Category Archives: Church

What Has Changed?

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?

What Does It Matter, Anyway?

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.)

The Inability to Stand Firm

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.

Joshua 10:10-14 and the USA

And the people of Israel cried out to the LORD, saying, “we have sinned against thee, because we have forsaken our God and have served the Baals.” And the LORD said to the people of Israel, “Did I not deliver you from the Egyptians and from the Amorites, from the Ammonites and from the Philistines? The Sidonians also, and the Amalekites, and the Maonites, oppressed you; and you cried to me, and I delivered you out of their hand. Yet you have forsaken me and served other gods; therefore I will deliver you no more. Go and cry to the gods whom you have chosen; let them deliver you in the time of your distress.” (Joshua 10:10-14, RSV)

For someone who loves a good sense of irony, this passage is just perfect. The Israelites were up against it. They were being attacked by the Philistines and the Ammonites. The Israelites had been serving the gods of these nations, but it was obvious that the faster they went, the behinder they got. Finally, somebody (or a few somebodies) decided, “Hey, let’s call on that LORD God, you know, the one that helped our parents and grandparents and great-grand parents. Maybe he can help.”

And the LORD, master of everything including dramatic irony, said “Pfffft.” (I paraphrase slightly.) Israel had made its bed, sleeping with all the Blue-tick hounds, and now they were complaining about the fleas. “Tough luck” said God – “Why don’t you call on all those fancy idols you have been worshiping for so long – maybe they can help.”

Well, we all know the story – Israel did put away the false gods, they (re)committed themselves to serving the One True God, and once again God heeded their cries and provided them with a deliverer.

I wonder if God does not refer to the same playbook every once in a while.

All across this wonderful fruited plain we hear the cry of the “oppressed.” “Lord, save us” is the cry. “We are in a bit of a pickle down here, and we could really use your help!”

And God says, “Pfffft.” (Once again, I paraphrase slightly.) “Go and call on those gods you have been worshiping for over 200 years now – see if they can rescue you!”

Let’s see if these gods can save us –

Politics – yeah, like mixing oil and water has worked so well for us. The crass greed of the Republican party versus the even more crass licentiousness of the Democratic party. “Vote for me because I am less evil than my opponent.” The wonder is not that our system is collapsing, the wonder is that it has taken this long to collapse.

Philosophy – okay, if our own muddled thinking got us into this mess, maybe our own muddled thinking will get us out! And we wonder what defines insanity.

Technology – I know, let’s create something – fashion it with our own hands (not really understanding what the long-term results will be) and then place the entire survival of the human race on that creation! Dynamite was supposed to be so powerful that its creation would end the possibility of war (so thought its creator – Alfred Nobel). Nuclear energy has worked out so well for us. Huge wind turbines are the latest, greatest saviors of life on the planet – unless you happen to be a migratory bird, and then, well, too bad for you.

Education – this one might have helped, except that we quit applying it about three decades ago. Who knows if it would have been all that great, seeing as how it was the source for numbers two and three above.

The point is that we (American Christians and secularists alike) have been worshiping at the altar of idols for most, if not all, of our history. There have been brief periods when we “call upon the LORD,” but they have been few and short-lived. Even today, when conservative Christians bewail the moral stagnation of our country, our solutions are based entirely upon idols – we look to a new President, or a new Congress, or a new Supreme Court. We demand a new educational system. We demand new (and expensive) weapons to guarantee our “peace,” when we live in terror every day.

To all of this I say, “Pfffft.” (And I do not paraphrase here). I am tired of trotting out the old solutions, the solutions that have not solved anything. I would like Christians to try something we have tried all too infrequently throughout the history of the United States – I would like Christians to rely upon the power of Christ living in and through the church. I want to see Christians feeding the poor and housing the homeless – who needs government programs? I want to see the church assume the responsibility of teaching our young people – and who cares about the Department of Miseducation? I want to see the church take the role of changing the lives of prostitutes and drug addicts and the hungry and the naked and the “poor and huddled masses, yearning to be free.” And I would like to see the church expect – demand even – that a changed moral life accompany a changed physical life. Jesus healed the sick – but he also healed the sickness of sin and bade his followers leave their former lives of rebellion against God.

It can happen. It should happen. It would happen if we would just try it. Otherwise, our faith in God is just empty, vain, words.

And if you don’t believe me, well, all I have to say is “pfffft.”

Where Have All the Christians Gone?

Where have all the soldiers gone,
Long time passing?
Where have all the soldiers gone,
Long time ago.
Where have all the soldiers gone –
Gone to graveyards every one.
When will they ever learn?
Oh when will they ever learn?
(1960’s folk scare anthem, titled, Where Have All the Flowers Gone? third verse)

I picture a scene in the late 1930’s in Berlin. It is a picture of two worlds. On the one hand an economy that was literally on the brink of disaster is now starting to show signs, not just of life, but of genuine health. The mood of the nation borders on ecstasy. The long, dark night following the embarrassment of the Great World War is fading into the dark recesses of history. People are working. There is food on the table. Instead of a waffling, insecure national government, there is a leader who knows what he wants to do – he knows what is best for his Volk, his people. He is their leader, der Fuhrer.*

Crouched over a simple wood desk a young pastor and sometimes university lecturer looks out his window overlooking Berlin and wrinkles his forehead. Through his spectacles he sees a much different Germany. The bright red, white and black swastikas that hang from the government buildings, as well as from many of the church buildings, do not indicate wholeness to him, but rather a terminal sickness. Rather than a facile prosperity, he sees the war machine fueling the new economy. Rather than unity and a restored pride in German law, he sees the systematic dismantling of basic human freedoms. As a country rises like a phoenix from the ashes, he watches a culture begin to burn with the most acrid fires of hell. And he wonders, where is the church? Where are the Christians? The church buildings appear to be full – but where is the faith? Where are those willing to follow their Lord to the cross?

America in the second decade of the 21st century shares far more in common with Germany in the 4th decade of the 20th century than many people are aware of, or are willing to admit (and, no, I am not trying to be sensational here, just point out some disturbing historical parallels). Our most recent economic scare, the “Great Recession” has long since faded from our (increasingly deficient) memory. Ever since September 11, 2001 our federal government has incrementally but steadily become more monolithic and focused on the person of the president. What once was a trip-partite “sharing of the powers” has become a totally inefficient and inept Congress and a judiciary that is nothing but a docile lapdog of the most liberal and leftist agenda. Our current president, and both of the nominees of the two major parties, have made it abundantly clear that they do not respect the constitutional separation of powers, but that, as the elected president, they will be the de-facto fuhrer of the American people.

Morally the country is in a complete free fall. No, we are not emptying neighborhoods of “undesirables” and shipping them off to death camps. But that quaint little concept of “freedom of speech” is fast becoming a relic to be studied in a museum. Do you think we are a country of laws, and not of personal privilege? Compare the story of a baker or a photographer who decline to participate in the wedding of a homosexual couple, only to be sued into oblivion, to the story of a sovereign state, the duly elected officials of which pass a law that protects the rights of individuals to exercise their religious freedoms, only to see one of the largest corporations in the country discriminate against them by removing one of their largest celebrations from the state. Who gets the praise here – those who practice their religious rights, their freedom of speech, or the state, (or corporation) that uses their legal or economic power to bully the other into submission? From newspaper editorials to talk shows to political pundits – the voice of those who defend perversity and attack those who stand for Christian morality is almost universal.

The tragedy here, from a biblical standpoint, is that the church has become utterly complicit in this decay. Instead of a clear voice (remember Amos?) all we here from the collective pulpit of American Christianity is, “Don’t say anything offensive!” “Scientists say they can’t change, so we should not burden them with guilt!” “We have to make the gospel relevant, and telling people about sin just does not communicate anymore!” I guess the worst is, “If we tell people they have to change, they might leave the church!” Yea, right. As if having them in the church is doing them or the church any good.

It’s called SIN, people. Sin in the world, sin in the church, sin in you, sin in me.

What we need is for the church – for disciples of Christ – to stand up with a unified voice and condemn that sin. Condemn the sin in the world, condemn the sin in the church, condemn the sin in us – you and me.

Despite the efforts of the young pastor – and hundreds like him – the church in Germany chose either to remain mostly silent – or to actively support the fuhrer – and the world erupted into another hell of war. Those who refuse to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.

So, I ask – Where have all the Christians gone, long time passing . . . 

*Fuhrer (with the umlaut, which I cannot seem to figure out how to insert over the “u”, simply means “leader” in German.)

Disorientation

When you are flying in the fog the worst thing that can happen to you (at least, before you crash) is that you become disoriented. It is a bizarre physiological reality – but you can be in just about any flight position – right side up, up side down, nose high, nose low, extreme bank angle – and your body will tell you that everything is just hunky-fine. There is a mistaken idea among non-pilots that you would just know if something was wrong. On the contrary – your eyes, your inner ear, your “seat,” basically your entire body will conspire to tell you the most pernicious lies. Graveyards full of disoriented pilots silently proclaim the grim results. The mantra of flight instructors becomes the pilot’s only way of survival – don’t trust your senses, trust your instruments (and keep a good cross-check going, because one of your instruments may have failed!).

I have spent the past week severely disoriented. Following the murder of the five police officers in Dallas I have gone through a dizzying range of emotions. Initially I felt an almost uncontrollable rage. I just wanted to strike out at anything – a punching bag would have been most helpful. Along with that emotion came confusion – how could anyone actually support the actions of the killer (and there were several who did)? I was caught in a “death spiral” – all I could do was depend on my senses, and my senses were telling me that everything was incomprehensible.

Incomprehensible – that is just the word for what I feel. I cannot comprehend the rhetoric surrounding the events of the past week. I do not understand how one of the most blatantly racist and militant protest groups is afforded blanket amnesty from virtually every segment of our society – with the result being the ambush and murder of five law enforcement officers, and the wounding of a number of others. What is particularly galling to me is that the response of supposedly “Christian” leaders is not to challenge or criticize this blatant racism, but to actually support and encourage it. This just reinforces my conviction that many so-called “Christian” leaders are concerned not about the truth of the gospel, but only about pandering to special interest groups in order to maintain their aura of sanctity – and power!

Every Christian should be appalled when a police officer abuses the power that is invested in him or her and uses that power to insult, injure, or kill an innocent civilian. It should not be a surprise that with the number of law enforcement officers that there are some who should not be wearing the badge or shield (one statistic I read was 800,000 LEOs nationwide). There have been far too many situations where an officer is clearly out-of-control, or worse, guilty of a major crime. With that fact only too well documented, it should also be noted that in a number of supposedly “clear” examples of police brutality, the factual evidence demonstrated that the officer was acting well within his/her authority, the “victim” was actually the aggressor, and the officer acted to protect his/her life or the lives of others nearby. Such inconvenient truths do not matter – the officer’s life is ruined, property is destroyed, and livelihoods of truly innocent business people are either wiped out or severely damaged, all in the name of “justice.”

Like I said – I just do not get it. Some brave voices in the media have pointed out that our nation is being ripped apart at the seams. It should come as no surprise when good is called evil and evil is called good that the foundation of civility is cracked. Just stop and consider what “justice” and “freedom” look like in the United States today – the relentless murder of millions of unborn children, the glorification of sexual perversity including, but not limited to, transgenderism and homosexuality, the systematic attacks against and removal of the safeguards of religious expression. But when the leading voices of the “Christian” church are either silent – or worse, are actually complicit in this degradation – how will the truth be heard?

The way in which a pilot safely navigates the fog and storms that envelop his or her plane is to rely completely upon the instruments that tell him or her what the plane is really doing. In the moral fog that has descended so thickly upon our culture it is imperative that disciples of Christ stop trying to “feel” their way out and begin to trust the Scriptures once again.* Those who do will be unpopular, they will lose their “power” (whatever they think that power is) and may actually be vilified. But disciples also know that submission to the will of God is the ONLY way to bring reconciliation and wholeness (both physical and spiritual) to this earth.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. (Matthew 5:9, RSV)

*In saying this I am not suggesting that the Bible itself is to be worshipped – that would be bibliolatry. I am saying, however, that God’s “instrument” that he has given us for our safety and protection is his written word. We cannot say we trust, or believe in God, and at the same time disparage, dispute, or minimize the Scriptures.

Book Review: The Churches of Christ in the 20th Century: Homer Hailey’s Personal Journey of Faith (David Edwin Harrell, Jr.)

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The Churches of Christ in the 20th Century: Homer Hailey’s Personal Journey of Faith, David Edwin Harrell, Jr. (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2000) 388 pages of text with an additional 63 pages of endnotes.

This book has a number of potential audiences: most broadly it will appeal to those who want to have an understanding of how culture influences religious movements, more narrowly it will appeal to those who want to have a greater understanding of the history of the Churches of Christ in the 20th century, and finally it will have a tremendous appeal to those who want to understand the “anti-institutional” or most conservative wing of the American Restoration Movement (Stone-Campbell) of the early 19th and 20th centuries. This book is actually the third of Harrell’s to document the sociological influences on the Churches of Christ, and it is by far and away the most personal (Harrell is a devout advocate of the anti-institutional beliefs).

The book is part history, part biography. Harrell sets out to tell the story of Homer Hailey, but in order to do so he must explain the historical developments within the Churches of Christ beginning with the turn of the 20th century leading all the way into the final decade of the century. As such, the book contains a treasure trove of information the reader will not likely find in any other source unless he/she is a devoted historian. Harrell is a preeminent historian and he knows the printed material relating to the Churches of Christ as well, if not better, than any other person alive. This is evidenced by the copious end-notes.

Because one major goal of the book is to tell the story of Hailey, the history that precedes the biography section does focus more narrowly on the personalities and root motivations of the institutional/non-institutional split within the Churches of Christ. So, for example, the events and main characters are examined with that division in mind, not simply to explain “X happened at Y period of time.” However, because so much of the early 20th century witnessed the battles fought over pre-millennialism and then the institutions (orphans homes, and later especially the colleges), there is a staggering amount of history that is covered.

One strength of this book is paradoxically one of its weaknesses – Harrell was (and still is) an active voice in the institutional controversy. Therefore, he can provide a “fly on the wall” perspective that many other authors could not – he not only knew many of the main characters involved in this discussion, he joined in the fray. The negative aspect of this connection is that, as good and professional a historian as Harrell is, sometimes he reveals the color of the flag that he is marching under more clearly than he should. He routinely labels the “progressives” (itself a dangerously pejorative term Harrell uses to identify the supporters of institutions) as “rebels,” and in numerous other ways he lets his feelings slip by. He opined that the progressives held “deviant views” and in reporting a comment made by Richard Hughes, he wrote that Hughes “complained,” when a more equitable verb could have been easily chosen. To be fair, Harrell broadly praised Hughes’ history of the Churches of Christ – but the little snarky comments reveal that Harrell thoroughly disagrees with the ultimate conclusions that Hughes draws.

Ministers and other leaders in the Churches of Christ need to read this book, especially if they were born in the late 20th century. This book not only explains what happened during the institutional/non-institutional split, but it also gives a clear window into many of the issues that are plaguing the church today. As I have said before (and as many others have said as well), I believe another clear split has occurred within the Churches of Christ in the early 21st century. This book will explain much of why this latest split has occurred. “What goes around comes around,” or in more biblical language, “what has been is what will be,” and so 100 years later we can see many of the same attitudes, and justifications, for behaviors that are contrary to scriptural teachings.

A personal note: while I was serving as the graduate assistant for Dr. Bill Humble at the Center for Restoration Studies at Abilene Christian University, I assisted Dr. Harrell as he was researching material for this book. He was gracious and extremely kind. As a expression of thanks for my help (which was truly minimal), Dr. Harrell gifted me with inscribed copies of three of his other books – Quest for a Christian America, White Sects and Black Men, and his biography of Pat Robertson. I am indebted to Dr. Harrell for many things, not the least of which was the way in which he taught me (through his writings) to research fully, document extensively, and think clearly about your subject. While I never had Dr. Harrell as an instructor, he taught me much and I owe him more.

Orlando – Outrage, but No Solidarity

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.’ (Luke 13:1-5, ESV)

Trigger alert – for those who believe that Christians must “join in solidarity” with every group that experiences some misfortune, this post will definitely be damaging to your mental health. Continue at your own risk.

Literally within hours of the horrific murders in Orlando, social media sites were lit up with accusations against Christians, Muslims, and anyone else for that matter, who disapproved of the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or questioning – I’ve heard both explanations) lifestyle. The fact that no on knew any of the pertinent facts of the case did not stop anyone. Well known and highly respected “Christian” authors jumped into the fray, calling for the “church” to join in solidarity with the LGBTQ community and excoriating anyone who dared to disagree.

Well, I disagree.

I just have one question – a question that has not been answered by any of those who call for this solidarity – “WHY?” Is it because of the manner of death? Is being shot by a crazed psychopath a more horrific death than dying as your plane falls from 30,000 feet into the ocean? Is it because of the alleged religious background of the killer? Does being killed by a Muslim terrorist make you more vulnerable than being killed by a Christian terrorist – or even an atheistic one?

No – the only reason I can decipher from reading the quotes and commentary is that Christians should join in solidarity with the victims because – they practice forms of sexual deviancy that are clearly and emphatically condemned in Scripture! Not as, “we are all sinners” (which we are, note the above Scripture), but we should be particularly sympathetic – and even empathetic – to this group specifically because of their lifestyle.

As more facts emerge from this tragedy I feel like my head is on a swivel. First the murderer was alleged to have sworn allegiance to ISIS – the terrorist group that is wreaking havoc all over our world. But, then a funny thing happened. It has also been reported that the killer had an account with a homosexual dating app – and frequented the very club in which he committed this atrocity. Apparently he was a common visitor in a part of town known for its gender-bending clientele. (So much of this is allegation, early and mistaken reporting, and who knows what else. I doubt we will know the whole truth for weeks, if not months). If any of this is true it certainly casts a deep shadow over the “Muslim terrorist” angle. I am no Muslim scholar, but I seriously doubt that Allah would approve of one of his followers hooking up on a homosexual dating app.

I understand the outrage. I feel it myself. I feel it after every mass shooting, bombing, or other form of mass murder. It was a horrific act – make no mistake and the victims did not “deserve” their deaths (contrary to the stated opinions of many other “Christian” commentators) any more than those little children and their teachers at Sandy Hook elementary school. As Christians I feel we have several responses that would reflect the love of Christ. Certainly we are to “bind up the wounds” and treat the survivors and the families of all the victims with love. I also believe that now is not the time to pull out the sermons on Sodom and Gomorrah or Romans 1. There is, as the Preacher once wrote, a time for weeping.

However, to suggest, even in the most innocent sounding or oblique manner, that the bride of Christ is somehow united or in “solidarity” with a community that flagrantly repudiates the beauty and wisdom of God’s creation is patently absurd bordering on obscene. Physicians heal, not by becoming one with the disease or the patient, but by standing over the patient and against the disease. Light does not become one with darkness, but light drives darkness away. The Son of God drew crowds of broken sinners to himself, not because he became one of their number, but because he showed them how to be reconciled to his Father.

Events such as these should cause us all to stop and reflect – to what extent are we guilty of prejudice, hatred, and, yes, even sexual sins that are just as clearly condemned in the Word of God as homosexuality. One of the most profound aspects of the faith and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was that he openly confessed the sins of the German church in regard to the crimes of the Nazi party. But while he was willing to sacrifice his life to protect the defenseless, he never proclaimed himself to be anything other than a Christian. He could, and did, protect the other, the outsider, without claiming to be the other. And it was only because he maintained that separation that he could be an authentic witness to Christ.

That kind of behavior requires an enormous amount of courage – and a clear, focused theology. Our response to events like Orlando should come from Christ, through Christ, in order to bring people to Christ. Let us work to unite the world to Christ, not the church to the world.

He Who Defines the Terms Wins the Argument

A question I have been hearing (and repeating) frequently over the past few days, weeks, and months: “How could the moral compass of the United States change so radically, and especially so quickly?” I have no definite answer – but I think I have a pretty good clue. If you get to define the terms of the disagreement, you are two-thirds of the way to winning the argument.

For evidence, I offer the once useful, and justly powerful word, “victim.” Once upon a time, and really not that long ago, a victim was someone who was subjected to harsh, often unbearable and quite frequently lethal, abuse and/or events that were beyond his or her or their control. The Jews, gypsies and other “undesirables” were victims under the Nazi reign of terror in the mid 1930’s. Blacks were victims of the horrid social constructs of colonial America, extending quite literally into the 1960’s. Native American Indian tribes were victims of the despicable results of the American concept of “Manifest Destiny.” These, and other true crimes against humanity, are fitting examples of the concept of “victim.”

Notice today how that concept has changed. Today the only requirement necessary to claim the mantle of “victim” is to have your feelings hurt. A student hears a lecture that includes concepts or ideas that are foreign to his or her worldview and immediately becomes a victim of racism, genderism, or any number of other “isms” that might apply. A man wants to marry a man, and the bakery that refuses to bake a cake or the photographer who refuses to participate in the fraud is sued into bankruptcy because the couple has become a “victim” of “homophobia” (an illegitimate word if there ever was one). An entire class of victims has been created, not because of a genuine, certifiable injury, but simply because their narcissism has been challenged and they have no other recourse but to scream, “victim!”

In the beginning of this linguistic shift the church capitulated to the subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, pressure to conform. It was believed that by becoming more “accommodating” and less “strident” or “abrasive” that the masses could be reached, yea, even converted, from the error of their way. What was not recognized then was the fact that if you allow your opponent to set the terms of the debate (and by defining all the terms the other side HAS set the terms of the debate), you will never be able to adequately or correctly present your argument. The moment the scriptural argument against homosexuality is presented, the homosexual lobby screams “homophobia, I’m a victim of homophobia” and the discussion is over. The moment an argument for male spiritual leadership in the church is presented, the egalitarians scream “patriarchy, I’m a victim of patriarchy” and the discussion is ended. The moment some person is told to get off of the unemployment roll and actually get a job, the “employment challenged victim” starts screaming “Capitalism, I’m a victim of crass, unjust capitalism” and can therefore return to the safety of his or her couch to watch the latest reality TV show.

How could the moral compass of the United States change so radically and so quickly? Quite simply, because those who were tasked with maintaining even the minimum degree of biblical morality quietly allowed it to happen. We, and I speak of the church here, simply acquiesced to the virtual re-writing of the dictionary, and we were either asleep and were not aware of what was happening, or we meekly followed along with the crime in the hopes that we would not be viewed as homophobic, patriarchal, capitalistic, xenophobic, troglodytes.

I suggest that the point has been reached where there simply is no more ground to surrender, no more space to retreat. The time has come to speak forcefully, even if that means those who disagree with us view us as being “abrasive.” In no way am I suggesting being unkind, vengeful, or hateful. Christians must never use the tools of Satan to attempt to defeat Satan. However, the time has come that we can no longer allow our language to be corrupted beyond the point of any usefulness. Sin must be labeled as sin – whether it be in the realm of sex, greed, hate, sloth, fear, or selfishness. We will not be loved or appreciated. I think I remember Jesus, Paul and Peter all saying the same thing about those who stand up against the powers of this world. But, who do we want to please – the world, or Jesus?

I am reminded of the words of Martin Niemoeller, a World War I U-Boat captain who would later become a part of the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany. He would spend the entirety of World War II in a German concentration camp because of his opposition to the Nazi regime. He wrote:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew.
And then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.

At some point the church is going to have to confront this godless attempt to silence and ultimately destroy Christian morality. The question is, who is going to be left to speak out?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Community, and the Churches of Christ

A few introductory comments before I take off into the fog today –

A major section of my Doctor of Ministry dissertation was focused on the intersection of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology and the Churches of Christ. Kind of like Oscar and Felix, it makes for an odd couple, but we have much to learn from this early 20th century theologian.

Second, although this particular topic is outside of my work on confession, the topic of community is closely related to confession (as most of Bonhoeffer’s theology is closely interwoven).

Third, when reading Bonhoeffer, a person must bear in mind the circumstances under which he was writing. So, with Life Together it is critical to remember that the thoughts, if not the exact words, were formed as the Gestapo was breathing down Bonhoeffer’s neck as he ran an illegal Lutheran Seminary. Ultimately they would force the closing of the seminary where Bonhoeffer taught, and that possibility was clearly in Bonhoeffer’s mind as he worked with his seminarians.

I am re-reading Life Together for the umpteenth time, and like so many other great works of literature, there are always new things to discover in this book. I want to share just a couple of thoughts that I think are so appropriate for the situation Churches of Christ (and many other churches) find themselves today.

First this:

Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial . . . Those who dream of this idealized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others, and  by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands, set up their own law, and judge one another and even God accordingly . . . So they first become accusers of other Christians in the community, then accusers of God, and finally the desperate accusers of themselves. (Life Together DBWE vol. 5, p. 36.)

There are many in the Churches of Christ who want the church to be something that it is not, and frankly can never be. As a close parallel to Bonhoeffer’s time, a growing number of people want the church to be more culturally acceptable than spiritually pure. Their concept of the church is an ideal (in Bonhoeffer’s thought, think of Plato’s concept of the ideal vs. the real). So, just as with the “German Christians” of the early 1930’s, membership in the church has more to do with cultural adaptation than Spiritual sanctification. In a staggering act of irony, these purveyors of tolerance and broad-mindedness become the most intolerant and narrow-minded when confronted by those who disagree with their bent theology. Those who preach “judge not” become the harshest judges, even to the point that they end up condemning themselves. The “faux guilt” crowd that accepts (and at times even creates) blame for everything from racism to male chauvinism to homophobia is really becoming quite obnoxious. They want the church to atone for sins it is rightly guilty of – and for sins it could not even be possible to be guilty of. But, as Bonhoeffer pointed out – when you come to the church with a false idea of what community truly is, the end result is fore-ordained.

Second is this:

Two factors, which are really one and the same thing, reveal the difference between spiritual and self-centered love. Emotional, self-centered love cannot tolerate the dissolution of a community that has become false, even for the sake of genuine community. And such self-centered love cannot love an enemy, that is to say, one who seriously and stubbornly resists it.

Therefore, spiritual love is bound to the word of Jesus Christ alone. Where Christ tells me to maintain community for the sake of love, I desire to maintain it. Where the truth of Christ orders me to dissolve a community for the sake of love, I will dissolve it, despite all the protests of my self-centered love. (Life Together DBWE vol. 5, p. 43)

Now, here is where you really need to understand Bonhoeffer’s historical situation. The Lutheran “union” of churches of which Bonhoeffer had been a member had been destroyed by the heresies of the “German Christian” movement – the Nazification of the Lutheran church. Bonhoeffer was part of a number of theologians who realized that these “Christians” were no longer Christians at all – they were not just schismatics, they were heretics. However, not everyone saw as clearly as Bonhoeffer and his associates. They viewed the “Confessing Church,” of which Bonhoeffer was a significant leader, as an unhealthy and dangerous schism. The emotional toll of Bonhoeffer was tremendous. In effect, he was declaring that many people with whom he had a deep and abiding relationship were no longer his brothers and sisters in Christ. Thus, these words are NOT just ivory tower rhetoric. In these words to his young seminarians, Bonhoeffer is basically saying, “I may feel like maintaining fellowship with a particular group of people, but when the word of Christ tells me to separate from that group, I must decide to obey Christ or my emotions. I will obey Christ at all costs – even and including my human feelings.”

The siren song of liberalism and toleration is being sung at full volume within the Churches of Christ (as, perhaps, it has always been sung). The phrase, “in matters of opinion, liberty” has been expanded to mean that everything is a matter of opinion, and there are no matters of “necessity.” According to a significant, and apparently growing, number of young preachers, the only “sin” is in thinking that there is an inerrant and infallible truth to which all must submit. What is almost incomprehensible to me is the fact that this battle has been fought before, most recently in the early 20th century, and we have the writings of Bonhoeffer and others to show us the price we will end up paying if we reject the words of Christ and embrace this path to an ecclesial holocaust.

Bonhoeffer’s words are both comforting and distressing to me. Distressing because I can see so many parallels between his age and today. Comforting, because I can see where there will always be those who reject Satan’s temptations, and who stand firm in the words of Christ. As I prayed this morning, I hope that I will have the courage to reject the anemic gospel of a worldly church, and have the courage to call for authentic, and costly, discipleship for Christ.

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