Pardon me for a little whimsicality, but that phrase always returns to me when I think of things that are easily explained, but just as easily confused and exaggerated. The expression (actually just a series of unrelated abbreviations from the aviation world) came from a friend who liked to claim he could speak in tongues. If you are a pilot, that is pretty funny. If you think you can speak in tongues, not so much.
Today I revisit my last offering and expand upon it. When we speak of God in Platonic or Aristotelian terms (like saying God is the ultimate idea, or that he is the “unmoved mover”) we utterly lose the biblical concept of God and therefore create God in our own image.
Specially, and to the point, the more “omnies” we put in front of our descriptions of God, the less Hebrew (and therefore less biblical) and more Greek (and therefore, more philosophical) our understanding of God. The classic definition of God in virtually any sermon or class that you will hear revolves around three “omnies” – omniscient, omnipowerful, and omnipresent. In English that would translate into, “all knowing, all powerful, and all present.” So we have come to know and believe about God. But are these descriptions true?
Let’s take the first one – does God know everything, as in everything? Many passages could be provided to affirm that. What is less well known are the passages that limit, or at the very least, appear to limit God’s knowledge. For example, 2 Chronicles 32:31, “And so in the matter of the envoys of the princes of Babylon, who had been sent to him to inquire about the sign that had been done in the land, God left him [Hezekiah] to himself, in order to test him and to know all that was in his heart.” (ESV) God did two things here that are quite unacceptable for an Platonic/Aristotelian God – he “tested” Hezekiah (meddled in Hezekiah’s business) and he had to learn, or discover, or find out, what was in Hezekiah’s heart. But what about a more well known example – Genesis 22:12, “He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.'” (ESV) Once again, as in the previous text, a Platonic/Aristotelian God would already know what the outcome of the situation would be, and in fact, would not have put Abraham to the test to begin with. In fact, the whole episode is an intolerable and grotesque act for a Platonic/Aristotelian god – why would an all knowing and all loving God make such a brutal command. In Greek terms it is simply unthinkable. God would be beyond such “inhumanity.”
What about the second – that God is all powerful. Can God do anything he wants? Let me rephrase the question – Would it please God if no one ever sinned, if no one ever hurt anyone else, if everyone strove to serve God and him alone? Can God force that outcome? Well, I suppose theoretically he could, but would God then be God? Yes he would, in the Platonic/Aristotelian mold, but not in the Hebraic mold. In other words, according to the Old Testament, God is a limited God – he is limited by his own holiness. There are things God cannot do simply because if he did them, he would not be the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Many things transpired that were against God’s will, and any being that could speak the world into existence could have stopped those unwanted events. However, God limited his actions in the world for the express purpose of remaining God – so that his holiness might be revealed through the events, and not through his overpowering them not to happen.
So then, is God omnipresent – is God everywhere at once? Once again, theoretically yes, but following the last example, does he limit himself in his presence in the world? Well, if you read Ezekiel 10, you read that the glory (presence) of the LORD clearly leaves the temple in Jerusalem, allowing for its destruction. Once again, God could have protected the temple, and if his presence was truly there I doubt if any human could have destroyed the temple, but God wanted Ezekiel to know that there are times and places where God abandons this earth!
What I have discussed here is clearly open for discussion – are these passages to be interpreted literally or figuratively? But, to be honest, every description of God can be equally challenged. When the poet speaks of God knowing everything or being everywhere – are those statements to be taken literally or figuratively?
To repeat myself ad nauseam, my point is simply this – the more language that we borrow from Plato and Aristotle to define or explain God, the further from the Bible we travel. And when we speak of God getting angry (a no-no for Aristotle) or repenting, or forgetting, or leaving his people, or testing individuals to learn what was in their heart, the more biblical and “Hebrew” we become.
As I closed the last article, so I close this one. Athens (philosophy) is a great place to visit, but we are much safer, and beyond question more biblical, if we reside in Jerusalem.
So, its been a while since the ol’ Freightdawg has gone smashing through the clouds. Time to kick the tires and light the fires again.
Two passages of Scripture struck me this past Sunday as I was worshipping. I quote them here in their entirety:
When Jesus perceived their thoughts, he answered them, “Why do you question in your hearts? (Luke 5:22, ESV)
. . . having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints. (Ephesians 1:18, ESV)
Did you see a common feature of both of these passages? I’ll narrow it down a little . . .
“. . . question in your hearts . . .” and “. . . eyes of your hearts enlightened . . .”
Those phrases should strike us as being odd – or even more straightforward – should strike us as being psychologically incorrect. We question in our minds, our eyes are in our foreheads, and it is our intellect that is enlightened, not our hearts.
That is because we are philosophically more the descendants of Athens than we are of Jerusalem. In other words, we think (and feel and relate) more in line with Aristotle and Plato than we do with Moses. We are, for all intents and purposes, Greek and not Hebrew.
This realization could be, and may be, the source for a great many posts, but here and now for today one thought will have to do. This philosophical orientation has played all kinds of havoc with our understanding of the New Testament (not to mention the Old Testament!!) It was the Greeks, not the Hebrews, who gave mankind the idea of a tripartite human being – body, soul and spirit. For Moses (just to make things simple) there was one being – the human being (note Gen. 2:7 – God breathed into man His breath, and man became a living being). There was no separation of body and mind, or body and spirit, or body and anything else. If you sinned in your heart, you sinned in the body. If you sinned in the body you sinned in the heart. (Does this not sound like Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount?) This is why, for the most part, there is simply no discussion of what happens to the “soul” or “spirit” after death in the Old Testament. A person died, was buried (“gathered to his fathers”) and that was it. There is, of course, several references to “sheol,” the shadowing realm of the dead, but never a fully developed understanding of what that place was or who (or what) resided there.
The difference between Jerusalem and Athens is probably most visible in this regard – the New Testament speaks clearly and emphatically of a bodily resurrection following death. There is no thought of disembodied “spirits” flapping their non-corporeal wings around in some ethereal void called “heaven.” Jesus is clear, Paul is clear, Peter is clear, John is clear. There will be a “new heaven” just as there will be a “new earth,” and there will be a bodily resurrection, not a bunch of Casper the Ghosts floating around. The idea of pure “spirits” separated from a physical body originates in Plato (the “ideal versus the real”) and not in our inspired Bibles!
To be sure we, and even the inspired Paul and Peter themselves, do not know what that future realm will be like. Paul was emphatic, though, in saying that our resurrected status would be in the form of a body. (See 1 Cor. 15:35-49. Note that Paul does refer to the body as “spiritual,” but never “spirit.” His point is that the nature of the new body will be radically different from this body of “dust,” but it will be a “body” never-the-less.) The “heaven” and the “earth” will be new – undoubtedly beyond our wildest imaginings – but it will still reflect what we as imperfect mortals would recognize as a “heaven” and an “earth.”
Aristotle and Plato and all those other fellows running around in bed sheets gave us a lot to think about, and some really sound wisdom to boot. Athens (philosophy) is a great place to visit, but I think I would rather live in Jerusalem (theology).
Another day, another urgent summons for the Churches of Christ to be less judgmental, less condemning. These sermons and blog posts and on-line articles are ubiquitous these days. It would seem that if you are a minister within the Churches of Christ and you want to become popular (or maintain your popularity) you need to hop on the “bash the church” bandwagon. Pardon me for being a knuckle-dragging troglodyte, but I’ll just let that cart go on by.
It may just be me, but I find it funny (in a serious way) that if a financial advisor corrected our faulty thinking about our retirement plans we would be most appreciative. If we were working with explosive chemicals in a science class and our teacher warned us before we made a pyro-technic mistake, we would say, “thank-you.” If we were applying for a music scholarship and a master musician took us into his or her personal study for an hour’s worth of instruction, we would not be able to stop thanking him or her. But, you let one word of spiritual correction or constructive criticism come from a preacher associated with the Churches of Christ and he is immediately tarred and feathered as a judgmental Pharisee. “Quit being so condemning” is the shrill response. “Don’t you know everyone that says they love Jesus is saved, and who are you to say you know everything about the Bible.”
I won’t be the first to admit that our heritage is full of characters that had more fist than finesse when it comes to biblical conversations. Neither will I be the first to condemn that behavior. Regrettably it is still visible today. Every family has its cranky uncle Joe, and there are are a number of reasons why combative individuals are drawn to independent congregations (and Churches of Christ are NOT alone in this regard!!)
But I truly fail to see where teaching some basic Bible doctrines should be considered judgmental, unless the person listening refuses to accept those teachings, yet recognizes the seriousness of the issue under discussion.
Actually, every person – unless they are a true universalist – will draw some line at some place in regard to what makes a person a Christian, what constitutes acceptable worship, and how a person ought to live a life committed to Christ. Why is drawing one line at baptism considered judgmental when drawing that line at the “sinner’s prayer” not considered judgmental? Why is adult believer’s baptism considered judgmental when infant baptism is not? The same point could be made with acapella worship, praise teams but no instrumental music, acoustic instruments but not amplified instruments, classic or contemporary songs, high church/low church or just about every other issue that causes conflict in a congregation.
I do not need, nor do I want, to be told that I need to be “more accepting” of individuals who disagree with me on basic, fundamental teachings in Scripture. The only words I need to accept are the words of the inspired authors of the Bible. Do I need to study, to learn, to read, to hear other points of view – absolutely! I try to do so as much or more than many ministers within the Churches of Christ. But the point of reference that I use to judge if what I am hearing is true is a convergence with the Bible – NOT some touchy-feely idea such as “they love Jesus.”
“Come, let us reason together” is a solid biblical concept. If I disagree with an individual there can be only one of three conclusions – either I am right and the other person is wrong, I am wrong and the other person is right, or we are both equally right and equally wrong. If I am willing to admit my culpability in drawing wrong conclusions from Scripture, I cannot be blamed for suggesting that those who disagree with me can also possibly be in error. I may seek to teach, and perhaps also to confront, but that does NOT make me a judgmental, hypocritical, Pharisee.
Unless, of course, you believe that Jesus was a judgmental, hypocritical, Pharisee as well. As I read the gospels, he had to try to straighten out quite a few twisted twigs during his ministry. Although he corrected, he never condemned honest error – but he was quite emphatic in his rejection of obstinate dismissal of God’s will.
As I have written numerous times – if I am wrong please show me my error! I never want to teach something that is false, either knowingly or unwittingly. And I promise I will not call you judgmental.
Many Christians despise theology, and especially theologians (I will overlook the irony for now, but believe me I see it). “We don’t do theology – we just read and study the Bible” is a common belief, if not outright statement. Alexander Campbell stated emphatically that there would never be a chair of theology at the first college established for ministers of the Restoration Movement (okay, more irony, but let’s move on). In my undergraduate and graduate studies I had courses in Old Testament Teaching and New Testament Teaching, but they could not be labeled Old Testament Theology or New Testament Theology.
So, last night I was reading a book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer has become one of the early 20th centuries most studied, admired, and discussed theologians. Underline that – he was a preeminent theologian, educated by some of the most famous theologians in Germany – and at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He argued with Karl Barth, for crying out loud. No one who rightly knows which end is up can argue that Bonhoeffer is anything other than a top-flight theologian.
Okay – so have I made my point?
So, as I was saying, I was reading in Bonhoeffer and I came across this section –
Theology is the discipline in which a person learns how to excuse everything and justify everything. A good theologian can never be cornered theologically; in everything he says he is just. And the theologian can acknowledge even this without a word of penance. Whoever has begun to justify himself with the help of theology itself has already fallen into the devil’s grip, and as long as he is a theologian, he can never get free! Be a good theologian but keep theology three paces away from you; otherwise eventually it will mortally endanger you. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his lecture on Pastoral Care, see Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (in English) vol. 14, Theological Education at Finkenwalde: 1935-1937, p. 591, emphasis Bonhoeffer’s).
What was Bonhoeffer’s corrective to the danger of “theology” as he presented it? Staying in the word of God, reading the word of God, preaching the word of God, meditating on the word of God, and praying unceasingly.
Hmmm. Sounds very restorationist, if you ask me. And, if you ask me again, very unpretentious of a top-rate theologian.
Its a funny thing – a substance can either be the best thing in the world for what ails you, or it can kill you. I heard of a speaker one time who wanted to illustrate this point. He wanted to warn his audience of the dangers of di-hydrous oxide. Not only to warn his audience, but to actually drive them to take immediate action against this silent killer. Millions died from di-hydrous oxide poisoning every year, millions more were damaged to some degree. What was worse, di-hydrous oxide was everywhere! He had his statistics, he had his anecdotes, he had his impassioned pleas. After working his audience into a froth, he then called on them to eliminate the pernicious evil of di-hydrous oxide from their midst. There was nary a soul agin’ his proposal – but they did have one question – what exactly was di-hydrous oxide? Water. Plain and simple water. Two hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecule. Pure poison, that stuff, if used in extreme amounts. Except, we can’t live without it, when taken appropriately.
What can be a prescription for health can also kill. Even that which is necessary for life can kill, if it is applied in incorrect amounts. That which is blatantly obvious in the medical world is also just as equally true in the political and spiritual world, although perhaps not quite so obvious.
For just a slight digression, I think of the concepts of grace and faith. Two of the pillars of the Reformation were the twin concepts of grace only and faith only. That is, sinners are saved by grace only through faith only. Can you preach or teach too much grace, or too much faith? Well, not to get anyone’s underwear tied up in a knot, but yes you can. The idea of grace which is taught beyond what is demonstrated in Scripture becomes universalism – everyone is saved regardless of beliefs or behavior. Clearly, Scripture teaches that God abounds in grace, and that we are saved through that over-abundance of grace (Ephesians, anybody?). But, scripturally speaking, even grace has its limits. Same with faith: faith pushed beyond its scriptural limits is the enemy of faith itself (just exactly what James explained!). This is why Martin Luther was right to stress grace and faith, but wrong to include the word “only.” Yes, we are saved by grace (anyone who wants to deny that has not read Paul’s letters), and yes we are saved by faith. But grace is limited by God’s righteous judgement (he will condemn evil!), and faith must be demonstrated through righteous behavior. I now return to my previous thoughts, already in progress . . .
The prescription I am thinking of today is the idea of individualism. Taken in the right percentage, individualism is a good thing – a healthy thing. Take too much though and individualism becomes a noxious, deadly poison.
The idea of individual rights and freedoms is one of the concepts that has made the United States so great. I would not want to leave any other place than the good old U. S. of A., and the freedom we have entrenched in the Bill of Rights is one of the main reasons I can make that statement. What other nation, or what other culture, has created the space for so many people to achieve their goals, dreams, and even fantasies? What other nation, or what other culture, tells everyone, regardless of race, gender, or other identifiable characteristic, that he or she can become anything that person wants or dreams about? It is true that opportunities for success are not always equal, but such inequalities are not systemic in the type of a caste or hierarchical system. In America we not only protect individual rights, we also promote individual industriousness and creativity.
However, that individualism has taken a decisively bitter turn. That which was healthy has now become toxic. Increasingly, the twisted ideations of a few individuals are overwhelming the rights and protections of the community. Individualism has run amok. The engine that has created so much good has now jumped the tracks, and the carnage that it will leave in its wake will be devastating – if we do not stop it somehow.
What is true in the political/social world is also true in the church. The concept that every person, each individual, can read and understand the Bible for him or her self should be self-evident (pardon the pun). However, taken to an extreme, that radical individualism is actually destroying the community of the faithful. The primary unit of faith in the Old Testament was not the individual, it was the qahal, the community, the people of God. In the New Testament the individual was not the primary unit of faith, it was the ekklesia, the community, the people of God. Individuals had value as a part of the whole – as a part of the community. Today, the community (the church) is only considered a by-product of our rabid individualism. If we do not like what our present community (that we selected because of our individual preferences to begin with) says, we simply leave and find a community more favorable to what we want. We have the cart in front of the horse, and we cannot figure out why we are not moving anywhere.
A friend and I were discussing this issue recently in the context of the value of a higher education. Our extreme attachment to “rugged individualism” has fostered a distrust, and sometimes even an active dislike, of higher education. How often have you heard (or said) the comment, “I don’t need those silly commentaries or study books- they’re just written by a bunch of ivory-towered egg-heads. All I need is my Bible.” Toxic individualism at its worst.
The fact is, we desperately need those silly commentaries and study books written by those ivory-towered egg-heads. It is those ivory-towered egg-heads that translated our Bibles into English in the first place – and then helped us understand all of the bizarre and often opaque words, ideas, practices, and concepts that we find in the pages of the Bible.
In short – we need our community of scholars to save us from our toxic individualism. Left to our own inclinations we will interpret the Bible to mean exactly what we want it to mean. The hundreds, if not thousands, of different “churches” in the United States is all the evidence I need to prove that point. The vast community of scholars (egg-heads) we have available to us keeps us from doing that – they hold our feet to the fire and make us wrestle with centuries of other voices. Sometimes these voices are not correct in what they say – but they often challenge and correct our false understandings as well.
I do not put my faith in those “silly commentaries.” I want to obey only the Word of God. But I am a stronger Christian when I stand in community than when I stand alone – and this is no place more true than in my interpretation of Scripture.
Jaroslav Pelikan wrote what has become the defining understanding of the value of hearing other voices: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”
Traditionalism is the end result of unchecked, poisonous individualism. I want to, and I hope I do, teach the living faith of tradition.
There are two opposite, but equally destructive, responses to perceived threats. The first is the the “Chicken Little” approach, which is to run around screaming “The sky is falling, the sky is falling” when in fact, the sky is very much not falling. The other approach is the “stick your head in the sand” approach, which is to deny that there is any threat, or if there is, it really does not apply to me, because I cannot see it, because I have my head in the sand.
By no means do I want to be a Chicken Little. But being an ostrich really does not appeal to me either. God gave us the sense to be able to “sense” dangerous situations, and call me a “nervous Nelly” if you want to, but I cannot help but see a real threat on the horizon.
Every election since 1980 has been labeled as “the most important election in our lifetime” (at the very least). I have already heard that phrase used about this coming presidential election. So, I don’t want to go there. That ship sailed a long time ago. The fact is, this election in but an inconsequential thimble of water in the comprehensive ocean of significant events in the history of the country.
Be that as it may, this election does have significance in one respect. I believe this election will be the first election for a country that is post-Christian, and perhaps even anti-Christian. (You may argue this is the second such election, but it is the first election in which that attitude is unmistakably obvious).
For the overwhelming majority of our 240 year existence, the United States has at the very least proclaimed a distinct Christian foundation. I do not adhere to the propaganda that we have always been a Christian nation (the evidence to the contrary is just too strong), but we have always advertised that we believe, and attempt to act, according to fundamental Judeo-Christian principles. Take, for example, the struggle for civil rights for minorities. Yes, the manner in which certain races were treated was deplorable – unChristian to the core! But it was that very Christian foundation that we espoused that allowed crusaders to appeal to our “higher angels” and thus we have been able to reverse many of those inhuman laws and behaviors.
However, we are now living in a different era. Old solutions no longer work. Old equations no longer provide the same result. What changed? Why is this election so different from every other election we have witnessed?
The answer, in brief, is that the country has emphatically abandoned any association with those fundamental Judeo-Christian principles that has provided both an anchor for stability and the engine for change for our culture.
For my evidence of this accusation I have to point no further than the seismic change over the past eight years regarding sex and gender issues. Homosexual behavior and gender-bending activities are not longer on the extreme fringe of society – those activities are openly promoted and welcomed at the highest level of our culture including and especially within major branches of the Christian church! When our culture has rejected what is the very essence of what it means to be human – the distinction of what it means to be made in the image of God as male and female – we can in no appeal to logic argue that we are a Christian nation. Some label it a post-Christian culture, I would argue that in many respects our culture has be come as anti-Christian as it was in the pre-Constantinian era. An affinity with a watered-down, feel-good, cheap-grace kind of Christianity that Dietrich Bonhoeffer condemned is still very much in view, but not the “carry your own cross and deny yourself” kind of Christianity of which we read in the gospels.
What makes this election so significant to me is that neither (or none, if you add the minor parties) of the major candidates is making any effort at all to appeal to those “higher angels” that both provoked and allowed our country to overcome its inherent flaws. All I hear from all fronts is the most putrid kind of humanism. God is most decidedly out of the picture!
Which then leads me to a most profound observation – this election provides those who proclaim their discipleship to Jesus a most wonderful and epic opportunity. We can once again become the Church of Christ! We can jettison our attachment to a sick and dying political establishment that has only served to weaken the proclamation of the gospel of Christ. Actually, this is far more than just an observation – it is a challenge, a call to arms. Let us become what the name on our buildings so proudly proclaims (and, thanks to all who have so cowardly removed that name from their assemblies. Good riddance!)
Let us become, let us be, let us live, let us thrive – as disciples of Jesus Christ. Let us be done with Republican and Democrat and Independent and Green and whatever else. Our banner is the cross and our citizenship is in heaven! For crying out loud, brothers and sisters – let us be done with the things that do not matter and let us busy ourselves with the things that do matter.
Can I get an amen?
There is an old saying that goes, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
This works on occasion. Take for example professional football. Any team playing the Dallas Cowboys is automatically my friend. Except, that is, if the Cowboys end up playing the New England Patriots. If the NFL schedules the Cowboys against the Patriots the result is not a football game, it is a curse from the football gods who are punishing us for allowing these teams to exist. A pox of both of them, I say.
Sports are one thing (and hopefully I have not offended too severely) – the field of politics is an entirely different kettle of fish. Many voices today are claiming that we have to support one presidential candidate over against the other simply because the “other” is my enemy, and so the enemy of my enemy suddenly becomes my friend.
Hogwash, fiddle-faddle, and pfffft to all, I say. We are not speaking of that which opposes our personal tastes here. We are speaking about what opposes the kingdom of God. The enemy that opposes the kingdom is my enemy, regardless of their relationship to another enemy which opposes the kingdom.
Both candidates from the two major political parties have plainly taken positions which are diametrically opposed to kingdom principles. Neither candidate can be trusted. Both candidates have records that display dishonesty, corruption, and a flagrant disregard for biblical truth. Both candidates have even taken positions which reveal they disregard the American constitution – let alone the Bible. Neither is qualified to serve in the office, if personal character is in any way, shape, or form, a prerequisite for being the President of the United States. You may argue that this has been true for decades – and you may have a point. But I am not arguing past elections – I am talking about the future of our country as it relates specifically to this election.
I am genuinely worried about the individuals who claim that we MUST vote in this election, lest the vile, wicked, evil, opponent should win. To which I ask, “Which vile, wicked, evil, candidate are you supporting?” This is not an issue of voting for the lesser of two evils (a pathetic option if there ever was one). This is an election in which NO Christian should sully their hands. It is not an issue of right/wrong, good/bad. It is an issue of voting for Satan or the Devil.
If there was ever an election that screams that we listen to the voice of David Lipscomb, it is this one!
Imagine what would happen if every Christian in the United States abstained from voting for the office of President. Imagine what would happen if Christians voted for senators, congressmen, governors, mayors and the local dog catcher, but wrote in “None of the Above” on the top line. Imagine what the media would have to say when the “winner” was rejected by the overwhelming majority of voters, not because they voted for the loser, but because they did not vote at all.
Come November, one of these two wretched choices will be declared the next president. But they must hear – clearly and with no ambiguity – that they have been rejected by those who hold Christian convictions. He or she may hold the office – and we must show respect as far as our pledge to Christ allows us – but that does not mean we have to support her or him.
No enemy of the cross can ever be my friend – no matter how awful the other choice may appear.
Yesterday I passed a milestone of sorts, one that I was not even aware was coming. Yesterday I logged my 500th post on this site. Imagine that – 500 rants, tirades, musings, grumps, growls and the occasional piece worth keeping.
So, I want to say “thanks” to all of you who visit this site, and an even bigger “THANKS” to those of you who take the time to comment. I must note with some degree of chagrin that the number of reads and visits is WAY down this year, so I am kind of in an evaluation stage right now – wondering if it is worth keeping past the summer of 2017 (all paid up until then). I love writing, and there is always some burr that gets under my saddle (I’ve written and deleted two posts just today!) If you don’t mind, let me know what you think.
And, as always, thanks for flying in the fog with me. I hope I’ve shared something along the way that helped, or at the very least, made you stop and think.
The ol’ Freightdawg
This post is intended to be a companion piece to my post of yesterday, so if you did not read that article, use the little arrow thingy and back up a page.
I think most Americans are familiar with the screech made by our former Secretary of State when she was being questioned about the murders of our ambassador and assistants in Benghazi. “What does it matter, anyway?” was her response when being questioned about what she knew, when she knew it, and what could have been done differently. “What does it matter, anyway” has become the mantra of an entire generation of Americans – not just politicians with a failed policy on their hands.
Yesterday I discussed the fact that we (primarily in the church) simply do not have the ability to stand firm anymore. Well, that is only partly true. We will fight to our last drop of blood over the color of the curtains, the positioning of the furniture, and the name of the song book that gathers dust in the book rack; but when it comes to issues of genuine faith, of matters that cut to the core of the gospel, we have one timid little response – “What does it matter, anyway?”
I see three primary reasons why congregational leaders, and therefore the congregations they lead, have found it impossible to stand firm against the onslaught of post-modern secularism. They are: a lack of a foundation, a lack of support, and a lack of courage. Let me address each of these individually.
First, I see the primary issue involved in an inability to stand firm as being the complete lack of a solid foundation. Most important, we have lost the foundation of knowing Scripture. Although we exist with the veneer of being a “Bible people,” we really do not know the Bible. This is true to varying degrees in many elderships, and is only magnified as we move down the generations. Elders today are not selected because of their knowledge of the Bible and their ability to put that knowledge into practice. Elders today are chosen because they are good business men, they are popular, they have the “perfect” family, and maybe even because they come from a long line of previous elders. My wife relates the story of having an elder get furious with her because she corrected him during a teen Bible class. If teenagers can correct men who are supposed to be the spiritual leaders of a congregation, that congregation is in serious trouble. I wonder, though, how many teenagers would know more Bible than their elders? Our knowledge of the Bible is pathetic, and it is impossible to stand for issues of faith when we do not know what that faith is.
In addition to a lack of knowledge of Scripture, we have an even lower (if possible) level of knowledge of our history – our tradition. Some would even argue that we do not have a tradition. Yea, and babies come from underneath cabbage leaves. Tradition is a wonderful thing – a blessed thing. But you would not know that by talking to the average member of the Church of Christ. We know nothing of Alex and Bart and Walt and my favorite – ol’ Raccoon John himself. How could we know anything of our history, and why would we even want to, the way it is disparaged and ridiculed from the majority of pulpits and lectureships in the country? Here is a indisputable but despised fact: the more liberal a person is, the closer that person is to the most radical conservative in at least one respect – they both hate our history. Liberals hate it because, to them anyway, it makes us look foolish, immature, and ignorant. Ultra conservatives hate it because we are simply not supposed to have a history – we popped out of the ground fully grown in 33 A.D., and except for a few hiccups now and then, have been pretty much a perfect people. Both extremes are utterly and damnably wrong – contra the conservatives we have a history that stretches back to Abraham at the very least (remember, the “Father of the faithful”), but is made up of every nook and cranny of human history from that point on. And, contra the liberals, it is a wonderful, beautiful, mesmerizing, and totally enlightening history. Alex and Bart and Walt and ol’ Raccoon were brilliant theologians and practitioners. But you would not know it if you read any of our most recent attempts at explaining our Restoration History. (Okay, rant over.)
Second, elders – and especially our young people – find it difficult, if not impossible, to stand firm because they get little or no support when they try. It’s one thing to get shot in the chest when you are facing an opponent – but it is something entirely different when you are getting shot in the back at the same time. I have seen good men reduced to meaningless figureheads not by their opponents, but by the congregation they were leading. There is a good reason the author of the book of Hebrews wrote, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account.” (Hebrews 13:17). It is frustrating when an eldership appears to be paralyzed, but it is disastrous when an eldership takes a stand on an issue they consider to be a matter of faith, only to be skewered by the flock they are attempting to protect. Or imagine the confusion of a spiritually mature 16 year old girl who objects to having to shower next to a psychologically damaged 16 year old boy (in all his anatomically glorious self) only to be told that she is being a bully and needs to be more sensitive – and this by members of her own congregation! It is often difficult to take a stand when you know it is going to be controversial, or even worse, contradictory to secular theories. That difficulty is multiplied exponentially when the people you believe to be your spiritual family abandons you.
Finally, there is the issue of courage. It is difficult to take a stand on a matter of faith if you are confused about what that faith is, and if you are convinced that no one will stand with you if you try. But it is utterly impossible to take that stand if you are a coward, even if you know the truth and have a whole army standing behind you. I believe most elders and a majority of young people are good men and kids. But there is a disturbingly large percentage of elders (and adolescents) who are nothing more than weak-kneed, limp-wristed, lilly-livered cowards (I am trying to restrain myself here). These are individuals who know the truth, and who know that there are people who are looking to them for leadership and will defend them to the last bullet. They choose – willingly – to accept the path of least resistance anyway. They do not want to cause a scuffle. They do not want to be seen as being “old fogies.” They are more interested in their image than in their position of leaders (and yes, young people can be awesome leaders). Ignorance can be educated away. Support can be generated. But cowardice? Cowardice kills before the battle is even joined. “There is nothing to fear, except fear itself.” Oh, what timeless words.
Christians who are concerned about the perilous times in which we live must do three things. We must return to the Bible, we must once again become a people of the book. We cannot stand firm for a faith of which we are ignorant. We must also not only accept, but we must come to appreciate our history – from Abraham to the apostles to the Reformation to the Restoration to our present day. We are products of our history – and we must learn from that history or we are certainly doomed to repeat its disasters. We must stand in solidarity with those who are taking a risk to defend their faith. We must support our elders when they say “no” to the Baals and Asherahs of secularism. We must support our young people when they refuse to be driven by the twisted beliefs of this culture. And finally we must learn what it means to be biblically courageous – to “Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong” (1 Cor. 16:13). In a memorable line from one of my wife’s favorite movies, “Courage is not the absence of fear – courage is the decision that there is something more important than fear.”
All of this is critical because our faith, our morals, our beliefs, that which we stand on – all of these things matter very much.
What does it matter anyway?
Stand at the foot of the cross and ask that question. Then you may get it.
(Update, Aug. 11, 2016 – it occurred to me that some might notice that I omitted preachers from this discussion. Be assured, I have no mistaken ideas that ministers/preachers are exempt from being cowardly and just flat-out ignorant. As I was writing I was thinking primarily of congregational leadership, and for some strange, backward, unknown reason I still believe that ministers serve under the eldership, not above them. Yes, ministers/preachers lead, but if the elders would exert their God-given authority, fewer young trash-talking preachers would have a pulpit to do so.)
Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. (1 Corinthians 16:13, RSV)
One of the benefits of growing older, I have learned, is that your vision becomes more clear. Not necessarily your eyesight, which I have also learned, becomes more blurry – but your vision. You are able to apprehend things in a manner that youth simply cannot perceive. A few people can see them when they are young, and we notice these individuals and label them as “visionaries” or “mystics.” Old people are called crotchety or old fogies. I appear to be approaching old fogyism.
One of the things I have perceived over the past few years is that with each new “generation,” the ability to stand firm with any teaching or principle that contradicts the prevalent culture – what we call “political correctness” – is slowly but steadily disappearing. In other words, it is perfectly acceptable to “stand firm” when you are defending the garbage that issues from the LGBTQ faction. Such firmness is even considered downright heroic. However, let a high school boy or girl raise their voice in defense of Biblical sexuality and you would think Adolf Hitler himself had been reincarnated. Defend the “right” of a male to use the female locker room just because he “identifies” as a female and you win humanitarian of the year award. Defend the right of a female to be safe in the same locker room and you are vilified as being inhuman (or worse). In many ways I cannot imagine what it must be like to be a young Christian in the typical American high school. The pressure to conform or to be ostracized must be monumental.
I see this trend being played out increasingly within congregations of the Lord’s church. “Can’t we all get along” is the mantra of the day – and that is a very difficult idea to argue against. We have been divided over so many inconsequential things; it would be wonderful if we could learn how to put our personal wants and wishes aside for just a few moments and genuinely consider how we can work together for the kingdom. But there are limits to “just getting along.” There is a line – however narrow – between right and wrong, truth and error, holy and profane, good and evil. God gave us the sense, and he gave us the instructions, to know the difference. To fail to draw those distinctions is to fail to obey God.
The key to understanding the difference between standing firm and looking for compromise is in the above verse (just to list one). Paul said to “stand firm in your faith.” He did not say to demand your opinion in matters of methodology or in matters that are by their nature “inconsequential.” He dealt with those issues in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 and 9. There are matters that cut to the very core of what it means to be a unified body of Christ, and there are matters that are of individual preference and taste. The first are matters of faith the second are matters of function.
I do not want to suggest that determining the difference between these two poles is always easy. I do want to emphasize that doing so is necessary. To divide a congregation over an issue that is simply a matter of methodology is to sin against the body of Christ. To accept, and to practice, a teaching that violates either the letter or the spirit of Scripture is to commit either heresy, or at the very least, heterodoxy. Read the letters to the seven churches in Revelation chapters 2 and 3. Note the difference between being reprimanded (the loss of love, the need to stand firm) and being condemned (the teachings of the Nicolaitans, the woman “Jezebel”).
It is absolutely critical that congregational leaders learn the difference between what is of faith, and what is of opinion. An entire generation is at risk. One of my beloved professors, Dr. Eugene Clevenger, taught in his class on the Corinthian letters, “The greatest right I have is the right to surrender my rights.” Equally critical, especially in the 21st century is this, “The greatest responsibility I have is the responsibility never to surrender the truth of Scripture.”
It is a question of sailing between the Scylla of legalism and the Charybdis of anarchy. It is a narrow and difficult passage. But difficult does not mean impossible. It is not only possible, it is imperative. To fail to make the choice is to utterly fail, and that is something this old fogey simply cannot accept.