Category Archives: Leadership

The Depressing Burden of Mediocrity

I have come to a depressing, but inescapable conclusion.

No one wants to be exceptional anymore.

With very few exceptions (sports, maybe the arts), no one wants to stand out above their peers, and certainly no one wants to be accused of being exceptional in their field. Mediocrity has become the new obsession. Viva la vanilla.

I am reminded of a scene in one of my favorite movies. I cannot remember the script verbatim, but I can come close. The movie was “The Scarlet Pimpernel” and this particular version (I’m told there is more than one) is told through the eyes of an English fop who goes about rescuing members of the French aristocracy during the French Revolution. The scene is a lavish party in which the Englishman arrives impolitely late. He excuses himself with his usual bravado and over-the-top grandiosity by saying, “Sink me, if you Frenchmen are all not so equal that nobody wants to do the driving anymore.”

Americans have become so indistinguishably equal now that no one wants to drive anything anymore.

The debate about “American exceptionalism” over the past decade is just one, although a troubling one, example of this relatively recent development. Why is it that to suggest that the United States holds some sort of “primacy among peers” role is some sort of blasphemy? American soldiers were primarily (although clearly not solely) responsible for the winning of two world wars. American farmers feed more people than dozens, if not hundreds, of countries combined. When disaster strikes, American reserves and very often American lives are the first to alleviate the resulting misery. American ingenuity and technology drive the world’s economies.

Now – before you get your shorts all in a knot – I am not saying that America is the only country that feeds the homeless, fights in wars to free the oppressed, sends money, material and soldiers to rescue victims of disaster, and that invents all kinds of cool and beneficial products. What I am saying is that, at least for well over the past 100 years, the world has turned to the United States time and time again for help, and the United States has responded positively in virtually every case (alas, many times too late). Why is it considered anathema to be proud of those accomplishments, and our place of power in the world?

Ah, that mean, nasty, ugly, word power. Being exceptional means you have power, and most likely you use that power in an oppressive, unjust manner. Or, the only reason you are exceptional is because you are part of the power-system, which oppresses those who are clearly not exceptional.

Do you have straight “A’s” on your report card, are you on the Dean’s Honor roll? It is because you are privileged, and you are part of the oppression of the average student. Have you climbed the corporate ladder to reach the highest level of management (heaven forbid you become a CEO!)? It is because you have stepped on everyone underneath you, you have built your status with “the man” on the backs of the “people.” Have you worked hard, saved wisely, and can now retire with some measure of financial security? It is because you have stolen your future by oppressing those who do not have what you have. At every turn, those who have worked to obtain some level of exceptionalism at all are denigrated and sometimes attacked, whether physically or by words.

I was reminded of this phenomenon recently in a conversation with a new acquaintance. In a conversation regarding teaching at a university, he said that the concept of the “sage on the stage” is dead. That is, a professor is not supposed to hold his or her advanced knowledge in front of his or her students as some kind of virtue, but rather the professor is supposed to “flip the class” and let the students learn and explore the subject for themselves. Supposedly, this creates smarter students.

Hogwash and poppycock, I say! I am grateful, and increasingly so as I get older, that I was taught by some monumental “sages on the stage.” In fact, as I progressed through my education, those men only climbed higher in my estimation, not lower. They were brilliant – not only in what they had achieved academically, but in the manner in which they presented that material at just the right dose and at just the right time. I thank God none of them tried to “flip the class” while I was learning from them. There is a reason some men and women are exceptional scholars and teachers – and it is not so that they can make their precious little snowflake students feel like they are important!

Strive for mediocrity if you wish. Aim to be average if you must. Set your goal to “boring” and get off the highway to personal improvement at the next exit. As for me, I choose to aim for the exceptional, and then if I fail (ahem, when I fail) at least I will have challenged myself to be the best I can be. I will probably never be thought of as exceptional (except maybe by my dogs, bless their hearts) – but I refuse to acquiesce to the accusation of being mediocre (that’s what my cats are for, just to keep me humble).

May God bless all the exceptional people in my life, and may He bless you with the burning desire to be exceptional in His kingdom!

[By the way – in 1931 Dietrich Bonhoeffer skewered the American education system (primarily the theological educational system) for this exact problem. Compared to his education in Germany, he was shocked at how the American system was designed to be a “cordial exchange of opinions than an undertaking on behalf of knowledge.” So, maybe the drive for exceptionalism in the United States has always had its opponents. However, in some fields it was expected that students would not only strive to be the best, but would actually achieve that goal. See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Barcelona, Berlin, New York: 1928-1931, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (English) Vol. 10, Translated by Douglas W. Stott, p. 305-307.]

Love Letters to a Young Minister (letter 1)

(Note: in this series, which will show up from time to time, I want to address some issues concerning ministry from the point of view of the minister. But I want to do so in a constructive way, the way I wish someone had spoken to me many years ago. I may not have listened then, but just hearing the words might have helped. Feel free to share these words with a young man who is contemplating entering the ministry, or who has just started in ministry. If I just help one young family, I will have accomplished my goal.)

Dear young preacher,

I want you to know I write from love, the kind of love that has walked a mile in the shoes you are trying to wear every Sunday. I want you to know that not everything I will say will apply to you – so pay attention to what you think might fit and throw away the rest. Also, no one person can experience everything, so no doubt you will come across some things that I did not see, hear, or feel. As an old car sales commercial said a long time ago, “Your mileage may vary.” But on the other hand do not be too dismissive. As the inspired preacher once said, what goes around comes around (paraphrased, as you can guess). Nothing is ever entirely new. Life as a minister is always life as a minister.

I want to begin with this letter about your calling, your motivation to become a preacher. To be blunt, what makes you think you can even be a preacher? Has someone told you you should become a preacher because you have a powerful speaking voice? That you have great stage presence? That you have an air of confidence? That you are smart? Maybe even that you are handsome and attract people to you? Congratulations, but don’t think you are a preacher. Don’t get me wrong, these are all wonderful attributes. But none of them qualify you to be a preacher. A good sportscaster on TV, maybe. A preacher, not.

Church members are good at a lot of things, but guessing who will or will not be a good preacher is not one of their better strengths. If it was, every young man who ever stood up on Wednesday night and read a Scripture or led a song would become the next Billy Graham. Preaching – or rather the work of ministry – does not work that way. The world, and that means those who sit in the pew, look at the outside. God looks at the heart. If you do not have the heart for ministry it will not matter how handsome or beguiling your voice is. Your ministry will ultimately fail, no matter how popular you might become. If you have the heart for ministry God will make your service a success, even if you never preach to more than 50 people at a time. Don’t settle for the red stew of popularity if what you are searching for is the birthright of ministry.

Here are some other questions that might be more valuable in helping you decide if ministry is for you: Do people search you out for comfort and advice with their problems? Are you approachable and caring, or cold and prickly? Do you ache when you see someone else hurting? Are you able to just sit in silence with someone, or do you always have to have a quick solution? Can you sit for hours reading and studying out a complex literary problem? (let’s face it, the Bible is literature, if you cannot handle reading and meditation, go for the sportscaster job). Can you take pure, unabashed, venomous criticism and let it fall off your shoulders, or do you get upset if someone criticizes your favorite football team?

I hate to say this so bluntly, buddy, but when Jesus told his disciples to “take up their cross and follow him,” it is in all possibility that he – and they – were looking at a crucified criminal. Whether that is true or not, soon they would be looking at him hanging on that cross. Jesus did not call his disciples to a life of ease and comfort. To be quite honest, it very often hurts to be a minister. Don’t sign up unless you are at least willing to feel the pain.

Our world is up-side-down when it comes to viewing ministry. We look at the “wunderkinder,” the amazing twenty-or-thirty somethings who preach for multi-thousand member congregations as the pinnacle of preaching. Don’t go there. The majority of congregations of the Lord’s people have less than 150 members. Many have less than 100. Sure, some guys get the big gigs. Scratch their life very deep, though, and you might be pretty disgusted by what you uncover. As Jesus once said regarding a certain false piety – they have received their reward. It takes a certain kind of minister to properly lead a congregation of more than 1,000 members. Lord willing you will be there one day. But don’t try to bake a cake in 15 minutes. Take your time. Learn to love people. Learn to love the book. Learn to love God. If he wants you to be in front of a crowd, he will put you there. The cream always does rise to the top of the milk. Dead fish float to the top of the lake, too – so be careful about wanting to be on the top.

Yea, I know this letter has been kind of a downer. But, Jesus was careful to lay out the cost of discipleship before he accepted anyone’s enlistment papers. Take some time and think about you, your wife or girlfriend, your plans, your hopes, your dreams. Ask yourself if you are more interested in hearing the applause of the crowd, or hearing the quiet, “Well done” of your Father in heaven. I have much more to say about the joys, and humor, of preaching. I just wanted to “show my cards,” so to speak, before we get too deep. There will be plenty of time later for the confetti and cake.

Sincerely,

An old friend.

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.)

It’s Not Just About Bathrooms

Okay, a word of warning. Today’s installment is going to be a tad more theological than most of my fulminations. It will be perhaps a bit more philosophical as well. I will attempt to keep it as short as possible. (Yea, you’ve read that before!)

I was tempted to title this piece, “An Anthropological Defense of Theology,” but I figured no one would know what I was talking about. I’m not sure I would even understand that title (but it just sounded so erudite.) So, I went with a simpler, and perhaps more “click bait” title as above. So, I am going to be addressing the current debate over gender and all the related issues. But, understand, this discussion is not just about bathrooms, locker rooms, and the associated politics.

One truth I have discovered over the past few years is this, stated in bold and italics to emphasize its importance to my argument:

We cannot come to know, love, or serve God as He has called us to know, love, and serve him until we become fully what he has created us to be. In other words, we cannot be transformed into His likeness until we become fully and completely human – created to be in his perfect likeness at the beginning of time.

There, now you may want to get another cup of tea and cogitate on that for a while . . . I’ll be here when you get back.

And, (drum roll, please), the very, very first physical description of the what he created when he created mankind is . . . “male and female.” Yes, folks, you read it here first, there are two flavors of humanity – male and female. XX and XY chromosomes, and nothing else. At the very core of our being is the description “in the image of God.” Attached to that core – inseparable from that core – is our maleness and femaleness. Our gender* is a biological gift from God, written into the very DNA which also determines our fingerprints, eye color, and whether we will ever have the ability to play for the Minnesota Vikings or not.

How we accept this basic anthropological fact determines our theology. We cannot, and I repeat, we cannot, have a true and healthy understanding of God if we reject this fundamental truth of our own existence. While I am sure that volumes could be written (and indeed have been written) further exploring this concept, I want to bring that truth to bear on this issue of “gender” and bathrooms, and, just to make everyone mad, the issue of male spiritual leadership in the church.

The most fundamental question is this: Do we get to choose our gender? The answer from God’s word is an unequivocal “No.” We are born male or female. Now, it is also clear from Scripture that we as humans can choose how we participate in sexual behavior once we reach the age of maturity, but we cannot change our birth gender (surgical procedures and massive doses of hormones cannot change DNA structures!) From that fundamental question a host of questions follow. One of those questions is “What happens when I feel like I am a member of the opposite gender?”

The psychology of gender dysphoria is well beyond my expertise. I will, however, offer this thesis – having a feeling, and acting on that feeling, are two entirely different kettles of fish. I may feel like I am qualified to play running back for the Minnesota Vikings, but the reality is I would die trying to live out that feeling.

I see a profound irony in the current discussion of “transgender” and the use of restroom facilities. There is (currently) a huge uproar over the possibility of a full grown man who “feels” like a woman walking into a women’s restroom or gym locker room and being able to undress and shower with females who resent his presence. But, a woman who “feels” like she is gifted and can fulfill the responsibilities given to males is honored and praised. Am I the only one who sees this incongruity?

Regardless of the position you hold regarding complementarianism or egalitarianism, there is one thing you cannot deny. Throughout Scripture it is the male who is given the role of spiritual leadership. Now, if you hold the egalitarian position you can (attempt to) explain this univocal position away – but you cannot deny the fact of its existence. From Adam to Noah to Moses to David to Jesus to the apostles, there is virtually no variation in the role of men providing spiritual protection and leadership.**

It is an inconvenient truth – a number of women want to keep men out of their locker rooms, but have no problem at all with accepting the mantle of spiritual leadership. The irony, at least as far as I see it, is that they deny the “feelings” of the transgender male/female, while at the same time they want to legitimize and promote their “feeling” that God has given them the same gifts and responsibilities as a male.

I don’t get it.

If a woman can “feel” gifted and therefore demand the role of a male regardless of her physical gender, why is it so hard to believe that a male can “feel” feminine and therefore demand access to facilities our culture has previously limited to those of genetic femaleness?

I return, then, to my statement made earlier in bold and italics. Until we come to fully accept our humanity – including our birth gender (sex) – we will never be able to be transformed and grow into the full likeness of God.

Has the church been too “patriarchal?” Have we limited the role of women in the church more than what God would have them to serve? Can we do a better job of honoring and promoting the gifts and abilities of the women in the church? Perhaps the answer to all of these questions is a resounding “yes!” I do not want to perpetuate stereotypes just because they are comfortable.

But this is not just about bathrooms, people. Ultimately, this is about how we understand God. If we can’t understand anthropology, how in the world do you think we can understand theology?

*There is a considerable debate as to whether the correct word should be “gender” or “sex.” I have heard it argued that “gender” is the appropriate term for the study of linguistic categories (as in, masculine, feminine or neuter nouns in inflected languages). Others interpret the word “sex” as primarily a verb – we participate in sex (as in sexual intercourse) but we are born with a gender. Honestly the debate is over my head. I prefer the less provocative term “gender,” but if it is a technical misuse of the word, I would be content to use the word “sex.” For the purpose of this article, I will use the term “gender” to refer to our maleness or femaleness. If any of my readers can explain the difference to me, I would love to be set straight.

**Whatever her position was, Deborah was not described a spiritual leader. The role of “Judge” was more of a political/tribal leader, not spiritual (see Samson, for example). The weak and highly debated arguments from Romans 16 suggesting that a particular female was a leader of a church would only describe a significant exception (if proven), not the rule. With no unambiguous evidence to the contrary, I will defend the position that the leaders of the New Testament congregations were all males.

Churches of Christ – The Road Ahead

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.]

Not Quite a Full Book Review – The Pastoral Epistles (George W. Knight III) [NIGTC series]

I am diving into some long-neglected textual studies, and the book I selected to serve as my first effort is George W. Knight’s The Pastoral Epistles in the New International Greek Testament Commentary series (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1992.) This is not a full book review, as I have only really moved beyond the introductory material, but I had to share this information with anyone who is interested.

In the discussions (wars?) between those who agitate for equality for women in the leadership roles of the church and those who posit a more conservative (complementarian) view, one argument that is presented prominently by the egalitarians is that the Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus) were not written by Paul (as they clearly claim to be). The “evidence” provided is that the letters demonstrate a development of congregational leadership that did not occur until the early 2nd century, and that the language, style, and even the content of the letters is vastly different than the “acknowledged” letters of Paul. The purpose of this argumentation is transparent – if Paul did not write the Pastoral Epistles, and they can be demonstrated to be from a much later time period, then the instructions regarding male leadership can be dismissed because they are “sub-apostolic” or “post-apostolic.”

What I want to share is that Knight provides probably the best, most complete, and forceful refutation of those arguments I have ever read. The material from pages 21-52 should be mandatory reading for any student of the Bible – if for no other reason than Knight works methodically through the arguments against Pauline authorship, and demonstrates that each and every one is either demonstrably false, or at the very least, has equal basis for Pauline authorship.

I have only briefly skimmed Knight’s material on the qualifications for the eldership, but his treatment of 1 Tim. 2:8-15 is equally forceful in refuting the arguments of the egalitarians. (Knight does not personally wade into the “gender wars.” He simply explicates the text, allowing the clear meaning of the text to come through.) Those who oppose Knight must come to the discussion with far more “ammunition” than what I have seen presented. The text of Timothy (and I would argue the rest of the New Testament as well) simply does not support their contentions.

To summarize this brief glimpse, the introductory material in this commentary demonstrates how wrong various scholars are when they attempt to date the Pastoral Epistles past the time of Paul, and therefore the attempt to dismiss Paul’s teaching on male spiritual leadership is equally wrong. Knight refutes each argument (elegantly and powerfully), concluding that Paul was indeed the author and therefore the teachings in the book are fully apostolic and trustworthy.

One brief additional note: the commentary is indeed based on the Greek text, so a reader who has no background in NT Greek will be handicapped once the textual commentary begins, but the contents of the commentary would still be valuable to an “English only” reader. It would just take a little more effort to understand completely what is being presented.

Judged not by Fame but by Faithfulness

My daily Bible reading and devotional thought gave me quite a jolt today – but hopefully in a good way. I was reminded, once again, of how many different ways we as humans attempt to justify our existence by our awards, achievements, and accomplishments – the stuff of resumes. And, I was reminded of how virtually all of that striving is utterly rejected in the Kingdom of God.

That truth is especially meaningful to me as I survey the contemporary “postmodern” church scene. Scores of articles and research tools have been published informing church leaders how they are to modify their efforts in order to win and keep this or that generation of believers. The entire message can be encapsulated in the dictum that numbers mean everything, and if you are not growing you are not successful, you are just not “doing” church right. So we have to “re-imagine” church, or re-define church, or whatever the latest poll or survey says we need to do.

Preachers are especially vulnerable to this siren song. Perhaps it has always been this way, but is is clearly true today. Young men look to the trend setting churches and dream of preaching at such a “successful” church. Small congregations that do nothing but stay faithful to the gospel are not even given a second glance. Maybe one day they will be invited to speak at their favorite lectureship. You have to be a “senior” minister at a mega-church for that to happen, though. No “small congregation” ministers need apply. A church that is looking to hire a preacher demands “proven” success in evangelism and church growth. Lists upon lists are given as to what a preacher is to “do,” but very little about what he is supposed to “be.” Job descriptions can run multiple pages long. Sadly, many of the items listed could also describe a “community organizer.” Very, very few items pertain to the gifts of the Spirit.

Somewhere lost in all the search for praise and acclamation is the message of the towel and basin. Jesus gave the greatest lesson on leadership this world has ever witnessed, and he did it without a word. He took a towel, and a water basin, and washed his disciples’ feet. In the Kingdom of God, leaders are defined by service, not by stature. In the Kingdom, we descend upwards. The last will be first, the least shall be greatest.

This morning, I needed to hear a message from God’s word, and it was given to me:

In the Kingdom of God, we will be judged not by fame, but by faithfulness.

What is Education? (revisited)

Funny that something so basic can be so misunderstood. So much of what is passed off as “education” today is nothing of the sort. This is how I have come to understand education.

First, all education begins with a challenge to what we have previously known or accepted as true. You simply cannot learn something that you already know or believe. You can be reminded of something that you once learned and had forgotten, but to use the terms learn or education concerning something that you already know is to misuse the terms.

Second, one takes the challenge of the new thought or idea and puts it to a critical analysis. Here is where the student says, “I’ve never thought of this before, or in this way. I wonder what others have to say about this.” In elementary school the final source of truth might be our parents, but usually we confirm a new idea before we accept it as our own. If we do not have an “ultimate authority” we keep knocking the idea around with others until we can confirm or deny the new concept.

Learning does not stop with critical analysis, however. A third step involves returning to that which I already know, and either assimilating or rejecting the worth of the new idea. Most of what I read concerns thoughts or ideas that I have not previously experienced. I can confirm that those thoughts and ideas are, indeed true and correct as far as they go. Much of that, however, are thoughts and ideas that are not important to me and I basically ignore or forget them as soon as I learn them (sort of the study, test, and dump that most students practice on a regular basis). Yes, you can say that I have learned a great deal about the grammar of the Greek language – but I can assure you I have assimilated very little of it. I have to go back repeatedly and remind (there’s that word again) myself of concepts I have previously learned. On the other hand, if I need to know something, and can use it immediately and repeatedly, that fact or practice becomes a part of my life. Thankfully I did not have to remind myself of the principles of landing an airplane every time I took off. I learned it, and it became “second nature” in a very real way.

The final step in education then returns to the first step, and we are prepared to challenge ourselves, or be challenged by, another thought, idea, concept, or practice. The circle, or spiral, continues as long as we live, or at least as long as we aspire to learn. It is certainly true that we can remind ourselves of a great many things – and a great many things are worth our time to pull out and remember from time to time. But, to expand our mind we must challenge, analyze, assimilate and challenge again.

I fear the misnaming of education is a mistake that is all too frequently made in church settings. In far too many Bibles “classes” challenge is not accepted. The only thing that can be discussed is what is already known, approved, and accepted. Not even the teacher is allowed to study things that are new or challenging, for fear that some of his new “learning” might infiltrate his presentations. If there is no challenge there can be no critical analysis. In fact, there cannot be any critical analysis of things that are already accepted and approved. There can be no “what” or “why” questions – unless the subject involves an outsider, and we wonder what or why “they” think the way they do. If there is no critical analysis, there can be no assimilation, no “building” upon a previous foundation. Only that which is approved can be approved. That is circular thinking, and that is not education.

My greatest mentors over the first half of my formative years were all devout (and brilliant, by the way) members of the Churches of Christ. I learned from men such as Everett Ferguson, John Willis, Ian Fair, Neil Lightfoot, Bill Humble, Lemoine Lewis, and Eugene Clevenger. These are men who epitomize education to me. Most, or at least many, of them obtained their doctoral degrees from the pinnacle of Ivy League (and, not to be redundant, liberal) universities. Yet, they remained true to the Restoration plea that the Bible, and the Bible alone, is the ultimate authority to which all new ideas and concepts must be compared. My greatest mentors over the last few decades of my life have been outsiders to this circle of faith – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, C.S. Lewis, and even more recent, N.T. Wright. Having a solid foundation, I can compare what is new, unfamiliar, and in some cases unsettling, with what I previously learned to be true. I have come to learn (pardon the pun) that much of what these “outsiders” teach is actually true – true in the biblical sense, but perhaps not true in the sense of my tradition. Not all, to be sure – I do have to exercise my critical analysis muscles quite a bit!

I am distressed by those who refuse to be challenged, and so to expand their education. I am equally distressed to read, and to hear, of those who claim to be leaders in the Churches of Christ today who begin with the challenge, and then jump straight to assimilation without the critical analysis phase. How did Everett Ferguson come away from that bastion of liberalism known as Harvard with such a conservative understanding? Because his feet were well grounded, and he was not swayed by “every philosophy” that blew his way.  Suffice it to say that our pulpits are full of preachers who catch wind of a new idea, and, embarrassed by their suffocating “tradition,” blithely follow that new idea where ever it blows, even if it blows up. Jumping on every new and sexy idea is not education. Forcing your congregation to follow you into your folly is not leadership. However, I am afraid we have idolized those who are the least worthy of our following, and we have mistakenly identified blind allegiance as true education.

I am, by nature and by nurture, an educator. I simply adore teaching. I love it when my students “get it.” But I don’t want it to be easy. I want there to be some struggle, and I do not necessarily want them to accept every “i” and “t” as I present them. I want my students to get an education – and some day it would be a great honor for one of them to teach this old dawg a new trick or two.

*Note: Arrrrgh. I just realized I posted under this exact title some time ago. That is the thing about my memory – it works so irregularly that almost everything is brand new to me. Sorry for any whiplash that folks might have experienced.

Why America is Doomed (And it has Nothing to do with Homosexuality)

To begin, I am not an “expert” in the field of education. However, I have had more than the average experience both in learning and teaching. I just completed my Doctor of Ministry degree – not the highest peak on Mt. Academia, but it was a hefty hike. I have about 4 years (give or take a month or two) as a flight instructor, both on the ground and in the air, and that qualifies as some pretty unique educational opportunities. When you have a student and a classroom in which death is a very real possibility, you learn to teach effectively pretty quickly. I also have now been teaching in a community college or university setting for four years (one semester at a community college, 3 and 1/2 years at a university). So – Ed. D. I am not, nor am I a retired public educator. But – I have been around the block a couple of times. And, I have a daughter in elementary school – so I can see what is happening from the bottom-up, as well as the top-down.

Everyone is worried about the demise of America via the path of immorality. While I share everyone’s worry about the collapse of biblical morals in our country, I am not convinced that America will fail (or fall) because of lax morals. To be perfectly honest, during the “Roaring 20’s” the crime rate, examples of racial animosity, and, yes, sexual perversity makes our present age look pretty tame. I certainly would not want to be transported back to that time period. Granted, much of the sexual perversity was hidden, but I seriously doubt it was as invisible as many would have us to believe.

No, the reason I fear for America is because of our stunning – almost inexplicable – rejection of the basic concept of education.

I love my students, I really do. There are a few I would like to strangle, but in a good way. I just do not think they are working up to their potential. My frustration with the students in today’s university is that they have been so utterly and completely cheated. They have been told they are the most brilliant, smartest, and most over-achieving generation to grace the world stage – and many of them cannot compose a coherent sentence, let alone an argumentative paragraph or essay. They have been lied to, mass promoted, babied, and coddled ever since they entered kindergarten.

My wife hates it when I get on these rants because she is a substitute teacher, and she is all too familiar with the stresses of teaching. In no way do I want to disparage the well-meaning and hard-working teachers in today’s classrooms. As in any profession there are a lot of bad apples in the barrel, and they certainly give the rest a bad reputation, but 99% of the teachers in today’s classrooms are hard-working, dedicated, education professionals.

The problem with education today revolves around a group of people who, to borrow a phrase, should not even be trusted to be left alone with a pack of matches. They are called “politicians.” Their only job is to raise obscenely huge amounts of money and then to turn that money into votes. They know nothing about education, and except for the occasions when they must address the issue, could care less about education. Professional politicians have gutted the education system here in New Mexico – and they appear to be utterly oblivious to the fact.

Closely related to the politicians are the professional administrative staffs that, as with the politicians, know little and care less about classroom teaching. Those administrators who work their way up from the classroom are generally good administrators. However, those who have nothing more than a higher degree in “Educology” are disasters in the schools. All theory and no practical experience, they take what the politicians hand them and force the teachers to follow. If we had a few more administrators who were willing to stand up to the politicians, our schools would be so much the better.

I am intimately aware of a state university that has been told – get this – that its library holdings are too large. Yes, you read right. The university has to cut its library holdings by upwards of 50 percent because there was simply too many books and journals on the shelves. There must be room made for the foofy coffee and deli bar. And no library would be complete without a commons area where students can gather and plot their next demonstration against the administration. Oy vey. I guess you get what you pay for.

At its core, education is really a very simple process. You start with the absolute minimum that is necessary, and you add piece by piece, drilling and memorizing and practicing and rehearsing, until you have a principle or a concept mastered. Then you add another piece, and you drill and memorize and practice and rehearse until it is mastered – and on and on you go. There is something wonderfully egalitarian about the fact that in English subjects almost always precede verbs, and the fact that 5 x 4 = 20. The social issues faced in an inner city school in Baltimore cannot be compared to the social issues faced on the reservations of northwest New Mexico, but nouns and verbs and multipliers and divisors are always the same. For all the variables in social contexts, education itself is wonderfully fair. If you work hard, you learn. If you play all day, and if your teacher’s hands are basically tied behind their backs – you don’t learn. And that, my friends, is what is happening all across our beautiful fruited plain.

Employers are experiencing a greater and greater difficulty in hiring qualified workers. Simple tasks like writing a report or giving a public presentation are impossible when the employee is used to communicating with sentences like “y are u l8??” I have students that think Wikipedia is an academic cornucopia, except that they would not recognize what the word “cornucopia” actually means unless they “google” it.

America is at risk – and not necessarily from immorality. America is at risk because young Americans are not being pushed to be the most highly educated workers in the world economy. We are in the process of dumbing down our educational system to the point that our graduates will simply not be able to find good jobs, and those that do end up being employed are going to have to be re-trained and re-taught by their employers at a staggering cost. Those nations that insist on basic, fundamental education are going to pass by the United States like we were standing still, if they have not already done so.

The United States put men on the moon learning how to spell and cipher and speak intelligently using techniques that are now considered passé and, in some circles, even damaging. I wonder why that is? Are we actually afraid of success? Do we actually fear accomplishment? Why do we reward mediocrity? Why is everyone so content with this trend?

I give a huge shout-out to my peers who genuinely do care about their students and the process of education. I hope you serve long enough to see the trend reversed. I know you care – and I thank my daughter’s teachers who care about her and her classmates. I know how you are limited – and I see your frustration. Maybe, just maybe, sanity will return, and you can begin teaching the way your heart and your head tell you is the best way to teach. We can hope, anyway.

Political Correctness is Killing the Church

It’s been a long time since I have had two spare minutes to put together in a sequence, but I just finally decided that I was going to sit down and write again. So much has happened (in the big world, and in my little world). Where to begin . . .

As an observer and sometimes participant in the development of thoughts and ideas of people around me, I have noticed something that increasingly bothers me. The old idea of “political correctness” is just killing the church. I say that as someone who is both guilty and who abhors the idea. As Walt Kelley said through the mouth of Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Have you ever stopped to consider how much time we spend worrying about and finding ways NOT to offend someone? I work with and around a lot of young people, and regardless of where I am or who I am with, one major consideration about the words or the images that are raised in a discussion is this: will what I say, or even the manner in which I say it, be considered offensive to someone around me? I am not speaking about flagrant obscenities or obvious insults. I am talking about normal, everyday speech in which we use images or ideas that, for whatever reason, have been deemed “off-limits” by some group or conglomeration of groups.

One particular issue that troubles me about this “politically correct speech” creep is that it is creeping into the pulpits of our churches. Ever since the decision by the Supreme Court that homosexuals should have the right to marry, virtually every speech, sermon, or piece of writing begins with the same tepid caveat – “I don’t want to be misunderstood, and we are all sinners, and I do not want to be judgmental . . . blah, blah, blah.”

I can’t imagine the apostle Paul apologizing for his convictions. The idea that any of the church fathers, or Calvin, or Luther, or Charles Spurgeon, or any great preacher for that matter, backing up before he even said a word is just ludicrous to me. Do we want to be intentionally offensive in our speech or response to outsiders?? No, and I do not know who would suggest that we should be offensive or vicious in our speech.

I just do not see how we can “welcome” homosexuals into our congregations “with the intent to change their hearts” unless we say straight-out and up-front – “homosexual behavior is a sin.” Personally, I am deeply suspicious of the psycho-babble about “same sex attraction,” as I think it is just a circular way to minimize the seriousness of homosexual behavior, but I am willing to be taught is someone can prove such an animal exists.

I just do not see how we can discuss “allowable” or “acceptable” forms of abortion if our goal is to protect the lives of unborn children. Either abortion is the unlawful and murderous taking of a human life, or it is not. To equivocate is to surrender the morality of the question. Do we excommunicate or burn those who have experienced an abortion (a female) or one who has caused or paid for an abortion (a male)? No, but neither do we soft-pedal the seriousness of the crime.

And, this – which hits me squarely between the eyes – do we wink and look the other way when we see a couple who is blatantly living together although not married so that we can “teach them the gospel when they are at church”? No – once again, to equivocate is to surrender. We have swallowed the politically correct pill, and it is killing the church. We have lost our backbone and our nerve to confront ANY sin, much less the big moral collapses of the 21st century.

Please, do not think I speak as a perfect example of rigid moral perfection. I have, for way too long, been guilty of turning aside when the issue demanded firm, but loving, confrontation. Stated more baldly, I’m a wimp. But that does not excuse me, nor does it give me any comfort. How many people have I given the impression that their behavior is acceptable to God simply because I am afraid I might offend them or hurt their feelings? Too many to count.

We must wake up. We must grow a spine. We must learn to confront – with the spirit of Christ, for sure – but we must learn how to confront.

Remember – he did braid a whip and drive the godless from his Father’s house. That, my friends, was politically incorrect.

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