture).
The more divided and rancorous our political situation becomes, the more critical it becomes for members of the Churches of Christ to divest ourselves of the whole disgusting, ungodly, and corrupting system. In politics everyone loses at some point, and the poor and powerless lose the most frequently and with greater harm. And, just a question, what group is it that receives the greatest concern from God in every book of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation? Exactly – the poor and powerless who are abused and manipulated by the politically powerful.
Second, if we are to divest ourselves of our political affiliations, we are going to have to design a system by which we can care for the sick, the poor, and the abused in a manner that glorifies God and grows the Kingdom. We must be done with this attitude that, “that is the government’s job.” No, it is not. God gave that task to his people, the saved, the “holy ones.” If we claim the name, we had better start playing the game.
And, finally, lest this post turn into a dissertation sized monologue, the Churches of Christ need to return to a policy of passionate and honest engagement with our religious neighbors. As I mentioned in my last entry, we cannot do so if we harbor a pathological hatred of our past. I am sick of hearing preachers who claim an allegiance to the Church of Christ who stand in pulpits or write in journals and vent their spleen regaling how much they hate the Church of Christ. They hate that Churches of Christ have traditionally (and for very good theological and historical reasons) have not used instrumental music in the worship service. They hate how Churches of Christ have traditionally (and for very good theological and historical reasons) have limited leadership roles within the church to males. They hate that Churches of Christ limit the power of their ministers (and for very good theological reasons, I might add) by having independent, locally selected groups of elders in each autonomous congregation. It is not a perfect system, because it depends upon imperfect humans in each and every congregation. But it sure beats having some stuffed-shirt autocrat decide what every congregation, or even a group of congregations, must do in order to fulfill his (or her) vision of grandeur.
Likewise, we cannot enter into an honest engagement with our religious neighbors if we harbor a passionate hatred for anything that does not look or smell like a Church of Christ. I can, and I believe I do, hold my beliefs with passion and honesty. I must recognize that members of other faiths hold their conclusions just as passionately, and with reasons that they believe to be just as honest. Yes, there are charlatans in every group, including the Churches of Christ. I discount all of them. But if I expect others to give me an honest hearing, I must extend to them the same courtesy. It is amazing what happens when that exchange occurs. If you have never experienced that event I do pity you. You have missed out on an amazing gift.
I will close with a very personal anecdote, and I realize I share this with great risk. But I have been a part of two Doctor of Ministry programs, one
associated with the Churches of Christ, and my current program at Fuller Theological Seminary. My experience with the university associated with the Churches of Christ was dreadful. I was clearly the most conservative student in my class (theologically speaking) and the contempt and vitriol expressed relating to Churches of Christ was unbelievable. You could cut the hatred in the room with a knife. Every discussion, every topic was somehow skewed to point out how wrong the Church of Christ had been and continues to be.
On the other hand I have never been a part of a group that is more welcoming that the situation at Fuller. I just naturally assumed that as a theologically conservative “Church of Christer” I was going to be in the same basic situation. [By the way, I despise the term "Church of Christer" which I first heard from a member of the Church of Christ who used it approvingly, but I have since had it used against me as well. I place it in quotation marks to indicate I am using someone else's term, and not my own.] I had steeled myself for that eventuality and consoled myself that at least the wrath of my fellow classmates could be attributed to the fact that they were “outsiders” and did not understand my history. To my amazement just the opposite occurred. My classmates at Fuller have been far more willing to hear my positions than my “brothers” at the university associated with the Churches of Christ. Now, to be sure, my Fuller classmates did not and do not fully agree with me – but they listen and I have learned to respond in kind. In fact, as a funny aside, one day one of our professors wanted us to sing a song that no one had heard before. As there were no instruments readily available this was going to have to be an “acapella” chorus. No one had the foggiest idea how to lead the song so they turned to the only one in the group who they were absolutely sure knew how to read music and therefore lead the group in this acapella version of the song – ME, the lone “Church of Christer” in the group. The irony is that I do not know how to read music and therefore let the group down. We resorted to going upstairs and borrowing an administrator who was gifted in the art of sight-reading music and she taught us how to sing the song.
I tell that story to make this point: if the Churches of Christ are going to continue to have a valid and meaningful voice in the religious world of the United States, it is imperative that her spokesmen return, or continue, to hold two positions without fear or favor. One, we are going to have to defend what we believe with passion and intellectual honesty. You cannot defend something you hate or something you disagree with. If you hold positions that are theologically and historically counter to what members of the Churches of Christ have proclaimed for almost 200 years now then it is your responsibility to “man up” and declare your spiritual independence and leave the community. Do not expect the church to change because you like guitar music or are raising a daughter. Thousands of members of the Church of Christ have loved and continue to love guitar music (I am chief among them) and have or are raising daughters (once again, me too). Two, it is absolutely imperative that we open our ears to actually listen to those who share a faith in Jesus, but who have differing opinions regarding doctrines and practices. I am not advocating that we embrace denominationalism, but we must engage with those who participate in it. I honestly believe that when we do so from a position of passion and honesty we will be heard with a far greater degree of reciprocity than what we have come to fear.
I have rambled far too long. I appreciate your patience in reading, and for many of you, for following this blog. Your support is humbling.
This is the second in my series examining the current situation of the Churches of Christ from my own unique perspective. As the old commercial repeated endlessly – your mileage may vary. These thoughts are submitted to promote conversation, not to dictate policy.
The connection between this post and my last post is undeniable and in many ways immeasurable. The working of economics is intimately connected to politics. Where there is a significant change in one you will always find a change in the other. Sometimes that change is for the better, often it is a very negative change. In my last post I suggested that the United States has seen its last conservative (even remotely conservative) president for the next generation, maybe for the next century. There are huge economic implications for this shift, and the Churches of Christ had better be thinking in terms of the following major ramifications in our economy:
- Changes in our political system will result in unprecedented changes in immigration. These changes may be positive, some may not be so positive. However, the church needs to be prepared to reach out to and to assist a significant number of new immigrants, many of whom will not be prepared to participate in this new society.
- Our aging population, combined with the new “Affordable Health Care Act” will significantly change the economic landscape for our senior citizens. When health care becomes a rationed commodity the aged and the sick will be the most affected. How will the church respond?
- The ACA itself will have huge repercussions on our economy. The law has not even been in effect long enough to be enforced and yet the ripples from its more draconian aspects are beginning to hit average citizens. Millions are losing their health care packages even as I am typing this blog. Millions of others will have to pay significantly higher premiums to maintain what they have. How will the church respond when these individuals have no ability to pay for what is legally mandated that they purchase? HInt: don’t look to the government – they are the ones who created this boondoggle.
- The United States is witnessing the creation of a permanent unemployed/underemployed class of people. How will the church respond when millions of young people cannot attend college and/or cannot find jobs after college because the economy simply does not have enough work for them to do?
These are serious, generation shaping questions that must be addressed if the church will have any kind of message to reach the young people now coming of age and the most vulnerable generation – our aging seniors. Someone who disagrees with my earlier post might argue that the way to solve these problems is to elect a fiscally and morally conservative president. As I pointed out in my last post – that simply is not going to happen (at least unless there is a MASSIVE shift in public opinion in the next 12-18 months. America has become a dependent society – absolutely dependent upon the government, and it is the Democrats (and I might add, Liberal Democrats) who are viewed by the majority of Americans as being the best protectors of that benevolent government. President Obama’s reelection over Mitt Romney was beyond comfortable. And that margin of victory illustrates the seismic shift in the outlook of the American voting public. Speaking generically, we do not want to take care of ourselves anymore, we want the government to take care of us.
The lie that will be revealed, of course, is that the government is not capable of taking care of all of us – at least not to the degree that everyone expects it to – so at some point this fragile house of cards is going to come crashing down.
Once again, I return to the theology of men such as Barton Stone, Tolbert Fanning, and David Libscomb. Lipscomb’s aversion to the Christian’s participation in politics is well documented. What may not be as well know, however, is his very “this worldly” outlook when it came to taking care of those most devastated by the powers of oppression. The most well known of his benevolence works involves his ministry to the sick and his assistance of medical personnel during an outbreak of cholera in the city of Nashville in 1873. Lipscomb stayed in the city, ministering to the predominantly black community who were unable to flee the epidemic. Lipscomb, ever the theological conservative, gave buggy rides to the Roman Catholic sisters who also stayed behind to help the poor.
In other words, the members of the Churches of Christ are going to have to relearn that theological and biblical conservatism do not a priori eliminate social activism. In a perverse sort of way, many ultra-conservative members of the Churches of Christ are the most theologically liberal when it comes to “loving your neighbor as yourself.” These Christians scream loud and long when the issue of assisting the oppressed is raised, and to what do they point as the savior of these economically oppressed? The liberal government of the United States that they love to hate!!
Lipscomb’s apocalyptic worldview allowed him to realize that human governments were not the solution to mankind’s problems. He fiercely resisted the siren call of politics to “make this world a better place.” He firmly believed only the gospel of Christ could do that. Yet, he was theologically sound enough to know that if the gospel of Christ called for him to make the world a better place, it was the church that was to be the community from whence that change would occur. And, to Lipscomb, this was not simply an idea to discuss in a journal – he put his life at risk to make it happen.
The United States is becoming more socially liberal by the election. This includes morals as well as economics. As stated earlier, each layer of governmental assistance that is accepted by and therefore eventually required by, the citizens of the country makes it that much more unlikely for a fiscally or morally conservative leader to be elected much beyond the local level. That is, or will soon be, the new normal.
And nothing could possibly be further away from the Kingdom of God as is described in the New Testament.
So, members of the Churches of Christ have a decision coming – will we continue to buy into the false, and falsely comforting, message that all we need to do is elect one of “our” people in the next election?
Or will we return to the faith of at least some of “our” founding fathers and hitch up the old buggy and start taking care of our economically oppressed neighbors the way God intended us to – by the means of local congregations of the Church of his Son?
Next up – the Church and the Religious World
“Chocolate Cake for Breakfast”
Anyone familiar with the comedian Bill Cosby has surely heard this story. His wife leaves him in charge of the children for a few days and the first crisis he meets is what to feed the kids for breakfast. They clamor for chocolate cake. He refuses. He is thinking in terms of healthy foods like eggs and milk. They beg, wheedle, demand and otherwise make it obvious they want chocolate cake. He still refuses, but something happens. He reviews the ingredients that comprise the chocolate cake. Eggs. Milk. Wheat. Healthy stuff. The kids get chocolate cake for breakfast.
The Churches of Christ in the United States over the past 200 years or so have been anything other than monolithic. The only thing that members of Churches of Christ universally agree on is that we cannot agree universally on anything. Well, almost anything. There is probably someone out there who even disagrees with what I just wrote. So, with that caveat clearly understood, what I have to share in this series of articles is purely my own observations and reflections. I speak for no one but myself unless a person so desires to publicly agree with me.
It might be argued that in its deepest psyche the Churches of Christ in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries have been bi-polar. I believe this position could be sustained by the careful examination of two of the brightest lights in the formation of the group that now bears the name, “Church of Christ” – Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell. While similar in certain respects, these men held vastly different views of human nature and the nature of the restoration to which they were committed.
Briefly summarized, Barton Stone was a deeply spiritual man who was convinced that the Holy Spirit was active in the early years of the 19th century to lead the church back to a pure form of worship. He was distrustful of human nature, and especially human government, and believed that while God would ultimately make things right, humans had very little or no power to do so. What humans could do was to follow the leading of the Spirit and submit completely to the will of God, particularly as revealed in the New Testament. Alexander Campbell was equally as spiritual as Barton Stone, but in many ways was the reverse image of Stone. Just as convinced in the power of the human being as Stone was distrustful, Campbell believed that humans could, and in fact were in the very process of, ushering in the millennial reign of Jesus on earth. Where the two agreed was in the normative power of the New Testament to guide the “restoration” of the church to a pure, apostolic form. Thus the two agreed to merge their fledgling movements under one broad canopy, but philosophically the two were nowhere close to being united.
Barton Stone’s “DNA” was carried down through the middle and late years of the 19th and into the 20th centuries by men such as Tolbert Fanning and David Lipscomb. In their writings we see this distrust, even blatant rejection, of human political structures and a greater reliance upon the Holy Spirit. While not exactly premillennial in outlook, their spirituality has been described as being “apocalyptic,” and that word accurately communicates what they believed and taught. As much as they looked back to the time of the apostolic church, they looked forward to the kingdom of God being made manifest on earth, and they knew that humans had no control over that event occurring. It would occur when, and how, God wanted it to.
It is extraordinarily difficult to remain apocalyptic in outlook when everything in the world seems to be proving that mankind does have the ability, and perhaps even the responsibility, to make things perfect on earth. So, little by little the influence of Stone, Fanning and Lipscomb disappeared from the ethos of the Churches of Christ. The first World War almost eliminated this counter-culture viewpoint. By the time the Japanese had crippled the American navy at Pearl Harbor the thought of remaining critical of, and aloof from, the American flag and “the republic for which it stands” was simply unthinkable. Except in small and isolated situations the Churches of Christ made the leap to equating faithfulness with patriotism, and the twain have never since been sundered. So, today a pacifist would not only be viewed as being “unAmerican,” he or she would be viewed as “unchristian.” Pleas for responsible gun control efforts are most vehemently rejected by ministers of the Churches of Christ who point, not to Scripture, but to the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution, for their support. Prayers for the members of American military forces are routinely offered during worship services, but any mention of the civilian victims of American military actions are never confessed, repented of, or even mentioned. The one area where church and state are most certainly NOT separated is in the auditoriums of many Churches of Christ, where God, church and country are fused into one uniform entity.
Which, after over 900 words, brings me to the main point of this first reflection – (and to admittedly sweep with too large a brush) I suggest that a large majority of members of the Churches of Christ are far too wedded to the prince of this world than they are the slaughtered Lamb of God. And, if I am correct, within the next three years this incestuous marriage will have profound and irreversible implications for the future of the church.
The presidency of Barak Obama has pushed the United States past a tipping point. Never before has a president been able to achieve the legislative and moral changes as has President Obama. From sweeping judicial changes, to the passage and implementation of a radical new health care mandate, to the unparalleled changes in the moral distinction of homosexual behavior, this president has indeed accomplished his goal of transforming America. If I am not mistaken, this surge past America’s previous conservative worldview will only accelerate after the presidential elections in 2016. As I view the political landscape the only thing that will prevent Hillary Clinton from becoming the first female president of the United States is if she declines to run, or if she should die before being elected. There are several solid reasons for my conclusion. The primary one is that President Obama has turned the citizens of the United States into wards of the state. Everyone is now dependent upon the government to a greater or lesser degree. Our national debt is exploding, but no one wants to surrender his or her entitlements. No true conservative, one who openly suggests that our government is out of control and must be scaled back, has much of a chance to defeat a progressive who will suggest that, far from being too intrusive, the government needs to take a greater role in directing the lives of its citizens. Simply stated, America’s narcissism virtually guarantees the victory of the nominee of the Democratic party in 2016, especially if that nominee is Hillary Clinton. I do not foresee any realistic chance of a conservative winning the election even if another Democrat should become the nominee.
Which, then, brings me back to my main point – because the majority of members of the Churches of Christ have not only been complacent as this political and moral metamorphosis has taken place, but have actually aided and abetted it with their defense of and subjection to the Constitution of the United States, a radical change is going to have to occur in the hearts and minds of these members of the Church if the Church is going to survive in any meaningful way deep into the 21st century.
In other words, we are going to have to reject the Campbellian (and utopian) view that mankind is smart enough and spiritual enough to direct its own footsteps. We are going to have to return to the Spirit led, overtly counter-cultural and biblically apocalyptic world view of Barton Stone, Tolbert Fanning, and David Lipscomb.
The New Testament begins with a radical sermon – one that calls upon its hearers to reject man-made philosophies and to accept whole-heartedly the vision and Spirit of the God who created this world. The New Testament ends with the most majestic description of this counter-cultural kingdom – a kingdom in which the godless powers of worldly governments are cast like large stones into the abyss. In between the sermon and the vision are the words of God revealed through the power of the Spirit, and not one single word teaches or even suggests that the way in which the final Kingdom of God will be revealed is through the power of a human government. While citizens of this kingdom must temporarily live in subjection to the laws of a human government, the worship of the citizens of the Kingdom of God must never be divided.
Either we worship God, or we worship the political powers of this world. There simply is no other choice.
In one respect I fear for the future of the Church of Christ. I fear because we are too American, too incestuously married to the spirit of this world. We depend more upon the Constitution of the United States than we do the inspired word of the eternal God. We allow politicians, comedians and common men and women to mock and despise the teachings of the Bible, and yet when our “rights” or “entitlements” are even remotely threatened we become apoplectic. Some members of the Churches of Christ have more of the Bill of Rights memorized than they do the Sermon on the Mount. And that, my friends, is truly pathetic.
On the other hand, my faith is not in the Church of Christ, but in the God who created this world and who established the church of Christ for a dwelling place for his faithful people. The church of Christ will survive, even if the Church of Christ should one day disappear.
I am an unabashed and proud member of the Restoration Movement in general and the Church of Christ in particular. I believe deeply in her goals and aspirations. I am firmly committed to the precepts and objectives of men such as Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell. I am also well aware of their failings and short-sighted goals, even the well-intentioned ones. I am aware that they were human, lived and breathed the hubris of the time in which they lived, and that as any human being, they made mistakes in what they taught. I also believe they were brilliant men whose vision far exceeded the time in which they lived. Those of us today who love and respect their work are truly standing on the shoulders of giants – and I will never, not for one moment, surrender that heritage.
But as a child of God and an heir of the Kingdom of Heaven I must also be aware of the fact that any human association can fall from its pure intentions. So, while I am deeply committed to the Church of Christ (capital letter C), I am first and foremost a member of and committed to the church of Christ (little letter c, meaning that assembly devoted to Christ whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life). Some say the two are identical. I cannot – for the very reasons that I have articulated. Far too many members of the Church of Christ have surrendered to the beast and proudly wear the number of its name. They want to walk, and talk, and do business with the beast while demonstrating the semblance of submission to the Lamb. While here on earth it is impossible to fully recognize those charlatans, but I rest in full assurance that God knows who is His and who is not. That will be made clear at the last judgment.
In other words, I just want to be a disciple of Christ. I do not want the additives that turn the Church into something that it never was intended to be. I certainly do not want to be a part of a religious institution that is simply a front for, and defender of, a godless and corrupt government. I want to be lead by the vision of the Kingdom of God as described by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and in the Revelation to John. While respecting my heritage and its respect for the past, I want to be pulled forward by the biblical vision of the Bride of Christ. As I have previously written, you cannot fly an airplane by looking in a rear-veiw mirror.
A juvenile world wants chocolate cake for breakfast, lunch and supper. Our government says, “Look at all this wonderful cake – full of sweetness and covered with all this luscious icing.” The Church must recover its apocalyptic voice and renew its strength to be able to say, “No. We will not be fooled. Politics is the play toy of the damned. We are children of the King. We will serve our God and worship Him only.”
Church, it is time to grow up. And if that means we must leave the chocolate cake on the table and be viewed as unpatriotic traitors, then so be it.
“I lift my eyes to the hills – from where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth.” Psalm 121:1
Sources: I rely on many fine works related to the history of the Restoration Movement, and the Churches of Christ specifically. Of particular interest in regard to this subject are: David Edwin Harrell, Quest for a Christian America and Sources of Division in the Disciples of Christ 1865-1900; Richard T. Hughes, Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of the Churches of Christ in America and Reclaiming a Heritage: Reflections on the Heart, Soul and Future of Churches of Christ; C. Leonard Allen, Richard T. Hughes and Michael R. Weed, The Worldly Church: A Call for Biblical Renewal; and Richard T. Hughes and C. Leonard Allen, Illusions of Innocence: Protestant Primitivism in America, 1630-1875. Beyond my love for Churches of Christ, I have been deeply touched and challenged by the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, these writings are simply too immense to list individually. His complete works are published by Fortress Press and can be found in the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works series, 16 volumes which includes all of his major writings, letters, sermons and theological reflections. In addition to Bonhoeffer’s original works, there are numerous secondary works of significant value. Chief among them would be Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Society; and Keith L. Johnson and Timothy Larsen, eds. Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture; and a book I am currently reading, Mark Thiessen Nation, Anthony G. Siegrist, and Daniel P. Umbel, Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking.
This series has been building, like a slow developing thunder storm, for the past few months. I have been reading several recent and not-so-recent books on the changing face of Christianity among American teenagers, and while the material does not focus exclusively on young members of the Churches of Christ, I feel that the substance of the books very accurately describes the situation within the Churches of Christ. I also sense a paradigmatic change in American culture; one that has already started and if I am correct, will be made virtually unchangeable subsequent to the next presidential election in 2016. Theologically speaking, I have been working carefully through the book of Revelation for a college class that I am teaching. Reading and hearing the word of Christ through John has re-ignited a fire in my bones regarding the fate of the Lord’s church. When these issues are combined with the already observable changes in the religious landscape of our narcissistic 21st century I believe the result will either (a) utterly destroy what is already a weak and beggarly religious institution or (b) prove to be the furnace of purification for a vibrant church that is unduly burdened with generations of worthless slag.
Where to begin?
Let me say that as I currently envision this series, the beginning will be a discussion of the relationship that the Churches of Christ have had with the political realm of the United States from the time of Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell down to the current day. If history is prediction, the church must learn from her past and be prepared for the future.
Second, I want to gaze in my crystal ball and hazard some projections as to where this country is headed in terms of economics, and what those predictions might have in store for the life and work of the Churches of Christ.
Third, I want to examine the tenuous relationship that Churches of Christ have maintained with the rest of the religious world, and in particular, the surrounding churches that proclaim allegiance to Jesus and yet hold to doctrines and practice actions that make it difficult, if not impossible, for members of the Churches of Christ to claim fellowship with these groups. That, and also work on creating shorter sentences.
And, finally, hopefully, I can wrap everything up in one whiz-bang finale.
I will attempt to keep these posts somewhat close to my average of 1,200 – 1,300 words or so (give or take a few hundred) but they will not be your typical sound-bite size post. I will have a lot of ground to cover in a brief time, so I will generalize when possible and document when necessary.
I cannot promise a time-line either, as much as I would like to. My work load this semester (teaching 4 university courses plus a growing campus ministry) has stretched me to my limit. Yet, this blog is a passion of mine, so I will attempt to tend to this series with due diligence.
For my brothers and sisters within the Churches of Christ, I would love to have your comments, questions, and observations. For those outside of the fellowship of the Churches of Christ, I would also appreciate hearing from you – how do you see your faith group in this discussion and how accurately do you see my observations? To everyone – thank you for reading and especially to those of you who follow this blog on a regular basis. Your support is humbling, and I strive as my goal to create and share valuable material for you to ponder and either accept or reject as you see fit.
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.
9.11 is always a tough day for me. A dozen years ago I was a pilot. I was flying an FAA mandated check ride, flying between Albuquerque and Las Cruces, NM. We, my check pilot and I, had overheard some chatter about some planes hitting some towers, but with only one ear on the radio and never once considering that the “towers” were anything more than some radio towers we never even turned the radio up.
What a difference 15 minutes can make.
I’ve blogged about this before, and probably will every year. 9.11 changed everything - the way we navigated, the way we identified ourselves in the air, the way we thought about airplanes. It even changed what we as pilots could carry onto our airplanes.
You would think, if you were a sober person and not intoxicated with the wine of global superiority, that in the dozen years since 9.11.01 we would have learned a thing or two about making and keeping peace. But you would be wrong. We are just as war mongering today, if not more so, than we were 12 years and 1 day ago.
Even as I type this our “Nobel Peace Prize” winning president, the Grand Poobah of stupidity, is preparing to throw the United States headlong into another senseless civil/religious war that we have no business getting involved with. Adolf Hitler was wrong on so many things, but on one thing he is reported to have said he was absolutely correct. Every generation needs its own war. It seems even winning a Nobel Peace Prize does not keep a power hungry maniac from starting his own war.
So, every 12 months America will pause to remember the tragedy of 9.11.01, and every year hundreds, if not thousands, of young men and women will put on the uniform of the United States Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force and National Guard. They will train relentlessly with the most up-to-date methods for exterminating entire nations of people. Our politicians will strut like a bunch of little Bantam Roosters and throw around empty phrases like, “preserve the peace” and “defend our nation’s honor,” all the while being complicit in the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians a half a world away whose only crime is that they live in a different country and speak a different language.
There is no national honor in killing children and old people with guided missiles shot from unmanned arial drones.
We live in a schizophrenic country. We claim to follow the Prince of Peace, the crucified Lord of life, and yet our most fervent prayers and most solemn national holidays all revolve around our ability to kill soldiers of other nations. The closest holidays we have that might possibly relate to spiritual thoughts are now all about football and “Black Friday” and greed and consumerism. There is not enough Christianity in modern day celebrations of Thanksgiving and Christmas combined to fill up a decent sized worship service. And that is being generous.
So, to make a too-long post even longer, every year I remember 9.11.01 – but not in the way that most people do. I observe it with regret; regret that we have not learned any valuable lessons from that horrible day. Regret that I, too, was sucked into a poisonous nationalism. Regret that our civil leaders will still send young men and women to their deaths for no other purpose but to buttress a “national honor” that has become tarnished. Regret that after 12 years we still have to carry bright young men and women home in stainless steel coffins covered with an American flag.
We need those young people at home. We need them to be safe. We need them to be working on principles of peace rather than strategies of death.
9.11.13 – God, in your infinite wisdom and your immeasurable patience, please give us the courage to follow your Son and his way of the cross. We need that message today more than at any time in history. We are so close to destroying not only ourselves, but this incredible world you have given us. Lord, as in the days of your servant Jeremiah, please bless us with a humiliating defeat so that we may once again learn to trust only in you. Humble us, strip us, starve us until our bodies and our souls long only after you. And then, having chastened us with a pure and holy love, please restore us to your healing presence, for it is only in you that we live, and move, and have our very being.
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?
When will we be able to move past our racism? (I speak primarily of the United States, but other countries no doubt have their racial issues as well.) When will we, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, judge a person based solely on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin? I have an answer, but I will save it for the end of this post.
I reacted very strongly to the verdict in the George Zimmerman murder trial. I thought the verdict was wrong, a fiasco, a blatant miscarriage of justice. Within 48 hours one of the so-called “unbiased” jurors revealed she had signed a book deal to “tell all” about the trial and the deliberations. Public outrage blew that bald-faced self-promotion out of the water. But this same juror showed up on a national TV show and spoke about her experiences. She referred to the defendant as “George” repeatedly. She spoke explicitly about a “stand your ground” law that was never even referenced in the trial, nor in the jury instructions (the wording, as far as I can tell, came from a self-defense provision, but not the law that received the nickname, “stand your ground.”) She allowed that Zimmerman should not have exited his vehicle that dark and rainy night, but almost in the same breath said that race had nothing to do with the jury’s deliberations, nor did she think that racial profiling was a part of the case.
In other words, this supposedly unbiased juror confirmed every one of my public and private fears about this trial. She connected totally on an emotional level with Zimmerman (poor little Georgie, he got a boo-boo on his noggin). Even though Trayvon Martin was doing absolutely nothing wrong, and that Zimmerman never should have exited his vehicle, she still bought into the defense argument that it was Martin that initiated the confrontation, not Zimmerman. We will never know who started that fight, and all we have is Zimmerman’s story. According to this juror there were three votes for guilty and three for acquittal when the jurors first started their deliberations. One juror actually felt Zimmerman was guilty of 2nd degree murder, two others felt he was guilty of manslaughter. That means that the three who leaned toward acquittal were able to change the minds of the three who leaned toward conviction. I wonder how they managed to do that?
Actually, I think I know. All through this trial Zimmerman was portrayed as the victim. Martin has been referred to as a thug, a hoodlum, a gang-banger, street trash. Zimmerman sat in the courtroom all spiffed up in his designer suits looking absolutely cherubic. And don’t feed me that “half Hispanic” line. Zimmerman looks as lilly white as Princess Kate. Those jurors saw this as a white/black issue, whether they would admit to it or not. It was simply inconceivable that a good white boy would be the instigator of a racial conflict. That black boy got what he “deserved.”
This morning a poll was released that just further confirmed my suspicions. As long as the link is valid, you can find the story here. To summarize, the poll revealed that by a significant margin white people and Republicans feel that there is no racial problem in the US, and that the justice system is just fine. Not surprisingly, black people and Democrats feel that racism is alive and well in the US, and that the justice system is broken. In my mind this disparity can only be interpreted one way – when you are in power, when you have absolutely no fear of being profiled by the color of your skin, when you do not have to fear having some vigilante with a loaded gun follow your 17 year old son simply because he “looks suspicious,” when you can put on a suit and tie and have a juror call you by your first name, then the world is pretty rosy for you. Conversely, when you cannot go to a convenience store and buy a snack without having somebody question your behavior, when you cannot walk down the street without having people move away from you, if you fear having your child pulled over by a policeman for “driving while black,” if your son can be shot dead and have the killer acquitted from even the most benign charges, then you are not going to have a very cheerful view of America and its judicial system.
By an overwhelming majority, white people and Republicans just simply do not get this. There is none quite so blind as he who will not see.
For the record, I am a white middle aged male. But a few years ago one of my very good friends told me about being stopped by a policeman in Houston, TX, for no other reason than he was a black man driving where he should not have been driving. “Driving while black” is what they call it. Maybe for the first time in my life I felt another man’s pain because of blatant racism. It changed me.
If I am not mistaken, God calls this behavior “sin.” And he has always called it “sin” and he will always call it “sin.”
How will America heal its racial divisions? The only way that I see forward is for all of us, white, black, brown, yellow, red – even green or purple, to actually confess that we have a racial problem. That’s right – all of us. White on black, black on white, brown on black, red on white – every color against every other color. Racism does not cut one way, or even two ways. Racism cuts every direction, and we cannot even remotely consider ourselves to be a Christian people as long as we harbor prejudices against someone simply because of the color of his or her skin.
Maybe one day we will be able to judge people based on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. But as the Zimmerman verdict, and the very public comments by that juror demonstrates, that day will not occur any time soon.
Certainly not as long as a few scratches on the back of one man’s head are viewed as more significant than a gunshot wound in a young man’s chest.
So far I held off on commenting about the George Zimmerman trial. Well, that’s not exactly true, but I had to delete the posts I wrote Saturday night. At the risk of severe overstatement, let me say I was crushed by the verdict that jury reached. Far more than the O.J. Simpson verdict, or even the Rodney King verdict, I felt that, as a caucasian, conservative, attempting-to-be-disciple of Christ I was truly injured by this decision. When a miscarriage of justice speaks so clearly to one of the fundamental sins of our culture, everyone in that culture is injured – whether they realize it or not, and whether they admit it or not.
Several facts that came out during this trial prove to me that race was the sole and determining factor in the verdict. The primary one is that Trayvon Martin was doing nothing, absolutely nothing wrong when he was racially profiled by George Zimmerman that cold rainy night. He was a young black man walking down the street in a “hoodie,” a hooded sweatshirt. He had just been to a convenience store to buy a snack. George Zimmerman saw him, saw that he was black, became his own judge, jury and police force, and set out to make sure Martin did not get away.
Trayvon Martin did not need to “get away.” He was not doing anything illegal. He was returning to his father’s house.
George Zimmerman instigated this whole event. He was the one who decided Martin was guilty simply based on the color of his skin. He was the one who followed – make that stalked - Martin on the way back to his father’s house. Zimmerman got out of his vehicle and chased Martin some distance before an altercation occurred. What happened during that altercation no one will ever know – Martin was shot dead and the only witness to the shooting is a lying, self-serving, arrogant racist who claims self defense. And this became the greatest crime in the whole sordid story. In order for Zimmerman to make his case, he and his defense team had to turn Martin in to the aggressor. The victim of a shooting became the perpetrator of a fist fight. A man who was told not to follow Martin and who was carrying a loaded 9 mm pistol became the victim in a scenario that he created from start to finish.
And because Zimmerman looks lilly white (he claims Hispanic genetics as well) and because Trayvon Martin was black, and because Zimmerman represented law and order and because everyone knows that young black men are just murderers and rapists and burglars just waiting to happen, the predominantly white, all female jury let Zimmerman go totally free.
The Ku Klux Klan never had it so good.
This story would be despicable as it stands, but it gets worse. All across the country white people have gone on record throwing around some of the most hateful, vengeful, sinful racist comments imaginable – all worthy of coming out of a sweet little old church lady’s mouth. Martin “got what was coming to him.” Oh really – going to the convenience store deserves a death sentence? “Martin should not have been where he was.” Nice – he was visiting his father who lived in that gated community – and Martin was just walking home in the rain on a dark night. “If some punk jumps me and I have a gun you better believe I will use it to defend myself.” Oh, so racially profiling a young man (regardless of race is being profiled) and going against police dispatcher instructions and chasing (stalking) that same young man is perfectly okay, but having that young man defend himself is wrong? Here is the absolute tragedy of this case. Zimmerman, who is white, is afforded the right to shoot and kill a young man for the supposed reason of self-defense, but a young black man is not allowed to use his fists to defend himself. Remember – we do not know who started the fight. The only words we have are from the white killer who gunned down the black man. The same white man that, incidentally, was caught in multiple lies before and during the trial. Do you honestly think he would admit to starting the fight that ended in Martin’s death?
The prosecution of this case was a joke. I honestly believe the prosecutor wanted to lose this case. He did the defense’s job for them, and did not prosecute Zimmerman at all.
Perhaps worst of all was the racist venom spewed by national and regional news commentators. Sean “the white man’s Al Sharpton” Hannity was the worst, although several others came in closely behind. To these individuals all you need to do is look at the color of a man’s skin and that tells you who is innocent and who is guilty. Zimmerman – white = innocent; Martin – black = guilty.
Where does this story intersect with Christianity? Just this – anytime a racial or economic power can force its will, and warp justice, because of that race or because of that economic power, God will condemn those who perpetuate that hegemonic power. Just read Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-56. Read the scathing denunciation of the abuse of power in the book of Amos. Read Jesus’ own words of turning racial hatred upside down in the parable of the good Samaritan or in his dealings with the Samaritan woman at the well or the Canaanite woman and her demon possessed child. (Luke 10:25-37; Matthew 15:21-28) Read the concluding passages in Romans, Ephesians, and Colossians and see how Paul commanded Christians to view others and treat others differently than what the prevailing culture sees and treats them.
The verdict in this case is nothing more than a repugnant stain against any claim of racial equality that white Americans want to delude themselves into believing.
I mourn this verdict. I mourn because Trayvon Martin did not get any justice. I mourn because his family if forced to deal with the incessant and vitriolic hatred of white so-called “Christians.”
And, I mourn this verdict because at the very core, if a young black man or black woman cannot walk home from a convenience store without being profiled by some racist vigilante, then my very white, very blond and very blue eyed daughter is not safe to walk home from that same convenience store.
As long as a person’s skin color is allowed to define innocence and guilt, no child is ever safe. But it appears in this country, African Americans have the most to fear.
(Postscript: Just to highlight my claim of racism, this story was brought to my attention. In the same state in which George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin, and just few months more than a year ago, a young single mother was convicted of shooting a gun into the air when she felt threatened by her abusive husband. No one was injured, certainly no one was killed. She was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The judge in that case rejected her plea that she was simply “standing her ground” and defending herself. And, oh, by the way … she was a young single black woman. Here is the link, as long as it is valid - http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-201_162-57433184/fla-mom-gets-20-years-for-firing-warning-shots/?tag=socsh. Do you still think racism is not an issue in this case? By the way, I do not know if subsequent to this sentence there has been any appeal or overturning of the sentence. The point is that Zimmerman’s claim of self defense only works if the supposed victim is white, and the supposed aggressor is black.)
How horrible it will be for those who go to Egypt for help, who rely on horses, who depend on many chariots, who depend on very strong war horses. They don’t look to the Holy One of Israel. They don’t seek the LORD…The Egyptians are humans, not gods. Their horses are flesh and blood, not spirit. When the LORD uses his powerful hand, the one who gives help will stumble, and the one who receives help will fall. Both will die together. (Isaiah 31:1, 3, God’s Word Translation).
This has been a transformative year for me. It was my first year of teaching in a university setting. I have been working on preparing myself for my doctoral dissertation – basically trying to refine my thesis and research possible resources. I have been forced to re-think some old cherished ideas and have been driven back into some that I had foolishly set aside. In some ways I think I have grown more in the past 12 months than I have in the previous 12 years. And, considering that time period in my life, that is saying something.
Weird way to introduce my thoughts on Isaiah 31, I know. But there is something, well, just - transcendent about Isaiah 31. You actually have to go back to chapter 30 and read chapters 30 and 31 together. Isaiah set it out so clearly for the Israelites. God is saying, “Listen, trust ME. Believe in ME. Don’t worry about these foreign armies – do you think they can defeat ME?” But Israel would not listen. They looked at the armies of the oppressors, looked at the armies of Egypt, and said, “Wow, we need some of those, a couple of those – aw, just send the whole kit and kaboodle.” And God said, “Okie fine, you won’t trust me, you won’t believe in me, so I’ll give you what you want.”
Jeremiah had basically the same message to the nation of Judah two centuries later, and guess what? Yep, the leaders of Judah still preferred to trust in the power of the Egyptian armies rather than trust in God. Honestly, some people are so stubborn that they will not learn.
Well, we have the messages of both Isaiah and Jeremiah and guess what? Have we learned? Are we willing to trust in God?
Our military spending is into the multiple hundreds of billions of dollars, and even though the top brass in the Pentagon says we can get by with less, the Congress refuses to cut any military spending because of the political repercussions in the districts of the Representatives and Senators.
Following every mass shooting, when the national conversation turns to even minor and sane gun ownership legislation, the ultra-conservative right-wing of our country goes ballistic (love the pun) and sales of both guns and ammunition go through the roof.
The more right-wing and ultra-conservative a person is, the more likely that person is to defend the ownership and use of multiple weapons – even those weapons whose design and use is strictly for the taking of human life. In addition, the more likely that person is to defend the creation of a personal defense shelter and the hoarding of many months, if not years, of food in the event of a “cataclysmic” event.
Many of those who I described in the last two points would also describe themselves as “Christians.”
The underlying rationale for the building up of an unbeatable military force, a personal arsenal, and a stockpile of food and water is the fear of the unknown, and of the known but misunderstood. We either do not see the boogey-man in the dark, or we see what we think is a boogey-man in the dark and we over-react.
And God is still telling us not to worry, not to trust in foreign powers, or even in our own military power, but to trust in Him. Question is, will we listen?
I find it enlightening that at least one scholar in the Restoration Movement referred to Barton W. Stone as having an “apocalyptic” theology. That is to say the difference between Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell can be described as the difference between someone who saw history as being on an inexorable climb to perfection (Campbell, who saw the Restoration Movement as the crowning jewel in that climb) and one who saw mankind in a hopeless quandary and utterly dependent upon the power of God (Stone, who saw the Restoration Movement as an ultimate submission to that mysterious power). Up until the Second World War the Churches of Christ were generally, although not exclusively, under the influence of Stone and his successors, Tolbert Fanning and David Lipscomb. As the Churches of Christ became more “mainstream” and also more “evangelical,” the apocalyptic view of Stone, Fanning and Lipscomb became an unwanted burden and was soon excised almost entirely from the theology of the Churches of Christ.
Although couched entirely in the prophetic genre, Isaiah 30 and 31 proclaim the message of the apocalyptic theologian perfectly. We may see only the tanks, armies and inter-continental ballistic missiles of our enemies and also of ourselves and our friends. We may see only the guns and ammunition in our personal bunkers. We may take courage and feel safe because of those weapons.
But God looks down and laughs. Use a tank against God? Shoot a missile at God? Out last a famine that is sent by God?
I get the reality that atheists might want to trust in their armies. I understand that those who deny God might want to build a bomb proof shelter and store up enough food to last a generation. But disciples of Christ? Really? Where is our faith? Where is our trust? In what do we actually trust, God or ourselves?
Faith is a leap into the unknown because we know and trust who it was that told us to jump. I think Stone, Fanning and Lipscomb all shared a far greater faith in God and a far greater distrust in humans than we do in the 21st century.
Call me an apocalyptic theologian if you want to. Actually, I believe I am in pretty good company. That fellow John wrote a pretty good apocalypse, and we have it as the last book of our Bible. If you read it carefully you will note that it is God who is in control of history, not mankind.
And, just as an aside, what happens to those who trust in their armies in that apocalypse?
Yea, thought so.
Then Assyrians will be killed with swords not made by human hands. Swords not made by human hands will destroy them. They will flee from battle, and their young men will be made to do forced labor. In terror they will run to their stronghold, and their officers will be frightened at the sight of the battle flag. The LORD declares this. His fire is in Zion and his furnace is in Jerusalem. (Isaiah 31:8-9, God’s Word Translation)