Category Archives: Church
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 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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
I’m not sure exactly the time, but I can remember the speaker and the place. The speaker was Jim McGuiggan, and the place was Harding University. We had traveled to Searcy to listen to Jim speak at a youth event hosted by Harding. The quote has stayed with me for all these years, and it just seems to get more appropriate with each passing year.
I’m not even sure what Jim’s overall message was that afternoon, but at some point in the lesson he said, “We live in a bent and broken world.” Now, you have to hear that phrase through Jim’s measured cadence and thick Irish brogue for it to have its full effect. I think he might be the only person I know who could get two syllables out of the word “bent.” The phrase grabbed me, and has been a part of my preaching and teaching since that day.
It should not even be debated that we live in a bent and broken world. It has been ever since Adam and Eve took a bite out of that fruit. It became even more bent and broken when Cain killed his brother. I was reminded just how bent and broken the world was (and remains) when I pointed out to my Old Testament class that Moab (Moabites) and Ben-Ammi (Ammonites) were sons born of incest and the class almost had a collective heart attack. We are bent and broken now – and we have been bent and broken since the fall.
It would also seem to be beyond doubt that the major concern of the church today would be to heal this bentness and brokenness. I mean, would it not make sense that the church, which is the body of Christ on earth, should want to bring people to the great physician so that he can restore them to health and wholeness? Sadly, I just do not see that happening to any great extent today.
I see a large portion of the church simply turning blind eye to that which bends and breaks humans today. Worse than that, this faction of the church actively promotes that which bends and breaks humans. “Don’t worry, be happy” is the mantra. “You’re okay, don’t feel guilty – the only sin worth forgiving is the sin of feeling guilty – and you are forgiven!” Just like a hot air balloon that floats gently on the prevailing winds, this “church” simply coasts along, never even once suggesting, or even recognizing, that the winds of culture might just be carrying their members right into a disaster from which there will be no escape.
Conversely, there are those who look upon those who are bent and broken – and curse them. Not in so many words, mind you, just with their attitudes and sniffling high-minded prescriptions. Just like the Pharisees to whom Jesus spoke, these folks are long on solutions and amazingly short on assistance. “So, you are naked and hungry – why don’t you get dressed and eat some supper.” Or, in biblical terms, “Be warm and filled.” Some things never change.
Part of being human after the fall is recognizing that we are all, every one of us, bent and broken. We all share in the human predicament. But that does not mean we have to promote it, or refuse to help those who seek to climb out of the muck and mire of their squalid conditions. And it certainly does not mean that we have the right to condemn those that we feel are beneath our station (how did we make that decision, anyway??). No, we live in a bent and broken world. We must accept that fact that if we are healed, we are called to be healers and share in the healing of this world. We have to call sin, “sin,” and we have to name that which is destroying our world. But we must always remember that we are “wounded healers” (to steal Henri Nouwen’s beautiful phrase).
If I am anything in this world, I am a wounded healer. I am bent and broken, too. I believe I have been washed in the blood of the Lamb, but that does not mean I do not walk with a limp, and carry a few scars. Knowing that, I can share with others how I met the Healer. That, I believe, is the role of the church. We must confront that which bends and breaks the human soul. We can no longer make excuses for this toxic culture. We must not, however, shoot those who are wounded. Let us bring them to the one who will make them whole. Let us be what we claim to be – the hands and feet of Christ.
In response to my last post I received another good question – “So, where do the Churches of Christ go from here?” It seems to this feeble mind that I had already penned an answer somewhat close to answering that question, but I cannot find it – so I guess I did not. Anyway, since I clearly pointed out two reasons for what I would refer to as a “descent” into “cheap grace,” I will begin where I left off.
The first answer is so laughably easy to type, and so insanely hard to implement. You might even say, “pie in the sky by and by when we die.” But, to be utterly simplistic, Churches of Christ are going to have to change their culture. We are going to have to give up the victories we have won and the gains we have made in cultural accommodation. The first few centuries of Christianity clearly illustrate that the church was at best only tolerated, and frequently quite viciously hated, by the dominant culture in which it was placed. It is one of the great ironies of our movement that we look back to the first century as our polar star and at the same time try to move heaven and earth to try to be accepted by our 21st century hedonistic, secular culture. When a congregation can say, “you don’t have to change to be a member of this church” then you know that “the glory of the Lord has departed from Israel.”
Second, the Churches of Christ are going to have to rediscover the Bible. Yes, I said it. We are going to have to stop leaning on our professed affection for Scripture, and we are going to have to start using Scripture the way in which it was intended. The Bible was never meant to become an idol. The Israelites were guilty of thinking they were safe if they could utter the mantra, “The temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD” (Jer. 7:4). Contemporary Churches of Christ have modified that statement to be, “the Bible, the Bible, the Bible.” The word of God is a sign and a path, NOT a destination. One of the things you learn when you step outside of your own tradition is how other traditions have used what you thought was your own possession, and sometimes with much more accuracy and perfection than you have. Many churches claim to follow the Bible only. We have been claiming to do so for right at 200 years now. I have to ask in all honesty and conviction – where is the proof? Do members of the Churches of Christ love each other, and their neighbors, more than any other group? Are members of the Churches of Christ willing to go to prison for their convictions? Are members of the Churches of Christ the most charitable among all the other Christian churches? Are members of the Churches of Christ more willing to share the story of Jesus with those who have never heard it? Are members of the Churches of Christ the most hospitable of all religious groups? I think I could go on. The point is we love to love the Bible, but I am just not too sure we love the core message of the Bible. And I have been and am a continuing part of that digression.
I have often been a critic of our concept of “Bible study.” This is somewhat of a caricature, but not too far off. It goes like this – a teacher is recruited about two weeks before a quarter begins. A workbook is quickly ordered from a “sound” Christian publishing company. It arrives, but remains untouched until the first Sunday of the series. Twenty minutes before class the book is grabbed off the bookshelf as the family goes screaming out to get in the car. Five minutes before class the book is finally opened as the teacher stands behind the lectern, greeting his class members to an hour of “Bible study.” He begins by reading the book in a monotone voice, never once realizing that no one is really paying attention to him. It doesn’t matter whether the class is the adults in the auditorium, the high school class or the 2nd grade class. The process is mind-numbingly common in all too many congregations.
I pray your situation is different. I pray you have a teacher that is on fire every time his or her class meets, and they end the class session drenched in sweat and even more excited about next week. I pray you have a teacher that teaches from a bucket that is overflowing with equal parts passion and information. I pray you have a teacher that both assigns homework and insists on the completion of that homework. I pray you have a teacher that demonstrates and expects world work as well – the faithful practice of the lessons learned from the text of the week. I pray you have a teacher that sees Scripture as a journey into the Kingdom of God, where justice and mercy meet.
I have no illusions that the scenario I have described above will happen any time soon, at least not on a national scale. If it happens it must begin on a person by person, congregation by congregation basis. It is going to take strong elders who lead their congregations away from the siren song of American nationalism back to the vision of dwelling in the Kingdom of God. Those elders are going to have to have the backbone necessary to resist – and even confront – those who claim that the Stars and Stripes are equal to the stripes and the cross. The church is going to have to be led by those who see the church as a path to the future and not just a relic of some mythical ‘golden age’ here on earth. In the most simple terms, the church is going to have to become solidly counter-cultural, unapologetically apostolic, and deeply apocalyptic in order for all of this to happen.
It has happened before. It can happen again. But there is only one way in which it can, and will, happen: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts.” (Zechariah 4:6)
[In case anyone is interested, here is a handful of resources that have been helpful to me in this study: The Worldly Church: A Call for Biblical Renewal 2nd ed., C. Leonard Allen, Richard T. Hughes and Michael R. Weed (ACU Press, 1991); The Cruciform Church: Becoming a Cross Shaped People in a Secular World rev. and expanded ed., C. Leonard Allen (ACU Press, 2006); Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of the Churches of Christ in America and Reclaiming a Heritage: Reflections on the Heart, Soul, and Future of Churches of Christ both by Richard T. Hughes, (ACU Press, 2008 and 2002 respectively); Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, (IVP, 2003); Dissident Discipleship: A Spirituality of Self-Surrender, Love of God, and Love of Neighbor, David Augsburger (Brazos Press, 2006); Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World, 2nd ed., Lee C. Camp (Brazos Press, 2008); Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…And Why it Matters and You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church … and Rethinking Faith both by David Kinnaman (Baker Books, 2007 and 2011 respectively); Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 4, (Augsburg Press, 2001). And, the coup de grace, the stunningly brilliant examination recently done by someone we all know and love, We Can Bear It No Longer: Toward a Confessional Theology Within the Churches of Christ (unpublished dissertation, Fuller Theological Seminary, 2015). Caveat emptor: with perhaps the last source as the only exception, I do not agree with every conclusion of each of these authors. Actually, I don’t always agree with the last author either. Read carefully and judiciously – and always compare what a human writes with the one Word of God.]
A post or two ago I referenced the “easy believeism” that was sweeping the Churches of Christ, and a reader queried me as to what might my opinion be regarding the source of such a phenomenon. Never one to be short of an opinion, I will do my best to answer – and, it must go without saying that although this is my opinion, it has been shaped by decades of observation and years of research in the Restoration Movement.
In brief, I believe there are two reasons for this “easy believeism” – or “cheap grace” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer would put it. To begin, I have to present a little historical background. At the conclusion of the Civil War, and up to and including the beginning of the First World War, the Churches of Christ as a communion were basically poor, uneducated southerners. Those congregations that remained within the Churches of Christ in the north were still considerably less affluent than their close cousins, the instrumental Disciples of Christ/Christian Church. The reasons are fairly simple to understand: those congregations with money (and therefore community prestige) soon felt nothing wrong with adding a piano or melodeon into the worship. If you could not afford one, it was easier to argue against having instruments of music. Those congregations that were fully capable of building an elaborate building, hiring a full-time preacher, and yet remained “acapella,” were few, but they did exist. In the south the story was much different. Congregations were poor – “located preachers” were few and buildings were bare bones. Instruments were out of the question both by doctrine and necessity.
At the same time, Churches of Christ were virtually entirely pacifist. Both during and after the Civil War many leading southern preachers argued strenuously against participating in the war. Following that war, the members became solidly anti-war, and when WWI broke out this became a problem. By the end of the war the government had turned an evil eye on preachers within the Churches of Christ – and the fellowship as a whole – for what was considered “seditious” behavior. If you did not agree with going to war against Germany, that meant you supported Germany. Nothing could be further from the truth, but since when has “truth” mattered to the government? Oops, I digress. So, by war’s end, the tide had turned, and the majority of members of the Churches of Christ had become war hawks – at least in a limited sense.
The pendulum swung back slightly in the years between WWI and WWII, but following December 7, 1941, it would have been very difficult to have found a vociferous pacifist among the preachers of the Churches of Christ. Nationalism and patriotism once again reigned supreme, and even those who held to their pacifist leanings found ways to support the war effort in non-combative ways. Another development occurred after WWI, and was reinforced with the prosecution and winning of WWII. The Churches of Christ “crossed the tracks” when it came to wealth and influence. No longer were congregations housed in little frame buildings – now Churches of Christ sported huge complexes complete with all the newest and finest accoutrements, minus, of course, any instruments of music for worship.
So, roughly speaking within about 50 years the entire culture of the Churches of Christ changed. Congregations went from being counter-cultural, poor, and pacifist; to being culturally savvy, affluent, and wrapped in American Nationalism. Although the 1940’s through the 1960’s and into the 1970’s were a time of exponential growth for the Churches of Christ, huge fissures began to be visible in the foundations that united this “undenominational” denomination. As the 1980’s blossomed and we have now turned the corner into the new millennium, it is obvious (at least to some like me) where those fissures have led.
First, many of the most prominent, “big name” and influential preachers and speakers within the Churches of Christ today grew up in the turbulent ’60s and ’70s. They are also the children (and sometimes grand-children) of the sexual revolution (and anti-authority revolution) and the “me generation” of the post WWII baby boomers. They are embarrassed by the intra-sect fighting that took place after the war, and the (admittedly) sometimes vitriolic attacks on other groups. They became the most highly educated, and clearly the most affluent and well respected, “pastors” of mega-congregations that the Churches of Christ have ever witnessed.
With that new-found respectability, and sometimes popularity, has come a profound pressure to conform to the dominant culture. Now, remember, this journey to cultural accommodation started with both a rejection of pacifism and a growth in financial status as far back as the turn of the 20th century, not the 21st. So, my first answer to the question regarding “cheap grace” in the Churches of Christ has to do with the almost complete acceptance of, and even frequent promotion of, American nationalism and the enculturation that has come with it. The “must have” speakers within the Churches of Christ today are not the fiery prophets of the late 19th century, but the slick, polished, suave, charismatics that large stages and multi-site congregations demand.
At the same time this cultural shift was occurring, there was a similar doctrinal shift taking place within the Churches of Christ. (Note, some would argue the doctrinal changes created the cultural changes, or that the cultural changes sparked the doctrinal changes – I think the two are much more interconnected, and neither one “created” the other). To make a long story short, the Bible became less and less the cornerstone for settling questions of faith and decorum. I have witnessed in my own life a significant devaluing of Scripture, both within the church assembly itself and in the lives of individual Christians. Churches of Christ used to answer questions with, “the Bible says” or “Scripture teaches.” Increasingly I hear excuses for how we should NOT listen to certain passages of Scripture because the culture of their day is not reflected by our culture, therefore our culture is controlling. Which gets me right back to reason #1. This can be demonstrated in so many different areas – questions regarding marriage and divorce, the importance of baptism, restoration of the fallen, and, yes, instrumental music in worship and the increasing demand for equal roles for women in worship.
So, what caused this head-long fall into “easy-believeism” or “cheap grace” in which “I’m okay, you’re okay” and we can’t even critique other faiths because Jesus said, “judge not, lest ye be judged”? Why is it that so many congregations of the Churches of Christ have fully immersed themselves (pardon the pun) into evangelicalism and the quasi-universalism that flows from it? Why are so many congregations taking the name of Christ off of their building and replacing with words like “Community” or “Fellowship”?
First – the members of said congregations have become absolute slaves to the culture of the times, in which “tolerance” is the new golden rule and “exclusivism” is the new pariah.
Second – at the same time these congregations were making the move to total cultural adaptation, they were jettisoning the one foundation that had set them apart from other religious groups, and that was a reliance upon the Bible as the only sure foundation for settling questions of faith and practice.
It is not hard to be a member of these congregations. On the other hand, if Dietrich Bonhoeffer were to appear and preach he would be hanged again, not because he was a Lutheran, (ecumenical Churches of Christ would LOVE that) but because he demanded absolute total discipleship – and blatantly rejected nationalism and “cultural Christianity.” I’m afraid Jesus would not be accepted either – he was never very well accepted by the social or spiritual elites.