Author Archives: Paul Smith
Another day, another urgent summons for the Churches of Christ to be less judgmental, less condemning. These sermons and blog posts and on-line articles are ubiquitous these days. It would seem that if you are a minister within the Churches of Christ and you want to become popular (or maintain your popularity) you need to hop on the “bash the church” bandwagon. Pardon me for being a knuckle-dragging troglodyte, but I’ll just let that cart go on by.
It may just be me, but I find it funny (in a serious way) that if a financial advisor corrected our faulty thinking about our retirement plans we would be most appreciative. If we were working with explosive chemicals in a science class and our teacher warned us before we made a pyro-technic mistake, we would say, “thank-you.” If we were applying for a music scholarship and a master musician took us into his or her personal study for an hour’s worth of instruction, we would not be able to stop thanking him or her. But, you let one word of spiritual correction or constructive criticism come from a preacher associated with the Churches of Christ and he is immediately tarred and feathered as a judgmental Pharisee. “Quit being so condemning” is the shrill response. “Don’t you know everyone that says they love Jesus is saved, and who are you to say you know everything about the Bible.”
I won’t be the first to admit that our heritage is full of characters that had more fist than finesse when it comes to biblical conversations. Neither will I be the first to condemn that behavior. Regrettably it is still visible today. Every family has its cranky uncle Joe, and there are are a number of reasons why combative individuals are drawn to independent congregations (and Churches of Christ are NOT alone in this regard!!)
But I truly fail to see where teaching some basic Bible doctrines should be considered judgmental, unless the person listening refuses to accept those teachings, yet recognizes the seriousness of the issue under discussion.
Actually, every person – unless they are a true universalist – will draw some line at some place in regard to what makes a person a Christian, what constitutes acceptable worship, and how a person ought to live a life committed to Christ. Why is drawing one line at baptism considered judgmental when drawing that line at the “sinner’s prayer” not considered judgmental? Why is adult believer’s baptism considered judgmental when infant baptism is not? The same point could be made with acapella worship, praise teams but no instrumental music, acoustic instruments but not amplified instruments, classic or contemporary songs, high church/low church or just about every other issue that causes conflict in a congregation.
I do not need, nor do I want, to be told that I need to be “more accepting” of individuals who disagree with me on basic, fundamental teachings in Scripture. The only words I need to accept are the words of the inspired authors of the Bible. Do I need to study, to learn, to read, to hear other points of view – absolutely! I try to do so as much or more than many ministers within the Churches of Christ. But the point of reference that I use to judge if what I am hearing is true is a convergence with the Bible – NOT some touchy-feely idea such as “they love Jesus.”
“Come, let us reason together” is a solid biblical concept. If I disagree with an individual there can be only one of three conclusions – either I am right and the other person is wrong, I am wrong and the other person is right, or we are both equally right and equally wrong. If I am willing to admit my culpability in drawing wrong conclusions from Scripture, I cannot be blamed for suggesting that those who disagree with me can also possibly be in error. I may seek to teach, and perhaps also to confront, but that does NOT make me a judgmental, hypocritical, Pharisee.
Unless, of course, you believe that Jesus was a judgmental, hypocritical, Pharisee as well. As I read the gospels, he had to try to straighten out quite a few twisted twigs during his ministry. Although he corrected, he never condemned honest error – but he was quite emphatic in his rejection of obstinate dismissal of God’s will.
As I have written numerous times – if I am wrong please show me my error! I never want to teach something that is false, either knowingly or unwittingly. And I promise I will not call you judgmental.
Many Christians despise theology, and especially theologians (I will overlook the irony for now, but believe me I see it). “We don’t do theology – we just read and study the Bible” is a common belief, if not outright statement. Alexander Campbell stated emphatically that there would never be a chair of theology at the first college established for ministers of the Restoration Movement (okay, more irony, but let’s move on). In my undergraduate and graduate studies I had courses in Old Testament Teaching and New Testament Teaching, but they could not be labeled Old Testament Theology or New Testament Theology.
So, last night I was reading a book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer has become one of the early 20th centuries most studied, admired, and discussed theologians. Underline that – he was a preeminent theologian, educated by some of the most famous theologians in Germany – and at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He argued with Karl Barth, for crying out loud. No one who rightly knows which end is up can argue that Bonhoeffer is anything other than a top-flight theologian.
Okay – so have I made my point?
So, as I was saying, I was reading in Bonhoeffer and I came across this section –
Theology is the discipline in which a person learns how to excuse everything and justify everything. A good theologian can never be cornered theologically; in everything he says he is just. And the theologian can acknowledge even this without a word of penance. Whoever has begun to justify himself with the help of theology itself has already fallen into the devil’s grip, and as long as he is a theologian, he can never get free! Be a good theologian but keep theology three paces away from you; otherwise eventually it will mortally endanger you. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his lecture on Pastoral Care, see Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (in English) vol. 14, Theological Education at Finkenwalde: 1935-1937, p. 591, emphasis Bonhoeffer’s).
What was Bonhoeffer’s corrective to the danger of “theology” as he presented it? Staying in the word of God, reading the word of God, preaching the word of God, meditating on the word of God, and praying unceasingly.
Hmmm. Sounds very restorationist, if you ask me. And, if you ask me again, very unpretentious of a top-rate theologian.
Its a funny thing – a substance can either be the best thing in the world for what ails you, or it can kill you. I heard of a speaker one time who wanted to illustrate this point. He wanted to warn his audience of the dangers of di-hydrous oxide. Not only to warn his audience, but to actually drive them to take immediate action against this silent killer. Millions died from di-hydrous oxide poisoning every year, millions more were damaged to some degree. What was worse, di-hydrous oxide was everywhere! He had his statistics, he had his anecdotes, he had his impassioned pleas. After working his audience into a froth, he then called on them to eliminate the pernicious evil of di-hydrous oxide from their midst. There was nary a soul agin’ his proposal – but they did have one question – what exactly was di-hydrous oxide? Water. Plain and simple water. Two hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecule. Pure poison, that stuff, if used in extreme amounts. Except, we can’t live without it, when taken appropriately.
What can be a prescription for health can also kill. Even that which is necessary for life can kill, if it is applied in incorrect amounts. That which is blatantly obvious in the medical world is also just as equally true in the political and spiritual world, although perhaps not quite so obvious.
For just a slight digression, I think of the concepts of grace and faith. Two of the pillars of the Reformation were the twin concepts of grace only and faith only. That is, sinners are saved by grace only through faith only. Can you preach or teach too much grace, or too much faith? Well, not to get anyone’s underwear tied up in a knot, but yes you can. The idea of grace which is taught beyond what is demonstrated in Scripture becomes universalism – everyone is saved regardless of beliefs or behavior. Clearly, Scripture teaches that God abounds in grace, and that we are saved through that over-abundance of grace (Ephesians, anybody?). But, scripturally speaking, even grace has its limits. Same with faith: faith pushed beyond its scriptural limits is the enemy of faith itself (just exactly what James explained!). This is why Martin Luther was right to stress grace and faith, but wrong to include the word “only.” Yes, we are saved by grace (anyone who wants to deny that has not read Paul’s letters), and yes we are saved by faith. But grace is limited by God’s righteous judgement (he will condemn evil!), and faith must be demonstrated through righteous behavior. I now return to my previous thoughts, already in progress . . .
The prescription I am thinking of today is the idea of individualism. Taken in the right percentage, individualism is a good thing – a healthy thing. Take too much though and individualism becomes a noxious, deadly poison.
The idea of individual rights and freedoms is one of the concepts that has made the United States so great. I would not want to leave any other place than the good old U. S. of A., and the freedom we have entrenched in the Bill of Rights is one of the main reasons I can make that statement. What other nation, or what other culture, has created the space for so many people to achieve their goals, dreams, and even fantasies? What other nation, or what other culture, tells everyone, regardless of race, gender, or other identifiable characteristic, that he or she can become anything that person wants or dreams about? It is true that opportunities for success are not always equal, but such inequalities are not systemic in the type of a caste or hierarchical system. In America we not only protect individual rights, we also promote individual industriousness and creativity.
However, that individualism has taken a decisively bitter turn. That which was healthy has now become toxic. Increasingly, the twisted ideations of a few individuals are overwhelming the rights and protections of the community. Individualism has run amok. The engine that has created so much good has now jumped the tracks, and the carnage that it will leave in its wake will be devastating – if we do not stop it somehow.
What is true in the political/social world is also true in the church. The concept that every person, each individual, can read and understand the Bible for him or her self should be self-evident (pardon the pun). However, taken to an extreme, that radical individualism is actually destroying the community of the faithful. The primary unit of faith in the Old Testament was not the individual, it was the qahal, the community, the people of God. In the New Testament the individual was not the primary unit of faith, it was the ekklesia, the community, the people of God. Individuals had value as a part of the whole – as a part of the community. Today, the community (the church) is only considered a by-product of our rabid individualism. If we do not like what our present community (that we selected because of our individual preferences to begin with) says, we simply leave and find a community more favorable to what we want. We have the cart in front of the horse, and we cannot figure out why we are not moving anywhere.
A friend and I were discussing this issue recently in the context of the value of a higher education. Our extreme attachment to “rugged individualism” has fostered a distrust, and sometimes even an active dislike, of higher education. How often have you heard (or said) the comment, “I don’t need those silly commentaries or study books- they’re just written by a bunch of ivory-towered egg-heads. All I need is my Bible.” Toxic individualism at its worst.
The fact is, we desperately need those silly commentaries and study books written by those ivory-towered egg-heads. It is those ivory-towered egg-heads that translated our Bibles into English in the first place – and then helped us understand all of the bizarre and often opaque words, ideas, practices, and concepts that we find in the pages of the Bible.
In short – we need our community of scholars to save us from our toxic individualism. Left to our own inclinations we will interpret the Bible to mean exactly what we want it to mean. The hundreds, if not thousands, of different “churches” in the United States is all the evidence I need to prove that point. The vast community of scholars (egg-heads) we have available to us keeps us from doing that – they hold our feet to the fire and make us wrestle with centuries of other voices. Sometimes these voices are not correct in what they say – but they often challenge and correct our false understandings as well.
I do not put my faith in those “silly commentaries.” I want to obey only the Word of God. But I am a stronger Christian when I stand in community than when I stand alone – and this is no place more true than in my interpretation of Scripture.
Jaroslav Pelikan wrote what has become the defining understanding of the value of hearing other voices: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”
Traditionalism is the end result of unchecked, poisonous individualism. I want to, and I hope I do, teach the living faith of tradition.
There are two opposite, but equally destructive, responses to perceived threats. The first is the the “Chicken Little” approach, which is to run around screaming “The sky is falling, the sky is falling” when in fact, the sky is very much not falling. The other approach is the “stick your head in the sand” approach, which is to deny that there is any threat, or if there is, it really does not apply to me, because I cannot see it, because I have my head in the sand.
By no means do I want to be a Chicken Little. But being an ostrich really does not appeal to me either. God gave us the sense to be able to “sense” dangerous situations, and call me a “nervous Nelly” if you want to, but I cannot help but see a real threat on the horizon.
Every election since 1980 has been labeled as “the most important election in our lifetime” (at the very least). I have already heard that phrase used about this coming presidential election. So, I don’t want to go there. That ship sailed a long time ago. The fact is, this election in but an inconsequential thimble of water in the comprehensive ocean of significant events in the history of the country.
Be that as it may, this election does have significance in one respect. I believe this election will be the first election for a country that is post-Christian, and perhaps even anti-Christian. (You may argue this is the second such election, but it is the first election in which that attitude is unmistakably obvious).
For the overwhelming majority of our 240 year existence, the United States has at the very least proclaimed a distinct Christian foundation. I do not adhere to the propaganda that we have always been a Christian nation (the evidence to the contrary is just too strong), but we have always advertised that we believe, and attempt to act, according to fundamental Judeo-Christian principles. Take, for example, the struggle for civil rights for minorities. Yes, the manner in which certain races were treated was deplorable – unChristian to the core! But it was that very Christian foundation that we espoused that allowed crusaders to appeal to our “higher angels” and thus we have been able to reverse many of those inhuman laws and behaviors.
However, we are now living in a different era. Old solutions no longer work. Old equations no longer provide the same result. What changed? Why is this election so different from every other election we have witnessed?
The answer, in brief, is that the country has emphatically abandoned any association with those fundamental Judeo-Christian principles that has provided both an anchor for stability and the engine for change for our culture.
For my evidence of this accusation I have to point no further than the seismic change over the past eight years regarding sex and gender issues. Homosexual behavior and gender-bending activities are not longer on the extreme fringe of society – those activities are openly promoted and welcomed at the highest level of our culture including and especially within major branches of the Christian church! When our culture has rejected what is the very essence of what it means to be human – the distinction of what it means to be made in the image of God as male and female – we can in no appeal to logic argue that we are a Christian nation. Some label it a post-Christian culture, I would argue that in many respects our culture has be come as anti-Christian as it was in the pre-Constantinian era. An affinity with a watered-down, feel-good, cheap-grace kind of Christianity that Dietrich Bonhoeffer condemned is still very much in view, but not the “carry your own cross and deny yourself” kind of Christianity of which we read in the gospels.
What makes this election so significant to me is that neither (or none, if you add the minor parties) of the major candidates is making any effort at all to appeal to those “higher angels” that both provoked and allowed our country to overcome its inherent flaws. All I hear from all fronts is the most putrid kind of humanism. God is most decidedly out of the picture!
Which then leads me to a most profound observation – this election provides those who proclaim their discipleship to Jesus a most wonderful and epic opportunity. We can once again become the Church of Christ! We can jettison our attachment to a sick and dying political establishment that has only served to weaken the proclamation of the gospel of Christ. Actually, this is far more than just an observation – it is a challenge, a call to arms. Let us become what the name on our buildings so proudly proclaims (and, thanks to all who have so cowardly removed that name from their assemblies. Good riddance!)
Let us become, let us be, let us live, let us thrive – as disciples of Jesus Christ. Let us be done with Republican and Democrat and Independent and Green and whatever else. Our banner is the cross and our citizenship is in heaven! For crying out loud, brothers and sisters – let us be done with the things that do not matter and let us busy ourselves with the things that do matter.
Can I get an amen?
There is an old saying that goes, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
This works on occasion. Take for example professional football. Any team playing the Dallas Cowboys is automatically my friend. Except, that is, if the Cowboys end up playing the New England Patriots. If the NFL schedules the Cowboys against the Patriots the result is not a football game, it is a curse from the football gods who are punishing us for allowing these teams to exist. A pox of both of them, I say.
Sports are one thing (and hopefully I have not offended too severely) – the field of politics is an entirely different kettle of fish. Many voices today are claiming that we have to support one presidential candidate over against the other simply because the “other” is my enemy, and so the enemy of my enemy suddenly becomes my friend.
Hogwash, fiddle-faddle, and pfffft to all, I say. We are not speaking of that which opposes our personal tastes here. We are speaking about what opposes the kingdom of God. The enemy that opposes the kingdom is my enemy, regardless of their relationship to another enemy which opposes the kingdom.
Both candidates from the two major political parties have plainly taken positions which are diametrically opposed to kingdom principles. Neither candidate can be trusted. Both candidates have records that display dishonesty, corruption, and a flagrant disregard for biblical truth. Both candidates have even taken positions which reveal they disregard the American constitution – let alone the Bible. Neither is qualified to serve in the office, if personal character is in any way, shape, or form, a prerequisite for being the President of the United States. You may argue that this has been true for decades – and you may have a point. But I am not arguing past elections – I am talking about the future of our country as it relates specifically to this election.
I am genuinely worried about the individuals who claim that we MUST vote in this election, lest the vile, wicked, evil, opponent should win. To which I ask, “Which vile, wicked, evil, candidate are you supporting?” This is not an issue of voting for the lesser of two evils (a pathetic option if there ever was one). This is an election in which NO Christian should sully their hands. It is not an issue of right/wrong, good/bad. It is an issue of voting for Satan or the Devil.
If there was ever an election that screams that we listen to the voice of David Lipscomb, it is this one!
Imagine what would happen if every Christian in the United States abstained from voting for the office of President. Imagine what would happen if Christians voted for senators, congressmen, governors, mayors and the local dog catcher, but wrote in “None of the Above” on the top line. Imagine what the media would have to say when the “winner” was rejected by the overwhelming majority of voters, not because they voted for the loser, but because they did not vote at all.
Come November, one of these two wretched choices will be declared the next president. But they must hear – clearly and with no ambiguity – that they have been rejected by those who hold Christian convictions. He or she may hold the office – and we must show respect as far as our pledge to Christ allows us – but that does not mean we have to support her or him.
No enemy of the cross can ever be my friend – no matter how awful the other choice may appear.
Yesterday I passed a milestone of sorts, one that I was not even aware was coming. Yesterday I logged my 500th post on this site. Imagine that – 500 rants, tirades, musings, grumps, growls and the occasional piece worth keeping.
So, I want to say “thanks” to all of you who visit this site, and an even bigger “THANKS” to those of you who take the time to comment. I must note with some degree of chagrin that the number of reads and visits is WAY down this year, so I am kind of in an evaluation stage right now – wondering if it is worth keeping past the summer of 2017 (all paid up until then). I love writing, and there is always some burr that gets under my saddle (I’ve written and deleted two posts just today!) If you don’t mind, let me know what you think.
And, as always, thanks for flying in the fog with me. I hope I’ve shared something along the way that helped, or at the very least, made you stop and think.
The ol’ Freightdawg
This post is intended to be a companion piece to my post of yesterday, so if you did not read that article, use the little arrow thingy and back up a page.
I think most Americans are familiar with the screech made by our former Secretary of State when she was being questioned about the murders of our ambassador and assistants in Benghazi. “What does it matter, anyway?” was her response when being questioned about what she knew, when she knew it, and what could have been done differently. “What does it matter, anyway” has become the mantra of an entire generation of Americans – not just politicians with a failed policy on their hands.
Yesterday I discussed the fact that we (primarily in the church) simply do not have the ability to stand firm anymore. Well, that is only partly true. We will fight to our last drop of blood over the color of the curtains, the positioning of the furniture, and the name of the song book that gathers dust in the book rack; but when it comes to issues of genuine faith, of matters that cut to the core of the gospel, we have one timid little response – “What does it matter, anyway?”
I see three primary reasons why congregational leaders, and therefore the congregations they lead, have found it impossible to stand firm against the onslaught of post-modern secularism. They are: a lack of a foundation, a lack of support, and a lack of courage. Let me address each of these individually.
First, I see the primary issue involved in an inability to stand firm as being the complete lack of a solid foundation. Most important, we have lost the foundation of knowing Scripture. Although we exist with the veneer of being a “Bible people,” we really do not know the Bible. This is true to varying degrees in many elderships, and is only magnified as we move down the generations. Elders today are not selected because of their knowledge of the Bible and their ability to put that knowledge into practice. Elders today are chosen because they are good business men, they are popular, they have the “perfect” family, and maybe even because they come from a long line of previous elders. My wife relates the story of having an elder get furious with her because she corrected him during a teen Bible class. If teenagers can correct men who are supposed to be the spiritual leaders of a congregation, that congregation is in serious trouble. I wonder, though, how many teenagers would know more Bible than their elders? Our knowledge of the Bible is pathetic, and it is impossible to stand for issues of faith when we do not know what that faith is.
In addition to a lack of knowledge of Scripture, we have an even lower (if possible) level of knowledge of our history – our tradition. Some would even argue that we do not have a tradition. Yea, and babies come from underneath cabbage leaves. Tradition is a wonderful thing – a blessed thing. But you would not know that by talking to the average member of the Church of Christ. We know nothing of Alex and Bart and Walt and my favorite – ol’ Raccoon John himself. How could we know anything of our history, and why would we even want to, the way it is disparaged and ridiculed from the majority of pulpits and lectureships in the country? Here is a indisputable but despised fact: the more liberal a person is, the closer that person is to the most radical conservative in at least one respect – they both hate our history. Liberals hate it because, to them anyway, it makes us look foolish, immature, and ignorant. Ultra conservatives hate it because we are simply not supposed to have a history – we popped out of the ground fully grown in 33 A.D., and except for a few hiccups now and then, have been pretty much a perfect people. Both extremes are utterly and damnably wrong – contra the conservatives we have a history that stretches back to Abraham at the very least (remember, the “Father of the faithful”), but is made up of every nook and cranny of human history from that point on. And, contra the liberals, it is a wonderful, beautiful, mesmerizing, and totally enlightening history. Alex and Bart and Walt and ol’ Raccoon were brilliant theologians and practitioners. But you would not know it if you read any of our most recent attempts at explaining our Restoration History. (Okay, rant over.)
Second, elders – and especially our young people – find it difficult, if not impossible, to stand firm because they get little or no support when they try. It’s one thing to get shot in the chest when you are facing an opponent – but it is something entirely different when you are getting shot in the back at the same time. I have seen good men reduced to meaningless figureheads not by their opponents, but by the congregation they were leading. There is a good reason the author of the book of Hebrews wrote, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account.” (Hebrews 13:17). It is frustrating when an eldership appears to be paralyzed, but it is disastrous when an eldership takes a stand on an issue they consider to be a matter of faith, only to be skewered by the flock they are attempting to protect. Or imagine the confusion of a spiritually mature 16 year old girl who objects to having to shower next to a psychologically damaged 16 year old boy (in all his anatomically glorious self) only to be told that she is being a bully and needs to be more sensitive – and this by members of her own congregation! It is often difficult to take a stand when you know it is going to be controversial, or even worse, contradictory to secular theories. That difficulty is multiplied exponentially when the people you believe to be your spiritual family abandons you.
Finally, there is the issue of courage. It is difficult to take a stand on a matter of faith if you are confused about what that faith is, and if you are convinced that no one will stand with you if you try. But it is utterly impossible to take that stand if you are a coward, even if you know the truth and have a whole army standing behind you. I believe most elders and a majority of young people are good men and kids. But there is a disturbingly large percentage of elders (and adolescents) who are nothing more than weak-kneed, limp-wristed, lilly-livered cowards (I am trying to restrain myself here). These are individuals who know the truth, and who know that there are people who are looking to them for leadership and will defend them to the last bullet. They choose – willingly – to accept the path of least resistance anyway. They do not want to cause a scuffle. They do not want to be seen as being “old fogies.” They are more interested in their image than in their position of leaders (and yes, young people can be awesome leaders). Ignorance can be educated away. Support can be generated. But cowardice? Cowardice kills before the battle is even joined. “There is nothing to fear, except fear itself.” Oh, what timeless words.
Christians who are concerned about the perilous times in which we live must do three things. We must return to the Bible, we must once again become a people of the book. We cannot stand firm for a faith of which we are ignorant. We must also not only accept, but we must come to appreciate our history – from Abraham to the apostles to the Reformation to the Restoration to our present day. We are products of our history – and we must learn from that history or we are certainly doomed to repeat its disasters. We must stand in solidarity with those who are taking a risk to defend their faith. We must support our elders when they say “no” to the Baals and Asherahs of secularism. We must support our young people when they refuse to be driven by the twisted beliefs of this culture. And finally we must learn what it means to be biblically courageous – to “Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong” (1 Cor. 16:13). In a memorable line from one of my wife’s favorite movies, “Courage is not the absence of fear – courage is the decision that there is something more important than fear.”
All of this is critical because our faith, our morals, our beliefs, that which we stand on – all of these things matter very much.
What does it matter anyway?
Stand at the foot of the cross and ask that question. Then you may get it.
(Update, Aug. 11, 2016 – it occurred to me that some might notice that I omitted preachers from this discussion. Be assured, I have no mistaken ideas that ministers/preachers are exempt from being cowardly and just flat-out ignorant. As I was writing I was thinking primarily of congregational leadership, and for some strange, backward, unknown reason I still believe that ministers serve under the eldership, not above them. Yes, ministers/preachers lead, but if the elders would exert their God-given authority, fewer young trash-talking preachers would have a pulpit to do so.)
Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. (1 Corinthians 16:13, RSV)
One of the benefits of growing older, I have learned, is that your vision becomes more clear. Not necessarily your eyesight, which I have also learned, becomes more blurry – but your vision. You are able to apprehend things in a manner that youth simply cannot perceive. A few people can see them when they are young, and we notice these individuals and label them as “visionaries” or “mystics.” Old people are called crotchety or old fogies. I appear to be approaching old fogyism.
One of the things I have perceived over the past few years is that with each new “generation,” the ability to stand firm with any teaching or principle that contradicts the prevalent culture – what we call “political correctness” – is slowly but steadily disappearing. In other words, it is perfectly acceptable to “stand firm” when you are defending the garbage that issues from the LGBTQ faction. Such firmness is even considered downright heroic. However, let a high school boy or girl raise their voice in defense of Biblical sexuality and you would think Adolf Hitler himself had been reincarnated. Defend the “right” of a male to use the female locker room just because he “identifies” as a female and you win humanitarian of the year award. Defend the right of a female to be safe in the same locker room and you are vilified as being inhuman (or worse). In many ways I cannot imagine what it must be like to be a young Christian in the typical American high school. The pressure to conform or to be ostracized must be monumental.
I see this trend being played out increasingly within congregations of the Lord’s church. “Can’t we all get along” is the mantra of the day – and that is a very difficult idea to argue against. We have been divided over so many inconsequential things; it would be wonderful if we could learn how to put our personal wants and wishes aside for just a few moments and genuinely consider how we can work together for the kingdom. But there are limits to “just getting along.” There is a line – however narrow – between right and wrong, truth and error, holy and profane, good and evil. God gave us the sense, and he gave us the instructions, to know the difference. To fail to draw those distinctions is to fail to obey God.
The key to understanding the difference between standing firm and looking for compromise is in the above verse (just to list one). Paul said to “stand firm in your faith.” He did not say to demand your opinion in matters of methodology or in matters that are by their nature “inconsequential.” He dealt with those issues in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 and 9. There are matters that cut to the very core of what it means to be a unified body of Christ, and there are matters that are of individual preference and taste. The first are matters of faith the second are matters of function.
I do not want to suggest that determining the difference between these two poles is always easy. I do want to emphasize that doing so is necessary. To divide a congregation over an issue that is simply a matter of methodology is to sin against the body of Christ. To accept, and to practice, a teaching that violates either the letter or the spirit of Scripture is to commit either heresy, or at the very least, heterodoxy. Read the letters to the seven churches in Revelation chapters 2 and 3. Note the difference between being reprimanded (the loss of love, the need to stand firm) and being condemned (the teachings of the Nicolaitans, the woman “Jezebel”).
It is absolutely critical that congregational leaders learn the difference between what is of faith, and what is of opinion. An entire generation is at risk. One of my beloved professors, Dr. Eugene Clevenger, taught in his class on the Corinthian letters, “The greatest right I have is the right to surrender my rights.” Equally critical, especially in the 21st century is this, “The greatest responsibility I have is the responsibility never to surrender the truth of Scripture.”
It is a question of sailing between the Scylla of legalism and the Charybdis of anarchy. It is a narrow and difficult passage. But difficult does not mean impossible. It is not only possible, it is imperative. To fail to make the choice is to utterly fail, and that is something this old fogey simply cannot accept.
How many times have you heard the admonition, “You have to be consistent.” The subject at hand can be a myriad of topics – from discipline to study habits to philosophical approaches to life. Consistency, it would appear, is the holy grail of all being. If we can be consistent, we will have achieved perfection.
Except, that is, when being consistent in one area actually forces us to be inconsistent in another area. Then we have problems. How do we achieve consistency when reality forces us to be inconsistent? Hmm.
I have in mind a couple of examples. One is in the area of ethics. For many people the idea of being pro-life means both opposing abortion and opposing the death penalty. This is a commonly held belief – held by prominent Catholic and Protestant ethical specialists. The idea of consistency is prominent among the arguments given to defend both positions. If you are opposed to the taking of a human life, you have to oppose both abortion and capital punishment, or you are being inconsistent. Consistency demands the rejection of both.
Or does it?
If your only criteria is the taking of a human life, then I suppose you can make the argument. That argument, however, reduces most human life to the level of existence. That is, because we started to exist, we must continue to exist until nature or some disaster, ends that existence. The measure of the importance of life then depends solely upon the quantity of life signs, not their quality or value.
However, this argument utterly dismisses the textual (and contextual) support for capital punishment as stipulated in the Old Testament, and some would argue, is repeated at least in theory in Romans 13 in the New Testament. Passages such as Genesis 9:6, Exodus 21:12-14, Leviticus 24:17 and Numbers 35:9-34 make it clear that capital punishment is based on (1) the fact that human beings are made in the image of God, (2) the planned, intentional nature of the crime of murder, and derivatively, (3) the crime of murder strikes at the very core of community life. Provision was made for deaths caused by accidents, although even in an accidental death, the one who was involved in the death lost a certain amount of freedom until the death of the high priest. So the issue is not mere life, mere existence. The issue is that the image of God was destroyed, and the ongoing life of the community was put in peril by allowing a murderer to live.
Therefore, to be consistent, a person has to argue that it is the intentional taking of innocent human life that should be uniformly opposed. Therefore, abortion is clearly a violation of God’s will, but capital punishment is not necessarily a violation of God’s will. Now, to be sure, the manner in which capital punishment has been administered in the United States leads many to conclude it is unfairly used. Personally, while I cannot reject the use of capital punishment out-of-hand, the fact that the use of capital punishment has been used unequally in the past does give me great pause as to its moral grounding. What is often overlooked in the contemporary situation is that such a punishment required two eye-witnesses to the crime, and the punishment for falsely accusing someone meant that the accuser was dealt the same type of punishment that he/she was demanding of the accused (Deuteronomy 19:15-21). How many trumped-up charges involving the death penalty would be pursued if the prosecutor was liable to undergo the death penalty for falsely accusing a defendant? Not many, I would venture.
Therefore, I do not see opposing abortion and opposing the death penalty as being consistent. Abortion is the murder of an innocent, unborn child. Capital punishment is the legal execution of a person who has intentionally, with prior planning and “malice aforethought,” taken the life of another human being. In the realm of ethics, the two are light years apart.
On a more specific theological level, the case is often made that to be consistent, once you determine the use of a word or a phrase used by one author, that same word or phrase must be interpreted in the same manner every other time it appears. This is just linguistic (and theological) nonsense. For just one crystal clear example, consider the word translated into most English translations as “church” – the Greek word ekklesia. The argument is made, based on dubious etymological arguments by the way, that the word means “called out,” and so this is the Holy Spirit’s way of identifying the new people of God. Now, the case might be made (and I emphasize the word might) that the word ekklesia is used in such a manner in one place or another in the New Testament, but it is by no means the case that it is always used in that manner. Just read Acts 19:23-41. There an unruly mob gathers in the theatre and even the legal authorities have a hard time getting them under control. Once order is finally restored, the town clerk finally was able to dismiss the assembly. Twice the word ekklesia is used of this unruly mob, and I dare say no one is going to argue that the holy, sanctified, born-again body of Christ is being referred to in these verses (39-41).
This point is really very obvious in many situations. Paul in Romans and James in the book that bears his name use the word faith in strikingly different ways. I would argue that Paul himself uses faith in slightly (or perhaps even more significant) different ways. As with any situation, context is controlling. To be consistent, we have to bear in mind the entire context of the passage, and define and apply each word as is appropriate for that setting.
So, being consistent in one manner (always using a word using one, single definition) is to be inconsistent in interpreting that word when it is used in a different context. To be consistent in the application of one ethical norm is to be inconsistent in the application of another ethical norm that is built on a different theological foundation. This sometimes creates untidy, even messy, questions of interpretation and moral decision making. Life is that way – flying is not always in CAVU conditions (clear and visibility unlimited). Sometimes you have to fly in the fog. That requires great care, and a determination to understand the entire picture, not just one tiny little slice of it.
I just learned today of the passing of Randy Becton. Perhaps not many recognize the name, but I know there are thousands throughout the country (and the world) who do. We have lost a real treasure with his passing.
I was lucky enough to have a class under Randy. It was a class related to Christian ministry, although I would have to research my records to find the exact title. It was in that class that I was most fully made aware of the concept that God uses wounded people to heal other wounded people. As we are all wounded in one way or another, that means God can use each of us to heal others around us. The first step, obviously, is to recognize how we are wounded, then we must see how God has redeemed (healed) us, and then we must learn how we can use our broken-but-healed selves to bring others to Christ. The class was transformational, to say the least.
I have one other memory of that class that I would like to share. Randy suffered with lymphoma as a young man. Once, during one of his long hospital stays, an elder came to visit him. Randy could tell some pretty horrifying stories of what people would say to him while he was in the hospital. As he related the story of this elder’s visit, he shared what many would think would be a rude and insulting question that this elder asked of him. The elder asked Randy if there was any sin in his life that Randy might see as an underlying source of the cancer. Note – not the cause of the cancer, but that God was using the cancer to “wake” Randy up to a more critical spiritual issue. As Randy retold the story there were tears in his eyes. You have to understand the context to the situation – the elder had a close relationship with Randy. This was not some “fix-it” spiritual charlatan that was looking to score some death-bed confession. This was a man who was vitally interested in Randy’s spiritual and physical health, and he was probing to help Randy see that the two realms are not as separate as we often make them out to be. Randy’s point was this – many people said rude and insulting things to him with the idea of making him “feel better.” This elder, with the true and honest question that revealed his sincere love for Randy, asked what some would consider to be an insulting question, yet for Randy it was one of the most loving visits he could remember.
Now I must caution you – do NOT go to every hospital room and start asking people to spill their deepest, darkest sins to you. Not unless you have a deep, personal relationship with that individual, and are asking with the most pure and God-like intentions. Otherwise, you will likely get a bed pan thrown at you, and for good reason. My point in relating that story is to share with you what Randy impressed upon us – true love, caring love, shepherding love – sometimes leads us to places we might be uncomfortable, but it is exactly in those places of discomfort that true ministry takes place.
I also must relate that Randy was one of the very few instructors who ever chewed me out in front of a class. To this day I have no idea what it was that I said that upset Randy, but I can honestly say that I would rather be chewed out by Randy Becton than be publicly praised by some of my other instructors, whose sincerity I could neither trust or believe.
I was truly blessed by Randy Becton. He was a huge man with an even bigger heart. Our loss is his graduation to glory.
Requiescat in pace.