This post has started out in several different forms. Each time I would erase a little, change a little, zig a little here, zag a little there. Every time I started out with the same goal, and each time I found myself traipsing down a path I had not necessarily planned on traipsing. Such is the nature of this post – I know what I want to say but the “getting out” is proving to be quite exhausting.
For those of you who do not keep up with religious bloggers, quite the hoo-haw has been raised over the past few days concerning Donald Miller’s confession that he does not like church very much. (He wrote a book entitled Blue Like Jazz in which he basically said the same thing, but in much more disguised and glowing terminology.) There have been dozens (hundreds?) of blogs written in response – some praising and some condemning. But what I find to be interesting is that so many of Miller’s compatriots in the “Emerging Church” movement have ended up in exactly the same place – they all claim to love Jesus exuberantly but for one reason or another cannot stand to remain in the “institutional” church (whatever that is) so they leave the church to join the ekklesia at large. I see that as a very high-brow way of saying, “I love to eat steak, but I would never condone the slaughtering of a cow. So I get my steaks at the restaurant.”
I might add, for those of you who think I am just reacting to everyone else’s reaction, I have had three classes in a doctoral level program that were either entirely or significantly focused on the writings of post-modern, “Emerging Church” theologians. I was interested in their writings (and I still am), but was then and remain now deeply doubtful of the long-term results of their shallow theology. They often indicate they are in agreement with orthodox Christianity, but when they spell out what they really believe in terms of practice it becomes clear that their doxy is quite anything but ortho.
I should also say up front that I too believe that the modern church is not what it could and should be. I think I am honest about my misgivings. If I am permitted to do so, I intend to direct my dissertation to an area of theology and practice that I believe modern Churches of Christ have completely (or to be more charitable, almost completely) omitted – and much to our spiritual loss. But, the Good Lord willing, I will write out of a position of love and healing, not a position of hate and rejection. Such is my plan, anyway, and my fate is currently in the hands of others, so all of this may be a bunch of blather about nothing.
But, returning to my original, thoroughly revamped post – I just wonder how anyone can proclaim any kind of love for Jesus or God and at the same time argue that the church is dead, or at least is on life support and should be extinguished. What kind of friend walks up to a groom and says, “Man, I love you like you were my own brother, but I have to tell you, that girl you just married is as ugly as the south end of a north bound donkey and has the personality of a witch.”
The book of Revelation ends with God’s redeemed people receiving a stamped, embossed invitation to the marriage feast between the Son and his bride, the Church. Jesus died for the church, his creation. Paul rejoiced that he was able to continue Christ’s afflictions for the church. It’s funny, but with all the warts and dysfunction and flat-out heresies that consumed the early churches, Paul never referred to them as anything other than God’s holy and precious children.
Yes, I love the church. Exactly why would take a whole book to explain – this blog is just too short. But suffice it to say that I love the church exactly because Jesus loved the church – enough to die so that it might have life. And it seems to me that if Jesus loved something enough to die for it then I should make every effort to love it as well.
It may not be popular, it may not be blue like jazz, but in the end God is not going to ask if we were trendy and hip – He will judge whether we have been faithful and devoted. I do not think that God ever expected the church on earth to be perfect – I think that is a dangerous myth that has led to some horrendous mistakes. But we can be faithful, honest and disciplined – all hallmarks of the church that God gave to us through the blood of Christ.
The church of Christ, the church of God, the church of the Firstborn Ones*, the universal ekklesia or the local congregation down the street, – whatever name you find in Scripture, just love the church. Help it get better. Point out where it is weak. Make it stronger. Just do not leave it and claim you are doing so for the love of Jesus.
*The word firstborn in Hebrews 12:23 is plural. This is not typically translated, as firstborns or firstborn ones are clumsy ways of translating the phrase. Think of the word “fish.” We can catch either one fish, or multiple fish, but we only rarely (and only archaically) catch more than one fishes. The context of the passage, however, makes the plural obvious.
I have previously discussed this subject here, but in light of recent articles I feel a need to reiterate some propositions that I feel are fundamental [foundational, necessary].
- Our understanding of the concept of inspiration is the beginning, not the end, of our understanding of Scripture. It is a fundamental presupposition. That is to say we do not read a passage of Scripture and then decide whether it is inspired or not. It is either inspired or it is not, and that reality was established long before we came to the text.
- We cannot “cherry-pick” those passages we like or that support our personal or cultural norms and declare those to be authoritative and inspired, and then relegate other passages, often in the same book and sometimes within the same chapter, as being “culturally limited” and therefore non-authoritative and non-inspired. If a section of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians is his own creation, to be limited strictly to the church in Corinth and having absolutely no continuing authority, then the content of ALL of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians are limited strictly to the church in Corinth and none of what he had to say to that church has any validity beyond the death of the last Corinthian church member.
- Although God used human beings to “put pen to paper and write the Bible,” if we understand the concept of inspiration to go back to the deity of God himself, we cannot excuse certain writings as being a “mistake” or a “misunderstanding” or a “limitation of the author” due to cultural biases. If we persist in doing so what we are ultimately saying is that God Himself misunderstood His own intents and purposes, that God Himself perpetuated these mistakes, and that God Himself is limited by the cultural norms that man created, and therefore in an incredible twist on Biblical theology, God is now limited by man.
- Please note: I am not speaking of every cultural expression of an authoritative principle, but I am speaking of the obedience to that principle itself. For example, I can already see people disagree with me and say, “oh, yeah, wise guy, what about the ‘holy kiss’ and the ‘wearing of the veil.’” Those were cultural expressions of a biblical principle – the love and fellowship of Christians and the submission of female to male in matters of spiritual guidance. To answer a snarky question posed to me in another place, no, my wife does not call me ‘Lord’ (the example of Sarah to Abraham). But she does look to me for spiritual leadership, and she submits to the all-male leadership in our congregation. Cultural expressions may change, biblical truth does not.
I really do not see any other way around these, what I consider to be “self-evident,” propositions. I could certainly be wrong – I’ve been wrong more times than I care to admit. But I simply do not see how we can say we have a “high view of Scripture” and then in the next breath or paragraph say (or write), “of course, Paul is limited by his culture here, so we can disregard what this passage appears to communicate.” Inspiration simply does not work that way.
I see this most frequently in the discussion on women’s role and authority in the church, but I might also say it extends to other subjects. The most common exegetical fallacy that I read and hear today is this, “Galatians 3:28 is God’s first and final declaration on the equality of men and women, period, and anything and everything that appears to contradict this verse is culturally biased and therefore inconsequential in the teaching of the church today.”
One verse, taken horribly out of context, is the definitive statement on one given subject, and many more addresses on the subject, penned by different authors, which just happen to be written after the verse in question, are mistakes, misunderstandings or intentional lies.
Wow. If that is a person’s concept of a high view of Scripture, I sure would hate to hear what his or her low view of Scripture would be.
I have been reading on this subject quite extensively lately, and to be honest I am growing weary of the subterfuge of those who are trying to promote a radical feminist agenda on the church. If you promote egalitarianism, fine – don’t let me stop you. But at the same time do not promote yourself as an advocate of conservative biblical inspiration. Come right out and be honest with yourself and your readers. State your position clearly – Paul was NOT inspired, we CANNOT trust what he wrote to be the mind of God, the words he wrote are merely suggestive and not authoritative, we in the 21st century are NOT bound to follow his or any other New Testament teaching if it conflicts with what we want it to mean.
But, at the same time, just remember that your logic must apply to Galatians 3:28 as well.
Okay, so I am not going to start out 2014 with a happy, happy, happy post. But this post has been “building” inside of me for some months, and I finally decided to take some time to put it in writing. I hope it is not too depressing.
Let me begin with the word of the LORD, as penned by Jeremiah:
Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the LORD,
for my people have committed two evils;
they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters,
and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns, that can hold no water. (Jeremiah 2:12-13, RSV)
I have been studying and teaching over the past 18 months in the field of philosophy. Now, to be sure I am simply a neophyte in this field, my studies have been more along the lines of “tread water as fast as you can to keep from sinking” rather than any esoteric deepening of mankind’s understanding of itself. However, if I may say so myself, my studies have proven to be somewhat fruitful in that my eyes have been opened to the depths of understanding that I have hitherto been blissfully unaware.
As the old saying goes, “ignorance is bliss, when it is folly to be wise.” Or something like that.
The LORD revealed to Jeremiah two substantive sins: the sin of rejecting Him, and the sin of attempting to replace Him with a broken and useless substitute.
I have come to realize that the church is facing two equally critical sins today. Perhaps they are the same as the sins in Jeremiah’s day. They are certainly related.
In the language of philosophy, today’s church is facing a crisis of epistemology and ontology. Put those terms in “Freightdawg” language and what I am talking about is that the church is facing a crisis of knowing what is truth and how to determine truth on the one hand, and on the other hand it has lost its understanding of what it is supposed to be.
First, the church today has lost its confidence in Scripture. While there is much talk about listening to Scripture, and studying Scripture, and hearing the “Word of God,” much of what is being discussed is just a thin veneer of biblical language glued to a plank of particle board made up of human intuitions and interpolations. You only have to enter into a conversation regarding the role of women in the public worship service or the issue of homosexuality to discover how shallow this veneer really is. Passages of Scripture (both Old and New Testament) that have been viewed for centuries as being unambiguous are now discarded like yesterday’s newspaper. There are typically three reasons for excising certain passages of Scripture that are now seen as “controversial”: (1) the author of the passage was writing in a culture that was (according to the modern worldview) ignorant and repressive, therefore the writings of said author cannot be relied upon today; (2) especially in regard to the supposed writings of the apostle Paul, the passages which are viewed to be repressive and “unChristian” are delegated to the sub-apostolic time period, therefore nullifying their “Scriptural” authority, and (3) regardless of their inclusion in the Christian canon, these backward and repressive texts are superseded by the “progressive” nature of the Word of God in which the literal words of Jesus are supposed to take precedence over any previous or later misinterpretations of God’s ultimate will.
You see, we are to look beyond the text to see what Jesus REALLY meant, not look to the text to see what the Holy Spirit lead the New Testament (and, I might add, the Old Testament) authors to understand what the will of God is. But, this is all a mirage, a phantasm. We cannot move “behind” the text to find out what the will of God is. It is doubly dangerous to posit that we can determine what God’s “progressive” will would be, especially if that “progressive will” is seen to be in direct contradiction to his previous “revealed” will.
To bring in a picture from church history, what these neo-liberals are asking the church to swallow is a huge helping of Gnosticism, without the giblet gravy. We are not to trust the real Scripture, we are to seek some ephemeral, non-corporeal, ghostly “essence” of what Scripture should be.
And, amazingly enough, what these Gnostic-come-lately’s discover in their “proto-Scripture” looks exactly like them: postmodern intellectuals who want to be loved by everyone, accept every form of piety no matter how heterodox, and welcome every syncretistic practice and belief into the church no matter how foreign to the revealed Scripture.
This leads me to my second point: the church has lost its purpose. The church was never supposed to be a social club where all who wanted admission were granted membership simply upon the payment of annual dues and the memorization of the secret password. The church is the post-Pentecost identification of the “people of God” that formally dates all the way back to Abraham. This people is not identified by their desire to be a part of some earthly social organization, but rather they are identified by God’s choosing and their submission to HIS standards of belief (orthodoxy) and practice (orthopraxis).
Simply put, if you disagree with God, or you continually act in ways that are contrary to His revealed will, you cannot be a part of this “people of God.”
I have simply grown weary to the point of nausea with individuals who claim to have a high view of Scripture in one breath and then in the next breath (or in the next sentence) begin to explain why we cannot trust Leviticus or Paul’s letter to the Corinthians because these books or portions thereof violate some post-modern sensibility.
Either the author(s) of the Torah and the New Testament apostles were guided by God’s Holy Spirit or they were not. There really can be no middle ground, no “hedging” of our bets. We cannot have the revealed Word of God and at the same time look for another “intended” word of God. It is time the church demand of its leaders a firm commitment: in the words of Jacob Marley to Ebenezer Scrooge, “Do you believe in me or not?!”
The LORD told Jeremiah very succinctly: if you reject Him you must depend upon your own devices, your own strength, your own ability in order to survive. Realistically, all that means is you end up with a mess of broken cisterns. Those cisterns might sustain life on a minimal level, but nowhere close to the abundant life provided by the living streams of God’s Holy Spirit.
The church today is trying to exist by drinking muddy waters from shattered wells.
Let us go back to the pure water of God’s life giving words. Our eternal existence, and the future of the physical church, depends upon it.
It’s funny to me how some people will trip over themselves to prove they are the most dedicated Bible believing, scripture quoting people and yet carve out significant chunks of the Bible that they believe no longer applies to them. In reality, what they are is the most selective Bible believing, scripture quoting people around.
I have in mind 1/10, that is, 10% of the 10 Commandments – “You shall remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”
“Oh, but that does not apply to us today, because we are New Testament Christians, and that only applied to the Old Law.”
It’s pretty hard to say you follow the teachings of the Bible if you only start with a 90% standard of completion to begin with. Or, make the less that 50% if you remove the entire Old Testament. Who want to boast about following 40% of the Bible? “Yes, I’m a 40% Christian.” Sounds kind of lukewarm to me.
Speaking only of the United States, but I believe we have to be the most neurotic, psychotic, and paranoid culture to have ever lived – or at the very least we are in a tie with a long lost civilization.
We rush, push, hurry, manipulate, worry, fret, drink, consume volumes of pharmaceuticals, drive ourselves to ulcers and destroy our mental and physical bodies in a 24/7/365 cycle of narcissism and compulsion. All for what result? More money, more prestige, more opportunities to regret doing what was most important to begin with.
And way back yonder on Mount Sinai God told Moses, “Rest one day in seven – oh, you can do your chores – milk the cows and feed the chickens, but take the day off. Rest. Sleep. Play with the kids. Let your servants rest and sleep and play with their kids. Call off the planting and the harvesting and the committee meetings and the hustle and the bustle. If you have nothing to do for 24 hours you can think about Me. Think about creation and how I take care of the whole world and yet I found time to take a day off for some rest and relaxation. Now, if I, your God, can take a day off and things work out okay then certainly you can take a day off and let the world run itself for a while.”
But we refuse to take God’s word for it. Why, if we stopped worrying and fussing and having our committee meetings and working 24/7/365 then the whole world would just go spinning off its axis into the great abyss.
I’m exhausted. I am just mentally and physically fried. I can remember being this spent only one other time in my life. It was not pretty. But God did not put me in this place. My supervisors did not put me in this place. My family or my friends did not put me in this place. I put myself in this place. I have not practiced Sabbath in a long, long time. The human body is just not designed for this kind of wear and tear. I’m not a doctor nor a psychiatrist, but I read the Bible. God designed me and he said “Sabbath – that is what my people need, Sabbath.”
Rest. Relax. Recreate. Refocus on God. Watch the world go around and realize that it will continue to go around whether I meet my next deadline or not.
I want to restore that 10% of my Bible that I have been cutting out for far too long.
The Sabbath was God’s gift to his people, not a law to bind and trap them into legalism.
I want to claim that gift. I want my Sabbath back.
A funny thing happened on the way to the blogosphere recently. It seems that a large number of religious bloggers have come down with traditio-phobia. This disease is the irrational fear and rejection of anything having to do with the spiritual tradition in which they were raised. Catholics fear and hate the papacy and all the related hierarchy, along with the traditional mandates of the Catholic church. Mainline protestants are disgusted with mainline Protestantism. The disease even afflicts non-denominational and non-aligned groups, as large numbers of members of the Churches of Christ have all but disavowed any relation to the tradition of the American Restoration Movement. The disease has strange symptoms, but perhaps one of the most revealing is the manner in which those who are afflicted attempt to “out hate” those from other groups who have come down with the same disease. For example, one person might say, “You don’t agree with the pope? Wow, that is big, but guess what – I don’t agree with the New Testament!” It forces everyone in the circle to come up with a bigger and badder enemy to disagree with.
Another symptom of the disease is the unity that is demonstrated among the traditio-phobic when confronted with someone who actually loves and appreciates their tradition. “Wow, dude, that is so cool that you diss the Pope. But watch out for Paul over there – man he is so in love with his traditions that he will try to give you a guilt trip. Why don’t you come over and hang with us for a while – we don’t like any traditions either, and you will be safe with us.”
Honestly, it is getting to the point that I actually appreciate talking to a Catholic that does not hate the Catholic church. I may disagree with their theology, but at least I can appreciate their devotion.
Why are we so traditio-phobic? And why are those who are traditio-phobic about one tradition so willing to accept, and even promote, the traditions of another group? And to add another wrinkle, why are they willing to accept the traditions of a group that is losing large numbers of their own traditio-phobic members because their traditions are deemed too repressive?
In the Churches of Christ we have a significant number of ministers who are openly disavowing long-held biblical doctrines because they are too culture-bound, or are too repressive, or too exclusive, or too something-or-other else. At the very same time I read blogs of others who are just now discovering (or are re-discovering) the importance of baptism, the beauty of acapella singing, the theological wisdom of male-centered spiritual leadership. It is enough to give a person spiritual whiplash.
I don’t claim to know any of the answers. I’m just a worn-out, sawed-off little munchin of a theologian who does his best to make sense of the this world so that I can talk about the next one. And when I am confused I don’t mind expressing that confusion. And right now I am confused.
I happen to love the tradition into which I was born, and into which I made a conscious decision to join. The American Restoration Movement was founded upon some of the loftiest and most divine concepts to ever flow from the pen of a theologian onto ordinary paper. Just use the Bible as the only sure guide to knowing God. Just be Christians only, not Christians plus something else. Use the adjective Christian or noun disciple exclusively. When you disagree on a matter of opinion, have the love in your heart to accept your brother or sister in peace.
Have we always lived up to those lofty goals? Hardly. But I would rather aim for the stars and come up short than to aim for the pigsty and hit my target. I would even suggest that learning about the failures of my spiritual forefathers has made me appreciate them more, not respect them less. I know they were human, and the fact that they might not have always lived up to their words does not diminish the value of the words they held up as their standard.
I’ve said it before a hundred times and I’ll probably say it again a hundred times – but I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer. I just don’t understand why a person has to hate their tradition just because someone who lived and died 100 years ago, or 1,000 years ago, stubbed his toe and fell down. I don’t worship my spiritual ancestors – that activity is reserved for God alone. But I can honor and respect those who blazed the trail on which I now walk by holding up the standard by which they walked and thereby carrying the torch just a little further. (Okay, perhaps a few too many mixed metaphors there, but I hope you get my drift – arrrrrrggh.)
I will offer this advice to those who are traditio-phobic – at least have the courage of your convictions to leave the people you have decided you no longer can honestly love. Don’t preach for a group you disagree with. If you no longer can hold to the teachings of the Catholic church, don’t try to pass yourself off as a Catholic. If you can no longer abide by the traditions of the Baptist church, stand up and say so.
And if the name Church of Christ is just so abhorrent to you that you grit your teeth every time someone says it or you have to park under the sign, then by all means do us all a favor and move somewhere else. I cannot judge you for your convictions (God is your judge, not me) but I am really growing weary of hearing, or reading, you bash something that I love very much.
In my last post I wanted to make the following points: (1) The Boy Scouts of America is not a Christian organization, and it should not use claims of Christian doctrine to support its denial of membership to young men who claim to be homosexual. While the Boy Scouts may teach such concepts as honor and respect, in many other areas the teachings of the Scouts are clearly antithetical to Christian beliefs. I know mine is a minority conclusion, but I cannot help but see the logical implications to many of the core disciplines within the Scouts. (2) The fact that the militant homosexual lobby was able to coerce the Scouts into accepting young Scouts who are openly homosexual is just a precursor to the process of forcing the Scouts to accept adult leaders who are active in the homosexual lifestyle. It is well documented that a majority of Scouts and Scout leaders are opposed to the homosexual lifestyle, but that means nothing to those who would force their deviant views onto others. I closed with a question – at what point does this evolution of societal norms call the church to proclaim the concept of heresy again? A related question would be, what exactly is the meaning of heresy?
I want to begin by drawing a parallel to another issue facing the church today, one that many have accepted as just a normal progression of what the church needs to do to be “relevant” to the predominant western culture today. Notice the argumentation that is used to defend and to promote the position that women are to have equal roles in the spiritual leadership of the church:
- References to Old Testament norms of male spiritual leadership are invalid because we live under the New Covenant.
- Jesus clearly involved many women in his ministry.
- The apostles lived under a patriarchal society, therefore their teachings regarding male spiritual leadership are not relevant in our egalitarian society.
- In at least one instance (the Pastoral letters) it is argued that the author was not Paul, was not apostolic, and therefore not authoritative for the modern church.
- In regard to the Corinthian letters, Paul was confronting a pagan culture where the role of women was vastly different from what women would be doing in the church today. Therefore, the letter of 1 Corinthians is not relevant to the role of women in the church today.
- Galatians 3:27-28 clearly redefines relationships within the body of Christ, therefore we are to count everyone as equal.
- How can you possibly deny the freedom of a woman to serve in a capacity she feels called and gifted to serve the church?
Now, note how the militant homosexual lobby has picked up on those very points to advance their agenda:
- References to the Old Testament are not relevant, as laws concerning homosexual behavior were addressed to Canaanite fertility cults, and we are not living under the Old Covenant today anyway.
- Jesus did not condemn homosexuality in any of his teachings – in fact he taught love and acceptance of all people.
- The apostles lived in a Jewish culture that was homophobic due to the influence of the Levitical purity code, therefore their teachings against homosexuality are culturally bound and are no longer relevant to our more permissive society.
- It follows that Paul’s teachings against homosexuality in Romans and 1 Corinthians are directed against the pagan fertility cults practiced in the first century, and since those cults are no longer relevant today, the condemnations of those behaviors are no longer relevant today.
- Galatians 3:27-28 clearly redefines relationships within the body of Christ, therefore we are to count everyone as equal, and we are certainly not to exclude those who live in a committed, loving, monogamous relationship, whether it be homosexual or heterosexual.
- How can you possibly deny the freedom of a gay man or lesbian woman who feels called and gifted to serve the church, especially since their sexual nature is a gift from God himself, and something that should not be ridiculed or condemned?
Many people get angry when these parallels are pointed out. While they are all for women being put forward as ministers, preachers, deacons, and even elders within a congregation, they are morally repulsed by the idea of two men or two women marrying each other and publicly promoting their union in the church. When the parallels are pointed out they stammer, “But the equal position of women is just different than blessing the sin of homosexuality. Homosexuality is condemned in Scripture, women using their God-given gifts is not condemned!”
Different in degree perhaps. But I question whether the arguments for blessing the homosexual lifestyle and for promoting the elevation of women over men in the church are all that different in substance.
Just a question, but if you accept those seven points in regard to women’s role in the church, how can you deny those six points in regard to accepting practicing homosexuals as members and especially leaders in the church?
If you question my logic or my sanity, simply consider the path of the Episcopal/Anglican Church, the Lutheran Church, and the Presbyterian Church (USA). Each of these denominations long ago accepted the increased role of women in the work and worship of the church. Each did so with the aforementioned reasons front and center. They wanted to be relevant, they wanted to be sympathetic to the needs and gifts of the women in their churches, and they wanted to be seen as being responsive to the changing culture. And each of these denominations are now facing the battle of what to do with practicing homosexuals who use the very same arguments to promote the elevation of homosexuals as priests, bishops, and even archbishops. It is not surprising to many analysts that the more expansive and “affirming” these denominations become, the greater the losses in their memberships. While some former Episcopalians, Lutherans and Presbyterians simply drop out of church altogether, it is fascinating to me that many of them are “returning” to the Roman Catholic church. They see in Roman Catholicism something that their denomination surrendered a long time ago – an adherence to the word of God and to the power of church tradition.
When you base doctrine on Scripture alone (Latin, Sola Scriptura) you have a very solid foundation. But, it is not without its weakness. When you allow every person and every group to interpret that Scripture in any way they see fit you are bound to have disagreements and sometimes serious divisions. However, when you add the power of church tradition to the equation you brace that written foundation with a historical foundation. That is why, in the discussion of what books were to be considered a part of the canon and which were to be discarded, one primary “rule of thumb” that was used was “that which is believed always, everywhere, and by all.” Here you have the expanse of time (always), geography (everywhere) and general agreement (by all). Those who refused to accept this three-fold criteria were labeled “heretics.”
What an old-fashioned, out of date, hateful and derogatory word. Heresy – it even hisses when you say it. I would argue that if the church is to survive with any degree of health we had better learn how to say the word and apply the word judiciously and effectively.
In the New Testament the word is used to identify a division – even the church was labeled as a heresy of the Jewish faith. But soon the word came to mean not just a division, but a dangerous and rebellious division – one that was anti-Christian as much as it was un-Christian. It meant that a church, or a group of churches, was forced to examine a teaching, and those who promoted it, seriously and if it failed to meet the three-fold criteria of “everywhere, in every place, and by all” it was deemed to be an “evil spirit” and it was repulsed.
Today we do not speak of heresy very much, if at all. We are told, “do not judge, lest ye be judged.” We are told to be loving and kind and affirming and welcoming. We are told to never, ever, ever offend anyone, lest our good name be drug through the mud. We frame all of our decisions on how they will be viewed by a very narrow group of non-believers, instead of how they will be judged by God.
Somewhere in this path the concept of truth and fidelity to Jesus and to his church, that which has been believed “always, everywhere, and by all” has been forgotten, or consciously discarded. I am deeply concerned with the direction of the Church of Christ today. The scuffle over worship styles has degenerated into a fight over the role of women, and it will become a war when the issue of homosexuality finally explodes.
If we do not return to an understanding that some teachings are sound and some are heretical, that some teachers are healthy and some are destructive, that some practices are truly matters of opinion and some are matters of critical obedience to Jesus and his commands, the church will continue to lose members and, more important, lose its purity in the sight of God (see Rev. 2-3). That means we are going to have to call some teachings heretical, and some teachers heretics. Some people will be offended, many will leave. Or, perhaps the faithful will have to leave.
But if the church ceases to be the church, what difference will it make if everyone stays?
This one comes straight from my recent (and not so recent) doctoral studies -
14. Theology cannot be separated from morality and ethics. Healthy, genuine theology demands action. Orthodoxy leads to orthopraxy!
First it might help to clarify a couple of words along the way. Theology, as I have been using the term, is simply the study of and the presentation of the results of the study of, God and his relationship with man. Every person who reads the Bible is involved in theology. Those who read and study in order to teach are involved on another level. Those who do so for a living are involved on another level. But, in reality, the only way to avoid being involved in theology is to avoid any reading of Scripture or any discussion of God and/or God’s relationship with man.
Orthodoxy, by way of etymology, means “right praise” or “correct praise” or some related concept, but which has come down to us today to mean “right, or correct doctrine.” It is the right, or correct, or proper, way to think or believe. Therefore, if we say someone or something is “orthodox,” we mean that the person or the item under discussion is right, correct, or proper. If a person or a belief or an item is “unorthodox,” it means that they have defied convention, are rejecting the norms of a particular group, or are just about a half-bubble off of plumb.
Orthopraxy means right or correct behavior. We in America tend to reward orthopraxy even if the doxy is not quite so ortho. For example, we may praise a child for a certain behavior, even though it is quite obvious that the attitude of the child is anything other than acceptable. As parents we would always love to have the orthopraxy be motivated by orthodoxy, but many times we are just happy that the room is clean, regardless of the stink-eye we get as we walk past the door.
In theology, I’m afraid orthodoxy and orthopraxy are not so separable as for one to be pleasing to God in the absence of the other. Let’s see how God intended one to flow out of the other, and for the other to strengthen the one. We will look at two examples from the life of Jesus.
In the first, Jesus confronts someone who has the orthodoxy down pretty tight, but who cannot seem to follow through with the orthopraxy. A lawyer put a fairly standard question in front of Jesus, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds with a text of orthodoxy, “What is written in the law? How do you read?” Notice the question has nothing to do with doing (at least at this point – it is related to what is “written” and “how do you read?”) The lawyer responds with orthodox perfection – “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Notice Jesus’ response – “You have answered right.” But then he moves to orthopraxy, “Do this, and you will live.” What follows then is what we know of as the parable of the “Good Samaritan.” At the end of the parable Jesus asks, “Which of these…proved to be the neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” The lawyer is much too orthodox to praise the despised Samaritan, so he meekly said, “The one who showed mercy on him.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37).
Now, for the orthopractical who somehow never got the message as to the orthodoxical. In Matthew 15 Jesus is confronted by a group of hostile Pharisees and scribes who question him about the fact that his disciples break the orthodox practice of washing their hands before they eat. Jesus, in response, questions them about the traditional orthodoxy of giving money to the Temple that was due instead to the support of one’s parents. This, he noted, might have seemed on one level to be an honoring of God, but because the intent of the heart was wrong, the effect of the gift was tarnished as well. Jesus then quotes Isaiah the prophet when Isaiah wrote, “This people honors me with their lips [orthopraxy, PAS] but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines [orthodoxy PAS] the precepts of men. (Matthew 15:8-9). In another couple of verses that are key passages in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus refers back to two prophets, quoting Hosea 6:6 (and including Micah 6:6-8) when he says “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13 and 12:7). Now, it could not be said that God never commanded sacrifice (unless you want to remove the books of Exodus-Deuteronomy from your Bible), but the point of the prophets, and Jesus, was that mere sacrifice in the absence of a genuine repentant heart was meaningless (see also Ps. 51). The actions performed might be orthopraxy, but without the orthodoxy they were meaningless, and therefore, vain.
How this situation manifests itself today is tragic to an exponential degree. It is painful for me to remember the number of times I have sat in a Bible class (or worse, taught the Bible class) and had all the right, orthodox answers given to questions about love and mercy and kindness, only to walk to the foyer of the church building and hear the uproarious laughter at the telling of some obscenely racist joke. As vile as that is (and I make no excuse for it, please don’t mistake me), how much worse is the situation where a jury of all white men condemned a black man to life in prison or perhaps even death, not because he was guilty of the crime of which he was accused, but simply because he was a young black man and the victim was white. Those men might have been orthodox in their theological beliefs, but they were anything but orthopractical in their behavior.
You see, theology is NOT some head game in which we find the correct answers and then sit back and wait for the judgment day. Many in the church have turned it into that game, but I fear that they will be in for quite a shock. If your “correct thinking” never translates into “correct behavior” then of what use is having it? Can you find me a verse in the Bible that teaches we will be given a 100 question test and those with 90% or better will get into heaven and everyone else loses?
I honestly believe that Matthew 25 is the most neglected chapter in the entire Bible in most “Christian” churches. We just don’t get it. If you want a clear picture of the necessity of orthopraxy along with orthodoxy, just read Matthew 25. Notice that the accursed in vv. 31-46 are excluded from the King’s glory not because of what they failed to believe, but because of how they failed to act.
Lest you think I am diminishing the importance of orthodoxy, let me direct you to John 14:6 (Jesus, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me”) 2 John 9 (“Any one who goes ahead and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God; he who abides in the doctrine has both the Father and the Son”) [note: the word for "doctrine" in the RSV is the word didache, which means "teaching"] and Galatians 1:6-9. There can be no question as to the fact that correct doctrine is essential in the Christian walk. But, essential as it is, it is not the sum total of Christianity.
Isn’t it wonderful how I can turn three short, simple and direct little sentences into over 1,300 words of soap and lather? Oh well, I hope you get the point. Let us be careful about the truth and accuracy of our beliefs. But let us be just as careful and diligent to make sure that our actions are in perfect sync with our doctrines.
I’ve learned a lot about alignments over the past few years. Mostly because I have a bad back, and I can tell even before I get out of bed if the day is going to be good or one long exercise in getting straight. I know every part of our body is important, but if you have a bad back there ain’t nothing that works right.
So, I was thinking the other day about alignments – how if things are in a straight line things just work so much better. Cars work better if the tires are in alignment. Guitars depend on correct alignment to sound right. Archers know that if the bow is warped the arrow will fly past it’s target. If you let one tiny little mirror get bumped in a telescope the whole thing turns into an expensive kid’s toy. There are many, many areas of life in which alignment is everything.
Which then got me to thinking – do we have the church in alignment with God? That is such an elementary question, but one that I fear goes unasked let alone unanswered. It does not matter if we have one or two things about the church correct if we have half a dozen other things all wrong. If we are not in alignment with what God intends, we will never achieve what he wants us to achieve. Since the church is not growing (or is actually shrinking, depending on which metric you use) I am justified in asking the question – do we have our thoughts, our intentions, our goals, and our efforts in alignment with God?
Alignment number one – God wants mankind to be “in his image.” That is how he created us. That was not good enough for us, so we tried to make ourselves to be “like God.” I know I have railed against using foreign terms if English terms are just as good, but here is where Latin helps us out a little bit. I think most everyone can work through the terms here – God made us to be in the imago Dei. That is, he made us to be in his image. But we wanted to be sicut deus. That is, we wanted to be like God, knowing good and evil. So we traded the imago dei for the sicut deus and we have been out of alignment ever since. Jesus came to this earth to get us back into alignment – to show us how we can have the imago dei once again. That is, Jesus came to teach us how to be fully human. As long as we are trying to be like God we will fail to even be what God created us to be. We need to surrender our craving to be like God so that we can accept being made in the image of God. Once we get that alignment right, several others will fall into place. (I am indebted to the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer for this insight. It clearly was above my pay grade to achieve this insight.)
Within the church are we teaching people how to be fully human? Are we stressing that Jesus, the very image of God himself (Col. 1:15) came to this earth to “redeem” us, that is to bring us back to our created relationship with God? Or are we, like those Pharisees that we love to beat up on, just trying to get people to see things the way we see things, that is, are we trying to be “like God” in the eyes of the world? There is a world of difference between living in the image of God and living like God. The one is a humble but glorious acceptance of what we have been given, the other is a rebellious declaration that we do not need God as long as we have our own intellect and strength.
I think that if the church (as a collective human being) simply tried to live as if it were made in the image of God instead of trying to be God it would be receive the blessings that God intended for it to have. Or, we can keep trying to “be like God” and we can go out and pick goat-head thorns for a living. Not much of a choice if you ask me.
Alignment number two – doctrine is important, but important only as it relates to proper behavior. In technical terms, orthodoxy is important, but only so far as it results in orthopraxy. In Jesus’ own day it was the Pharisees who were the guardians of orthodoxy. They had doctrine down to a fine point. They had all the “book, chapter and verse” citations they needed to accuse and condemn Jesus – especially in regard to ritualistic Sabbath keeping (see Ezekiel 20 especially). But they were utterly bereft in the proper application of that doctrine. Merely having the correct book, chapter and verse did not make their actions right. Jesus taught them what “sabbath keeping” was all about, and it was not what they had in mind. But Jesus’ teaching was in alignment with what God intended, and therefore we are to listen to Jesus and not the Pharisees.
I have written in other posts that I consider myself to be fairly conservative, and as such I must admit that this is one of my weaknesses. As a conservative I tend to look very suspiciously upon anything that looks, smells or feels like an aberration from the “tried and true.” I live by the motto, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The only problem is many times something is broken; but because I have figured out how to use a broken tool quite effectively, I do not realize it is broken. I have to force myself to reexamine my beliefs to determine whether I am holding onto something that is truly “in the image of God” or something that only resembles the truth and is in reality something that is “like God.”
I never want to give up on orthodoxy. I am firmly committed to the concept that God has revealed his will to us, and we must accept and obey that will. In that respect I reject the suggestions of many “moderates” or “progressives” who want to change the church to be more “postmodern” and more in tune with its surrounding culture. Once again, I believe those individuals are simply a modern day example of Adam and Eve in the garden. They want to be “like God,” making their own decisions and deciding what is good and evil instead of wanting to be in the “image of God” and letting God decide what is good and evil. But on the other hand I never want to be so “conservative” that I become “reactionary” and therefore reject the correctives of Jesus when it comes to straightening out my orthodoxy. I have to learn what the intent of the doctrine is so that I can correctly apply the correct doctrine. In terms of the gospel, I never want to become so fixated on proper sabbath keeping that I fail to offer healing and restitution to another human created “in the image of God.”
Whether the object is an automobile, a guitar or your own spine, it is critical for everything to be in proper alignment. Nowhere is that concept more true than in the Lord’s church. I think we need to go in for a check-up. We need to go in for the ultimate front-end alignment. Let us focus on becoming a people made in the image of God, and then we can focus on the proper application of doctrine.
In my last entry I discussed the question(s) that evolution and evolutionists are incapable of answering. And so, in the interest of honest disclosure, in this post I want to share what I believe to be the question(s) that religion cannot answer. I want to underline, in bold face, and in italics, that this is my opinion, and others may disagree completely or in part. I have come to this conclusion after years of study, and as my study is ongoing and ever developing, I am sure that in future days my conclusions will change somewhat. As the apostle Paul said, here on earth we all see as “through a mirror darkly.” So, I am in no way going to claim some kind of spiritual omniscience here.
First, specifically in regard to the question of the origin of life, religion can answer the questions of who and why and what, but the question of when is totally beyond the realm of religion. Our biblical text begins, “In the beginning God created…” That is as far as I, as a Christian, can go. How many years ago did that creating begin? The Bible is silent. The years that are given in the records of the genealogies are given to place certain individuals in certain time frames that the original audience understood. As an assignment in one of my college courses I traced the lineage of the priesthood of Zadok. That singular exercise convinced me that genealogies in the Old Testament are used in a far different way from the “scientific” way in which we used them today. Does Genesis 1-3 give us a photographic image of the creation of the earth? Not as I understand the Hebrew language, the Hebrew method of storytelling (poetry), and the theology that the Genesis author (who, in a large way I believe to be Moses) wanted to convey. Instead of a “photographic” image I prefer to use the idea of a “painting.” Compare a painting of, say, the Revolutionary War with the gritty black and white images of World War II or Vietnam. The paintings convey what the artist wanted us to see and learn about the battle. The pictures showed everything exactly the way it was, no glamour, glory, or rapturous elements looking down from heaven. Moses did not give us a photograph of the creation of the world, he gave us a mural. And, as with any other mural, we have to look at the whole painting to understand each little part.
The other question in regard to creation that religion cannot answer is “how?” Once again our text simply says, “God created.” The most specific it gets is when it says, “God spoke.” We are told God formed man from the elements of the earth, and that is confirmed by our sciences. We are also told that woman was formed from man. Beyond that we are given no details, because, quite frankly, nobody really cared about such things until about 100 years ago. The questions related to how our world operates are a legitimate exercise of the field of science. I happen to believe that a Christian scientist is in a far better position to answer these questions, but once again, that is my opinion. There are many other questions of “how” that the Bible does not answer, and therefore I believe are illegitimate issues for Christians to attempt to answer dogmatically. We can search for clues and work to learn how God has acted in our world, but all of our answers need to be provisional and suggestive.
By way of summary, I would simply like to suggest that somewhere along the way we as Christians have allowed our antagonists to set the agenda and we have surrendered our Spiritual birthright for a mess of scientific porridge. We got sucked into answering questions that we honestly do not have any firm evidence to use, and our own political infighting over these tenuous answers has only served to embolden our opponents. Just as one example, I cannot begin to hold the figure of a 6,000 year old earth. I cannot because (1) my understanding of the Hebrew language and aspects of the Hebrew historiography, (2) I studied about how Archbishop Ussher [the source of the 6,000 year old claim] came to his conclusions, (3) my own [albeit limited] understanding of physics, astronomy and even archeology. However, Ussher’s chronology was incorporated into the printed text of some King James editions of the Bible, and soon it became sacrosanct. Therefore to challenge Ussher’s chronology was the same as denying inspiration of Scripture. Even today we are dealing with Ussher’s legacy, even though few even know about Ussher, and far fewer would subscribe to his methodology if they knew about it.
However, to continue the story, the evolutionists and atheists jumped on Ussher’s chronology and ridiculed it. Instead of saying that the chronology was just a human calculation and letting the theory rest on it own strengths or weaknesses, by defending it as a part of Scripture Christians bought into bad science and seriously weakened their case. I fear that now what most evolutionists ridicule about the faith of Christians and our beliefs about the Bible are only a caricature of what the Bible actually teaches, but is itself a caricature that is actually defended by Christians themselves. In the immortal words of Pogo, we have met the enemy and he is us.
Is there a solution to the impasse between Christianity and science? Absolutely! We need to return to a serious and in-depth study of what the Bible actually does teach and the ways in which it teaches those truths. This means a return to the original languages and the original forms of teaching. It also means we must hold an open mind to the discoveries of archeology, physics and astronomy, as well as the other hard and soft sciences. If our universe is as ordered and as well planned as Christians have been arguing it is for the past several hundred years now, surely God will not mind if we explore how that order and plan actually works. And, scientists need to understand that a pure faith in God is not antagonistic to their life’s work. Science and theology can be, and must be, supportive of one another.
The fact is that science and theology are seeking to answer different, but inter-related questions. Let us work together to find all the answers.
(WARNING: YOUR SARCASM ALERT SHOULD BE SET ON HIGH FOR THE NEXT FEW MINUTES)
The 64 million dollar question these days seems to be: What is the one, absolute, failsafe way to make your congregation grow? It seems there are 64 million different answers, so most folks are still left wondering at the end of the day what it will take to reverse the trend of stagnation and decline that they see in their spiritual family. A ginormous amount of effort has been spent on hiring the flashiest and hippest preachers (preaching in ripped jeans and dirty t-shirts seems to be the rage these days), totally revamping the music (praise teams and guitars, anyone?), lighting profuse numbers of candles (anyone check with the fire department on that one?) as well as incense (certainly saves on soap and deodorant) and even the old stand-by of tinkering with doctrine and theology (the charge of the feminism and the LGBT light brigade!). So far nothing has proven to be the silver bullet. Some groups have momentary success with some efforts, but overall the trend still seems to be stagnation or decline.
So, just for giggles and grins, I want to think positively about going the other direction. I mean, if you cannot have success building a congregation, how about killing one? Never one to be at a loss for ideas, these are a few that come immediately to mind:
- Be sure that you have one or more old stalwarts of the faith who fire off racist comments at every opportunity before, during, and after public meeting times. Although it might seem uncouth to mention the “N” word or refer to Hispanics in regard to di-hydrous oxide on their backs, there are surely enough ways to draw some appreciative laughter by making reference to those financially prudent Jews or those hyper-religious Persians who attire themselves with turbans. Yea, verily, the more despicable the race the funnier the joke will be. This will assure that your congregation remains exclusively anglo-saxon and as pure as the driven snow. And, because the nation is becoming more ethnically diverse, your congregation will most certainly never grow.
- Do not stop with race, however. Along with the derogatory comments regarding every color of skin except your own, you have to make sure you ridicule every religious or faith group except your exclusive little tribe. When a particular issue is discussed that you know beyond any shadow of a doubt that you, and only you, have a corner on the truth, make sure you belittle all “those stupid” (and you have to spit the “s” out) Catholics, Baptists, Mormons, and even those “apostate” Church of Christers who no longer believe your Holy Spirit approved interpretation. This way you will be sure to keep all “those stupid” people from wanting to be a part of your group, and with every funeral in your divinely appointed assemblage, your numbers will get smaller.
- One of the most simple ways that a congregation maintains its size or even grows is through the encouraging of young couples to have children and to actually bring those children to worship and class. So, in order to kill your congregation you have to make every effort to make these young families feel like dirt if their children make any kind of noise or mess on the floor of the “sanctuary.” When their little one is teething and is especially fussy, make sure that as many of you as possible can and will turn around and give them the “stink eye.” It would be especially effective if you got up and moved to another pew, making it obvious that the little one was the reason you had to leave your homeland for a dry and arid destination. Since you raised your children as perfect angels who never made any noise or never spilled anything, make sure that you tell the parents how perfect you were in your parenting skills and how utterly bereft of any intelligence they must be. No parent who is concerned about the spiritual well being of their children will want to be a part of your special kind of holiness, and so you can rest assured you will have no need to add additional classrooms or need any Sunday school teachers.
- But why stop with children? Surely you can criticize the dress or hair style or tatoos or behavior of the teenage or college crowd. Make sure they know your disgust at their choice of lipstick, or the fact that they might choose to wear army boots along with their mini-skirt. Never mind that they are struggling with issues you never even had to dream about, use every tool in your copious box to make them feel unwanted, unappreciated, and basically a burden to the congregation. They won’t stay long, and so you will not have to be distracted by their flaming orange or dazzling purple hair any longer.
- Make sure that you do everything in your assembly times in exactly the same order every single Sunday, that you only have a repetoire of about 12 songs that are “approved,” and that you only allow one version of the Bible to be read publicly. It would be preferable if the version was the KJV, and that the preacher spoke using the same Old English verb endings and candences. Whatever you do, do not allow the service to have any kind of connection to modern day problems or that it be considered relevant in any manner. It would be best if every sermon dealt with some arcane interpretation of Scripture such as the “language of Ashdod” or the “braying of Balaam’s ass.” Today’s multitude of unchurched and unsaved people long for the Bible to speak to their hurts and fears, so you can rest assured that none of them will want to visit your congregation more than once, if at all.
- Never, ever, allow the carpet, the curtains, or the upholstery on the pews to be changed. They were purchased with money given by dear old brother and sister Fussbudget, and so they can never be altered.
- Same with the seating arrangement. God intended everyone to stare at the back of someone else’s head. That is why he built so many churches with the same pews and the same pulpit. Don’t buck history.
I could probably go on, but I think I have given you a fairly solid beginning to a path of stagnation and decline. Follow these tried and true methods of killing a congregation and I can assure you that your building will be empty within a decade or two, maybe even sooner.
(IT IS NOW SAFE TO RETURN YOUR SARCASM METER TO ITS NORMAL SETTING)