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.
After a brief (although, in my mind, necessary) detour, I would now like to return to the series of posts I have been writing about my perspective on the current situation the the Churches of Christ find themselves in, and what I believe would be a biblical response.
In this entry I would like to discuss the relationship the Churches of Christ have had, and currently do have, with other churches in the Christian tradition.
To begin with, this subject has been a complicated one from the earliest days of the American Restoration Movement. The two men most frequently named as “founders” or “leaders” of the Churches of Christ (Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone) both believed with no hesitation that there were Christians within every denomination that existed in the early 1800s. It would have been simply unfathomable to these men to try to defend the statement that the church had “disappeared” from the face of the earth. The very point of their “restoration” movement was to call Christians who were in the denominations to leave those institutions, not because there was no way they could be Christian, but because these institutions demanded that the person be something else in addition to being a Christian. In order to be a Presbyterian (as both Campbell and Stone were) you had to subscribe to the rules of the Presbyterian church. Likewise the Methodist church, the Lutheran church, the Anglican or Episcopal church, and the Roman Catholic Church. In the early 1800s these denominations exercised far more “boundary discipline” than is exercised today, so it is hard for some people to understand the religious landscape to which Campbell and Stone were writing. The point that I want to make here is that neither Campbell nor Stone thought they were creating or re-creating anything. They believed in “restoring” the church, but that simply meant removing all the barnacles that had attached themselves to the hull of the great sailing ship “church.” In both of these gentlemen’s minds, if a person was to return to the teachings of the New Testament and New Testament alone, the resulting community, or “church” would be the pure New Testament church.
In my own very personal and, at least in my mind, educated opinion, the weaknesses of such ”pure” restorationist thinking has been adequately revealed. There were some historical and philosophical realities the Campbell and Stone either were unaware of or chose to ignore. Thus, the movement that they helped spawn has had more than its fair share of divisions and brutal intramural fights. We have certainly not lived up the the concept of uniting on the essentials and having charity in the matters of opinion. But this basic beginning point of Campbell and Stone must be understood for the Church of Christ to move forward.
Explained in the most simple way I know how, the Churches of Christ have moved through three stages in dealing with the denominational churches.
The first stage has been noted above. It is the stage of engagement. Both Campbell and Stone sought to engage the denominations with a simple plea – return to a point of time in history when there were no denominations. Hence the term “non-denominationalism” was born. Campbell and Stone saw that, for all the unity with the various denominations, what divided them was not the New Testament (nor, for that matter, the Old Testament), but the later creeds and, more specifically, the Confessions of Faith that each denomination held as a barrier between them and the rest of the Christian world. The original message of the earliest restorers was to simply remove those Confessions of Faith as tools of division. In order to communicate this message the early restorers engaged the leaders of the denominational world. They went congregation to congregation and house to house explaining their plea. And, by any reasonable measure, they succeeded wildly. Entire congregations severed their denominational ties and joined the “Stone/Campbell” movement to unite all Christians.
However, disciples of prophets very rarely follow closely in their leader’s footsteps. And so another
group of leaders emerged that believed if a person should leave a denomination, that meant he or she could not be a Christian if he or she was a member of that denomination. So, even during the lifetime of Stone and Campbell the second phase of the relationship between the Churches of Christ and the denominational world developed, and that was the phase of debate. Now, to be sure, Campbell was a master at the skill of debate. But his debates were never to destroy the enemy, they were designed to convince the doubting. This was not enough for this emerging set of firebrands. They believed the gains made by Campbell and Stone were impressive, but that they were not enough, and those gains had to be defended at all costs. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the non-denominational plea espoused by Stone and Campbell was turned into call to enter into another denomination, the “Church of Christ.” A person could not be a Christian unless he or she adhered to each and every demand that a particular preacher, elder or editor saw was critical – whether it was baptism “for the forgiveness of sins,” the use of titles for ministers, paying ministers, using an instrument of music in worship, not partaking of the Lord’s Supper each and every Lord’s Day, having separate Bible classes for children, using women to teach Bible classes, supporting non-congregational “institutions,” and the list could go on and on. Each and every one of these topics became the fodder for debates, and for several generations a preacher’s skill was measured not by his spirituality or ministerial ability, but by how well he did in “debating the denominations.” Being labeled “soft on the sects” was enough to destroy many a good preacher’s reputation.
This then led to the third phase of relations between the Churches of Christ and their Christian neighbors, and that is our current situation. Many, although by no means most, of the members of the Church of Christ want to continue this position of ridicule/demean/hate the denominations. They have moved from being “non-denominational” to being “anti-denominational” in the worst possible sense of the word. They use words that are clearly not appropriate for a disciple of Christ to use in dialogue with someone of another belief. Quite frankly, they demonstrate a very unChristian attitude. However, on the other end of the spectrum there is a group that still wants to be identified as members of the Church of Christ but they have begun to embrace the main beliefs of the denominational world in an absolutely uncritical way. They hate all right, but they hate the Church of Christ. They ridicule the founders of the Restoration Movement every chance they get. They refuse to accept that anything positive has come from the heritage of the Restoration movement over the past 200+ years. They apologize for every perceived fault, and cannot wait to make fun of those who still believe in the premise of non-denominational Christianity. But, they stoically remain as ministers, elders and editors of “Churches of Christ” so that they can obtain some kind of martyr status by being criticized for their adolescent rejection of their spiritual father’s beliefs.
I have elsewhere stated that I am a staunch believer in the American Restoration Movement. I am a child of this movement, and, while I have been made aware of some of the presuppositional faults in the thinking of Stone and Campbell, I am never-the-less in awe of their spiritual foresight. They truly were prophets who could see 200 years into the future. Much of what the modern world is experiencing in the “Emerging Church” movement was pre-saged by Stone and Campbell. It is astounding for me to read of modern authors calling for a return to “apostolic Christianity” as if it were a novel idea, and Campbell and Stone were promoting that idea back in the early 1800′s. Just goes to prove the author of Ecclesiastes was correct – there is truly nothing new under the sun. But I digress.
While I am a child of the American Restoration Movement, I would like for the Churches of Christ to return to the ideal promoted by Stone and Campbell, and that was the process of engagement. I want to see us be able to engage the denominational world, but at the same time be secure enough in our own convictions that we do not embrace the denominational world. I hope it goes without saying that I reject the ridicule/hate position uncategorically.
As I close I want to make two final comments – to which I will return in depth in my final post in this series. One, we cannot honestly engage other faith traditions if we do not have a healthy understanding and appreciation of who we are. This is where I have such a deep seated distrust of and dislike of certain “leading ministers” in the Churches of Christ today who have virtually thrown the Restoration Plea under the bus. We cannot sit down at the table to have a dialogue with other faith traditions if we pathologically hate our own. To have a conversation in which we agree wholeheartedly with everyone around is is not a dialogue, it is a multi-person monologue.
But conversely, we cannot engage other faith traditions if we do not have a healthy understanding and appreciation of who they are. Truth, I have come to understand, does not reside only in one church building. I have been deeply touched and formed by a Lutheran (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, my favorite theologian), an Anglican (C.S. Lewis, although I’m quite sure he would not be an Anglican today), several Roman Catholics (Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, several others), a Baptist (Glen Stassen) and a number of others, some of which I know their traditions (Anabaptist, Mennonite, United Church of Christ) and some of which I do not. I can only come to the table to begin a dialogue with them if I first understand who they are and what they believe, and not to belittle or ridicule that faith, but to learn from it and grow from it. Just as I would hope they would come to hear me, and to learn from me and to grow from me.
So, my question is do we engage, debate, hate or embrace? In my most humble, but undeniably correct opinion (since, after all, this is MY blog), we have participated in the middle two for far too long and the last is just pure kissy face narcissism. Let us return to the process of engagement. And it is to that goal that I will direct my concluding thoughts.
Sometimes life is just stranger than fiction. Sometimes you want to make something up and even what your imagination can create does not equal what occurs in 3-d real life.
As I was contemplating the next step in my series of personal reflections on the Churches of Christ I happened to come across this blog post: The post is a scathing indictment of the Churches of Christ and an attempt to explain why “so many” young ministers are leaving the Churches of Christ. Note that I am not recommending the post, but I am providing a link so that I am not accused of sensationalizing or misquoting a source.
I was going to deal with another subject, but I simply cannot let this blog post go unanswered. Because it touches on the subject I was about to address, I will respond to this post here first, and then return to the series as I had originally intended it.
First of all I am simply staggered by the attitude revealed in the title of the post. “My problem is not me, my problem is you. You are the source of my angst, my anger, my feelings of insecurity and sickness.” Now, I am well aware of the technique of creating a title that is hyperbolic – extreme – in order to gain attention. However, I do not think that is what the author of this particular piece is doing. I think he is being honest and up front: the problem with many ministers who are leaving the Churches of Christ is the Churches of Christ. The ministers themselves do not have any hang-ups, psychoses or spiritual issues. They are perfect – God’s own gift to the religious world. The problem is the sick, broken, misogynistic and moribund Church of Christ.
What are the main grievances that this author identifies as being the reasons these ministers are leaving the Church of Christ? He lists three: the refusal to allow women to take a leadership role in worship and in church governance; issues with leadership; and the refusal to allow instrumental music in worship which he sees as the main symptom of an unyielding adherence to tradition. That is it. Churches of Christ can be completely defined (and dismissed) in these three categories – misogynistic patriarchalism, an unthinking allegiance to acapella music, and stodgy leaders.
I really do not know where to begin in critiquing this attitude. Words simply do not suffice. “Narcissistic” comes close, but I think this even exceeds narcissism. I believe this type of “blame the Church for my issues” reveals a pathological hatred of the Church and that is something that will not be healed by simply pulling up stakes and leaving the Church of Christ for some other “greener pasture.”
To begin with, those who share these feelings (and judging by the comment section, quite a few ministers do feel this way) believe that they are so smart, so spiritual, so welcoming, so egalitarian and so important that the Church of Christ simply will not survive if they leave the fellowship of the Churches of Christ (at least, they hope it won’t so that they can be proven correct). The young ministers of whom this author and others who share his opinion speak are always described in the most glowing terms: they are well educated, they are erudite, they are deeply spiritual, yet they are conflicted by powers that are beyond their control, they are victims of a brutal and uncaring system that does not recognize their brilliance. Notice how those descriptions frame the antagonists of these poor, misunderstood spiritual giants. Their opponents are ignorant – even if an opponent has the same or greater degree of education it is defective. The opponents do not care about the Spirit; they are slaves of the carnal and only care about power and patriarchy. Their opponents are mired in the muck and mud of a tradition that stifles any kind of creative thought or ministry. This is not a battle between two different approaches to biblical interpretation, this is a battle between the Archangel Michael and the beast from the depths of the abyss.
The main problem I have with this scenario is that it is so abjectly wrong on so many levels.
First, I do not dispute the degree of education that these ministers have obtained. They are very gifted scholars. I will grant that. I will also grant that these ministers are deeply spiritual. I will not deny that that they have come to their conclusions honestly (but I will challenge the correctness of those conclusions). But why does that mean that their opponents are ignorant hayseeds? Why must someone who believes in male spiritual leadership always be portrayed as some kind of knuckle dragging Neanderthal who just came crawling out of his cave? There are many brilliant theologians, both within the Churches of Christ and outside of the Churches of Christ, who hold to the pattern of male spiritual leadership and their degree of scholarship simply cannot be dismissed with a contemptuous sniff and wave of the hand.
And, just for the record, a great many of the staunchest defenders of the concept of male spiritual leadership are females, both within the Churches of Christ and outside of the Churches of Christ. These women are virtually always ignored in the rants and screeds produced by these super-spiritual apostles of egalitarianism. The claim in this post is that women are made to feel like “second class citizens” in a church where men are expected to lead. I have lived my entire life in the Churches of Christ and I have never served or worshipped in a congregation that suggested that women were second class citizens. Were there women in those congregations who felt that way? Maybe – there were undoubtedly men who felt like second class citizens as well. The point is that is not the official, nor unofficial, position of the Churches of Christ and those who make this accusation need to apologize to the men and women who directly and emphatically teach otherwise.
In one of the truly stunning ironies of this whole discussion, it is the egalitarian males who are turning the female defenders of male spiritual leadership into second class citizens. These egalitarian males reject the arguments and silence the voices of those females with whom they disagree. If you are not a liberal female androphobe you simply do not matter to these men.
In regard to non-instrumental music, or a preference for acapella music, this subject has been beaten to death over the past 100 years or so within the Churches of Christ/Christian Church split. What the proponents of instrumental music refuse to acknowledge is that there are a number of other Christian faiths who do not use instruments, and they use the same arguments a put forward by leading scholars within the conservative Churches of Christ – i.e., the New Testament does not authorize the use of instrumental music, and the history of the Christian church clearly demonstrates that the use of instrumental music in worship is a descent from, not an ascent to, a more pure form of praise to God. But this gets back to the intelligence and education issue once again. Those who defend the use of acapella music in worship are just a bunch of ignorant, misguided fools, and if they could ever just sit down and get some real education they would find out that these young ministerial mavericks are absolutely correct and almost 2,000 years of church history can be re-written.
Yeah, that Harvard degree that Dr. Everett Ferguson earned was just a worthless piece of paper.
In regard to tradition and traditionalism, I will agree that the second is bad, but the first is absolutely necessary for the healthy functioning of any community, secular or religious. Those who leave the Churches of Christ because of the traditions within the Churches of Christ will do one of two things. They will either join another group that has just as formal and rigid a set of traditions as the Churches of Christ (albeit different ones), or they will go off and begin a new community of worshippers who will, within the first generation create an entirely new set of traditions that will become just as rigid and inflexible as the ones that now considered so repulsive. The only difference is that in the first scenario the ministers will choose a new set of traditions to form their worship, and in the second scenario they will create the new traditions. But they will not be able to eliminate any sense of tradition. If they were able to do so they would become the most psychologically damaged people on earth. We cannot live without our traditions.
I realize this post has been uncharacteristically harsh. Believe me, I have edited down what I had originally intended to say. But I am sick of this condescending, narcissistic, pre-adolescent criticism of the Church of Christ by a bunch of self-identified spiritual heroes. When I hear someone unreservedly and unapologetically blame others for their problems I immediately think of a spoiled rotten two year old child. When I hear these ministers say, “I have a problem and it is all your fault” all I can think about is a generation was raised in which every team got a first place trophy and every player received a most valuable player medal. This staggering sense of entitlement is almost beyond comprehension when I see it in the secular world, but to hear it from those who have proclaimed an allegiance to the crucified Son of God?
To quote a phrase from a popular movie a few years back: I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.
Do you have issues with the Church of Christ? Fine – so do I. I’ve had issues with the Church of Christ beginning with the day that I wanted some crackers and grape juice and my parents told me “no.” But if you have issues with the Church of Christ and you cannot see where you can conscientiously stay as a part of the fellowship then at least have the courage of your convictions and leave. Just get out. Say goodbye, and don’t expect us to turn out the lights when you leave.
If you have issues with the Church of Christ and you feel like you can be a constructive voice within the fellowship to lead the fellowship to greener and more healthy pastures, then by all means share your voice. But, in doing so make sure that you do not insinuate that because someone disagrees with your conclusions that they are ignorant, or a knuckle-dragging troglodyte, or a moribund traditionalist.
In other words, you might want to use some of your brilliant intellect, effusive education and profound spirituality to consider Matthew 7:1-5.
(Note: I have corrected one section of this entry. I had misquoted the three points the author made regarding the reason why ministers are leaving the Churches of Christ. His three points are women’s role, leadership, and traditionalism. Earlier I had listed women’s roles, acapella music, and traditionalism.)
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.
Today’s excursion in daily Bible reading brought me to 2 Timothy 2:1. As I am reading in this cycle through the God’s Word Translation, I came across this reading:
My Child, find your source of strength in the kindness of Christ Jesus.
Not remembering ever having heard this verse phrased this way my figurative ears were pricked immediately. The God’s Word Translation is more of a dynamic translation, meaning that the translators focused on translating the thought of each portion of the text rather than slavishly following a word-for-word translation, so I asked the questions, “Are they accurate here?” “Have they taken extreme liberties with the literal text?” “Why is this reading so different from some of the more formal, or word for word translations?”
I am far from a scholar of the Greek New Testament, but a little research brought me to a rather firm conviction: this translation of this verse is very appropriate, and very powerful.
To cut to the chase, the key word here in this verse is transliterated, endunamou. Both my Analytical Lexicon and my Parsing Guide identify this word as a 2nd person singular, imperative middle verb (I don’t truly trust my own parsing skills). So, in layman’s terms, this is an imperative, a command, but it is in a middle construction – that is it is an action that a person does to or for himself or herself. The basic meaning of the verb form from which this verb is derived is to make strong. Therefore, the command Paul gives Timothy is that he (Timothy) is to make himself strong.
But here is the kicker – how is Timothy supposed to make himself strong? The older (and many of the newer) translations translate the next important word as “grace.” So, for example, the RSV translates, “You, then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” That is basically how I remember this verse. There is certainly nothing wrong in that translation.
However, the force that the GWT brings out is that the verb is actually something that a person is to do, to engage in, to make oneself stronger. The RSV simply as a form of the English verb “to be.” It is one thing to say, “be strong” and another thing to say, “make yourself strong” or even “make yourself stronger.” And, the GWT adds a flavor to the word “grace” that, in my most humble opinion, really brings out the irony, or the paradox of the command Paul is giving Timothy. Paul is telling Timothy to “make himself strong” or to “strengthen himself” in the kindness of Jesus.
Now, one might quibble that the word kindness is borrowing too much from the concept of grace. But I would counter that “grace” has become such a loaded, and very often twisted, religious concept that sometimes a synonym is valuable, provided it is not too far afield of the word’s basic meaning. I happen to really like this phraseology – “Timothy, make yourself stronger by remembering and patterning your life on the kindness of Jesus” (Paul Smith paraphrase).
Americans have, perhaps to overgeneralize, a John Wayne theory of strength. Get the most people, arm yourself with the biggest guns, build the biggest bunker, obtain the most and the highest educational degrees, write the most books, attend the most conferences. Each of these makes you “stronger” than someone who has fewer people, smaller guns, a tar-paper shack, a high school education, who is illiterate, or who refuses to pay extortionist fees to attend conferences. How many times have you been encouraged to “make yourself stronger” by practicing kindness? Or grace, even?
This is why I love reading from different translations on a regular basis. We become comfortable with phrases that become set in our minds, and very often we skip over very important topics simply because our eyes, and our ears, become numb to the words we read or hear. A new translation causes us to hear the common in uncommon ways. Sometimes these translations are not so good, and sometimes they are very good.
I think we need to do more preaching about making ourselves stronger by lifting the weights of kindness. Not just any humanistic, “do-gooder” kindness, however. We must be limited to the “acts of kindness” or the “grace” that is in Christ Jesus. But that should give us enough to work on while we are on this earth.
I think that is a gym at which we all need to buy a membership.
Turn to me and be saved, all who live at the ends of the earth, because I am God, and there is no other. (Isaiah 45:22, God’s Word Translation)
I was following along today in my daily Bible reading schedule and this verse caught my attention. A question came to my mind – “Why do we read Scripture?” It is not as easy a question to answer as you may think.
This is a personal confession, but for me the vast majority of my Bible reading is academic, professional, or related to debate and confrontation. That is to say, I read to find out what a passage “means,” I read to find out how to present the message to others, or I read in order to make my point or to refute the arguments of others.
In rather stark terms, I totally misread Scripture. Not always, but far too frequently. And, I might add, with disappointing results.
Scripture, the very word of God, was not written to be used as a billy club, an instrument of terror and abuse. It was not written to be a forensic textbook, a guide to win arguments and destroy enemies.
God spoke to his prophets, servants and apostles in order to win people back to Him. God’s messages were always personal, even if delivered to a large crowd, or even an entire nation. God’s messages were written in first person singular – “I.” The object was almost always “you,” although on occasion it could be “them.” The prophets in the Old Testament and the apostles in the New Testament never spoke about, or taught about, or tried to explain God. They simply spoke for God. Theirs was the message, “Thus says the LORD God…” This is a critical point to grasp, because we (speaking generically) do not read our text this way.
Everything changed when the Greek philosophical mindset overcame the Hebraic worldview. Even before the coming of Jesus the Greeks had a history of trying to figure out the question of deity and how the gods related to man. And so, as Christianity spread from its Judaic cradle the discussion ceased to be, “What did God say?” and became “What is a god?” or “What is a man?” We can document this in the early debates and struggles of the church. In the first few decades following the death and resurrection of Jesus the message was simple – “come back to God through the blood of Christ.” But, that did not last for long. Soon people started to ask questions like, “How could Jesus be God?” and “How could a god become man, anyway?” So, academics replaced evangelism, ontology replaced faith, and we have never really rid ourselves of that Greek desire to figure out the “how” instead of simply answering the “what” question: what are you going to do with the message of Jesus?
The bottom line is that I do not believe Scripture was written so that I can explain God. Quite simply, God does not need to be explained. Either we believe in Him or we do not. We can’t explain him anyway – Plato and Aristotle’s noble attempts notwithstanding.
Scripture was written so God could win us back to Him. The divine “I” still speaks to the human “you.” Sometimes that word is painfully personal. Sometimes it is national, or even universal, in scope. But, it was not written to be an academic treatise, a manual for succeeding in public debate, or as a introductory text in biology and physics.
I still fall back into my old habits, but I am learning. I hope that I will be able to get better as I learn to read deeper. And I hope you will too.
A few hours ago I posted a response to the Supreme Court Ruling overturning the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and refusing to uphold Proposition 8 from the state of California. That post can be found here. While working out at the gym another thought occurred to me that this ruling might have a curious and unexpected consequences for soft-feminists within the church.
To begin, let me define my terms. I consider hard, or radical, feminists to be those who push, not only for equality for males and females, but for actual superiority of the female over the male. Modern day radical feminists would include any past, present, or future president of the National Organization of Women and Planned Parenthood. Males can be radical feminists as well. Anyone who argues that a female has the unrestricted right to murder her unborn child fits into this category. Some might be more radical than others. Radical feminists have little or nothing to do with the Bible; they view it as ancient and silly myth. Radical feminists tend to be radical secularists. And, to be more to the point, radical feminists have been in bed with the radical homosexual agenda for many years (pardon the pun).
Soft feminists, (often referred to as “egalitarians”) on the other hand, can and do claim an affinity for the Bible. It is a tenuous love affair, because they have to pare and trim certain texts that they find patriarchal and misogynistic. So, a large portion of the Old Testament is out, as are the passages in the letters of Paul and Peter that are viewed as being denigrating to females. However, certain other passages are held to be deeply formative for soft feminists – especially those in which Jesus speaks or acts favorably to females, and, interestingly enough, Galatians 3:27-28 written by the famed patriarchal misogynist the apostle Paul. This passage communicates to them their core belief: men and women, while biologically different, are ultimately equal in every respect. No soft feminist would argue that male and female have ceased to exist as different genders. The two have simply ceased to exist as different “persons” in the church.
Just so we are all on the same page, let us quote the passage in question:
For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (RSV)
Even though there is absolutely nothing in the letter to the Galatian Christians discussing church leadership or male/female roles or gifts within the church; even though there is absolutely nothing in the letter to indicate that Paul is addressing an issue that he very specifically dealt with in other letters (1 Cor. 14, 1 Tim. 2, 3; Titus 1; Ephesians 5); and even though the derived interpretation is directly opposed to those passages, the soft feminists see in Gal. 3:27-28 their ultimate “trump card” as it relates to male/female relationships, and especially male/female gifts and responsibilities vis a vis the church. In this interpretation Galatians 3:27-28 is the last, and most profound, statement in the Bible regarding the differences between the sexes, and that statement is that there is no difference spiritually speaking.
Ah, but, here is where it gets really interesting. Soft feminists, at least some of them, tend to be very literal and strict when the issue of homosexuality is addressed. (Males especially so.) Because they accept most of the Bible, especially the creation account of Genesis 1-3, they view marriage as sacred. Male and female join as one to create not only another physical child or children, but a special spiritual bond that is viewed as holy in the eyes of God. To many soft feminists the idea of homosexuality is abhorrent. And, interestingly enough, they refer to passages in the Old Testament and the New Testament (some written by the horrible patriarch and misogynist Paul) as evidence that homosexuality is a sin.
So, what do soft feminists do when radical feminists and the radical homosexual lobby quote Galatians 3:27-28 as further proof that God has fully accepted homosexual marriage – as the United States Supreme Court has just made clear in a secular sense?
Here is my question: If Galatians 3:27-28 is the “trump card” that overturns passages in the Old and New Testaments that specifically address the roles of male and female in regard to certain spiritual natures, how can you argue that Galatians 3:27-28 is not the “trump card” that overturns passages in the Old and New Testaments that are “homophobic” and no longer culturally acceptable?
Soft feminists cannot argue that gender is pre-determined and homosexuality is a choice. Homosexuals have argued for years that their behavior is just as ingrained in them as “male” and “female” is ingrained in our biology. (This, of course, raises serious issues with the bi-sexual and trans-gender crowd, but victimhood loves company, so minor and major differences of logic are often overlooked.) Soft feminists cannot argue that the apostle Paul is accepting “maleness” and “femaleness” or anatomical difference, but that he is only pointing to spiritual equality within specific gifts and roles in the church. Let us remind ourselves of the passage, “There is neither male nor female…” What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
You see, from a strictly logical point of view, the homosexual lobby has a stronger claim to Galatians 3:27-28 in the sense of the apostle Paul breaking down all previous beliefs than does the soft feminist (egalitarian) crowd. If Paul is clearly and unambiguously stating that there is “neither male nor female” then homosexual marriage is simply a non-issue. We are all one in Christ. In this interpretation bodies and gender do not matter. The only thing that counts is what is in our heart. In other words, if God called them to exercise their love through an emotional bond with someone of the same anatomical structure, who is the soft feminist-but strict heterosexual to object?
Obviously I reject this argumentation in toto. I reject the soft feminist (egalitarian) interpretation of Galatians 3:27-28 as well. That interpretation is bad theology built upon wretched exegesis.
But I must say I enjoy watching those who use Galatians 3:27-28 and argue that women should have the same roles as men in terms of church leadership squirm and try to argue around the use of Galatians 3:27-28 when used by someone who is arguing that homosexual marriages are blessed by God and should be blessed by the church.
If you take a passage out of context to win your argument, don’t be too surprised to find that someone else is using that same passage to win theirs.
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.