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Questions from a Generous Antagonist – Sola Scriptura

Martin Luther, author of the text of Christ la...

Martin Luther, author of the text of Christ lag in Todes Banden, and who, with Johann Walter, also wrote the melody (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another of the very good questions posed to me by my on-line conversationalist has to do with Scripture (in fact, several are related to this subject). Hopefully I can do these questions justice.

The specific question posed was, “Where does the Bible teach sola scriptura?” I find that question fascinating for a couple of reasons. One, my questioner looks to Scripture for the answer to his question, and two, if you asked a room full of members of the Church of Christ where the Bible teaches sola scriptura they would more than likely answer that it is not necessary to know Greek in order to be saved. (Inside joke). The fact is that “sola scriptura” is a phrase that comes from the Reformation movement, and was coined by Martin Luther, if I am not mistaken.

But, the question is a good one – do the Scriptures teach that what is written is all that is necessary for man to know God and to be in a saved relationship with Him?

I would begin by quoting Moses in the last half of Deuteronomy 8:3, “…man does not live by bread alone, but that man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD.” I chose that particular verse because it is the phrase that Jesus used to overcome the first temptation by Satan in Matthew 4:1-4. Clearly, Jesus knew and quoted Scripture (the Old Testament to us) as authoritative and final. He emphatically said that he did not come to abolish the law and the prophets, and that nothing from the law would pass away until he had accomplished all things (Matthew 5:17-18).

In regard to that law, two Psalms in particular point to the everlasting nature of the word of God and how it was revered and honored in Jewish faith – Psalm 19 and 119. Because of a diluted form of Marcionism that remains alive in the church today we as Christians sometimes fail to appreciate how important the books of the Old Testament are to our faith. As I was trying to communicate in my last post, I think this is one of the areas that needs “restoring,” even in, or perhaps especially in, the American Restoration Movement.

Moving further in the New Testament, however, we find statements such as 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (RSV, emphasis mine). Once again, I believe that the apostle had what we refer to as the Old Testament in view here, as I am not sure what New Testament works would have been created and would have been accorded the value of “Scripture” at the time Paul wrote to Timothy. But notice – the words of God in Scripture are ALL that is necessary for a “man of God” to be complete! There is nothing else necessary – no special dispensation of the Holy Spirit, no latter day revelation, no continuing or “progressive” revelation. God’s word, labeled as “Scripture” (Greek, writing) is final, and fully efficacious.

Next I would turn to 2 Peter 3:15-16, in which Peter refers to the writings of “our beloved brother Paul,” in which he admits there are some things that are hard to understand, and then he continues to say, “…which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.” (RSV, emphasis mine). Now, at the outset I want to acknowledge that this is a problematic text for many people. They deny that Peter wrote the letter to begin with, and they certainly do not believe that Peter was equating Paul’s letters with Scripture. However, many, many scholars believe that the letter was indeed penned by Peter and that yes, he WAS equating Paul’s letters with Scripture, and we know that from a very early date both Paul’s and Peter’s letters were collected, copied, shared among congregations, and viewed as being authoritative and inspired words from God.

So, I believe (along with an innumerable host of others, both within and without the Churches of Christ) that the Bible, both Old and New Testament, teaches sola scriptura – Scripture alone.

I have other, non-biblical, reasons for holding to sola scriptura. When a group of people divests itself of the anchoring authority of Scripture the only result is an elevation of human hubris, which is another way of saying man turns his own fantasies into idols. Because the point of contention between my questioner and myself is (are) the differences between the Church of Christ and the Roman Catholic Church, I will select a neutral third party to illustrate my point: the Mormon Church.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is a perfect example of a group of people who have turned the wild, and dare I say, heretical visions of a human being into a gross caricature of the Lord’s church. The teachings of the LDS conflict with the Old and New Testaments on virtually every point, yet that does not disturb the Mormon faithful at all, because they are not bound by sola scriptura. This is what bothers me about attempting any kind of conversation with a Mormon – they will not, indeed cannot, conduct a conversation involving religion without referring to the Book of Mormon or the Pearl of Great Price or any one of the other “approved” writings of Joseph Smith or one of his followers. For a Mormon everything depends upon the “latter day” revelation (?) received by Joseph Smith, and which supposedly still continue through the president of the church, the prophets and the apostles.

[Interestingly enough, the LDS started as a "restoration movement" roughly about the same time period as Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone were doing their work. It seems that "restoration" was in the air and water of the early pioneers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.]

You see, when you divest yourself of the power of Scripture to both teach and admonish, you become a victim of any powerful person’s whim and fancy. I do not stand over Scripture, I stand under it. I do not dictate what it means, I seek to allow it to dictate to me what I should be.

I am a firm believer in the power of tradition. I happen to be one of those who feels that one of the weaknesses of the American Restoration Movement is that we are a “traditionless tradition.” We have severed ourselves from the great river of Christianity throughout the ages, and I believe we have an impoverished liturgy and spirituality because of that ill-fated decision. However, and this must be understood by all who want to understand me, I would never place tradition over Scripture or even on the same level as Scripture. The value of tradition is to help us understand Scripture and to guide our attempts to honor and worship God. I have believed, do now believe, and as far as I know will always believe that Scripture is the sole source of my understanding of God, Jesus, and the church. I cannot allow any human being, no matter how saintly or holy he or she may be, to usurp that position.

Next up: I will continue my discussion of Scripture, especially in relation to the question of an open or closed canon and the authority of councils and the resulting creeds and confessions of faith.

Questions From a Generous Antagonist

Interior of the original meeting house at Cane...

Interior of the original meeting house at Cane Ridge, Kentucky (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have been swamped by a mixture of pressing duties and an admittedly poor administration of time management. That has accounted for the paucity of posts over the past several weeks. However, now that I am in-between semesters, maybe I can do a little catching up.

One item of immediate business is to address some questions/comments that were made in response to my comments to the Churches of Christ. In particular is one rather animated individual who, at least in my initial impression, was genuinely off-put by some of my declarations. In subsequent comments it became more clear to me that while not quite so antagonistic as I had originally thought, this individual has some serious questions/challenges to the concept of restoration theology, and he provided me with a few of those questions. So, I have identified this individual as a generous antagonist: antagonist in that he clearly disagrees with me, generous in that he has engaged me with an accepting tone, albeit a pointed one. This is how it should be. If your position is not worth defending, it is not worth owning.

At the outset I want it clearly understood, however, that I am only defending MY position, and if you were to ask 100 other ministers within the Churches of Christ you would probably come up with 162 other opinions. That is because ministers within the Churches of Christ rarely agree, and even if they agree they have to share some unique twist or “improvement” on someone else’s opinion. So, I am not declaring divine inspiration here, but I do want to make my own understanding of the situation as clear as I can.

So for a general beginning, here is what I consider to be a very pertinent question:

So my question is, how do you justify the idea that there are 2,000 years of Christian history if the “true Church” left planet earth shortly after/during the apostolic era (who knows when?) and then popped up in the 19th century? Is it not more honest to suggest that your tradition only has less-than 200 years of history?

Perhaps a little background might be valuable. I was making the argument that the record of church history defended the use of acappella music as opposed to instrumental music. My interlocutor wondered, if the Churches of Christ disavow church history from “X” period of time up until Alexander Campbell “got it right” then how can we appeal to “church history” as a defense of acapella music in worship?

My answer in response to this and similar questions posed by the same individual is this: I do not believe the “‘true church’ left the planet earth shortly after/during the apostolic era (who knows when?) and then popped up in the 19th century.” I know there are some (perhaps many) within the Churches of Christ who do believe this, but my antagonist must ask them this question. As I do not believe the statement, I cannot defend it.

The phrase “true Church” is mystifying to me. That phrase communicates that there are true churches and false churches, real churches and fake churches, good churches and evil churches. The New Testament, continuing and building upon the Old Testament, communicates no such idea. In the Old Testament there were the “people of God” (sons of God, Children of Israel, the “faithful”) and there were “the nations.” In the New Testament we find this “people of God” being identified by a new communal name, “the Church,” but the concept is identical. There is “the Church” and there are the “nations” – those who either flat out disbelieve in God or who might accept that God exists, but who reject his commandments.

Now, within this Church there are a number of other “categories” that we might identify from phrases either found in Scripture or closely akin to terms used in Scripture. One would be schismatics, those who would divide the Church because of ego or some other non-doctrinal matter. John had his Diotrephes, Paul had his opponents in Corinth. These folks need to be disciplined, to be sure, but theirs is more a problem of ego rather than doctrine.

Another group would be those who would destroy the Church over matters of doctrine. Paul was much more severe with these individuals: Galatians is the best example of his address to these folks. However, there were some of these people everywhere Paul went – he told Timothy to watch out for Hymenaeus and Philetus. These two clearly had a false teaching related to the resurrection and Paul says they have “wandered away from the truth.” (2 Tim.2:17).

So, while we have schismatics and heretics, we only have one “Church.” While schismatics may seek to divide the Church, and heretics must be cast out of the Church, there can only be one “Church.” Jesus did not come to build many churches, but only one – His Church.

So, out of the dozens, if not hundreds, of “churches” in existence today, which is the “true” Church? Answer: the one that truly seeks to “love God with all of its heart, soul, mind and strength, and that loves its neighbor as itself” to borrow a phrase both from the Old Testament and Jesus’ teaching. The “true Church” is not defined by the name on the building, the legal documents that establish it with the state, the creed or confession that separates it from other “churches.” The true Church is the Church was created by Jesus, bought with his blood, and the one that lives its life in total surrender to the grace and command of God.

Now, please note: within that Church there may be many who are schismatics and heretics. The one group needs to be disciplined, the other needs to be removed. Just as with a human body, some diseases need to be cured; gangrenous limbs need to be amputated. In regard to the sheer number of “churches” in existence today that process appears to be impossible. But, I also believe in the power of the Holy Spirit and in God’s desire that His Church be as pure as is humanly possible. Therefore, I am a firm believer in, and defender of, the restoration movement.

However, let me be clear about this next point as well. The restoration movement that I see as my example did not begin with Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone. My example for the restoration of the Church began with the apostle Paul.

It is impossible to read Paul’s letters without noticing one overwhelming theme: Christ’s Church is to be focused on and lead by Christ. Just read 1 Corinthians and underline every mention of the names “Jesus,” “Lord,” “Christ” or any combination of the three. How many times in the prison epistles (Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, Philemon) is the phrase, “in Christ” used? Paul was not concerned about creating, developing or maintaining a human institution. He was concerned about being a people devoted to Christ. Paul was the archetypal restorationist. I believe in “restoration theology” because it is what the apostle Paul taught. The closer we as humans get to Christ, the more we become the “true Church” of Christ.

And, so, to my generous antagonist I will say this in answer to his question: the “apostasy” that affected the church affected it in the first century, and has repeated itself in every century since. The “restoration” of that church started in the first century, and has been necessary in every century since. To the extent that the Church fails to be the pure bride of Christ in any generation it has “apostatized,” and therefore a “restoration” becomes necessary. This was true in Ephesus, Colosse, Philippi, Rome, Jerusalem and it is every bit true in every place where there is a Church in 2013.

I will continue with some other very good and thought provoking questions in the days to come.

P.S. – It occurred to me in re-reading this post that I did not address the second part of the question above. To conserve space I would simply say “yes, it would be appropriate to admit that our ‘tradition’ is only approximately 200 years old, if by ‘tradition’ you mean that movement which was popularized and promoted by Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, and a host of others.” If, however, you mean by ‘tradition’ that we as a group of people seek to follow God the Father and Jesus as Lord in all that we do, then no, our tradition spans the entirety of history from the call of Abraham until today. Depending on the context and my audience, I will use ‘tradition’ in either sense, and in my opinion, justifiably so.

The Church of Christ – A Personal Reflection and Appeal – # 3 (b) Relations With Other Churches

After a brief (although, in my mind, necessary) detour, I would now like to return to the series of posts I have been writing about my perspective on the current situation the the Churches of Christ find themselves in, and what I believe would be a biblical response.

In this entry I would like to discuss the relationship the Churches of Christ have had, and currently do have, with other churches in the Christian tradition.

To begin with, this subject has been a complicated one from the earliest days of the American Restoration Movement. The two men most frequently named as “founders” or “leaders” of the Churches of Christ (Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone) both believed with no hesitation that there were Christians within every denomination that existed in the early 1800s. It would have been simply unfathomable to these men to try to defend the statement that the church had “disappeared” from the face of the earth. The very point of their “restoration” movement was to call Christians who were in the denominations to leave those institutions, not because there was no way they could be Christian, but because these institutions demanded that the person be something else in addition to being a Christian. In order to be a Presbyterian (as both Campbell and Stone were) you had to subscribe to the rules of the Presbyterian church. Likewise the Methodist church, the Lutheran church, the Anglican or Episcopal church, and the Roman Catholic Church. In the early 1800s these denominations exercised far more “boundary discipline” than is exercised today, so it is hard for some people to understand the religious landscape to which Campbell and Stone were writing. The point that I want to make here is that neither Campbell nor Stone thought they were creating or re-creating anything. They believed in “restoring” the church, but that simply meant removing all the barnacles that had attached themselves to the hull of the great sailing ship “church.” In both of these gentlemen’s minds, if a person was to return to the teachings of the New Testament and New Testament alone, the resulting community, or “church” would be the pure New Testament church.

In my own very personal and, at least in my mind, educated opinion, the weaknesses of such  “pure” restorationist thinking has been adequately revealed. There were some historical and philosophical realities the Campbell and Stone either were unaware of or chose to ignore. Thus, the movement that they helped spawn has had more than its fair share of divisions and brutal intramural fights. We have certainly not lived up the the concept of uniting on the essentials and having charity in the matters of opinion. But this basic beginning point of Campbell and Stone must be understood for the Church of Christ to move forward.

Explained in the most simple way I know how, the Churches of Christ have moved through three stages in dealing with the denominational churches.

Collaboration logo.

Collaboration logo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first stage has been noted above. It is the stage of engagement. Both Campbell and Stone sought to engage the denominations with a simple plea – return to a point of time in history when there were no denominations. Hence the term “non-denominationalism” was born. Campbell and Stone saw that, for all the unity with the various denominations, what divided them was not the New Testament (nor, for that matter, the Old Testament), but the later creeds and, more specifically, the Confessions of Faith that each denomination held as a barrier between them and the rest of the Christian world. The original message of the earliest restorers was to simply remove those Confessions of Faith as tools of division. In order to communicate this message the early restorers engaged the leaders of the denominational world. They went congregation to congregation and house to house explaining their plea. And, by any reasonable measure, they succeeded wildly. Entire congregations severed their denominational ties and joined the “Stone/Campbell” movement to unite all Christians.

However, disciples of prophets very rarely follow closely in their leader’s footsteps. And so another

Debate Logo

Debate Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

group of leaders emerged that believed if a person should leave a denomination, that meant he or she could not be a Christian if he or she was a member of that denomination. So, even during the lifetime of Stone and Campbell the second phase of the relationship between the Churches of Christ and the denominational world developed, and that was the phase of debate. Now, to be sure, Campbell was a master at the skill of debate. But his debates were never to destroy the enemy, they were designed to convince the doubting. This was not enough for this emerging set of firebrands. They believed the gains made by Campbell and Stone were impressive, but that they were not enough, and those gains had to be defended at all costs. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the non-denominational plea espoused by Stone and Campbell was turned into call to enter into another denomination, the “Church of Christ.” A person could not be a Christian unless he or she adhered to each and every demand that a particular preacher, elder or editor saw was critical – whether it was baptism “for the forgiveness of sins,” the use of titles for ministers, paying ministers, using an instrument of music in worship, not partaking of the Lord’s Supper each and every Lord’s Day, having separate Bible classes for children, using women to teach Bible classes, supporting non-congregational “institutions,” and the list could go on and on. Each and every one of these topics became the fodder for debates, and for several generations a preacher’s skill was measured not by his spirituality or ministerial ability, but by how well he did in “debating the denominations.” Being labeled “soft on the sects” was enough to destroy many a good preacher’s reputation.

English: A metaphorical visualization of the w...

English: A metaphorical visualization of the word Anger. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This then led to the third phase of relations between the Churches of Christ and their Christian neighbors, and that is our current situation. Many, although by no means most, of the members of the Church of Christ want to continue this position of ridicule/demean/hate the denominations. They have moved from being “non-denominational” to being “anti-denominational” in the worst possible sense of the word. They use words that are clearly not appropriate for a disciple of Christ to use in dialogue with someone of another belief. Quite frankly, they demonstrate a very unChristian attitude. However, on the other end of the spectrum there is a group that still wants to be identified as members of the Church of Christ but they have begun to embrace the main beliefs of the denominational world in an absolutely uncritical way. They hate all right, but they hate the Church of Christ. They ridicule the founders of the Restoration Movement every chance they get. They refuse to accept that anything positive has come from the heritage of the Restoration movement over the past 200+ years. They apologize for every perceived fault, and cannot wait to make fun of those who still believe in the premise of non-denominational Christianity. But, they stoically remain as ministers, elders and editors of “Churches of Christ” so that they can obtain some kind of martyr status by being criticized for their adolescent rejection of their spiritual father’s beliefs.

I have elsewhere stated that I am a staunch believer in the American Restoration Movement. I am a child of this movement, and, while I have been made aware of some of the presuppositional faults in the thinking of Stone and Campbell, I am never-the-less in awe of their spiritual foresight. They truly were prophets who could see 200 years into the future. Much of what the modern world is experiencing in the “Emerging Church” movement was pre-saged by Stone and Campbell. It is astounding for me to read of modern authors calling for a return to “apostolic Christianity” as if it were a novel idea, and Campbell and Stone were promoting that idea back in the early 1800’s. Just goes to prove the author of Ecclesiastes was correct – there is truly nothing new under the sun. But I digress.

While I am a child of the American Restoration Movement, I would like for the Churches of Christ to return to the ideal promoted by Stone and Campbell, and that was the process of engagement. I want to see us be able to engage the denominational world, but at the same time be secure enough in our own convictions that we do not embrace the denominational world. I hope it goes without saying that I reject the ridicule/hate position uncategorically.

As I close I want to make two final comments – to which I will return in depth in my final post in this series. One, we cannot honestly engage other faith traditions if we do not have a healthy understanding and appreciation of who we are. This is where I have such a deep seated distrust of and dislike of certain “leading ministers” in the Churches of Christ today who have virtually thrown the Restoration Plea under the bus. We cannot sit down at the table to have a dialogue with other faith traditions if we pathologically hate our own. To have a conversation in which we agree wholeheartedly with everyone around is is not a dialogue, it is a multi-person monologue.

But conversely, we cannot engage other faith traditions if we do not have a healthy understanding and appreciation of who they are. Truth, I have come to understand, does not reside only in one church building. I have been deeply touched and formed by a Lutheran (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, my favorite theologian), an Anglican (C.S. Lewis, although I’m quite sure he would not be an Anglican today), several Roman Catholics (Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, several others), a Baptist (Glen Stassen) and a number of others, some of which I know their traditions (Anabaptist, Mennonite, United Church of Christ) and some of which I do not. I can only come to the table to begin a dialogue with them if I first understand who they are and what they believe, and not to belittle or ridicule that faith, but to learn from it and grow from it. Just as I would hope they would come to hear me, and to learn from me and to grow from me.

So, my question is do we engage, debate, hate or embrace? In my most humble, but undeniably correct opinion (since, after all, this is MY blog), we have participated in the middle two for far too long and the last is just pure kissy face narcissism. Let us return to the process of engagement. And it is to that goal that I will direct my concluding thoughts.

The Churches of Christ – A Personal Reflection and Appeal (A Series)

English: Microscope.

English: Microscope. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This series has been building, like a slow developing thunder storm, for the past few months. I have been reading several recent and not-so-recent books on the changing face of Christianity among American teenagers, and while the material does not focus exclusively on young members of the Churches of Christ, I feel that the substance of the books very accurately describes the situation within the Churches of Christ. I also sense a paradigmatic change in American culture; one that has already started and if I am correct, will be made virtually unchangeable subsequent to the next presidential election in 2016. Theologically speaking, I have been working carefully through the book of Revelation for a college class that I am teaching. Reading and hearing the word of Christ through John has re-ignited a fire in my bones regarding the fate of the Lord’s church. When these issues are combined with the already observable changes in the religious landscape of our narcissistic 21st century I believe the result will either (a) utterly destroy what is already a weak and beggarly religious institution or (b) prove to be the furnace of purification for a vibrant church that is unduly burdened with generations of worthless slag.

Where to begin?

Let me say that as I currently envision this series, the beginning will be a discussion of the relationship that the Churches of Christ have had with the political realm of the United States from the time of Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell down to the current day. If history is prediction, the church must learn from her past and be prepared for the future.

Second, I want to gaze in my crystal ball and hazard some projections as to where this country is headed in terms of economics, and what those predictions might have in store for the life and work of the Churches of Christ.

Third, I want to examine the tenuous relationship that Churches of Christ have maintained with the rest of the religious world, and in particular, the surrounding churches that proclaim allegiance to Jesus and yet hold to doctrines and practice actions that make it difficult, if not impossible, for members of the Churches of Christ to claim fellowship with these groups. That, and also work on creating shorter sentences.

And, finally, hopefully, I can wrap everything up in one whiz-bang finale.

I will attempt to keep these posts somewhat close to my average of 1,200 – 1,300 words or so (give or take a few hundred) but they will not be your typical sound-bite size post. I will have a lot of ground to cover in a brief time, so I will generalize when possible and document when necessary.

I cannot promise a time-line either, as much as I would like to. My work load this semester (teaching 4 university courses plus a growing campus ministry) has stretched me to my limit. Yet, this blog is a passion of mine, so I will attempt to tend to this series with due diligence.

For my brothers and sisters within the Churches of Christ, I would love to have your comments, questions, and observations. For those outside of the fellowship of the Churches of Christ, I would also appreciate hearing from you – how do you see your faith group in this discussion and how accurately do you see my observations? To everyone – thank you for reading and especially to those of you who follow this blog on a regular basis. Your support is humbling, and I strive as my goal to create and share valuable material for you to ponder and either accept or reject as you see fit.

Loving to Hate Your Tradition

Interior of the original meeting house at Cane...

Interior of the original meeting house at Cane Ridge, Kentucky (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

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.

 

English: Barton W. Stone (1772-1844) Português...

English: Barton W. Stone (1772-1844) Português: Barton Stone, pastor e teólogo estadunidense. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

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.

 

David Lipscomb (1831-1917) co-founded the Nash...

David Lipscomb (1831-1917) co-founded the Nashville Bible School in 1891. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

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.

 

Isaiah 31 and American “Christianity”

 

How horrible it will be for those who go to Egypt for help, who rely on horses, who depend on many chariots, who depend on very strong war horses. They don’t look to the Holy One of Israel. They don’t seek the LORD…The Egyptians are humans, not gods. Their horses are flesh and blood, not spirit. When the LORD uses his powerful hand, the one who gives help will stumble, and the one who receives help will fall. Both will die together. (Isaiah 31:1, 3, God’s Word Translation).

 

The Prophet Isaiah

The Prophet Isaiah (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

This has been a transformative year for me. It was my first year of teaching in a university setting. I have been working on preparing myself for my doctoral dissertation – basically trying to refine my thesis and research possible resources. I have been forced to re-think some old cherished ideas and have been driven back into some that I had foolishly set aside. In some ways I think I have grown more in the past 12 months than I have in the previous 12 years. And, considering that time period in my life, that is saying something.

 

Weird way to introduce my thoughts on Isaiah 31, I know. But there is something, well, just – transcendent about Isaiah 31. You actually have to go back to chapter 30 and read chapters 30 and 31 together. Isaiah set it out so clearly for the Israelites. God is saying, “Listen, trust ME. Believe in ME. Don’t worry about these foreign armies – do you think they can defeat ME?” But Israel would not listen. They looked at the armies of the oppressors, looked at the armies of Egypt, and said, “Wow, we need some of those, a couple of those – aw, just send the whole kit and kaboodle.” And God said, “Okie fine, you won’t trust me, you won’t believe in me, so I’ll give you what you want.”

 

Jeremiah had basically the same message to the nation of Judah two centuries later, and guess what? Yep, the leaders of Judah still preferred to trust in the power of the Egyptian armies rather than trust in God. Honestly, some people are so stubborn that they will not learn.

 

Well, we have the messages of both Isaiah and Jeremiah and guess what? Have we learned? Are we willing to trust in God?

 

Our military spending is into the multiple hundreds of billions of dollars, and even though the top brass in the Pentagon says we can get by with less, the Congress refuses to cut any military spending because of the political repercussions in the districts of the Representatives and Senators.

 

Following every mass shooting, when the national conversation turns to even minor and sane gun ownership legislation, the ultra-conservative right-wing of our country goes ballistic (love the pun) and sales of both guns and ammunition go through the roof.

 

The more right-wing and ultra-conservative a person is, the more likely that person is to defend the ownership and use of multiple weapons – even those weapons whose design and use is strictly for the taking of human life. In addition, the more likely that person is to defend the creation of a personal defense shelter and the hoarding of many months, if not years, of food in the event of a “cataclysmic” event.

 

Many of those who I described in the last two points would also describe themselves as “Christians.”

 

The underlying rationale for the building up of an unbeatable military force, a personal arsenal, and a stockpile of food and water is the fear of the unknown, and of the known but misunderstood. We either do not see the boogey-man in the dark, or we see what we think is a boogey-man in the dark and we over-react.

 

And God is still telling us not to worry, not to trust in foreign powers, or even in our own military power, but to trust in Him. Question is, will we listen?

 

English: Barton W. Stone (1772-1844) Português...

English: Barton W. Stone (1772-1844) Português: Barton Stone, pastor e teólogo estadunidense. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

I find it enlightening that at least one scholar in the Restoration Movement referred to Barton W. Stone as having an “apocalyptic” theologyThat is to say the difference between Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell can be described as the difference between someone who saw history as being on an inexorable climb to perfection (Campbell, who saw the Restoration Movement as the crowning jewel in that climb) and one who saw mankind in a hopeless quandary and utterly dependent upon the power of God (Stone, who saw the Restoration Movement as an ultimate submission to that mysterious power). Up until the Second World War the Churches of Christ were generally, although not exclusively, under the influence of Stone and his successors, Tolbert Fanning and David Lipscomb. As the Churches of Christ became more “mainstream” and also more “evangelical,” the apocalyptic view of Stone, Fanning and Lipscomb became an unwanted burden and was soon excised almost entirely from the theology of the Churches of Christ.

 

David Lipscomb (1831-1917) co-founded the Nash...

David Lipscomb (1831-1917) co-founded the Nashville Bible School in 1891. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Although couched entirely in the prophetic genre, Isaiah 30 and 31 proclaim the message of the apocalyptic theologian perfectly. We may see only the tanks, armies and inter-continental ballistic missiles of our enemies and also of ourselves and our friends. We may see only the guns and ammunition in our personal bunkers. We may take courage and feel safe because of those weapons.

 

 

But God looks down and laughs. Use a tank against God? Shoot a missile at God? Out last a famine that is sent by God?

 

I get the reality that atheists might want to trust in their armies. I understand that those who deny God might want to build a bomb proof shelter and store up enough food to last a generation. But disciples of Christ? Really? Where is our faith? Where is our trust? In what do we actually trust, God or ourselves?

 

Tolbert Fanning

Tolbert Fanning (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Faith is a leap into the unknown because we know and trust who it was that told us to jump. I think Stone, Fanning and Lipscomb all shared a far greater faith in God and a far greater distrust in humans than we do in the 21st century.

 

Call me an apocalyptic theologian if you want to. Actually, I believe I am in pretty good company. That fellow John wrote a pretty good apocalypse, and we have it as the last book of our Bible. If you read it carefully you will note that it is God who is in control of history, not mankind.

 

And, just as an aside, what happens to those who trust in their armies in that apocalypse?

 

Yea, thought so.

 

Then Assyrians will be killed with swords not made by human hands. Swords not made by human hands will destroy them. They will flee from battle, and their young men will be made to do forced labor. In terror they will run to their stronghold, and their officers will be frightened at the sight of the battle flag. The LORD declares this. His fire is in Zion and his furnace is in Jerusalem. (Isaiah 31:8-9, God’s Word Translation)

 

15 Undeniable Truths For Theological Reflection (#6)

(This picture is of “Bear,” one of my best Bible study assistants. Sadly, Bear passed away several years ago, but this post is in his honor.)

This installment to my reflections upon my reflections follows very closely to numbers 4 and 5, so if you have not already consulted my page of 15 Undeniable Truths you might want to do so now, or perhaps read my post explaining numbers 4 and 5.

So, here is Undeniable Truth For Theological Reflection #6:

6.  However, the study of Scripture is not for the lazy. The original texts were written in three ancient languages and the youngest of these manuscripts is now approaching 2,000 years of age. We must be extraordinarily careful in the study of Scripture that we do not read our historical situation (culture, biases, feelings) back into the original texts.

Whoo Boy. If there was ever a philosophical or theological topic that simply screams for caution it would be this one. The problem is (as I see it, of course), that everyone is guilty of violating this truth in some degree or another at some time or another. There are some who are more aware of their predilection to doing this, and they are more willing to confess it when it happens. But there are many others who can only see this fault in others. They blithely go about wallowing in the same sty, but they can only see the mud on the other pig.

Before we progress any further, please remind yourself of Undeniable Truth For Theological Reflection # 1.

There are many ways to read our personal situation back into the original texts. Males read the Bible as if everyone was a male. Females do the same, only as if everyone was a female. Americans are particularly guilty of reading the Bible as if everyone lived in a democratic Republic. Capitalists read capitalism into every biblical transaction, and Socialists do the same. The poor and oppressed read poverty and oppression into every saga, while the rich and the free only see prosperity and freedom. Calvinists see John Calvin on every page of the Bible, and Arminians are just as convinced that only Jacob Arminius can be found in Sacred Writ. The GLBT alphabet soup mishmash can find all the evidence they need that God fully endorses the GLBT lifestyle, meanwhile the hyper-puritans are not sure that sex can even be found in the Bible at all. Fundamentalist creationists are quite positive they can date the creation of the world all the way down to year, month and day, while evolutionary creationists are equally certain that Moses and Charles Darwin are both equally correct. Hmm. As the trout once said to the salmon, something is fishy here.

Is the Bible that disjunctive? Can God be guilty of both fully endorsing homosexuality while at the same time condemning homosexual sex acts? Is God both a Calvinist and an Arminian? Does God sanctify both capitalism and socialism? Can God be both a Marxist and a little “r” republican?

Sometimes the situation is comical. Sometimes it is serious, but with a little reflection we can catch ourselves and correct the mistake. And sometimes the sin is so grievous that it takes generations to repair the damage, if it is possible at all. I am thinking here primarily of the German Christians in the early 1930’s who so totally identified Jesus as the prototypical Aryan that they used his name to further their program to exterminate the Jews. The very sad truth is that there are many alive today even within the Lord’s church who would agree with these monsters. The way to the heart of Christ is narrow indeed, and there will be few that find it.

As I write this post I am limited by several “accidents” of birth. I am a male, I am of Anglo-Franco descent, I was born in the United States (well, nominally – I was born in Santa Fe N.M. and we are a strange breed) and I have been raised my entire life in a church that has a very high view of Scripture. I am married, and I have the glorious joy of raising one of the most precious little girls that has ever graced this earth. By virtue of my parent’s love and sacrifice I have received a college education, and through a quirk of life’s twists and turns I have also earned all of my certificates and ratings to be a commercial airplane pilot. Every one of these “accidents” or later developments puts me in a category with more or fewer people. And, all of these “accidents” or developments tends to color the way I read and interpret Scripture. I must be aware of these facts and deal with them openly and honestly. In my most humble but undeniably true opinion, for me to do otherwise would be to distort the meaning of the text.

The only way I can do this is, as I stated it in my “15 Truths” is to be extraordinarily careful as we study the text of the Bible. We must force ourselves to read Moses and Isaiah and Matthew and Paul and Peter as Moses and Isaiah and Matthew and Paul and Peter intended us to read their words. While John Calvin or Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Paul Smith might have something important to say about the 10 Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount, I have to read the words of Moses or the words of Jesus as they were given and received. That means I must work to understand the original languages and the historical situation of each book of the Bible, and of each epoch covered by the biblical writers. Moving forward (and I will have more to say about this in the near future) we must also see how these words have been interpreted by others in different times and in different cultural contexts.

By placing ourselves under the text, and by wrestling with the manner in which others have read and understood the Scriptures we reduce the likelihood of reading our own biases back into the text, and we simultaneously increase the possibility of understanding what the original writer intended. In other words, we allow the text to set the agenda, and we are able to allow the text to critique and correct our agendas.

I do not want to suggest that modern situations do not call for a deeper reading and a critical study of the text. For example: the American slave trade, the system of Apartheid in South Africa, the American Civil Rights Movement, the oppression and murder of the Jews in Nazi Germany – many human rights tragedies have been exposed and corrected by a fresh reading of Scripture. The American Restoration Movement is itself a testament both of the ability of men and women in a particular historical situation to return to a “primitive” understanding of Scripture and of the blind spots that make it difficult for men and women in a particular historical context to completely extricate their biases from their interpretations. The exact same thing can be said of John Calvin, Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (my particular hero), Billy Graham or Paul Smith.

Humility, careful study, being aware of our own blind spots and emotional tendencies – these are all necessary skills in studying the Bible. Honestly, I just wish I could herd all of these cats (and others) into the same corral.

That’s why the study of theology is so frustrating and so entertaining at the same time!

Who Is Writing Our Theology (And Why)

Free theology books

Free theology books (Photo credit: kylesorkness)

In my brief review of Dr. Keith Johnson’s lecture on “Bonhoeffer and the End of the Christian Academy” here I pointed out a response he made during the question and answer period. You never know what you will get in question and answer discussions following a lecture or panel talk. If the question is good then the time can be wonderful. Bad questions, or ad hominem attacks make the time horrible. In Dr. Johnson’s case I cannot remember the exact question, but his answer was brilliant.

Dr. Johnson made the point that for the first 500 years of Christian history the emerging theology was all written by active church men – preachers, bishops, other leaders. For the next 1,000 years theology was mostly the responsibility of monks. These were men (and a few women) who were still deeply committed believers and were connected to the church, but removed in the sense that the monastery was not the active church. For the last 500 years Dr. Johnson pointed out that that most of our written theology has been created by academicians – men and women with Ph.D’s but who are not necessarily connected to any body of faith. In fact, much theology has been written by individuals who have no connection to the Christian faith at all, with the exception that “Christian theology” provides them with a steady income. This has had a chilling effect upon the growth of the church.

For one thing, if you are not vitally connected to your subject, your only purpose in writing is academic. There is no “there” there. So what if you are right, and so what if you are wrong? It just provides more opportunity to write another article or book. On the other hand, if you are preaching or serving in a leadership capacity in a local congregation then what you say or write has immediate and significant implications. Even if you are dealing with your subject in an academic manner, you are still aware of the actual application of your thoughts. For just one example, it makes a huge difference if you are getting ready to preach a sermon (or even write an article) on marriage and divorce if you have had, or are currently having a counseling session with a couple who is experiencing marital difficulties. Your thoughts, your words, your whole attitude is shaped by what you hear and experience during those slices of life. An academician who has had no experience in ministry simply does not have that interest, nor the concern, that a preacher, teacher, elder has.

Second, and perhaps more to the point, if those who are doing the writing of theology are strictly academicians, the entire concept of heresy is eliminated from the church. Academicians do not speak of heresy, except as an academic subject. For the church heresy must be a living issue. If there are not some issues which are considered false, then there can be no issues which are considered true. Everything at that point simply becomes acceptable.

However, the Bible clearly speaks of true and false teachings. The church must be able to label certain teachings as false, and those who teach them as false teachers. Baptism cannot be both for the forgiveness of sins, and at the same time not for the forgiveness of sins. One teaching is false. The bread and wine cannot both be the actual body and blood of Jesus, and simultaneously a representation of the body and blood of Jesus. One of those two teachings is false. The leadership of the church cannot be both limited to men and at the same time open to females. Homosexuality cannot be a sin and something cherished by God at one and the same time. One of all these pairs of teachings has to be orthodox, the other heterodox – or better put, heresy. But, if it simply is an academic discussion, then these distinctions simply do not matter. An ivory tower academician does not have to deal with whether or not to admit fellowship to a practicing homosexual, or whether or not to practice adult baptism. For him (or her) those issues are just topics for a lecture or a peer-reviewed paper.

Dr. Johnson’s point is a powerful one. We need to have men and women who devote themselves to academic study. I honor those who have the mental strength and the desire to devote themselves to the kind of intense study that is required to earn the Ph.D degree. As one who would truly like to earn a Ph.D but simply does not have the intellectual fire power to do so, I owe a great amount of gratitude and respect to those who do have that gift. But, they must realize that the man in the pulpit is a skilled and necessary part of the educational process as well. So is the woman sitting on the floor in the first grade classroom. So is the one-on-one evangelist studying the Bible with a student over a cup of coffee. So is the missionary in a foreign country or in one of our own cities. Theology is what every Christian does, not just the intellectual elite.

I mentioned in my last post here that within the colleges and universities of the Churches of Christ I have witnessed a real shift in the speakers in our brotherhood lectureships. More and more the only speakers that are invited are mostly young university professors, or those who are extremely closely connected to a university or college. The day of the mature and experienced located minister preaching a real “sermon” in a lectureship are all but over. I believe there is a necessary place for ministers to have access to our university professors. But our universities are getting further and further removed from the congregations they were designed to serve. The increased focus on young, highly trained but largely inexperienced professors to take a leadership role in working our our modern theology will ultimately have a disastrous effect on the church. God did not call his spiritual leaders “elders” without good reason. Age, and experience, just cannot be obtained from a book.

Rehoboam could have been king over the whole nation of Israel, had he simply listened to the wisdom of age. But he trusted the counselors of his own age, and he split the kingdom, something from which it never recovered. Are we not going down the same path today?

Of What Possible Use Is The Christian Academy?

NCAA Hall of Champions building located in Ind...

NCAA Hall of Champions building located in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(Continuing my series of reviews and comments about the 21st annual Wheaton Theology Conference, titled “Bonhoeffer- Christ and Culture” held this past April in Chicago.)

The second lecture on the opening day of the Bonhoeffer conference was given by Dr. Keith Johnson titled, “Bonhoeffer and the End of the Christian Academy.” Dr. Johnson made three significant points.

The first is that Christ is the basis and criterion of all the reality of the world. The Christian academy, if it is to be true to its calling, must see everything in a Christological lens. We are not to try to figure out how everything “fits together,” we are to obey Christ.

The second point is that the Christian academy is intrinsically connected to the church. As an institution, an academy cannot be “Christian” in the sense that it does not receive the sacraments. However, the academy is comprised of Christian individuals, and so they bear a responsibility to the world, just as the church has a responsibility to the world.

The last point Dr. Johnson made is a combination of the first two points. The Christian academy is in and for the church as the church is in and for the world. Just as the church is to “die” for the world, the Christian academy is to “die” for the church. (Thus, the title for his lecture!). The Christian academy must equip the church to both stand against the world and also must show the church how God is working in the world in “new and exciting ways.” By Biblical example, Dr. Johnson used the precedent of Acts 15 in which the church realized that God was speaking in a new way, not just capitulating to culture. In conclusion, Dr. Johnson pointed out that the church must hold the academy accountable – to be honest to the Word – while the academy must challenge the church to engage the world.

I know that in a movement as diverse and the Churches of Christ/Christian Church/Disciples of Christ it is impossible to make a generic statement that is universally applicable. But I could not help but wish that our college and university administrators were present for this lecture. If I may make a sweeping generalization that is true to some extent in every situation, although not as pervasive in some as it is in others, it would be this: the colleges and universities associated with the American Restoration Movement have forsaken their calling to be Christian academies. Now, let me unpack that statement, and if the truth fits, let it fit, and if it does not, then simply ignore it.

First, “our” Christian colleges and universities sold a large portion of their souls many years ago when they started accepting Federal assistance. This meant that they had to start abiding by federal standards, in greater or lesser degrees, and as Jesus the apostles all stated, you cannot serve God and the kingdom of this world in equal proportions. I know that many students were able to attend a Christian university or college based on this federal assistance. But the cost in terms of spirituality has been severe.

Second, “our” universities and colleges have surrendered their focus on Christ and the Bible. Some still require that students take a course in the Bible every semester, but many do not. Some allow a course in marriage and family planning to be substituted for a course in the text. Now, I am all for helping young people understand the importance of marriage and the family. But if we are going to be a people of the book we must study the book! Many colleges and universities have reduced or eliminated the daily chapel worship experience. That was one of THE defining aspects of my four years at ACU. I still remember certain chapel devotional talks. When an administration agrees to reduce or substitute other assemblies in place of daily worship, the focus on Christ is lost. Sorry, but you can’t have it both ways.

Third, it is obvious by looking at the web sites of our Christian colleges and universities that the top two primary values of the institutions are athletics and academics. “We are in the top _______ (fill in the blank) of highest rated universities” trumpet the ads. “Our teams won ________ (fill in the blank) championships last year!” “We are #1 in our conference!”

You would think Jesus died on the cross wearing Nike cleats.

Why do our colleges and universities spend so much money on NCAA or NAIA sports? I am not just talking about hundreds, or maybe thousands of dollars. I am talking about hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of dollars. “Well, those sports generate a lot of money for the school” you respond. Oh? Where is that money spent? On Bibles? On mission trips? On spiritual retreats? NO, NO, and NO. It is spent on more athletics. On salaries for growing administrative staffs. On salaries for coaches and assistant coaches and compliance officers and tutors and tape and uniforms and buildings and more tape and video cameras and weight rooms and some more tape and bandages. When I was at ACU my professors were using the same chalkboards that had been in the classroom for probably 50 years, but you can bet the football team had the latest technical equipment and the finest weight room that the school could afford.

You see, it is all about priorities. And I will flatly challenge any college or university administrator to explain to me how spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on an NCAA division I or II athletic program advances the cause of Christ. Colleges and universities have expensive athletic programs for one purpose and one purpose only. They advance the prestige of the school. The school gets to fly its banner a little higher. And, if a team is successful enough to reach a national audience, there you go – more money for the trustees to spend. We need a new gym, after all and Division I is just so much more impressive than Division II.

Once upon a time our colleges (I doubt we had any accredited universities back then) were very closely connected with our congregations. That day was virtually gone by the time I entered school, and it is a distant memory now. The presidents of our schools used to be preachers. Now the only men who are considered for presidential appointments are money-raising gurus. I am NOT saying they are bad men. I am saying that the focus of our colleges and universities has changed. We do not look for spiritual giants to lead our Christian academies any more. We look for successful businessmen and proven administrators. The question is not, “Is this man a man of God?” but it has become, “How much money can this man raise?”

I don’t know if the church stopped holding our Christian academies accountable (shame on the church), or whether the Christian academies simply decided they were big enough without the church and did not need the church any more (shame on the institutions). But as I see it, and I have been a minister and a member of the church for almost three decades since graduating from a Christian university, there is a HUGE disconnect between our Christian academies and the local congregations. The university is now a multi-million dollar entity, and there simply is no need for the church.

We used to have Bible lectureships to feed and encourage ministers and congregational leaders. Now we have “conversations” that are designed to prove to the evangelical world that we are finally one of them. Our lectureships used to highlight men who had been in the pulpit for many years, and who were capable of actually preaching to the audience. Now esoteric lectures are delivered by effete academicians and those who only speak to and listen to each other. Our lectureships used to be opportunities for our young ministers to hear and learn from our wiser elders. Now, a speaker older that 40 is rare, and one older than 50 is almost non-existent. Gray hair has been replace by the goatee. Rehoboam was not the last person to glorify the folly of youth.

Dr. Johnson’s speech had an ironic twist in the title. I wonder, if in just one significant way, the Churches of Christ are not witnessing the “end” of our Christian academies. It is certainly not the meaning Dr. Johnson intended. Dietrich Bonhoeffer would certainly not approve.

The only question that matters is whether Jesus would approve of the direction our academies are heading. It is a question to consider, at the very least.

Reconsidering Pacifism – Definitions and Positions

The Deserter by Boardman Robinson. Anti-war ca...

The Deserter by Boardman Robinson. Anti-war cartoon depicting Jesus facing a firing squad made up of soldiers from five different European countries (at that time the US had not yet entered the war). First published in The Masses in 1916. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the past several weeks I have been engaged with the related concepts of pacifism and discipleship in a number of ways. One, in reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer for a guided study in my doctoral work I have obviously been dealing with a theologian who had to struggle with the concepts of pacifism and militarism in a way in which few of us can even fathom. Second, in the same course of study I have been reading David Lipscomb, a third generation leader in the American Restoration Movement and a voice who helped shape the southern Churches of Christ as perhaps no one else did. Finally, over the past several months I have read various other authors who have advocated the view the disciples cannot follow Christ and take up the sword. As I have read, studied and mentally debated with these giants of my faith I have been forced to think, and to rethink, my understanding and my conclusions on this subject. Over the next few posts I will share with you my convictions, and the Scriptural and theological foundations which underlie those convictions. While I do not expect anyone to adopt my position simply because I hold it, I do hope that I will raise the right questions, and perhaps lead the right discussion that will allow a person to come to a more informed decision regarding this critical and far too often neglected aspect of our Christian walk. I do not offer these opinions as binding on anyone – except, of course, as that person may find them based solidly in Scripture. The Word is binding, my understanding and interpretation of that Word is not. I pray my journey will be valuable, whether you ultimately agree with me or not. As I usually say as I begin my classes (with my tongue firmly in my cheek) – if you do not want to agree with me you do not have to; if you want to be wrong I am more than happy to let you.

Here is the outline of my thoughts (at least as I have them formulated at this time. As I put pixels onto my computer screen this outline might change) -

  1. Definitions and positions
  2. Old Testament foundations
  3. New Testament clarifications
  4. Summation: The Disciple and the civil government

To begin with I must provide you with the definitions with which I will be working. If you do not understand how I am using a word or phrase you will not be able to follow me, and you will think you agree with me when you do not, or you think I am a heretic when we are actually in total agreement. So, to begin in the most pedantic way possible, here is how I understand and use these terms.

Pacifism – the conviction that God’s divine presence is preferable to his unbearable absence, and the process by which Disciples of Christ are supposed to reveal the reality of God’s presence in this world. Peace has two dimensions. One is the reality that at its most fundamental level, mankind cannot create peace. We can only accept the peace that God creates and then offers to us. However, the other dimension that needs to be stressed is that peace does not simply float down from heaven as some ethereal cloud. The work of pacifism is the labor that first must prepare someone’s heart for God’s peace, and then must offer that peace to those who are willing to accept it. I consider my self a pacifist in the sense that I want God’s peace to be with all people – beginning with myself, but extending to my family, my nation, and the world I call home.

Absolute pacifism - There is a branch of pacifism that is, to pardon the paradox, militaristic. Individuals who are absolute pacifists are so pacifistic that they get angry and react strongly when their viewpoint is challenged. They also tend to be anti-nationalistic. They cannot stand to see anyone in a military uniform and will leave if anything even remotely patriotic is said. I must say that I do not understand these people. If they are Americans, they live in a land where virtually every single freedom they enjoy, especially the freedom to criticize the government they claim is too militaristic, has been bought and paid for by the blood of soliers. When I write about the strand of pacifism that I disagree with the most fervently, it is this group to whom I am referring.

Isolationism – Another aspect of pacifism that is seldom discussed but is a major component of many people’s understanding of pacifism is isolationism. This is the view that no country should ever be involved in the affairs of another country. Pacifism and isolationism are not synonymous – you can be (and I will argue you must be to a certain degree) a pacifist and not an isolationist. However, I believe it is philosophically impossible to be an isolationist and not be a pacifist. Pacifism is a required first step toward isolationism.

Peace – I hold the Old Testament conviction that shalom (peace) means far more than an absence of conflict. The word shalom is rich with many different shades of meaning, but I feel that I would not be far wrong to suggest that shalom carries the meaning of an all-consuming surrender of one’s heart and mind to the will of God. If God’s presence is real and active in a person’s life, then shalom is present, whether conflict exists or not. Of course, in a perfect situation this shalom should lead to a cessation of conflict, but this world is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Therefore, shalom does not depend upon one’s outward situation, but only upon one’s inward relationship with God. One can be horribly conflicted and at war even in solitude, and in the worst of battles and/or conflicts a person can be utterly and completely at peace. While the image is harder to communicate in a communal sense, I believe this is also true of nations. I hope to be able to illustrate this later.

Passivism – This is a concept that all too many people confuse with pacifism. Pacifism as a lifestyle demands hard work. I will get into both Old and New Testament passages in some detail later, but let me say here that Jesus said, “Blessed are the peace makers”, and the process by which peace is created in this world is both laborious and dangerous. It is no accident that Jesus goes on to state in the next beatitude, “Blessed are you when you are persecuted.” I believe it is absolutely critical that we separate the concept of passively sitting on the sidelines, watching and hoping that something good happens, from actively being down on the field working to promote and create peace. Pacifism requires enormous amounts of courage. Passivism is sometimes the result of laziness, but it is also very frequently the result of a consuming cowardice.

Militarism – I suppose I should also include here a description of what I am talking about when I mention militarism. Just as with pacifism, there are several different degrees of militarism. Some, like myself, believe a strong military is necessary for the defense of a nation, just as a police force is necessary for the safety and well being of any community. However, there are also those who are rabid militarists, and they believe there is no problem so small that a good dose of gunpowder and lead will not solve it. As the old saying goes, if you carry around a hammer all the time, eventually everything begins to look like a nail. I fear that America in particular has carried the hammer of being  super power for so long that every foreign issue has become a nail. This is one of the reasons I have begun to think, and to re-think, my views of pacifism and the military.

Evil/Good - These are not so much critical in terms of definition, but I must state that in order to adequately deal with the subject of pacifism we must deal with the underlying issues of evil and good. We cannot have the indwelling presence of God as long as we harbor evil in our life. We also cannot share God’s presence where evil is allowed to flourish. One basic premise that I will be working with is that evil must be dealt with in order for there to be any real, genuine peace. Sometimes this evil is relatively easy to confront, sometimes it is not. This is true of individuals as well as communities. Therefore, as we will note as we take our journey through the canonical story of Scripture, sometimes drastic action is required to achieve peace. In terms of nations this means military action at times. This is a fervently debated issue, and I respect those who hold a differing opinion, but (obviously) I believe that one of the themes of Scripture is that God expects his disciples to work with him in the eradication of evil in this world. This is a multi-faceted issue, however, and I hope that I will adequately explain my position in posts to come.

In response to a recent post on Pacifism and the Sermon on the Mount my good friend Tim Archer provided some good feedback and raised some excellent questions. I responded to him that this issue has kind of consumed me over the past few weeks, and that hopefully I would have something more constructive to say in the next few weeks. Well, for better or for worse I offer these next few posts as the fruit of my thinking. I obviously do not have all the answers. I am a pilgrim on the journey of faith – I am an apprentice in the art of theology and preaching. However, it is my belief that I have arrived at a point at which I do have something to add to the conversation. How much, and how valuable, is up to you, my good reader, to decide. I welcome your feedback, push-backs, and questions.

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