Category Archives: Theology
Many Christians despise theology, and especially theologians (I will overlook the irony for now, but believe me I see it). “We don’t do theology – we just read and study the Bible” is a common belief, if not outright statement. Alexander Campbell stated emphatically that there would never be a chair of theology at the first college established for ministers of the Restoration Movement (okay, more irony, but let’s move on). In my undergraduate and graduate studies I had courses in Old Testament Teaching and New Testament Teaching, but they could not be labeled Old Testament Theology or New Testament Theology.
So, last night I was reading a book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer has become one of the early 20th centuries most studied, admired, and discussed theologians. Underline that – he was a preeminent theologian, educated by some of the most famous theologians in Germany – and at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He argued with Karl Barth, for crying out loud. No one who rightly knows which end is up can argue that Bonhoeffer is anything other than a top-flight theologian.
Okay – so have I made my point?
So, as I was saying, I was reading in Bonhoeffer and I came across this section –
Theology is the discipline in which a person learns how to excuse everything and justify everything. A good theologian can never be cornered theologically; in everything he says he is just. And the theologian can acknowledge even this without a word of penance. Whoever has begun to justify himself with the help of theology itself has already fallen into the devil’s grip, and as long as he is a theologian, he can never get free! Be a good theologian but keep theology three paces away from you; otherwise eventually it will mortally endanger you. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his lecture on Pastoral Care, see Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (in English) vol. 14, Theological Education at Finkenwalde: 1935-1937, p. 591, emphasis Bonhoeffer’s).
What was Bonhoeffer’s corrective to the danger of “theology” as he presented it? Staying in the word of God, reading the word of God, preaching the word of God, meditating on the word of God, and praying unceasingly.
Hmmm. Sounds very restorationist, if you ask me. And, if you ask me again, very unpretentious of a top-rate theologian.
Its a funny thing – a substance can either be the best thing in the world for what ails you, or it can kill you. I heard of a speaker one time who wanted to illustrate this point. He wanted to warn his audience of the dangers of di-hydrous oxide. Not only to warn his audience, but to actually drive them to take immediate action against this silent killer. Millions died from di-hydrous oxide poisoning every year, millions more were damaged to some degree. What was worse, di-hydrous oxide was everywhere! He had his statistics, he had his anecdotes, he had his impassioned pleas. After working his audience into a froth, he then called on them to eliminate the pernicious evil of di-hydrous oxide from their midst. There was nary a soul agin’ his proposal – but they did have one question – what exactly was di-hydrous oxide? Water. Plain and simple water. Two hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecule. Pure poison, that stuff, if used in extreme amounts. Except, we can’t live without it, when taken appropriately.
What can be a prescription for health can also kill. Even that which is necessary for life can kill, if it is applied in incorrect amounts. That which is blatantly obvious in the medical world is also just as equally true in the political and spiritual world, although perhaps not quite so obvious.
For just a slight digression, I think of the concepts of grace and faith. Two of the pillars of the Reformation were the twin concepts of grace only and faith only. That is, sinners are saved by grace only through faith only. Can you preach or teach too much grace, or too much faith? Well, not to get anyone’s underwear tied up in a knot, but yes you can. The idea of grace which is taught beyond what is demonstrated in Scripture becomes universalism – everyone is saved regardless of beliefs or behavior. Clearly, Scripture teaches that God abounds in grace, and that we are saved through that over-abundance of grace (Ephesians, anybody?). But, scripturally speaking, even grace has its limits. Same with faith: faith pushed beyond its scriptural limits is the enemy of faith itself (just exactly what James explained!). This is why Martin Luther was right to stress grace and faith, but wrong to include the word “only.” Yes, we are saved by grace (anyone who wants to deny that has not read Paul’s letters), and yes we are saved by faith. But grace is limited by God’s righteous judgement (he will condemn evil!), and faith must be demonstrated through righteous behavior. I now return to my previous thoughts, already in progress . . .
The prescription I am thinking of today is the idea of individualism. Taken in the right percentage, individualism is a good thing – a healthy thing. Take too much though and individualism becomes a noxious, deadly poison.
The idea of individual rights and freedoms is one of the concepts that has made the United States so great. I would not want to leave any other place than the good old U. S. of A., and the freedom we have entrenched in the Bill of Rights is one of the main reasons I can make that statement. What other nation, or what other culture, has created the space for so many people to achieve their goals, dreams, and even fantasies? What other nation, or what other culture, tells everyone, regardless of race, gender, or other identifiable characteristic, that he or she can become anything that person wants or dreams about? It is true that opportunities for success are not always equal, but such inequalities are not systemic in the type of a caste or hierarchical system. In America we not only protect individual rights, we also promote individual industriousness and creativity.
However, that individualism has taken a decisively bitter turn. That which was healthy has now become toxic. Increasingly, the twisted ideations of a few individuals are overwhelming the rights and protections of the community. Individualism has run amok. The engine that has created so much good has now jumped the tracks, and the carnage that it will leave in its wake will be devastating – if we do not stop it somehow.
What is true in the political/social world is also true in the church. The concept that every person, each individual, can read and understand the Bible for him or her self should be self-evident (pardon the pun). However, taken to an extreme, that radical individualism is actually destroying the community of the faithful. The primary unit of faith in the Old Testament was not the individual, it was the qahal, the community, the people of God. In the New Testament the individual was not the primary unit of faith, it was the ekklesia, the community, the people of God. Individuals had value as a part of the whole – as a part of the community. Today, the community (the church) is only considered a by-product of our rabid individualism. If we do not like what our present community (that we selected because of our individual preferences to begin with) says, we simply leave and find a community more favorable to what we want. We have the cart in front of the horse, and we cannot figure out why we are not moving anywhere.
A friend and I were discussing this issue recently in the context of the value of a higher education. Our extreme attachment to “rugged individualism” has fostered a distrust, and sometimes even an active dislike, of higher education. How often have you heard (or said) the comment, “I don’t need those silly commentaries or study books- they’re just written by a bunch of ivory-towered egg-heads. All I need is my Bible.” Toxic individualism at its worst.
The fact is, we desperately need those silly commentaries and study books written by those ivory-towered egg-heads. It is those ivory-towered egg-heads that translated our Bibles into English in the first place – and then helped us understand all of the bizarre and often opaque words, ideas, practices, and concepts that we find in the pages of the Bible.
In short – we need our community of scholars to save us from our toxic individualism. Left to our own inclinations we will interpret the Bible to mean exactly what we want it to mean. The hundreds, if not thousands, of different “churches” in the United States is all the evidence I need to prove that point. The vast community of scholars (egg-heads) we have available to us keeps us from doing that – they hold our feet to the fire and make us wrestle with centuries of other voices. Sometimes these voices are not correct in what they say – but they often challenge and correct our false understandings as well.
I do not put my faith in those “silly commentaries.” I want to obey only the Word of God. But I am a stronger Christian when I stand in community than when I stand alone – and this is no place more true than in my interpretation of Scripture.
Jaroslav Pelikan wrote what has become the defining understanding of the value of hearing other voices: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”
Traditionalism is the end result of unchecked, poisonous individualism. I want to, and I hope I do, teach the living faith of tradition.
This post is intended to be a companion piece to my post of yesterday, so if you did not read that article, use the little arrow thingy and back up a page.
I think most Americans are familiar with the screech made by our former Secretary of State when she was being questioned about the murders of our ambassador and assistants in Benghazi. “What does it matter, anyway?” was her response when being questioned about what she knew, when she knew it, and what could have been done differently. “What does it matter, anyway” has become the mantra of an entire generation of Americans – not just politicians with a failed policy on their hands.
Yesterday I discussed the fact that we (primarily in the church) simply do not have the ability to stand firm anymore. Well, that is only partly true. We will fight to our last drop of blood over the color of the curtains, the positioning of the furniture, and the name of the song book that gathers dust in the book rack; but when it comes to issues of genuine faith, of matters that cut to the core of the gospel, we have one timid little response – “What does it matter, anyway?”
I see three primary reasons why congregational leaders, and therefore the congregations they lead, have found it impossible to stand firm against the onslaught of post-modern secularism. They are: a lack of a foundation, a lack of support, and a lack of courage. Let me address each of these individually.
First, I see the primary issue involved in an inability to stand firm as being the complete lack of a solid foundation. Most important, we have lost the foundation of knowing Scripture. Although we exist with the veneer of being a “Bible people,” we really do not know the Bible. This is true to varying degrees in many elderships, and is only magnified as we move down the generations. Elders today are not selected because of their knowledge of the Bible and their ability to put that knowledge into practice. Elders today are chosen because they are good business men, they are popular, they have the “perfect” family, and maybe even because they come from a long line of previous elders. My wife relates the story of having an elder get furious with her because she corrected him during a teen Bible class. If teenagers can correct men who are supposed to be the spiritual leaders of a congregation, that congregation is in serious trouble. I wonder, though, how many teenagers would know more Bible than their elders? Our knowledge of the Bible is pathetic, and it is impossible to stand for issues of faith when we do not know what that faith is.
In addition to a lack of knowledge of Scripture, we have an even lower (if possible) level of knowledge of our history – our tradition. Some would even argue that we do not have a tradition. Yea, and babies come from underneath cabbage leaves. Tradition is a wonderful thing – a blessed thing. But you would not know that by talking to the average member of the Church of Christ. We know nothing of Alex and Bart and Walt and my favorite – ol’ Raccoon John himself. How could we know anything of our history, and why would we even want to, the way it is disparaged and ridiculed from the majority of pulpits and lectureships in the country? Here is a indisputable but despised fact: the more liberal a person is, the closer that person is to the most radical conservative in at least one respect – they both hate our history. Liberals hate it because, to them anyway, it makes us look foolish, immature, and ignorant. Ultra conservatives hate it because we are simply not supposed to have a history – we popped out of the ground fully grown in 33 A.D., and except for a few hiccups now and then, have been pretty much a perfect people. Both extremes are utterly and damnably wrong – contra the conservatives we have a history that stretches back to Abraham at the very least (remember, the “Father of the faithful”), but is made up of every nook and cranny of human history from that point on. And, contra the liberals, it is a wonderful, beautiful, mesmerizing, and totally enlightening history. Alex and Bart and Walt and ol’ Raccoon were brilliant theologians and practitioners. But you would not know it if you read any of our most recent attempts at explaining our Restoration History. (Okay, rant over.)
Second, elders – and especially our young people – find it difficult, if not impossible, to stand firm because they get little or no support when they try. It’s one thing to get shot in the chest when you are facing an opponent – but it is something entirely different when you are getting shot in the back at the same time. I have seen good men reduced to meaningless figureheads not by their opponents, but by the congregation they were leading. There is a good reason the author of the book of Hebrews wrote, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account.” (Hebrews 13:17). It is frustrating when an eldership appears to be paralyzed, but it is disastrous when an eldership takes a stand on an issue they consider to be a matter of faith, only to be skewered by the flock they are attempting to protect. Or imagine the confusion of a spiritually mature 16 year old girl who objects to having to shower next to a psychologically damaged 16 year old boy (in all his anatomically glorious self) only to be told that she is being a bully and needs to be more sensitive – and this by members of her own congregation! It is often difficult to take a stand when you know it is going to be controversial, or even worse, contradictory to secular theories. That difficulty is multiplied exponentially when the people you believe to be your spiritual family abandons you.
Finally, there is the issue of courage. It is difficult to take a stand on a matter of faith if you are confused about what that faith is, and if you are convinced that no one will stand with you if you try. But it is utterly impossible to take that stand if you are a coward, even if you know the truth and have a whole army standing behind you. I believe most elders and a majority of young people are good men and kids. But there is a disturbingly large percentage of elders (and adolescents) who are nothing more than weak-kneed, limp-wristed, lilly-livered cowards (I am trying to restrain myself here). These are individuals who know the truth, and who know that there are people who are looking to them for leadership and will defend them to the last bullet. They choose – willingly – to accept the path of least resistance anyway. They do not want to cause a scuffle. They do not want to be seen as being “old fogies.” They are more interested in their image than in their position of leaders (and yes, young people can be awesome leaders). Ignorance can be educated away. Support can be generated. But cowardice? Cowardice kills before the battle is even joined. “There is nothing to fear, except fear itself.” Oh, what timeless words.
Christians who are concerned about the perilous times in which we live must do three things. We must return to the Bible, we must once again become a people of the book. We cannot stand firm for a faith of which we are ignorant. We must also not only accept, but we must come to appreciate our history – from Abraham to the apostles to the Reformation to the Restoration to our present day. We are products of our history – and we must learn from that history or we are certainly doomed to repeat its disasters. We must stand in solidarity with those who are taking a risk to defend their faith. We must support our elders when they say “no” to the Baals and Asherahs of secularism. We must support our young people when they refuse to be driven by the twisted beliefs of this culture. And finally we must learn what it means to be biblically courageous – to “Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong” (1 Cor. 16:13). In a memorable line from one of my wife’s favorite movies, “Courage is not the absence of fear – courage is the decision that there is something more important than fear.”
All of this is critical because our faith, our morals, our beliefs, that which we stand on – all of these things matter very much.
What does it matter anyway?
Stand at the foot of the cross and ask that question. Then you may get it.
(Update, Aug. 11, 2016 – it occurred to me that some might notice that I omitted preachers from this discussion. Be assured, I have no mistaken ideas that ministers/preachers are exempt from being cowardly and just flat-out ignorant. As I was writing I was thinking primarily of congregational leadership, and for some strange, backward, unknown reason I still believe that ministers serve under the eldership, not above them. Yes, ministers/preachers lead, but if the elders would exert their God-given authority, fewer young trash-talking preachers would have a pulpit to do so.)
Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. (1 Corinthians 16:13, RSV)
One of the benefits of growing older, I have learned, is that your vision becomes more clear. Not necessarily your eyesight, which I have also learned, becomes more blurry – but your vision. You are able to apprehend things in a manner that youth simply cannot perceive. A few people can see them when they are young, and we notice these individuals and label them as “visionaries” or “mystics.” Old people are called crotchety or old fogies. I appear to be approaching old fogyism.
One of the things I have perceived over the past few years is that with each new “generation,” the ability to stand firm with any teaching or principle that contradicts the prevalent culture – what we call “political correctness” – is slowly but steadily disappearing. In other words, it is perfectly acceptable to “stand firm” when you are defending the garbage that issues from the LGBTQ faction. Such firmness is even considered downright heroic. However, let a high school boy or girl raise their voice in defense of Biblical sexuality and you would think Adolf Hitler himself had been reincarnated. Defend the “right” of a male to use the female locker room just because he “identifies” as a female and you win humanitarian of the year award. Defend the right of a female to be safe in the same locker room and you are vilified as being inhuman (or worse). In many ways I cannot imagine what it must be like to be a young Christian in the typical American high school. The pressure to conform or to be ostracized must be monumental.
I see this trend being played out increasingly within congregations of the Lord’s church. “Can’t we all get along” is the mantra of the day – and that is a very difficult idea to argue against. We have been divided over so many inconsequential things; it would be wonderful if we could learn how to put our personal wants and wishes aside for just a few moments and genuinely consider how we can work together for the kingdom. But there are limits to “just getting along.” There is a line – however narrow – between right and wrong, truth and error, holy and profane, good and evil. God gave us the sense, and he gave us the instructions, to know the difference. To fail to draw those distinctions is to fail to obey God.
The key to understanding the difference between standing firm and looking for compromise is in the above verse (just to list one). Paul said to “stand firm in your faith.” He did not say to demand your opinion in matters of methodology or in matters that are by their nature “inconsequential.” He dealt with those issues in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 and 9. There are matters that cut to the very core of what it means to be a unified body of Christ, and there are matters that are of individual preference and taste. The first are matters of faith the second are matters of function.
I do not want to suggest that determining the difference between these two poles is always easy. I do want to emphasize that doing so is necessary. To divide a congregation over an issue that is simply a matter of methodology is to sin against the body of Christ. To accept, and to practice, a teaching that violates either the letter or the spirit of Scripture is to commit either heresy, or at the very least, heterodoxy. Read the letters to the seven churches in Revelation chapters 2 and 3. Note the difference between being reprimanded (the loss of love, the need to stand firm) and being condemned (the teachings of the Nicolaitans, the woman “Jezebel”).
It is absolutely critical that congregational leaders learn the difference between what is of faith, and what is of opinion. An entire generation is at risk. One of my beloved professors, Dr. Eugene Clevenger, taught in his class on the Corinthian letters, “The greatest right I have is the right to surrender my rights.” Equally critical, especially in the 21st century is this, “The greatest responsibility I have is the responsibility never to surrender the truth of Scripture.”
It is a question of sailing between the Scylla of legalism and the Charybdis of anarchy. It is a narrow and difficult passage. But difficult does not mean impossible. It is not only possible, it is imperative. To fail to make the choice is to utterly fail, and that is something this old fogey simply cannot accept.
How many times have you heard the admonition, “You have to be consistent.” The subject at hand can be a myriad of topics – from discipline to study habits to philosophical approaches to life. Consistency, it would appear, is the holy grail of all being. If we can be consistent, we will have achieved perfection.
Except, that is, when being consistent in one area actually forces us to be inconsistent in another area. Then we have problems. How do we achieve consistency when reality forces us to be inconsistent? Hmm.
I have in mind a couple of examples. One is in the area of ethics. For many people the idea of being pro-life means both opposing abortion and opposing the death penalty. This is a commonly held belief – held by prominent Catholic and Protestant ethical specialists. The idea of consistency is prominent among the arguments given to defend both positions. If you are opposed to the taking of a human life, you have to oppose both abortion and capital punishment, or you are being inconsistent. Consistency demands the rejection of both.
Or does it?
If your only criteria is the taking of a human life, then I suppose you can make the argument. That argument, however, reduces most human life to the level of existence. That is, because we started to exist, we must continue to exist until nature or some disaster, ends that existence. The measure of the importance of life then depends solely upon the quantity of life signs, not their quality or value.
However, this argument utterly dismisses the textual (and contextual) support for capital punishment as stipulated in the Old Testament, and some would argue, is repeated at least in theory in Romans 13 in the New Testament. Passages such as Genesis 9:6, Exodus 21:12-14, Leviticus 24:17 and Numbers 35:9-34 make it clear that capital punishment is based on (1) the fact that human beings are made in the image of God, (2) the planned, intentional nature of the crime of murder, and derivatively, (3) the crime of murder strikes at the very core of community life. Provision was made for deaths caused by accidents, although even in an accidental death, the one who was involved in the death lost a certain amount of freedom until the death of the high priest. So the issue is not mere life, mere existence. The issue is that the image of God was destroyed, and the ongoing life of the community was put in peril by allowing a murderer to live.
Therefore, to be consistent, a person has to argue that it is the intentional taking of innocent human life that should be uniformly opposed. Therefore, abortion is clearly a violation of God’s will, but capital punishment is not necessarily a violation of God’s will. Now, to be sure, the manner in which capital punishment has been administered in the United States leads many to conclude it is unfairly used. Personally, while I cannot reject the use of capital punishment out-of-hand, the fact that the use of capital punishment has been used unequally in the past does give me great pause as to its moral grounding. What is often overlooked in the contemporary situation is that such a punishment required two eye-witnesses to the crime, and the punishment for falsely accusing someone meant that the accuser was dealt the same type of punishment that he/she was demanding of the accused (Deuteronomy 19:15-21). How many trumped-up charges involving the death penalty would be pursued if the prosecutor was liable to undergo the death penalty for falsely accusing a defendant? Not many, I would venture.
Therefore, I do not see opposing abortion and opposing the death penalty as being consistent. Abortion is the murder of an innocent, unborn child. Capital punishment is the legal execution of a person who has intentionally, with prior planning and “malice aforethought,” taken the life of another human being. In the realm of ethics, the two are light years apart.
On a more specific theological level, the case is often made that to be consistent, once you determine the use of a word or a phrase used by one author, that same word or phrase must be interpreted in the same manner every other time it appears. This is just linguistic (and theological) nonsense. For just one crystal clear example, consider the word translated into most English translations as “church” – the Greek word ekklesia. The argument is made, based on dubious etymological arguments by the way, that the word means “called out,” and so this is the Holy Spirit’s way of identifying the new people of God. Now, the case might be made (and I emphasize the word might) that the word ekklesia is used in such a manner in one place or another in the New Testament, but it is by no means the case that it is always used in that manner. Just read Acts 19:23-41. There an unruly mob gathers in the theatre and even the legal authorities have a hard time getting them under control. Once order is finally restored, the town clerk finally was able to dismiss the assembly. Twice the word ekklesia is used of this unruly mob, and I dare say no one is going to argue that the holy, sanctified, born-again body of Christ is being referred to in these verses (39-41).
This point is really very obvious in many situations. Paul in Romans and James in the book that bears his name use the word faith in strikingly different ways. I would argue that Paul himself uses faith in slightly (or perhaps even more significant) different ways. As with any situation, context is controlling. To be consistent, we have to bear in mind the entire context of the passage, and define and apply each word as is appropriate for that setting.
So, being consistent in one manner (always using a word using one, single definition) is to be inconsistent in interpreting that word when it is used in a different context. To be consistent in the application of one ethical norm is to be inconsistent in the application of another ethical norm that is built on a different theological foundation. This sometimes creates untidy, even messy, questions of interpretation and moral decision making. Life is that way – flying is not always in CAVU conditions (clear and visibility unlimited). Sometimes you have to fly in the fog. That requires great care, and a determination to understand the entire picture, not just one tiny little slice of it.
Book Review – Recovering the Margins of American Religious History: The Legacy of David Edwin Harrell, Jr. (Waldrop and Billingsley, eds.)
The Churches of Christ have not been known historically for producing giants in academia. There are notable exceptions, to be sure. It is interesting that the majority of scholars recognized by their peers as being at the top of their field has largely been limited to church historians – Lemoine Lewis, Everett Ferguson. A few come from the ranks of New Testament / theology scholars – Abraham Malherbe, Tom Olbricht, Jack P. Lewis, Carroll Osburn. Far fewer have come from the ranks of Old Testament scholars – John Willis is the only name that immediately comes to my mind.* Of course we have a large and reputable stable of Restoration History scholars and theologians – Bill Humble, Richard Hughes, Douglas Foster.
Standing among a much smaller group, although perhaps not all by himself, is David Edwin Harrell, Jr., historian and biographer extraordinaire.
This book, Recovering the Margins of American Religious History: The Legacy of David Edwin Harrell, Jr. (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2012), 125 pages, is a collection of essays written in Dr. Harrell’s honor, a festschrift if the term is appropriate for American historiographers.
As mentioned in a previous post, I had the extraordinary experience of getting to meet Dr. Harrell as he was researching his book on the Churches of Christ in the 20th century/biography of Homer Hailey. I was sort of in awe, and little did I know while I was running around the third floor of the Brown Library at ACU just exactly the kind of man I was assisting. I sure wish I knew then what I know now. Oh, well – story of my life.
Anyway – this collection of essays honors this giant of American historians. For members of the Churches of Christ it is an important record of not only the scholarship of Harrell, but also of the times in which he lived, and especially of the attitudes he displayed throughout his life. A couple of descriptions that I found to be particularly noteworthy:
His pugilistic spirit could be lethal toward academic peers or graduate students who substituted opinions for information and personal preference for thoughtful analysis. He does not suffer fools gladly. (p. xi)
I came to appreciate the tough love he administered in very large doses: lifelong support and encouragement in return for maximum effort, withering criticism for laziness and foolish obstinacy. (xi)
And, perhaps the coup de grace –
For those who measured up to his standards but disagreed with his conclusions, there was never a better friend. For those who agreed with his conclusions but sought thereby mainly to curry his favor, he proffered neither respect nor support. For uneducated people who were both sincere in their convictions and faithful in their proclamation, he offered charitable understanding and genuine affection. For politically correct academics who refused to subject their own beliefs to the same rigorous scrutiny they expected from others, he expressed scorn and ridicule. (xi-xii)
In some ways David Edwin Harrell, Jr. taught me more about writing than any of my other professors, and I never had him for a class. His writing is meticulous – painstakingly researched and documented to within a gnat’s whisker of perfection. As I was writing papers for my doctoral degree I kept asking myself, “How would Harrell document this paper?” I cannot say that I even come close to his “standards,” but I can say without equivocation that my academic writing would not be anywhere close to where it is today without the influence of Dr. Harrell.
Dr. Harrell influenced me in a number of other ways as well – demonstrating that the divisions within the Churches of Christ are caused as much by, if not primarily by, social divisions as much as doctrinal disagreements. Once again tying this back to my doctoral work, some of the most glowing compliments I received from Dr. Glen Stassen (Fuller Theological Seminary) related to ideas that came straight from Dr. Harrell. One does not truly understand Lilliput unless he or she has stood on the shoulders of giants like Stassen and Harrell.
This book probably would not be of any great value unless you have read some of Dr. Harrell’s works (some listed below). If you are interested in Restoration history, or in the Churches of Christ, especially in the 20th century, this would be a good book for you to have. It is not terribly long, and as it is a collection of essays, some will obviously be of greater value than others. For obvious reasons, I heartily recommend it.
*My apologies for this tremendously abbreviated list. I am working off the top of my memory right now, so to those devoted students of our other scholars, my sincere apologies if I did not mention your favorite mentor.
Just some of Dr. Harrell’s books (in my personal library) – Quest for a Christian America: A Social History of the Disciples of Christ in America, vol. 1., (Disciples of Christ Historical Society, 1966); Sources of Division in the Disciples of Christ, 1865-1900: A Social History of the Disciples of Christ, vol. 2., (University of Alabama Press, 1973); The Churches of Christ in the 20th Century: Homer Hailey’s Personal Journey of Faith (University of Alabama Press, 2000); White Sects and Black Men in the Recent South (Vanderbilt University Press, 1971); Pat Robertson: A Personal, Political and Religious Portrait (Harper and Row, 1987).
Sometimes I wonder what people think about me. At other times I’m fairly certain, but I try not to think about those times. Specifically, I wonder what people think about me when I stress the significance of the meaning of similar, but ultimately different, words. I imagine most people think I’m a nut. Who cares what words mean? A word means what I want it to mean, so just get over it.
Well, I am an inveterate lover of words, so I cannot just “get over it.”
So, I was reading a commentary today in which the author made several references to Jesus “accepting” sinners. Every time he used the word “accept” or “acceptance” I cringed and made a little comment in the margin of the book. (I am always correcting authors when they make mistakes. Hopefully, none of them will ever see my corrections.) Something made me pause and ponder for a moment why it was that I was so put-out with the word “acceptance.” I realized that I was reacting against what I perceive to be the modern connotation of the word. When I hear the word accept used today it is virtually always used in the context of approval. When someone suggests that I “accept” a particular viewpoint or choice of behavior, they are not suggesting that I simply recognize the behavior and move on. That person (or persons) want me to approve the behavior or ideology. So, when I read the author’s continued use of the word “accept” for Jesus’s association with sinners, all I could think of was that the author was trying to communicate that Jesus saw nothing wrong with the behavior of the people he chose, or allowed, to be around. That grated on my nerves – and still does, for that matter.
The meanings of words change with time. Take, for one tragic example, the word “gay.” It used to mean “happy, carefree, exuberant, joyful.” Now it means – well, you know what it means. I fear that the word “acceptance” or “accept” has changed as well. Maybe it is just me, but I cannot accept (pardon the pun) that a lifestyle of sexual depravity is normal or – to use a word to define a word – “acceptable.” In other words, I cannot approve of a lifestyle that is condemned in Scripture – and that would include lifestyles marked by any of the “works of the flesh.” Sin still has to be sin; otherwise the sacrifice of Jesus becomes far less than divine, indeed it becomes positively diabolical.
I want to acknowledge that Jesus freely associated with those that the Pharisees referred to as “sinners.” Some of those people were truly rebellious against God – and some probably just did not wash their hands before supper. But I struggle with the modern connotation of the word “accept.” He recognized sinners, freely associated with sinners, even perhaps welcomed sinners – but in absolutely no way, shape, or form did he ever approve of their sinful behavior.
Maybe I am making a mountain out of a molehill, straining a gnat while trying to swallow a camel. As one whose life depends upon the correct usage and understanding of words, however, I must urge caution when certain words are used in relation to the life and teachings of Jesus. We may intend to mean one thing, and our audience may hear something entirely different. I suppose to a certain degree this is unavoidable – but we do not need to carelessly compound the issue.
Thanks for flying in the fog today – I hope you will excuse me, I need to get back to correcting some more authors.
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.
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.
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.