Note: in the first two installments of this series I discussed Psalm 22 and Habakkuk 1:13. If you have not read those posts please refer to them as well.
The first two posts in this series dealt with two arguments in favor of the belief that God abandoned Jesus on the cross from a scriptural point of view. Both arguments were shown to be false. In Psalm 22 the psalmist himself declares that he was NOT forsaken, and in Habakkuk 1:13 it is clear that Habakkuk’s lament is NOT accepted by God, and he later demonstrates his error in a beautiful prayer and statement of faithful acceptance. With these two arguments from Scripture removed, we can now turn our attention to related evidence that further demonstrate that God did NOT forsake or abandon Jesus on the cross. The first is somewhat philosophical in nature, but certainly no less convincing. It is the argument from the very nature of God – the trinity.
To begin with I must admit that the idea of the trinity is a difficult one to understand. I’m quite sure I do not fully understand how the three aspects of God’s nature relate. Certainly the word “trinity” is never used in the Bible. However, there is much that we can learn about God’s essence, and though we will never understand everything, that does not mean we cannot understand that which has been explained to us. We must be very careful that we do not say too much, nor should we say too little.
Please consider the following Scriptures: Deuteronomy 6:4; John 1:1ff; John 4:26; John 8:24; John 8:58; John 9:35-37; John 13:19; John 17:1-26; and Colossians 1:15-23.
From those passages we can conclude that the greatest statement concerning the nature of God from the Israelite perspective is that He is One – singular, indivisible. There are not many gods, but one God, and He is One. This makes the passages in John even more compelling. John declared Jesus to be with God, and to even be God. Throughout his ministry Jesus declared his divine essence. The apostle Paul declared as much in his letter to the Colossians. For the early church there was no difficulty is confessing the singular essence of God while at the same time declaring that Jesus was this God. While this post is not necessarily concerned with the Holy Spirit, it is the Holy Spirit that completes the Godhead, the trinity.
How does this relate to the cross? Just this – those who suggest that God abandoned Jesus on the cross must accept that the this relationship was destroyed while Jesus was on the cross. Jesus ceased to be God. Jesus ceased to be “I am He.” Jesus ceased to be “I Am.” In fact, in one of the more popular presentations of this belief, the author clearly stated, “The trinity was ripped apart.”
As kindly and as gently as I can, while being as forceful as I can, I must say that this must be identified as pure heresy. How can God render his nature into separate pieces, and then discard one of those pieces? How can God violate his own essence, that which makes him God? How can Jesus be divine, participate in deity, and yet have that deity ripped from him?
In the first several centuries the church had to work through some very difficult questions, beginning with the nature of Jesus as both God and man. These discussions came to be known as the Christological controversies. Two teachings were clearly labeled as heretical for their opposite but equal repudiation of the deity and humanity of Christ. One was docetism, in which Jesus was viewed as pure spirit, pure God, with no real human attributes. He only seemed, or appeared, to be human. The opposite heresy was that Jesus was human alright, but there was nothing divine about his nature. He could not be human and divine, and he was obviously human, so the God part, the deity, had to go. Those who taught this belief were known as Ebionites.
When someone teaches that Jesus was forsaken on the cross, he is denying the deity of Jesus. The teaching that Jesus was somehow only human on the cross, and not God, is pure Ebionism. To argue that God abandoned Jesus on the cross is to say that God abandoned God. It is another way of saying that God was no longer God, that Jesus somehow in his most profound essence rejected Jesus himself. God, who in his trinitarian relationship is “One,” now ceases to be One. He becomes less than one. Once the trinity is ruptured, once Jesus ceases to be the “I Am,” then he becomes just another human being, broken and sinful, and at that point his death becomes merely tragic, not redemptive. A human being can sacrifice himself or herself for me, but a human being cannot redeem me to God. Only God can redeem his creation – and as the gospel of John emphatically and repeatedly declares, that is exactly what Jesus did on the cross. Jesus could only do this as God, not Jesus as sinner.
This argument is closely tied to the other issues that I will discuss in each of the forthcoming posts – the statements that Jesus himself made that refute the “separationists,” the violation of the New Testament doctrine of the atonement, major conflicts with the chronology of the crucifixion, and the profound spiritual implications that derive from the idea that God’s essence can be somehow ruptured and then repaired with no consequences.
As always, thank you for flying with me in the fog, and, agree or disagree with me, I do hope these posts stir you to greater and deeper study of the Scriptures.
Okay, I hope I did not vacuum someone in here that did not want to be here, and if I did I apologize. In no way, shape or form do I agree with the message of the title of this post (notice the quotation marks??). However, an increasing number of people do believe this, but not in manner that you might suspect. On a surface “intellectual” level they will say that yes, indeed, Jesus was the living embodiment of the eternal God. However, on a functional “gut” level they simply do not accept that Jesus is in any way the one, true, living God.
Just this week I was reminded (in reading another blog) that there is a deep seated repulsion of the idea that the loving, kind, and all-forgiving Jesus of the New Testament could be associated with the mean, nasty, wrathful and genocidal God of the Old Testament. This is especially true in two specific areas: capital punishment and homosexuality. The God of the Old Testament, it is averred, was a deity best described as cold, austere, vengeful and angry. Offer the wrong kind of incense and poof, God just zapped you dead. Touch the Ark of the Covenant in an unworthy manner and pay for it with your life. Simply go outside and pick up a few sticks on the Sabbath and kiss your next birthday goodbye. And that whole sex thing? That was just one entire death sentence just waiting to happen. It is a wonder any babies were born.
However, turn the page from Malachi to Matthew and all of the sudden we have Jesus – meek, mild, gentle little Jesus who cradled sinners and hobnobbed with the wretched. Jesus, it is proclaimed, never had a bad word to say about anyone, forgave everyone, and basically told his followers, “You know, all those stories about God punishing the unrighteous – well, that was true up until I was born, but now its ollie-ollie-in-come-free.” Why, we have Jesus getting drunk (or at least tipsy, so it is insinuated), thumbing his nose at all those restrictive 10 commandments (or at least that pesky Sabbath one) and promenading around with the promiscuous. Amazingly enough, Jesus looks just like a rebellious teenage or a baby-boomer looking for a second childhood.
Of course, all of this is post-modern deconstruction and re-historizing. Individuals who have this myopic view of Jesus and God have never done one, or perhaps either, of two things. They have never deeply read the Old Testament, and they have never deeply read the New Testament. For in the Old Testament we see God repeatedly begging His wayward people to return to Him and demonstrating time and again how He has made it possible for them to do so. Likewise, we see in the New Testament, especially in the words of Jesus, how God’s patience is limited. There will come a day of judgment in which some will be blessed and some will be punished. Jesus himself pronounced specific and eternal curses (woes) upon those who rejected his words, as well as offered tears because they would not.
Yes, God demanded strict obedience in the Old Testament, and He punished those who defied His Holiness. If I read Acts 5 correctly, He did so in the New Testament as well. And, yes, God forgave blatant sinners in the Old Testament (insiders as well as outsiders to the faith); and, clearly, He did so in the New Testament. So, you tell me – exactly how is the Jesus of the New Testament different from the God of the Old Testament? It seems to me that the entire point of the New Testament is that Jesus IS the God of the Old Testament – only briefly made human so that we could see and hear from Him directly (Jn. 1:1).
Please do not get caught up in this postmodern falderal. Of course it is not new – according to the writer of Ecclesiastes nothing is ever entirely “new.” But it is certainly becoming more prevalent. The New Testament portrayal of Jesus does not contradict the Old Testament portrayal of God. The gospel of Jesus is in the Pentateuch, the Writings, and the Prophets just as clearly as it is in the Gospels, Acts and the Epistles. However, the Holiness of God is just as prevalent in the Gospels, Acts and the Epistles as it is in the Pentateuch, the Writings, and the Prophets. We worship One God, not two. That God has one will, not two. There is one people of faith, not a pre-faith and post-faith. And we will all be saved by the one grace of God, and judged by the one revelation of that God.
Hear O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. (Deut. 6:4)
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.