Okay, I plead guilty. The above title is intentionally provocative. But if you stay with me, I think it is appropriate.
The lovely and always insightful Mrs. Smith and I were having a discussion this evening about several issues that are troubling us. In regard to the current state of things in the church, and with a passing reference to F. LaGard Smith’s book “Baptism: The Believer’s Wedding Ceremony,” (no relation, by the way), my wife had this observation: “You know, in just about any morally conservative church, if a couple started sleeping together outside of marriage and they based their behavior on the fact that they had ‘prayed the lover’s prayer’ and had ‘accepted one another into each other’s hearts,’ the leadership would demand that they stop sleeping with each other or, at the very least, formally declare their relationship through a legal marriage ceremony. Yet, those same churches will accept anyone as a ‘Christian’ just because of some non-biblical prayer or an emotional declaration that has no biblical support.”
Sometimes I wonder who has the better theological mind.
The image was striking to me. We have congregation after congregation after congregation that accepts individuals who claim to have an intimate relationship with Jesus and yet will deny, sometimes adamantly, that a formal rite is necessary to formalize their relationship to Christ. Some will come to that sacred rite only after they have claimed their intimacy with Jesus. Either way the only way to describe their relationship is promiscuous. They are spiritual fornicators. To borrow an earthy but descriptive phrase, they want the milk but they do not want to pay for the cow.
Throughout the pages of the New Testament the sacred rite of baptism is described in many ways: a death, burial and resurrection, an adoption, a physical union. The image of a wedding ceremony is equally powerful. Especially in the current debate over homosexual marriage and the importance of marriage in general, it is insightful to cast the ceremony of baptism as a wedding.
Why is a wedding ceremony important if two young lovers have “prayed the lovers prayer” and “accepted one another into each other’s heart?” Because we know that the power of a ceremony has a binding effect. Yes, it can be broken. But from the very beginning couples have been performing, in whatever culture they live, the sacred rite of a wedding ceremony to make their marriage union both legal and morally acceptable.
Why should we treat our union with our Savior with any less respect and honor? Especially with two worn out phrases that traffic in far more emotion than they do biblical or theological support.
Come to think of it, baptism has far more textual support* than does the formal ceremony of a wedding. So, why is it that many “Christians” will get so upset if a young couple is having sex outside of a marriage contract, and yet will gleefully accept the so-called profession of a “sinner’s prayer” or “accepting Jesus into my heart?”
And this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also – not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ… (1 Peter 3:21).
*Baptism is mentioned in virtually every book of the New Testament. If the word itself is not mentioned, then the rite is certainly referenced. For documentation, please consult G.R. Beasley-Murray’s book, Baptism in the New Testament.
[And so ends my series on the 10 Commandments. Thou shalt rejoice.]
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s. (Exodus 20:17 RSV)
There is a significant shift between commands #4 (to remember the Sabbath day) and #5 (to honor parents). That shift is from commands that regulate or prescribe our behavior before God and to commands that regulate or prescribe our behavior with other people. That shift has been widely noted and thoroughly commented on. However, there is another shift that occurs between commands #9 and #10, and it is a shift that I have not previously noted until I started working through this series. Maybe I read about it somewhere, but if I have it sure did not stick in my memory very well.
That shift is from overt behavior to an attitude of the heart. Think about it. Honoring parents, not killing, not committing adultery, not stealing, not bearing false witness – all of these require an action, or refraining from an action. But covetousness? That is strictly a heart issue. Therein lies a critical exegetical and hermeneutical point that I think many of us (okay, at least me) have missed when we study the 10 Commandments.
I have been raised with the understanding that the 10 Commandments were all about what you did or did not do. However, when Jesus came along he straightened everybody out and made sure that it was not just about what we did, but what we thought. Therefore (and I’m jumping over some intermediary steps here), the Old Testament is all about the flesh and the New Testament is all about the spirit. Therefore, we can reject the Old Testament and follow only the New Testament.
The only problem is, this is not true. The Old Testament was never just about the flesh. In fact it was not even primarily about the flesh. God simply used more fleshly illustrations in the Old Testament (animal sacrifice, oil lamps, incense, laws carved on stones) to teach His lessons. Like a patient and loving parent, God was showing his children how he wanted them to behave. But we do not discipline our children simply to inflict pain. We teach our children profound spiritual lessons through the use of very down to earth physical means. As they get older we can dispense with the physical, because they have (hopefully) already learned those lessons.
The truth is, the Old Testament is full of God emphasizing the spiritual truths that re-appear in the New Testament. But, if we dismiss the Old Testament because of a few bloody sacrifices and some arcane language about skin diseases and dietary restrictions we don’t see those truths. In fact, we consciously overlook them. And in so doing we excise a significant part of God’s complete word.
I know I have not dealt too much with the tenth commandment. So, let’s look at that command very briefly.
Why are we not to look upon our neighbor’s belongings (wife, servants, animals, anything) with longing eyes? Because, very simply, in so doing we are telling ourselves (and anyone who is sharp enough to catch on to what we are doing) that God’s gifts to us are not quite good enough. God loves other people more, and so if we could just have sex with our neighbor’s wife, if we could just own their servant (hire their employees in our world) or own their car then we would be loved by God just as much. Coveting what belongs to someone else is, at its core, a rejection of the grace of God-given to us. We shake our fist at God and say, “Not good enough! I want more, better, bigger, prettier, more expensive!” Coveting a neighbor’s wife is the sin of David – God would have given him anything he asked for, but no, that was not good enough for David (2 Samuel 12:8). He took that which was not only illegal, but primarily irreligious to have. He rejected God’s grace and demanded a physical pleasure. In one of the most amazing reversals of justice, God does not demand David’s death (which could have been expected due to David’s adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah) and completely upon the basis of grace extends David’s life. Not only that, but God elevates the son of this union, Solomon, to the throne of Israel. How about that for a reversal of fortunes!
I would encourage everyone to re-think their appraisal of not only the 10 Commandments, but the Old Testament in its entirety. Yes, Jesus inaugurated the New Covenant. Yes the old covenant practices are removed (more correctly defined – perfected) in the sacrifice of Jesus. Yes, we have done away with the physical nature of the daily, weekly, monthly and yearly sacrifice of blood, the burning of incense, and the other trappings of the tabernacle/temple worship. But we also have to remember that the Old Testament was the Scripture for the first century church. By removing it from our study and our worship we have impoverished the modern church. It is time to recover this tremendous spiritual feast.
Let us never forget the words of Jesus on that mountain, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matthew 5:17).
Let us learn to read the 10 Commandments, and the entire Old Testament, with new eyes.
One thing I can say about Postmodernists – they sure love to talk about culture. Everything, it would appear, is connected to and limited by one’s place of birth, and especially one’s time of birth. If you were born in a patriarchal age, you were doomed to slave under a patriarchy. However, if you were born in the late 20th or early 21st century you are blessed to be an egalitarian – and a postmodern as icing on the cake.
Postmoderns do not like anything to be authoritarian, but they are especially opposed to having an ancient text provide any type of authority. For disciples of Christ this poses somewhat of a dilemma – because Jesus certainly used an ancient text (the books we refer to as the “Old Testament”) as an authority in his life. It was not a “god,” but it certainly contained the words of the true and living God; and he used the Torah not only as example but as it was designed – as a light for his feet.
Those who wish to claim a Christian lifestyle while challenging the role of the written text have come up with some ingenious methods to deal with the texts that, at least on the surface, appear to be authoritarian. Many simply deny that they belong in the canon that we call the Bible. (The word canon itself means “rule,” implying authority.) Thus, for many the letters that we call the “Pastoral Epistles” (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) were not written by the apostle Paul as the texts claim, therefore they are not authoritarian for the life of the disciple today. Others, while not willing to remove entire books, will remove certain verses within those books.
Finally, the “trump card” that many Postmoderns use is the “culture card.” Briefly stated, this argument posits that, because the authors of these ancient texts lived in times so far removed from our advanced culture, the texts they wrote cannot possibly be thought of as being an authority for our life today. Thus, these exegetes can keep the objectionable books in the canon, but they simply ignore the verses that have been found to be patriarchal, homophobic, capitalistic, militaristic – the list is almost inexhaustible. In the Postmodern setting the text is not the judge of the reader or listener, the reader or listener is the judge (and far too often, the executioner) of the text.
The Postmodern interpreter can do wonders with certain texts by pointing out the cultural differences between the time period of the various biblical authors and our own, but they have a significant problem when they come to the letter we know as 1 Corinthians. This letter is also a major point of emphasis for Postmodern interpreters, as they have issues with the apostle Paul’s apparent homophobia and male chauvinism. Thus, the letter of 1 Corinthians provides both a test case, and, in my opinion, the rock on which the ship of Postmodernism founders.
As I see it, in order for Postmodern exegetes to win the battle of interpretations they must prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that the ancient texts of the Bible were written for one specific audience, and that the only way for the texts to be valuable today is if they are “re-contextualized” to meet modern (or, better yet, Postmodern) sensibilities. On this point I will offer partial agreement. Especially in regard to the writings in the New Testament I will agree completely that they were written as “occasional” pieces – they were written to address specific questions or issues in concrete situations. However, that is where the Postmodern ends his or her exegesis, and it is at that point that I offer my strongest disagreement. And, as evidence exhibit “A,” I offer the letter of 1 Corinthians.
In terms of specific situations, we can learn that the letter we know as 1 Corinthians was written to the church of God in Corinth in approximately the middle of the first century. It’s author, destination, and approximate date are among the least debated in New Testament studies. Paul specifically mentions the issues that “occasioned” the writing of the letter – division, sexual immorality, issues of congregational life and spiritual giftedness. Therefore, the “concrete” and specific questions that the letter addresses are not to be debated. We could argue, if we so desired, that the answers that Paul gives to these issues and questions were to be used solely by the congregation in Corinth and only during the time period the original readers were alive. That is the path that Postmodern interpreters want us to walk. That would be a very easy conclusion to make – and in fact it is argued by a great many brilliant minds.
The only problem is, as I see it, the whole argument is destroyed by the text of the letter itself. Four times in the letter Paul tells the Corinthian disciples that what he is writing to them (and what he has taught them previously in person) is what he teaches “everywhere and in every place” (see 4:17, 7:17, 11:16 and 14:35). That means that in Jewish Jerusalem, in Gentile Ephesus, in Greek Athens and Corinth, and soon to be in Latin Rome Paul preached the same message and made the same points. Across multiple cultural platforms and in reaction to multiple socio-economic and political situations Paul did not “contextualize” the content of his message, although he may have contextualized the manner in which he presented it. The mode of communication may change, the content cannot be changed.
I once heard a lecture by an individual whose classical scholarship cannot be questioned. He is perhaps one of the finest scholars the Churches of Christ have produced. He was lecturing, oddly enough, on the letter of 1 Corinthians. I will never forget his conclusion. He stated that the doctrine of the living church should never be limited by the aberrations of the first century congregations to which the bulk of the New Testament was written. I was dumbfounded. If the doctrine of the church cannot be limited by the writings of the apostles to address those very aberrations, to what can we appeal for the formation and limitation of our doctrine? I had not heard of “postmodernism” at that point in my life but I have come to understand that speech in an entirely different light now than when I first heard it. What I understand now is that this scholar, who in my estimation is beyond questioning in his knowledge of the Greek language and the history of the New Testament, came to a conclusion that was in direct opposition to the words of the text. Therefore the ancient text had to be “re-contextualized” to fit his new conclusion. All he had to do was anchor 1 Corinthians to the city of Corinth in the first century, and he could advocate basically any interpretation he wished.
I have no problem accepting the fact that our Bible, and the New Testament in particular, was written by very human beings in concrete, specific situations. I would even argue that is true of the Old Testament as well. I have been taught and I believe that the more we come to understand those cultures and time periods in which our ancient texts were written we can understand and interpret the books more faithfully. I am all for learning more about the ancient world in which our Bible was written.
But I refuse to accept the conclusion that we are to leave our Bibles in the dust of those ancient civilizations. The writers of the New Testament certainly did not think that the texts of the Torah were to be left in the musty caves of Mesopotamia, Egypt or Arabia. Those texts were alive and brought life to the early church. So today, we do not abandon our New Testaments on the pillars of ancient Rome, Ephesus or Jerusalem. The text is living, it speaks to today – the spirit of God is breathing out of the text just as surely and the Spirit of God was breathed into it as it was first written. The heresy of the Postmodernist is that of turning the living and active Word of God into a dead and decaying clump of leather, papyrus or clay.
Surely we need to speak God’s word in a manner that is appropriate to the audience that is called to hear it. We must not transport our western culture into places where it would be harmful and confusing to do so. And we must be careful not to read into the text concepts that are not there, but that we wish were there, due to our specific culture and issues.
But the content of God’s revealed word is not up for negotiation. God does not change his mind simply because the calendar changes or because the reader moves from a democratic culture to a dictatorial one, or from a patriarchal culture to a matriarchal culture. God’s will and His words are eternal.
And that is a situation the Postmodernist simply cannot contextualize.
That has to be the longest title to a blog that I have ever written. I hope the post is not correspondingly as long.
I was really not zoned into the “blogosphere” when Pope Benedict XVI was selected, so I really cannot say that I heard or read much about his selection. But I have been following the election of Pope Francis with some interest. I will have more to say about my thoughts about that in a moment.
I have to say I have truly been disheartened by some of my fellow non-Catholics in their response to this event. Honestly, brothers (and maybe a sister or two), if I was a Roman Catholic and I stumbled across some of your invective disguised as teaching I would not even pay you the common courtesy to give you the time of day if you were to ask. Talk about speaking misrepresentations of opinions in a tone of hatred. Some of the articles have even offended me, and I am not a Roman Catholic. I especially despise those brilliant thinkers who imagine themselves to be profound apologists and recommend to any Roman Catholic who happens to be reading (and there are precious few, I guarantee) that they read the Bible. That is so special. And inflammatory. And so grossly stereotyped. And just so patently wrong.
I spent a year serving in a hospice (an organization designed to ease the suffering of those who are dying). I was able to serve many individuals from an amazing number of spiritual and non-spiritual backgrounds. Being in New Mexico the largest number of patients I served were Roman Catholics. Most, (but certainly not all) were deeply committed, very devoted and had a profound love for the church. Now I realize that I was dealing mostly with the elderly, and that was a generation where members of all religious groups were very committed, devoted, and had a profound love for the church. But what I found among the Catholics that I did not expect was a deep love for and respect for the Bible. I had always been told that Catholics never read the Bible, or only were concerned about what their priest said about the Bible. What I discovered was almost diametrically opposite to that stereotype. When I would approach them and ask what I could do to help them, they always asked for prayer and the majority also asked that I read a passage of Scripture. Some had a favorite text, many just wanted me to read to them – from the Bible and not from a Catholic publication. So, as I hopefully served them, I also received an education, one that I treasure to this day.
The second education I received came in my Doctor of Ministry program. I had the privilege of studying under a Franciscan priest who really opened my eyes concerning the functioning of the Roman Catholic church. As he explained it, the Roman Catholic church is truly a “big tent” concept. There are many communities within the larger framework of the church, each with a special life of its own, and some even eyeing each other with a certain amount of suspicion and envy. That is the ugly side of the church. The good side of that openness is that you do not have some “one size fits all” mentality that afflicts many non-Catholic groups. For example: when I was growing up all I ever heard was that if you were a Christian you had to be an evangelist/preacher/teacher/baptizer. If you did not baptize as many people as you could you might still be allowed to go to heaven, but you would only be allowed in the steerage section – you would never be allowed up to first class. I can’t tell you how many sermons I heard that asked me the question, “will there be any stars in your crown” as if a person baptized under your tutelage would entitle you to another star. I will not go into great detail as to how I loathe that theology.
Which brings me to my thoughts on Pope Francis. When I first heard his background and his chosen name I associated “Francis” with Francis Xavier, one of the men who established the Society of Jesus – the Jesuits – of which Pope Francis is a member. But later I was to read that he chose the name Francis in honor of Francis of Assisi. Now, having been raised in Santa Fe New Mexico, I have a special interest in St. Francis of Assisi. (The entire name of Santa Fe in English would be “The city of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi.” I’m sure glad I don’t have to print that on all my legal paperwork!) So, to make things short and sweet, the Roman Catholic church has in Pope Francis a Jesuit (deeply committed to the imitation of Jesus, and generally considered to be the scholarly circle within the Roman Catholic church) and a devoted follower of St. Francis who was the founder of the Order of the Friars Minor – an order devoted to preaching and to the care of the poor and dispossessed.
We have, in other words, the blending of two of the most radically different, although not opposed, circles within Roman Catholicism. This I find to be utterly captivating. Such a blending of viewpoints would be virtually unheard of within the church in which I was raised. I love my heritage, but it did not take me long to realize that within the Churches of Christ you either agreed with me or you were going to hell. And that included every possible minuscule detail. If you used too many cups in the administration of the Lord’s Supper or if you raised your hands during a song – I’m sorry, that’s it. You’re done.
I find that same spirit of demonization and hatred all too common in blog posts regarding the selection of the Roman Pope. And so, as the title of this post argues, it is far better to have people think you are a fool than to write a blog post and to remove all doubt. If you are looking for a few “amens” from the choir section, then go right ahead and spew your venom. If you are looking to invite Roman Catholic readers to consider your thoughts – well, let’s just say they have more constructive blogs to read.
I should be able to leave this disclaimer unsaid, but I will state it just for the record. I am not a Roman Catholic. I do not agree with much of the officially sanctioned dogma of the church. I believe that I am to base my faith on the person of Jesus as revealed in the clear teachings of Scripture, and that the rules and doctrines of men only serve to cloud and pollute those teachings. And so, while I understand where a great many of the teachings of the Roman Catholic church arise, I reject them as being man-made and ultimately contrary to the New Testament. I must add – this applies to my own heritage, and so I must be ever vigilant to guard my own thoughts and ideas against man-made traditions, something that is difficult and painful at times to do.
I have said in other posts that I have been deeply touched by Roman Catholic writers and theologians. If I had been a member of the “unchurched” and I came across a book written by Henri Nouwen or Thomas Merton I might have been convinced to become a member of the Roman Catholic church. I do not hold the gross excesses in the history of the church against modern Roman Catholics, any more that I wish to be blamed for the sins of the early settlers of the United States. I would like to judge a people, or a faith, based on their brightest lights, not their dimmest bulbs.
Which, by the way, is exactly why I do not want Roman Catholic readers to judge me by some of the hate filled, ignorant posts written by some of my non-Catholic counterparts.
(Oops – my first copy of this post identified the OFM as the Order of St. Friars Minor. My bad – that is the Order of the Friars Minor, the “Little Brothers” of St. Francis. I hope my slip is not showing too much.)
A bit of a warning here for those readers who are not members of the Churches of Christ, the group that is most widely recognized as the most conservative wing of the American Restoration Movement. If you are not familiar with our history or our struggles this post may sound strange, if not worse. If you care to read on I do believe that what I say, or rather ask, is beneficial for any group, any disciple of Christ. I am writing from my own experience, my own heritage. Therefore, I do feel I have a right to voice these concerns.
As a member of the Church of Christ I have felt a special blessing. I have been raised from an infant in a heritage that treasures the written Word of God and seeks to measure all matters of faith and practice by this outside measuring tool. In addition, the history of the early church is often researched to illuminate various issues and to provide guidance where the Scriptures are silent, or are at least open to more than one interpretation. This is how we have lived and worked and studied and worshipped.
This dual basis of authority is seen in virtually every aspect that makes the Churches of Christ “unique” or “different.” In the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper we see where Scripture and the history of the early church point to both the immersion of adult believers and the weekly remembrance of the last supper. In matters of worship, where specifics are not readily forthcoming, we believe that the history of the early church validates our understanding of acapella singing and an emphasis on the preached word. In church organization we believe that each congregation is autonomous and that each congregation is to be led by a plurality of male leaders, known variously as elders, bishops, or overseers. We refer to ourselves as the Church of Christ (or little “c” church of Christ for some) as we do not want to be known as a denomination, but as an identity – the church which is known as being owned by Christ. The capitalization of the “c” has caused no small amount of ink to be spilled, and I do not wish it to be a symbol of denominationalism.
I know what to do if I was to challenge or to reject any or all of these identifiers, plus a number of others. Integrity would demand that I would say, “Listen, I love my heritage but I no longer believe ‘x’ ‘y’ or ‘z’ and so I am leaving the fellowship.” But what do you do if the church leaves you? What if you are standing where you think you need to stand, and you look around and everyone is looking at you as if you just cursed your mother?
I know I spend a large part of my life confused. But that is where I am right now. I am confused. Bamboozled. Flummoxed. Gobsmacked.
Part of my confusion may be my own limited point of view. Maybe I am just not seeing the whole picture. But it appears to me that a huge number, perhaps a majority, and perhaps an overwhelming majority, of members of the Church of Christ see absolutely nothing wrong with using violence and weapons of violence, perpetuating the cycle of violence, and even demanding that others perpetuate the cycle of violence all in the name of “self-defense” and the right to own guns.
There is nothing in the Scriptures which teach this – particularly the New Testament. Jesus clearly and repeatedly renounced violence and the use of weapons of violence. The early church, as evidenced in the book of Acts, certainly did not condone using weapons of violence and did not use them. Stephen and James went to their deaths as martyrs, not casualties of war. The other apostles and early disciples were arrested, but none resisted with force. What we see from the pages of the early church historians validates this adherence to a policy of non-violence.
The modern response to this biblical and early non-biblical evidence is, “well, of course they did not resist. They were in the minority. If they had resisted they would have all been killed.”
Oh. So the nations that have been trying to exterminate the Jewish people have not been able to do so because the Jews were more numerous and had better weaponry? From the days of Mt. Sinai until today? Is that your understanding of history?
It is far easier to exterminate someone who is unarmed than someone who is well armed. At least that is the argument that is being made to promote a violent response to violence. Why then was the church able to survive and even grow when their response to violence was pacifist? The church has grown the fastest in times of persecution. So, what exactly does that do to the argument that we must use violence to protect ourselves?
This turn of hermeneutics is a fascinating method of doing theology – especially for a movement that is known for being a biblicist movement. “Avoid weapons if you are a minority and will lose, because that is what the Bible teaches, but the moment you attain majority status and have access to better weaponry it is perfectly okay to use weapons of violence because that is what the Bible teaches.” I think I lost something in the logic there.
What I see happening is this discussion/debate is ultimately a battle over power. Those who own guns and teach that we ought to use them as a response to violence believe that they are in the ultimate power position and they refuse to consider leaving it. They do not want to surrender their power. And believe me, if you have a gun and I do not, or if you have a bigger gun than I do, you are in the power position. That is what is being taught, and it apparently is being followed by a great many people.
But, and correct me if I am wrong, did not Jesus teach a reversal of the power equation? Did he not come to surrender his power? Did he not come to teach us that the only way we are going to have peace on this earth is if we learn to do things God’s way? And is the cross not the ultimate image of the reversal of power? Is not the cross the picture of the Son of God surrendering all of his Divine power in order to bring peace and salvation to a violent world?
If you arm a half-dozen men (and women) in your congregation to guard against a violent encounter, you may never have that encounter. But you will not have peace in your assembly. You will have overcome evil by means of evil. You will have overcome the use of violence by the threat of greater and more lethal violence. That, by its very nature, means the absence of peace. You may not have open conflict. But the fear that destroys peace will always be present. It will always keep peace from your assembly. And, if I understand Jesus correctly, that means you lose.
So, what I am wondering is, what do you do when your church leaves you? I still believe in defining doctrine and practice by first examining Scripture and then by confirming my conclusions by examining the history of the early church. That is what I was taught, it is what I believe, and I cannot leave that position in good conscience unless someone teaches me that I have been wrong.
Now I am being told that Jesus’ words of non-violence, that the early church’s use of non-violent resistance and the clear evidence of the first couple of centuries of church writings are all to be ignored because of the 2nd amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the overwhelming need to arm ourselves for the purpose of self-preservation.
I am experiencing a major case of spiritual whiplash here. Everything that I was taught is being rejected, and everything that I was taught to reject is being promoted.
Am I wrong here? Did I, as Bugs Bunny so famously did so long ago, take a wrong turn in Albuquerque?
Who moved? And where am I supposed to go now?
One of the first lessons most of us learn when dealing with others is, “If you cannot say anything nice about someone, say nothing at all.” It is kind of the “Golden Rule” of peaceable conversation and dialogue.
So, I am utterly chagrined by the response of non-Catholics to the news that Pope Benedict XVI will resign on Feb. 28. No sooner had the news hit the airwaves than the snarky comments hit FaceBook and Twitter.
C’mon people – I get it. You are not a Roman Catholic. You do not understand how Roman Catholics view the Pope as the formal head of the church. I must say I am not and I do not either. So, can I not just for a moment pause and let them speak to me? Can I not, just for one blessed peaceful moment, allow people of a different faith to express their emotions?
Let me say it again – I am not a Roman Catholic. I disagree with many of their doctrines, mostly because I see the doctrines of the modern Roman Catholic church at odds with Scripture. However, they obviously do not. They see their tradition as continuing the message of the Bible in an unbroken chain of church leadership dating back to the apostle Peter. Just for the record, there have been many, many atrocities committed by the leadership of the Roman Catholic church. There have also been many, many deeply devout people who only desire to worship God and follow Jesus. I have learned much from Franciscans and Jesuits alike. In fact, one of the best books on prayer I have ever read came from the pen of a young Jesuit priest.
And, while we are at it, many young black men were lynched by the finest upstanding members of the Baptist church and Churches of Christ. So, let’s just call that one even.
My main objection to the snarky comments and gleeful finger pointing is that it is so, to be perfectly blunt, un-Christ-like. Would Jesus ridicule someone for a belief they held from birth simply because they held that belief? Or would he point out the fallacy (or, to be more correct, allow them to recognize their own fallacy) and work to teach them the truth? And, it is pretty obvious to me from reading the gospels that you cannot have a conversation if you are pointing fingers and making snarky comments. Conversations between differing beliefs require humility, patience, and a huge dose of being willing to set aside our grievances long enough to hear the other side.
I just find it very childish, unprofessional, and contrary to the gospel to mock a religious belief, especially at a time in which there is a very high degree of emotion present. The announcement from Benedict is significant – he is the first to willingly resign since the middle ages. With the controversy surrounding the sex abuse cases within the Roman Catholic church the selection of his replacement will be closely monitored and much debated.
If you disagree with the teachings of the Roman Catholic church make sure first of all that your attitude is right with God. Then make sure your theology is spotless and perfect. And then begin a conversation with a real, live, caring Roman Catholic. Listen to learn, not to debate. Unplug your ears. And then, if and when given the opportunity, correct the error of the teaching. But please, keep the snarky tweets and FB posts to yourself.
They really are beneath the dignity of the disciple of Christ.
Two men are having a conversation. One, a devout Christian, asks the other, an avowed atheist, to come to church with him. The atheist inquires as to the location of the church. Upon finding out where the church is, he responds: “I would never attend there. That church is full of hypocrites.” “Well,” responds the Christian, “There is always room for one more.”
I cannot tell you how many times I have heard that joke. I have probably told it almost as many times. Looking at the situation rationally, apparently what the joke teller is saying is that clearly the unbeliever is a hypocrite, and so therefore joining a much larger group of hypocrites would be in this person’s long term best interest.
Somehow the joke is just not funny anymore. I wonder why I ever did think it was funny.
I remember that when I was growing up I would see numerous commercials on TV warning about this or that disease being a hideous “silent killer.” The warnings were supposed to be more dire because being killed by something you could not see was supposedly more frightening that being killed by something you could see. Frankly, I can’t think of anything more frightening that being killed by an enraged bull or some such event. However, you should be able to see the bull coming and therefore get out of the way, and if you are aware of certain “silent” diseases you can take steps to overcome them, so therefore you do not have to suffer death.
I have been thinking over the past few weeks that one of the great silent killers of faith in today’s church is the sin of hypocrisy. I know there are others, and that hypocrisy may not be the biggest of the faith killers, but it is a brutally efficient killer none the less. Notice that in the New Testament, Jesus addresses the sin of hypocrisy perhaps most frequently and most directly. That should cause us to at least ponder the seriousness of the sin.
To make a long post much shorter, let me summarize the gist of my thinking:
- Hypocrisy and hypocritical thinking is a long process made up of many small steps. We do not wake up one morning and make a promise to become a full-fledged hypocrite by the end of the day. In reality, hypocrites die a death of a thousand little cuts.
- Hypocrisy is not based in or on logic, but on feelings and intuition. If we are cured of a hypocritical stance it is usually after someone has pointed out the illogical position we are holding. The less emotion we have riding on the hypocritical stance, the easier it is to let go. Conversely, the more emotion we have riding on the contradictory positions, the harder it is to let go of one of them.
- Hypocrisy is therefore doubly painful to confess and repent of, because (1) we were wrong on the issue at hand and (2) we have invested considerable emotional capital in the error.
I have a couple of examples that (for me, at least) illustrate my points with crystal clarity. I hope I do not get too many people’s blood pressure up, because high blood pressure can be a silent killer.
The first example involves President Obama and his use of CIA drones and super-secret covert operations to kill suspected terrorists in Afghanistan and other countries. On the one hand, if a Republican president had ordered such strikes the “Doves” in the Democratic party would be positively apoplectic in their denunciations of the “illegal” and “immoral” actions of the president. Congressional hearings would be convened, the Sunday talk shows would be ablaze with their heated rhetoric. Strange, but I just do not see or hear any of those “Doves” commenting on their Commander in Chief’s actions. Hypocritical, you say? I would have to agree. But what of the Republican silence? These are the passionate, conservative, “we are a nation of laws” crowd that loves to quote the Bible and that simply cannot have enough bashing of President Obama when it comes to abortion or homosexual rights or same-sex marriage. Where is their complaint against a President who is absolutely flouting the law and biblical morality when it comes to “targeted eliminations” of “suspected combatants” that also end up killing scores of innocent bystanders. You see, when the “pot starts calling the kettle black,” there is not much left in the kitchen that escapes observation. Hypocrisy cuts deeply in both political parties.
Or, as a second example that is perhaps closer to home and one that disturbs me just as much, consider the recent (and on-going) debate concerning gun control. Consider that everything in the life of Jesus, his words and his actions, points to the disciple’s non-violent response to violence. Consider that every event recorded in the book of Acts reveals or demonstrates the fact that the early disciples understood and lived out that non-violent response to violence. Consider that for the first three centuries, our recorded history of the church convincingly supports the New Testament teaching concerning a non-violent response to violence. And then stop and consider who it is that is doing the loudest and the longest defense of owning and using a gun as a weapon of self-defense against an act of violence and you will see a long list of very conservative, very Bible believing, very Christ-confessing “disciples.”
In my own heritage, if a certain practice of worship is questioned you will find an adherent quote the gospels, quote the book of Acts, quote the letters of the early apostles, and possibly even quote an early church historian as to either why that practice should or should not be continued in today’s church.
In that same heritage, if a certain doctrine is questioned you will find an adherent quote “book, chapter and verse” to defend the doctrine (if he or she believes it to be true) or to condemn the practice (if he or she disagrees with the doctrine). That same adherent will also find evidence from writers within the first two or three centuries to defend their position.
In that same heritage if the question of gun ownership and use comes up, there is an increasingly shrill and pointed reference to…..the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Reference to the gospels is non-existant. Reference to the book of Acts is strangely missing. Voices that make reference to the rest of the New Testament or to the early church are deafeningly silent.
Honestly, the best I have heard anyone come up with is a misapplication of Luke 22:38 and some vague and as yet unsubstantiated command that we are to defend our families with the biggest, baddest gun we can own because we are to love and cherish our wives and children. Hmmm. Can’t find that exact reference in my concordance.
Returning to my oft-quoted but no longer funny joke about the level of hypocrisy in the church. That is just not funny anymore. The next time someone tells me that joke, I am going to ask them what is so funny about the church being full of hypocrites, when hypocrisy was so soundly condemned by our Lord. Instead, when the atheist or agnostic comments on the level of hypocrisy in the church, our response should be – “God forbid that is true. If it is, God will deal with the hypocrites as only he can deal with them. But I am called to a higher standard, and because you can see that higher standard as well, it is obvious that Jesus is working on your heart. Would you like to join me in working toward a hypocrite-free church?”
To be honest, I share the emotion expressed by our imaginary atheistic joke dweller. The church should be the LAST place hypocrisy is found. But that means that we as disciples must evaluate not only our actions, but our hearts and our emotional attachments as well.
Hypocrisy is a silent killer of faith. That does not make it more scary – but it should make us more diligent about dealing with it before it kills us.
Last year I shared with everyone what has become my favorite Bible reading schedule. The post received a fair amount of attention, and so, because this is the time of year in which people make their plans to read from the Bible every day, I thought I would repeat the basic plan, but perhaps shorter this time and maybe more to the point.
The plan calls for the reader to read through the Bible twice in a year. My own personal preference is to read from a formal translation once, and a dynamic translation the second time. This allows me to “hear” the text in slightly different ways. I have found this to be a most enjoyable manner in which to read the Bible.
A word of explanation and perhaps a bit of apologetic. There is a belief that one should only read very small sections of scripture, perhaps only a verse or a paragraph, per day. This verse or this story is then the source of quiet meditation and devotional thought – maybe as the topic for journaling. This is a wonderful way to absorb the message of the Bible. However, it has some serious drawbacks. By atomizing a verse or two per day the reader loses track of the grand narrative of the Bible. The Bible is, at its most basic level, a story. Now, I know there are many different forms of literature within the Bible, but they combine to create a tapestry of incredible complexity and diversity. A reader must never lose sight of this grand narrative. So, while I applaud this particular method of Bible reading, I would caution you not to make it your only method of Bible reading. In fact, if you so desired, you could follow the plan that I will describe and focus in on a single verse or short passage. Bible reading is not either/or. It should be both/and.
So, to follow the schedule I follow and read the Bible through twice in a give year, here is the basic outline:
- Read 5 chapters a day from Monday through Saturday from the Old Testament
- Read 2 chapters a day from Tuesday though Friday from the New Testament
- On Monday and Saturday read one chapter from the New Testament
- Each day read one Psalm
- When you arrive at Psalm 119, read two sections (16 verses) per day
This is the basic plan, and depending on the year, it takes a small amount of tweaking. I use an Excel spreadsheet and divide everything up so that I can follow it on a printed sheet of paper.
You will notice that there is nothing listed for Sundays. I use the “Daily Texts” published by the Moravian Brethren for the reading each Sunday. This reading consists of an Old Testament passage, a Psalm (or a section of a Psalm), a reading from a gospel and a reading from Acts or one of the Epistles.
That is my schedule – you can accept it, adjust it or just plain forget it. By halving it (2 1/2 chapters per day in the O.T., one chapter in the N.T.) you can adjust it to read the Bible through once in a year. Or, you can follow the Moravian Brethren’s reading schedule and read much smaller sections and read the Bible through once every three years. They do follow a sequential reading schedule, so the major flow of the text remains unbroken. That might be the perfect solution for those who would like to spend time in the text, but have limited time or limited attention spans.
The most important thing, to me anyway, is that we need to get back into the text. We need to become a people of the book once again. We cannot do that by saying, “yeah, I really need to read my Bible more often.” We can only do that by READING the Bible.
So, the best Bible reading schedule for you is the one you actually follow.
May God bless your time with his word in 2013!
I want to begin by thanking many of you for the comments and observations on my post yesterday. In one response the comment was made that it was “provocative” and I must admit to a certain degree of emotion as I wrote the piece. Sometimes I do my best thinking when I am really worked up about something. On another day I would have written differently, although I stand by what I have written absolutely.
What I want to stress is that I am not writing as a political pundit. This is not political for me. It is spiritual. Governments rise and fall, powers shift in an endless ocean of greed, hate, selfishness and rebellion. That will never change, no matter what we might think or write.
But if you believe in the God of the Bible you must also believe that this world is not everything that there is. There is something beyond us – a great unknown in which all will be made right and the lion will indeed lay down with the lamb. That Kingdom, that reign of peace and righteousness is promised to those who trust utterly in the God who made this world and the world to come. The Kingdom came near in the person of Jesus of Nazareth who showed us, in incarnate human form, what the Kingdom could be here on earth if we would but “trust and obey” the reign of the King.
Although God had revealed himself in many ways previous to the coming of Jesus, mankind always wanted something better. In the garden of Eden instead of glorying in the fact that he was made “in the image of God,” man decided that it was better to be “like God” and so he threw his deepest sense of humanity away – and he ended up neither “like God” nor in the image of God any longer. Throughout mankind’s long history he has been searching to regain that lost “image” and the best he can come up with are “images” of his god in the shape of animals or totems. In the history of Israel, God’s chosen people, this happened repeatedly, until God finally punished his people by sending them into exile. The punishment worked – you never read of Israel as a nation falling into idol worship following the return from Babylon.
In the decades immediately following the death of Jesus we can see in the pages of recorded history how deeply Jesus’ message of being “reborn” in the image of God affected his disciples. When the Roman authorities would attempt to force them to utter the words, “Caesar is Lord” the disciples would refuse, because when they made the “good confession” that “Jesus is Lord” they meant it. They could not mouth the words, even knowing they did not believe the words, because even the mere vocalization of the consonants and vowels would have been bowing the knee to an idol. Because of their abject refusal to do so, many lost their lives. Others had property confiscated, were beaten, or otherwise punished.
Today, now almost 2,000 years removed from the death of Jesus, his people who live in the United States are faced with another defining moment. I have been writing, in fits and starts, about how I have come to view the Constitution as a form of an idol, an “American Idol.” The events of 12/14/12 crystalized that observation in my mind. I have been deeply touched by the fact that several, perhaps many, others are waking up to the same realization. Perhaps they have held it for many years and I was simply unaware of it. I am personally horrified to realize how long I have been blind to this reality.
If the blind shall lead the blind, they both will fall into the pit. (Matthew 15:14)
I want people to wake up and realize that this is a spiritual problem, not a political one. Oh, and I do not mean putting prayer back into the schools or posting the 10 Commandments back on the walls of the court houses. What I am talking about is removing the idol from the hearts of Christians and putting Jesus back in His proper place.
In my limited discussions with radical gun advocates following the massacre in Newtown the only response I get is “my right to own any gun and any ammunition is guaranteed by the 2nd Amendment.” There is no logic applied, no connection to the Kingdom of God, certainly no submission to the Prince of Peace. Just a pathetic, ignorant, reflexive appeal to a brief and profoundly misunderstood phrase in a man made and deeply flawed piece of human governance. So there you have it. An idol, shaped out of cold steel, wood or perhaps composite materials, and shrouded in an ink stained piece of parchment. Just as the ancient idols needed to be nailed to the floor lest they fall over, this idol needs to be nailed to the floor with poor arguments (guns don’t kill people…if you take away all the guns, only criminals will have guns) lest they fall over and everyone can see how pitiful their gods really are.
I cannot believe I have been so blind. I was one of those people. I mouthed the words. What is worse, at one time I actually believed those words. God forgive me for my ignorance and my idolatry. Now, we are living in a culture in which the ownership of a gun and the defense of the same is made a defining feature of what it means to be a Christian. If you are against unlimited gun ownership you are against the Constitution, and since the Constitution is founded on Christian principles (so the argument goes, I profoundly disagree) ipso facto you cannot be a Christian.
“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight.” (Isaiah 5:20-21)
America has become so inwardly focused, so in love with its individualism that even the concept itself has become demonical. It has taken on a life of its own. America today is all about the one, the individual, my rights, my freedoms, my way of doing things. But the Scriptures teach us that the Kingdom of God is focused on the other! The primary other is God himself, but even here in our daily walk we are to consider others more highly than ourselves, we are to lift the loads of the other, we are to bind up the wounds of the other, we are to willingly surrender our rights so that the life of the other is made better. Our America is 180 degrees out of phase with the New Testament. We cannot support this American way of life and at the same time claim to be followers of the Crucified One. The cross itself is the pinnacle of selflessness, and it was in the shadow of the cross that the message of the Kingdom of God spread like a wildfire.
Therefore, it is my firm conviction that you cannot replace God’s word with a fallible, broken human document and at the same time claim to be His disciple. You cannot worship an idol and the true and living God.
“Choose this day whom you will serve, but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” (Joshua 24:15)
Some have responded that I am being too harsh – that I cannot equate equate unqualified defense of the 2nd Amendment (or the Constitution as a whole) with idolatry. To which I simply respond: What is your definition of an idol? An idol is anything that replaces our trust, our affection, our devotion to God.
“Jesus replied, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37, 38)
It is not political, people. It is spiritual. And, if it is spiritual, our eternal destiny hangs in the balance. Do not be mislead by fine sounding but inwardly rotten arguments. Idols have never worked. They will not work in the 21st century any better than they worked in the 8th century BC or the 1st century AD.
Please, for our children and our grandchildren – we must wake up!
There are times when you are walking out in a forest that you are so enthralled by the majesty and the immensity of your surroundings that you fail to see the tiny little blossoms and intricate little designs of the plants surrounding you. And, there are times when you happen to notice the tiny little blossoms and intricate designs of nature that you fail to notice the immensity of the forest in which you stand. Theological studies are similar in many ways.
There are times when we read the Scriptures that all we see are the commands, the “law” of God’s word. And, there are other times when all we can see is God’s grace, the “gospel” of God’s word. It is imperative, for healthy theology, to put both in proper perspective. Thus, Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection numbers 12 and 13:
12. Grace always precedes covenant. This is illustrated by the covenants of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus. Likewise, covenant always follows grace.
13. The practical work that flows from theology, then, must follow this pattern. We are drawn to God by his grace, but in order to thrive in a relationship with God we must be bound by God’s covenant.
Even though these are numbers 12 and 13, I have been aware of this inter-connection for many years before I created this list. I’m not really sure why they showed up so far down, I think originally they were higher, and as I added to my list these just got moved down. These truths are certainly evidence that “further down the list does not implicate lesser importance.” These truths are absolutely critical if we hope to apprehend the message of God’s word accurately.
When we look at the “forest,” the expansive message of God’s word from Genesis to Revelation we see God’s grace on every page, in every story. This is such an obvious truth that this is the only thing that some people see. They only see forgiveness, love, mercy, and the repeated attempts by God to reclaim his stubborn people.
When we stop and sit down and look around us, however, we notice all the little details of our theological world. These are the covenants that follow after the acts of grace that God freely gives his people. But, once again, some people only see these covenants, and somehow are oblivious to the greater forest around them. These people can tell you how many laws are in the Bible, and can recite a great many of them verbatim. If you mention the word “grace” to these people their first response is, “yes, but…”
The necessary move of theology is to hold both of these energizing components of Scripture in their proper relationship. Grace always precedes covenant, but covenant always follows grace. God never demands without first providing. However, God never provides without placing restrictions, or in Biblical language, a covenant.
God gave Adam a self-perpetuating garden. God demanded Adam to follow his instructions regarding the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
God gave Noah the sign of the rainbow, a sign of the covenant, God demanded that Noah and his descendants obey him completely.
God gave Moses and the Israelites freedom from the Egyptians, God demanded obedience to the Torah, his law for the Promised Land.
God gave all mankind the gift of his Son, God demands that we follow his Son in covenanted obedience.
This duality, this relationship can be described in different ways. One common way of looking at the relationship is the interconnection between law and gospel. Some religious people, even Christians, only see law in the Bible. For them the whole text of Scripture is one big list of “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots.” Other religious people only see gospel. “Christ has set us free” is their motto. One way that this bifurcation plays out is the separation between Old and New Testaments. The legalists in the bunch love to quote the Old Testament (especially when the verse they find is in their favor), the libertarians can only use the New Testament (and, obviously they studiously avoid the codes of ethical conduct listed in the epistles of Paul, Peter, James and John).
I wonder how much mischief has been wrought on God’s people when His story of creation, redemption and recreation was divided into “Old” and “New” Testaments, and then further subdivided into smaller and smaller sections. The trend toward becoming legalists is a dangerous one, and one that has been present literally from the day the Mosaic law was given. Jesus himself criticized the legalists of his day when he said, “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life” (Jn. 5:39). Two thoughts in that passage stand out to me. One is that the Jews searched the Scriptures, meaning that they spent much time in reading and study. Two, they thought they could find eternal life in a legalistic, “covenantal” reading of Scripture. Jesus confronted them on both ideas. Scripture should not be thought of as a compendium of law codes that need to be studiously “researched.” The Bible is a record of God’s interaction with His creation – which does include sections of law codes, but is far more than those law codes. And, most importantly, salvation is not found in the words of the text, but only in the blood of Christ. The words of the text point us to Christ, and they are authoritative (2 Tim. 3:16), but we cannot afford to put the cart in front of the horse.
But, lest we shed the mantle of legalism only to become libertarians, Jesus also confronted the “anything goes as long as you have the right motive” way of “gospel” or “grace only” thinking. No one could argue with the Samaritan woman’s desire to be pleasing to God, and yet Jesus clearly told her, “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.” (Jn. 4:22) Later, Jesus would tell his disciples, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (Jn. 15:14) So much for “anything goes” theology. In fact, even a superficial reading of the gospel accounts reveals a Jesus that repeatedly challenges his hearers’ superficial understanding of God’s grace. Libertarians have been and will always be with us, but we must be careful not to slip into their moral and religious utopianism, no matter how attractive they may make it appear.
So, my bottom line – grace is everywhere and in everything in the Bible. Grace is God’s beginning and ending point. God created mankind with an act of total love and grace, and he will recreate us with that same love and grace. But, covenant always follows grace. If God created us to live in a “graceful” relationship with Him, we must understand that he places upon us certain restrictions and commands he expects us to follow. Obviously we can never follow them exactly or completely – here is where grace reenters the picture – but we certainly have the power to “obey the commands” (Jesus’ words!) that God has placed in front of us.
Grace and covenant, law and gospel. These are not opposing concepts, but complementary ones. The more we rightly apprehend and apply them, the fuller and more complete our walk with God will be. We will cease to be “dualistic” thinkers, only seeing things in one light or another, and we will truly become the worshippers in “spirit and truth” of which Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman.