(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!
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?
(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.
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) -
- Definitions and positions
- Old Testament foundations
- New Testament clarifications
- 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.
No, I am not talking about my belly fat. Unfortunately, I know exactly where that middle went – or to be more precise, did not go. And, as a fair warning, this will not be a happy, clappy post. After several weeks of sleepless nights and an especially restless night last night I am just not in a happy, clappy mood.
I have been wrestling with writing this post for some time, and in fact have written a couple of posts that seemed better for the trash can than the computer. Maybe if I throw this out there someone can help me see through my own fog right now. After all, every plane in the sky needs an Air Traffic Controller on the ground. Most pilots just wish that the ATC personnel could get it through their minds who is actually flying the plane. So, this is still my blog and my thoughts, although I welcome all suggestions and thoughts, however appropriate they may be.
The “middle” that I have noticed is disappearing is the middle ground of the association of congregations known as the Churches of Christ. In my lifetime I have seen massive changes in the branch of the American Restoration Movement. I know my perspective is unique (as is everyone’s, I would imagine). I am currently a minister for a congregation of the church of Christ, and I have served in just about every ministerial capacity in every size congregation from the very smallest to a congregation of over 1,000 members. I have seen the beautiful, the bad, and the truly bizarre.
In my own situation the changes that bother me the most have a two sided emphasis, and it is difficult to cipher out which caused which. On the one hand there is a profound loss of interest in what I refer to as biblical theology. We used to be known as a “people of the book.” Now, the easiest way to grow a class from 25 down to about 5 is to introduce a study of a book of the Bible, or a particular theme of the Bible. We do not read our Bibles anymore, we do not teach the content of the Bible anymore, and we are almost embarassed if anyone suggests we need to study the Bible. What is “in” now is relationships. We are just so infatuated with relationships. We just all want to get together and relate. I’m not really sure what we relate about, but there sure seems to be a whole bunch of relatin’ going on.
The other major shift that I have noticed, and the two are definitely related, is a major shift to a humanistic concept of worship. Worship in the Churches of Christ has, for all of my life anyway, been fairly structured and routine. Many would say lifeless, but beauty has always been in the eye of the beholder. But now the pendulum has swung so far to the other side that it is difficult to identify who is being worshiped, God or gorgeous 20 somethings. We have become a people that is transfixed with the Bold and the Beautiful. Individual song leaders have vanished and in their place is a group called a “praise team.” (A thoroughly obnoxious term, if there ever was one!) But if you look at these “praise teams” you will notice that what they are selling has far less to do with praise than it does sex and virility. Unless you have rock hard abs, beautiful skin, immaculate hair style and, shall we say a pleasing female form, forget being invited to join the “team.” Heaven forbid that we invite someone who has MS and is confined to a wheelchair, never mind that in God’s sight their praise might be more sincere and acceptable that the whole congregation combined. These “praise teams” entertain and certainly sound professional (after all, they have been meticulously recruited, trained and rehearsed), but is that what worship has become? Have we so soon lost the concept of being a “kingdom of priests?” Why, and how?
The reactionary response has been to flee so far to the opposite end of the spectrum that NOTHING can be done in the assembly that might be interpreted as being exciting or emotional. Laws are drawn up in elder’s meetings and proclaimed from the pulpit. What used to be a joke that, “We don’t allow any joy in our worship” has become a painful reality in many congregations. People are afraid to express any kind of emotion, and the result is a dead formalism that cannot be spoken of as worship at all! When the pages of the New Testament are examined for an idea of how the first century Christians worshiped there is certainly an emphasis on “decency and order.” But there is an equal emphasis on joy and rejoicing, as well as confession and sorrow. Being in the presence of God is a profoundly emotional experience – or should be – and when we eviscerate the assembly of any emotion whatsoever we destroy not only worship, but the idea of community as a whole.
And so I see a very real and very distressing process occuring. On one side there is a definite turn to emotionism and entertainment. On the other side there is a reactionary response that rejects the expression of any emotion and a turn to a cold, rigid formalism. At the core of both movements is a loss of biblical theology. We have simply lost our bearings and we are floundering in a cess pool of our own creation and, quite honestly, of our own delight. Pig stys only stink if you are not a pig.
What really hurts me is that of all groups that claim to be “Christian,” members of the Churches of Christ have such a noble heritage. We exist because of the brighter angels in church history. We have heard a call to a higher plane of discipleship. We should know better. We should definitely behave better. At one time we had a message for the world that was unique enough that even though the world did not much care for it, at least it could see it as being different. Now, we have become so much like the world (focus on entertainment on one side, be bitterly sectarian and divisive on the other) that the world looks at us and says, “ho, hum, been there, done that.” Look at the congregations that have fully accomodated the denominational view of Christianity. Are they growing? What about those who are legalistic and sectarian to a fault. Are they growing? And more to the point, are we who would like to be considered in the “middle” learning anything from this?
I want to think I am still in the “middle” of a very beautiful and vibrant movement, a movement that was conceived as a healing balm to the splintered and broken body of Christ. I am only too aware of the mistakes of my forefathers, but I can see and hear God’s message coming through them. I honor their insight, and I regret their mistakes. Most important, I want to walk in the path that they pointed out to me. I just want to be a disciple of Christ. I want to walk hand in hand with others who just want to be disciples of Christ.
But I have to wonder if my little girl will have a chance to be a part of a congregation that still wants to be in the middle.
I’ve been asked occasionally, “How did you get so interested in Dietrich Bonhoeffer?” I am not a Lutheran, nor am I a German, nor was I alive during the second World War. To that question I might respond, “How do we get interested in anything?” We are not born liking spicy New Mexican cuisine, breakneck bluegrass music or the Minnesota Vikings. But, through our various experiences we are all (or most of us at least) blessed with the opportunity to become aware of all of God’s greatest gifts. And, even though I cannot remember when or how I was introduced to Bonhoeffer, I consider him to be one of God’s great gifts to me.
I also believe, as I have read and attempted to digest Bonhoeffer’s writings, that he has much to say to a movement that started as an effort to unite all Christians on the simple teachings of the Bible. For today’s post I would like to take a few of his comments (admittedly few and without much contextual background) from his essay, “Protestantism without Reformation” in the volume, Theological Education Underground: 1937-1940 in the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 15 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012). As I read them I could easily imagine some of the thoughts coming off of the pen of Alexander Campbell or Barton W. Stone.
The overall context of these quotes is a report that Bonhoeffer made regarding his visits to the United States (written after his second trip in August of 1939), and the observations he made regarding the differences between the Christian world of Germany and the Christian world of the United States. Sometimes it takes an outsider to see things the way they really are, instead of the way we as insiders want to see them. There is no indication that Bonhoeffer was ever introduced to a congregation of the American Restoration Movement (Disciples of Christ, Christian Church, Church of Christ). I would truly love for him to have had that experience and to have written on it, but we can only deal with what we have, not what we wish to have had. I present these thoughts then for your consideration:
The doctrinal differences are often more significant within denominations (e.g. Baptists, Presbyterians) than among the different denominations. (p. 442)
Where churches are not divided by the struggle about the truth, the unity of the church should already be won. But the real picture is exactly the opposite. Precisely here, where the question of truth does not become the criterion either for community or for church schisms, there is greater fragmentation than anywhere else. (p. 442)
Only the truth revealed in Holy Scripture can and must decide between the existing differences. Churches must allow themselves to be questioned by one another on the basis of Holy Scripture. (p. 443)
The unity of the church is both origin and goal, both fulfillment and promise; it belongs to both faith and sanctification. (p. 445)
The claim to be the church of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with pharisaic conceit; rather, it is an understanding that humbles because it moves toward pennance). (p. 445)
It remains a fact that the New Testament gives legitimacy to the concept of church, not to the one of denominations. (p. 445)
The unity of the church as promise, as future, as the fruit of sanctification, is a work of the Holy Spirit…There are no methods that lead to the unity of the church. Only total obedience to the Holy Spirit will lead us to common understanding, confession, action, and suffering. (p. 445)
There are several other quotations from this essay that I would like to present, but they are not really germane to the issue of church unity. I simply present these as thought seeds and to challenge my readers as Bonhoeffer challenged me.
Are your toes as tender as mine are?
In my last post I attempted to point out a great failing of some within the American Restoration Movement. That failing is the attempt to move the church forward by focusing only on the past. I hope I made clear that I am no opponent of our history, but I did want to point out the folly of trying to drive forward by staring in the rearview mirror.
Where did that desire to make the present or future perfect by going back to some idyllic past come from? It is partly in our American DNA. We, as a people, have always believed that our country is founded on principles that go all the way back to a secular “Garden of Eden” as it were. You hear this when you read our Constitution and our Declaration of Independence. We were moving forward by going back to the primitive beginning. The American Restoration Movement, birthed right in the middle of this move to the past, picked up on the language and the fervor of the culture in which it was born. Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell, along with a host of others, were simply children of their age, and they did what other children of their ages have done. They used the common language to tell their story and to move their people.
Because the American Restoration Movement was also very much a “Back to the Bible” movement there was also a strong sentiment to do things the way the Bible taught. And so any passage that encouraged a return to a pristine past was especially valuable in the arsenal of these early restorers. Perhaps the most valuable was Jeremiah 6:16:
This is what the LORD says: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls. But you said, ‘We will not walk in it.’” (NIV)
No plainer message could be found to provide ammunition for a return to a pristine, undefiled church. All we had to do was to ask for the “ancient paths” and when we found them to stay right there. Jeremiah 6:16 has become a bedrock passage for the heirs of the Restoration Movement as we seek to restore New Testament Christianity.
But, I have to ask: have we not taken this passage out of context? Or, if not, have we not at the very least mis-interpreted it? Have we not misapplied it?
Notice what the LORD is telling the people through Jeremiah. He is not telling them to return to an ancient place or an ancient time and to stay permanently attached to that place or time. He is telling them to return to the ancient PATHS. A path is not a destination! A path is not the goal. A path is the route to the destination, to the goal. The people were to WALK in the path, to move forward, not back. Time only moves in one direction and that is forward. The paths that they were to choose were ancient, to be sure, but they were paths that were to lead the people to their God.
This point is further made in Jeremiah 18:15:
Yet my people have forgotten me; they burn incense to worthless idols, which made them stumble in their ways and in the ancient paths. They made them walk in bypaths and on roads not built up. (NIV)
When you examine the context of the book of Jeremiah these two passages are perfectly in line with the message the LORD was trying to get the people to hear. God wanted the people to accept their immediate destiny (Jerusalem would fall, the people would go into captivity, but they were to accept this punishment and in 70 years they would be released) and move forward. He was not calling on them to return to some pristine past. Humans just cannot do that. Time does not have a reverse gear. We can, and should, learn from our past. “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” That is an undeniable part of life. (Maybe I will add that to my “Fourteen Undeniable Truths of Theological Reflection.”) But we cannot recreate something that existed in another time period in another culture.
I believe the New Testament is full of restorationist language. But it is not a language that calls us to return to a specific time or place. The New Testament writers did not say, “Be like Jerusalem, be like Antioch, be like Ephesus.” The New Testament writers said, “Be like Jesus.” The restoration that the New Testament writers called for is a return to Jesus. Their eyes were set firmly ahead, all the while remembering the message of the past. The Lord’s supper was a remembrance of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, but it was a proclamation of those events, until he comes (1 Cor. 11:26). The author of the book of Hebrews said, “Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” (Heb. 13:14).
I am an unabashed restorationist. I love the history of the Churches of Christ in America. I believe Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell were geniuses that were centuries ahead of their time. But I fear that in our haste to follow in their footsteps we have made a tactical error. It does us no good to build a mansion where our forefathers pitched their tents. To be a true heir of restorationists is to return to the pure message of the Bible, not a mythical pristine manifestation of the church, no matter whether that manifestation of the church is the first century, the 19th century, or the 1950′s and 1960′s.
Returning to the book of Hebrews, the author called upon his readers/hearers to: “…fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess.” (3:1) That is our clarion call for restorationism in the 21st century. Look forward. Look to Jesus. Proclaim his death, burial, and resurrection until he comes again. Make the church become what he wants to find when he returns. The only way to do that is to live in the here and now (the “penultimate” of Dietrich Bonhoeffer) with the vision of the pure bride of Christ firmly in our focus (the “ultimate” as Bonhoeffer would say).
You cannot drive, or fly, by looking in the rearview mirror. Let us renew our commitment to become the living church of Christ for today, not a museum of ancient artifacts of a bygone past.
Have you ever stopped to consider why airplanes have no rearview mirrors? Actually, I believe there was a model that was produced with a rearview mirror, but it was kind of a novelty. Give up? Airplanes are designed to go in only one direction – forward. If you are worried about what is behind you, just kick the rudder a little and turn your head. Airplanes are designed strictly for optimists and visionaries. Historians need not apply.
I believe therein lies a great message for the church of Christ. As heirs of the American Restoration Movement we look back on our history (at least since the days of B.W. Stone and the Campbells) with pride. Before that, not so much, until we get back to the days of the first century church. So, you might say we have a pair of binoculars attached to our rearview mirror. We are not so much focused on the road behind us, but the distant horizon is a definite attraction.
In one way this is a good thing. “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” We must be constantly reminded of our history, even more so than we claim to pay attention to it today. (As an aside, I would also argue that we need to add the time from from 100 AD to 1800 AD as well.) Just think of how the Israelites were not just encouraged, but COMMANDED to review and even to relive their past. The feasts of Passover and Booths were not just fun holidays – they were actual re-creations of a rich, powerful, and theologically centered past. So, let us be unequivocal here – knowing and valuing ones history is critical for a healthy and sane future.
But I return to my analogy above. You cannot drive a car, much less fly an airplane, by staring in the rearview mirror. Especially difficult would be to do so with a pair of binoculars attached to the mirror. While a healthy knowledge of, and participation in, ones past is critical for the development of one’s future; the goal, the vision, has to be forward. Just stop and consider how the New Testament writers describe the major processes of discipleship: it is a growing, a transformation, a becoming, a renewal. These are all forward looking verbs. It is no mystery to me that the final book of the Bible is an apocalypse – a deeply metaphorical look into the future. But don’t just focus on Revelation. The author of the book of Hebrews says it all in one terse little sentence, “Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” Look forward, not back. Our rearview mirror is important, but it is to be small and narrowly focused. It is an appendage to the church, not the primary means of navigation. We live our life in the eager expectation of Christ’s return, not in woeful recollection of his temporary death.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it this way: here and now we live in the penultimate, but we are created by our faith in the ultimate. It is not the penultimate that gives the ultimate its meaning, it is the ultimate that gives the penultimate its meaning. I believe Barton W. Stone and David Lipscomb lived this focus on the ultimate far more passionately than did Alexander Campbell, and it is instructive that as the Churches of Christ have made their peace with this world they have moved further and further from the Stone/Lipscomb tradition and more and more into the Campbell tradition. You cannot have your eyes focused solely upon God’s kingdom and believe yourself to be anything other than a stranger and a pilgrim on this earth. Stone, and later, Lipscomb were pilgrims. Campbell came to make his peace with the powers of this world, and as he did so he took down his tent and built a house. He ultimately became a very much a citizen of this world.
I love the history of the American Restoration Movement. I also love reformation history, medieval history, and both pre-and post Nicene history. But history can only be instructive, it can never be determinative! We must learn to cast our eyes upon the ultimate, upon the “last days,” so that we can truly live as God’s people and Christ’s disciples in our own age. The ultimate gives meaning to the penultimate. Christ’s return teaches us how to live today.
I will never remove my rearview mirror. But I am never going to try to fly in the fog by watching what is behind me. I want to keep the pointy end going forward, and the shiny side up. I want to take as many people with me as I can, too.
I don’t know why it is exactly, but I tend to think in dialectic terms. That is to say I will think of something and write about it, and no sooner than I complete the post I think of how the post could be taken to extremes and misused. So I come up with my own counter-point, or a post to balance the sheet, so-to-speak. So, this post is really a follow-up and extension of my last post, which is basically a lament that (within the Churches of Christ especially) we hire men to do our preaching and teaching for us, and then reject and ridicule his efforts because everyone in the pew is just as qualified as he is. Except, of course, they are not!
What is the reverse of the situation in which a preacher is accorded no authority at all? In my mind it is the man who is granted the authority that comes with education, age and experience and then abuses it by denying the fundamental doctrines that define the congregation for whom he works. He is, in the apostle Paul’s words, a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
This can be manifest in many different ways. I do not want to join the chorus of reactionary minds who reject the concept of “change agents,” because I believe our history is full of change agents, beginning with Jesus himself and continuing through Barton W. Stone, Alexander Campbell, David Lipscomb and a whole host of others. But, though I may not denigrate the term, I will say that there are individuals within our fellowship that should have the courage of their convictions and they should leave it. They do not believe in the vision or the principles of the Restoration Movement, they denigrate our past with their sarcastic speeches and books, and they actively attempt to lead others away from this spiritual movement.
I would even go so far as to say that a substantial number of them do not believe in the basic truths of Christianity: the virgin birth of Jesus, the resurrection, the miracles, the proclaimed second coming of Jesus. They may say they believe in the inspiration of Scripture, but to read their books you come away with the feeling that they believe Scripture is inspiring but a long way from inspired. Many have accepted without reservation the “assured results of scholarship” which need to be revised on a continual basis because the scholarship on which the results are based is flawed and the results are anything but assured. In short, many are obviously brilliant scholars and simply bereft of the Christian faith.
It is one thing to love someone or some group of people and work tirelessly to change and improve them. I know a host of ministers and elders who deeply love the church and who work tirelessly as “change agents” because they see their congregations and the members that make up those congregations as losing their first love and their devotion to Christ. My life has been a roller-coaster of emotions as I have loved, then hated, then loved, then hated the human manifestation of God’s chosen people on earth. I love the church with all my heart, and at the same time it drives me nuts. Anyone who feels called to ministry feels the same way.
However, it is another thing entirely to no longer hold to the basic beliefs of a group of people and yet continue to receive your living from those people and at the same time try to turn those people from their beliefs. I would say the same thing to a Catholic who no longer believes in the Magisterium, a Baptist, Presbyterian or Reformed who no longer accepts Calvinism, and the Lutheran who can no longer support Lutheranism. If you can no longer hold to your confession of faith, however formal or informal it is, you need to stand up, declare your independence, and leave that fellowship. The path of staying in your fellowship and masking your true feelings and intentions is the path of a coward, a traitor, a Judas.
In my opinion, within the Churches of Christ we have entirely too many Judases. We are paying men who no longer believe what the members in the pew believe and who no longer accept our vision of the church nor our vision of Scripture and the damage that they are causing is irreparable. If they stood in the pulpit and spoke their most heart-felt convictions they would be fired on the spot. They know this, so they preach just enough of what the congregation wants to hear to be kept on the payroll, but just enough of what they believe so that they can go to sleep at night.
Once again I want to thank the congregations where I have served. They have given me tremendous freedom to express my convictions, and in return I try my very best to give them every bit of evidence that I can for the conclusions that I hold. At times we have had genuine disagreements. Because of my education I cannot hold every teaching that was considered rock-solid certain back in the 1950′s and 1960′s. My (admittedly limited) knowledge of Hebrew and Greek has opened doors of understanding to the text that I realize few will have the opportunity to walk through. But I do try my best to explain difficult concepts and my changing point of view. And one thing I do repeatedly: I am up front and very vocal about my understanding of the inspiration of Scripture and how my role as an exegete and theologian is to stand under that text, not to stand over it. My audience may disagree with me about some fine points about the text, but I hope that none have the idea that I doubt any of the truths recorded in the text.
So, my dialectical view of the position of authority and education within the church is this: One, if we are going to hire a man with a set higher degree of education we need to give him the freedom to share that knowledge. In fact, we should encourage him to obtain more. But two, if that man no longer believes what he knows his congregation believes he should confess that lack of belief and pack his bags and get out. Judas betrayed the Son of God, and then at least had the courage to kill himself.
We are plagued with church members who disparage education and do all they can to make sure the men who preach for them are only educated in a few narrowly selected “sound” Bible schools that only seek to promote a level of learning that was meaningful a century ago. On the other hand we are plagued with men who do not even have the courage to resign an affluent position as pulpit minister for a church they no longer love, believe in, or seek to promote.
I am really not sure which is worse. I do know the solution: we need highly educated men who are totally dedicated to Jesus Christ as their Lord and to the inspired Word of God, and to the Church of Jesus Christ as his very body here on earth. It has been done before, it can be done again. Do we have the faith to see that it is done?
(sorry for the length of this post – I guess I got a little preachy!)
Confessional disclaimer here – if you are not a member of one of the congregations associated with the American Restoration Movement (Churches of Christ, Christian Church of Disciples of Christ) or if you do not have any close association with someone who is, the following post may be totally confusing to you. The terminology used and the battles that have resulted are truly intramural, but if you are curious you may continue reading.
In my last post I quoted proposition #3 from Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address,the landmark publication upon which so much of our language is based. I pointed out that Campbell stressed the “express terms or by approved precedent” whereby he urged Christian unity. These terms have been shortened to the “Command and Example” part of the “Command, Example, and Necessary Inference” (CENI) hermeneutic that entire generations grew up hearing about, but very few truly understood. What I did not quote was proposition # 6, which would have opened another can of worms entirely, and that I will do now:
That although inferences and deductions from Scripture premises, when fairly inferred, may be truly called the doctrine of God’s holy word, yet are they not formally binding upon the consciences of Christians farther than they perceive the connection, and evidently see that they are so; for their faith must not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power and veracity of God. Therefore, no such deductions can be made terms of communion, but do properly belong to the after and progressive edification of the Church. Hence, it is evident that no such deductions or inferential truths ought to have any place in the Church’s confession.
I have SO much to say here, but for the sake of space I will attempt to limit what I would like to really say!
First, Campbell is not dismissing the practice of drawing inferences from Scripture where the plain meaning of the text is obscure. What he emphatically does say is that those inferences, even if they are true and correct, cannot be made binding on someone if they cannot see the connection! My deduction may be absolutely brilliant, but if another cannot see my logic I cannot bind my conclusion upon them. Now, understand, he is not talking here about the “express terms or approved precedents.” He is not talking about direct commands, or examples that the late first century church and early second century church obviously considered to be binding. He is talking about what I or you or someone else deduces from a text that is not expressly there.
Second, and this is huge: Campbell clearly saw that if we make inferences binding upon another’s faith we have made their faith dependent upon our human mind, not the word of God! This is a point not often made, or if it is made it is not clearly understood. When we make the human mind the arbiter of divine revelation we have become the most theologically liberal of all biblical interpreters. Here is what I see as the most astounding reversal of concepts in our discussion of so many issues. Many claim to be theological (or biblical, if they eschew the term theology) conservatives, but in their binding their logical deductions upon the church they have become theological liberals in the classic meaning of the term. In other words, just as the (true) liberals at the turn of the century wanted to overturn the literal meaning of many texts because of the “assured results of critical scholarship,” so these modern liberal wolves in conservative sheepskins want us to accept their human deductions above what is in the text. They have elevated human understanding to a position equal to, or even above, the word of God written. It is irony to the nth degree.
Third, “necessary inferences” can be used in the “after and progressive edification of the church.” That is to say, if I deduce something that is not clearly in the text, but is fairly derived from the context and other aspects of the text, I may teach that to further build up and edify the church, so long as I do not make it binding on the faith of another. And, in the current discussion of instrumental music and “praise teams” that is exactly what I am attempting to do. I am absolutely convinced that the use of instruments and “praise teams” actually diminish the corporate worship of the gathered assembly, and I believe that, fairly heard, I could convince others of my convictions, but I cannot bind that conclusion upon their faith. Now, hear me at this point as well…I cannot and will not worship where such performances are practiced, but that is my choice and is based on my faith. For another to attempt to bind their conclusion on me would be sinful. I simply cannot find the entry for “electric guitars in worship” in my concordance.
That makes it kind of difficult in terms of sharing communion with some of my brothers and sisters. Because they insist on the use of instruments, or a performance group at the front of the auditorium, my fellowship with them is not possible. However, the same is also true of myself and the congregation where I worship, because we have a kitchen in the building and we regularly have congregational meals in the building, and we use multiple cups for the service of the fruit of the vine during the Lord’s supper, and we have separate Bible classes for our youngsters and even our adults, and we support missionaries and children’s homes through the church treasury. These are practices that others cannot accept due to their understanding of certain passages. I regret those conclusions, for in my mind I believe they are making false conclusions, but once again, we are back to the question of hermeneutics and how we fairly derive conclusions that are not “expressly” clear in the text.
How we have elevated “necessary inference” to a level equal to the written text is one of the true tragedies of a movement that was founded on the twin goals of the restoration of pure Christianity and the unity of all who profess Christ and Lord and savior. I do not know of a way out of the current impasse, short of some real soul searching and honest conversation on the part of all involved. But, as with every issue, with man nothing is possible, with God all things are possible. We can do better. We are surrounded by better angels. We should be working to do better!