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When Being Consistent is Actually Inconsistent

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.

Joshua 10:10-14 and the USA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s see if these gods can save us –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Bent and Broken World

I’m not sure exactly the time, but I can remember the speaker and the place. The speaker was Jim McGuiggan, and the place was Harding University. We had traveled to Searcy to listen to Jim speak at a youth event hosted by Harding. The quote has stayed with me for all these years, and it just seems to get more appropriate with each passing year.

I’m not even sure what Jim’s overall message was that afternoon, but at some point in the lesson he said, “We live in a bent and broken world.” Now, you have to hear that phrase through Jim’s measured cadence and thick Irish brogue for it to have its full effect. I think he might be the only person I know who could get two syllables out of the word “bent.” The phrase grabbed me, and has been a part of my preaching and teaching since that day.

It should not even be debated that we live in a bent and broken world. It has been ever since Adam and Eve took a bite out of that fruit. It became even more bent and broken when Cain killed his brother. I was reminded just how bent and broken the world was (and remains) when I pointed out to my Old Testament class that Moab (Moabites) and Ben-Ammi (Ammonites) were sons born of incest and the class almost had a collective heart attack. We are bent and broken now – and we have been bent and broken since the fall.

It would also seem to be beyond doubt that the major concern of the church today would be to heal  this bentness and brokenness. I mean, would it not make sense that the church, which is the body of Christ on earth, should want to bring people to the great physician so that he can restore them to health and wholeness? Sadly, I just do not see that happening to any great extent today.

I see a large portion of the church simply turning blind eye to that which bends and breaks humans today. Worse than that, this faction of the church actively promotes that which bends and breaks humans. “Don’t worry, be happy” is the mantra. “You’re okay, don’t feel guilty – the only sin worth forgiving is the sin of feeling guilty – and you are forgiven!” Just like a hot air balloon that floats gently on the prevailing winds, this “church” simply coasts along, never even once suggesting, or even recognizing, that the winds of culture might just be carrying their members right into a disaster from which there will be no escape.

Conversely, there are those who look upon those who are bent and broken – and curse them. Not in so many words, mind you, just with their attitudes and sniffling high-minded prescriptions. Just like the Pharisees to whom Jesus spoke, these folks are long on solutions and amazingly short on assistance. “So, you are naked and hungry – why don’t you get dressed and eat some supper.” Or, in biblical terms, “Be warm and filled.” Some things never change.

Part of being human after the fall is recognizing that we are all, every one of us, bent and broken. We all share in the human predicament. But that does not mean we have to promote it, or refuse to help those who seek to climb out of the muck and mire of their squalid conditions. And it certainly does not mean that we have the right to condemn those that we feel are beneath our station (how did we make that decision, anyway??). No, we live in a bent and broken world. We must accept that fact that if we are healed, we are called to be healers and share in the healing of this world. We have to call sin, “sin,” and we have to name that which is destroying our world. But we must always remember that we are “wounded healers” (to steal Henri Nouwen’s beautiful phrase).

If I am anything in this world, I am a wounded healer. I am bent and broken, too. I believe I have been washed in the blood of the Lamb, but that does not mean I do not walk with a limp, and carry a few scars. Knowing that, I can share with others how I met the Healer. That, I believe, is the role of the church. We must confront that which bends and breaks the human soul. We can no longer make excuses for this toxic culture. We must not, however, shoot those who are wounded. Let us bring them to the one who will make them whole. Let us be what we claim to be – the hands and feet of Christ.

Boundaries of Brotherhood – The Exclusive Church

This is the third, and final, entry in a series of thoughts I have been wrestling with regarding the boundaries of brotherhood – stated another way, defining the limits of the Kingdom of God. As I hope I have made clear, I am not at all comfortable in stating my conclusions as being beyond debate. However, one cannot “wrestle” if one does not have at least some place to begin, and so what I have written so far is a record of where I stand. As Martin Luther is reported to have said, I can do no other.

Yesterday I examined those indications, or allusions (however poorly my choice of words might indicate) that God’s kingdom is much larger than what some (including myself) might recognize. Today I examine the flip side – that the Kingdom might be far more restrictive than some (including myself) might want to admit.

I have stated that this is where I exist in my “gut” feelings. This is NOT to say that this feeling is not supported by intellectual arguments or textual evidence. Much to the contrary, this position is well attested throughout Scripture. When I say that this is my “gut” reaction, I am simply saying that it is more natural for me to think in terms of an “exclusive” nature of the Kingdom than it is for me to think of an “inclusive” Kingdom. We all live in our own unique little world, and this feeling is a part of my world.

To begin, I want to return briefly to yesterday’s post. Today I want to emphasize what I admitted as contra-evidence to the inclusive nature of God’s Kingdom. While Ishmael was circumcised along with Abraham, and while he was certainly to be blessed, and while he was (and his descendants remain) a “child” of Abraham, God’s special covenant was to go through the lineage of Isaac. God did deliver the Philistines and the Syrians, but their inclusion in the message of Amos was to highlight the very special relationship God had with Israel. God did certainly send Philip and Peter to the Ethiopian eunuch and to Cornelius respectively, but the message they presented was not that they were secure in their beliefs, but that they had to confess their faith in what was, and is, an undeniably Jewish Messiah. So, even within the evidence of inclusion, there is an unmistakable link to exclusion. Some are chosen, others are excluded – this is the story of Scripture!

Prior to the deluge Noah was chosen, the other humans were excluded. When the people of Israel (God’s chosen people) refused to enter the promised land the first time, an entire generation was excluded, and only their children were permitted to be “included” in the eventual conquest. Only a “remnant” from the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles were allowed to return to Jerusalem. The message of John the Baptist to “Repent” is meaningless unless it is understood that (a) the people were in an “excluded” relationship and needed to return to God, and (b) some would, and some would not, “repent.”  Jesus began and ended his ministry with warnings of the “exclusive” nature of the Kingdom: “…the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13, 14) and  “…many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matthew 22:14) A significant theme in the book of Romans is that, even among God’s “chosen” people, there are those who can reject their inheritance and thereby be “excluded” from the Kingdom. (Romans 1-3).

The examples both for “inclusion” and “exclusion” can be multiplied – I am not suggesting that my examples are exhaustive. What I hope that I have demonstrated is this: when it comes to establishing boundaries for the Kingdom of God, it is God that has set the boundaries, and as humans we are NOT in a position to make those boundaries either more inclusive than what God has determined, or more exclusive than what God has determined. In our never-ending struggle to be more like God than to accept our blessing to be in the image of God, we attempt to both include what God has excluded, and exclude what God has included.

I see this tendency especially problematic within the Churches of Christ, my only experience with a group of faith. On the one had there are those who are willing to accept any and all who profess even the most lukewarm and shallow expression of “faith” in Christ. Any passage of Scripture that might appear to be exclusive is excused away due to the “primitive” nature of the writings of the New Testament. We are so spiritual now, so intelligent; therefore we must remove ourselves from such tribal thinking. On the other hand are those who draw the circle of fellowship so small that only their little “righteous remnant” will be qualified for eternal bliss. For them a violation of any shibboleth, no matter how minor, constitutes an eternal sin which can be forgiven only upon the most ghastly of penances. This forgiveness is only provisional, however, pending any further deviations from the decisions of the quorum.

So, where do I draw the boundary of the Kingdom of God? Hopefully, only where God has drawn it. I must make every effort to learn where God has drawn that boundary in the pages of his revelation – the Bible. Issues of the new birth (baptism) and a continued life of discipleship and sanctification are fundamental – not incidental. Jesus did not just say, “you are healed,” he also added, “go and sin no more.” I must also, for matters of conscience, draw the limits of my fellowship along areas of doctrine where I feel I am safe to do so. But in so doing I must accept that my circle must be fluid, and that God may indeed have drawn his boundary of the Kingdom much larger, and in some situations much smaller, than my circle of fellowship. I am not God, and I cannot determine the limits of the Kingdom of God. The fact I choose to welcome, or to distance myself, from certain practices is not a decree that God himself must adhere to. I may have brothers and sisters with whom I cannot share table fellowship. I may have brothers and sisters with whom I would love to fellowship, but who feel that they cannot fellowship with me. This is wrong, make no mistake, and every effort should be made to mend those divisions.

But – let me be clear – I am not the one to tell God who is, or who is not, his child. God creates, God redeems: I must follow.

Boundaries of Brotherhood – The Case for Inclusion

Yesterday I spoke of a struggle I have – and probably share with many others. That struggle is with the concept of boundaries, specifically boundaries of the Kingdom of God. I expressed that by nature I tend to be more exclusivistic (the word I used was Pharisaical), but by virtue of intellectual process I know that my “gut” can often be wrong. Today I argue against myself, taking a quick look at those passages in the Bible that let us know that, however much God has revealed of Himself, he is still ineffable, transcendent, and Holy. God is God, and we dare not attempt to tell him what he can or cannot do.

I suppose we need to begin with Ishmael. We all know that Isaac was the chosen son, the son of promise – the one from whom the nation of Israel was to come. Let us not, however, dispense with Ishmael so cavalierly. We learn that Ishmael was to be “blessed” by God, and he himself would be the father of 12 princes (foreshadowing Jacob, anyone?). A few verses later we learn Ishmael was circumcised along with Abraham, and all those who were a part of Abraham’s entourage, whether natural born or bought as slaves (Genesis 17:20, 22-27). The point of the story is clear: Isaac is the chosen son, the son of promise. Ishmael was not forgotten, however – he was a natural “child of Abraham.”

Another text that gives me pause is Amos 9:7. Remember the story of God delivering the Israelites from Egypt? Well, apparently God is in the delivering business for a number of nations, because he pointedly reminds the Israelites that he had done the same thing for the Philistines and the Syrians. Yes, I know – Israel is the chosen people, the “family” of God. Just as with Ishmael, however, God’s reach extends slightly further than Israel wanted to admit. Sometimes God has to remind Israel of that fact.

Another text that causes grief between my gut and my head is John 10:16. In the great passage of the Good Shepherd (we all love that passage, right?) Jesus had this to say, “And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them in also, and they will heed my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (John 10:16) Now, I know (or at least I believe I know) to whom Jesus is referring – the “flock” of the Gentiles to whom he would be sending his disciples after his death. What I want to point out is that at the moment Jesus is speaking these words, the disciples had absolutely no idea that this other “flock” would even be considered for salvation – unless, of course, they would change and become exactly as they (the original flock) were. It actually took a fairly significant kick in the seat of the pants to get the first flock to welcome the second flock into the fold. Point is – there was a second flock the first flock had no idea existed. To Jesus, however, it was just one flock that had not been unified yet.

I could go on here to point out the Ethiopian eunuch, Cornelius, and the church council of Acts 15. The people of Israel, the Jews – God’s chosen people – were very slow to recognize and to welcome this “other flock.” The inclusion of this “other flock” did not meet their standards of propriety. God’s plan did not work like their plan did. They wanted to draw the boundaries of brotherhood in one fashion – and God had another design entirely. It took a while, but God’s design finally won.

Now, before everyone lines up to melt the tar and pluck a goose, I am NOT arguing here that any and every “religion” is equal to New Testament Christianity. I have not ever, do not now, nor will I ever, argue that “all roads lead to heaven.” I hope that I have clearly stated my understanding that the covenant promise begins with Isaac and ends with Jesus. My only point in this little exercise is to illustrate that it is God who draws the boundaries, and sometimes those boundaries were just a little bigger than what his followers were able to see. If God is God, then we must always bear in mind that, while we must always and in every way follow his commands and submit to his will, there will be areas of his reign that we simply cannot understand. He has given us everything we need to know (2 Peter 1:3-4), but that does not mean that he has given us everything that HE knows.

To be blunt: I know what God expects of me, but I can place no expectations upon God. I must accept the boundaries that God has created, whether I agree with them or not.

Tomorrow: I return to my instinctual perspective, and argue the case for exclusivity.

Judged not by Fame but by Faithfulness

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Danger of Linking Patriotism and Christianity

I write this the day after the first of the “winnowing” elections in the 2016 presidential election cycle. The war drums from almost all of the partisan camps are beating loudly today – well, except from those who had to drop out due to non-existent support. Next up, New Hampshire. From there – it won’t end until November.

Long-time readers of this space should know I am very conservative when it comes to issues of politics and the Christian faith. Conservative, yes; but not in the manner that most expect a conservative to write. I confess a different type of conservatism, one that is more intentionally based on “conserving” the teachings and implications of the apostolic writings, as opposed to the American Revolutionary fathers.

In that vein, I must say I am deeply concerned with the current association of the ideas of “patriotism” with that of the principles of Christianity. During these heated election cycles we are lectured time and time again that it is our “patriotic” duty to go forth and cast our ballot, and that, in no uncertain terms, it is our Christian duty to do the same.

I challenge the first concept, and flatly reject the second.

First, where is it framed as any kind of law or principle that voting is equal to a patriotic act? It seems to me that the only way voting could be construed as a “patriotic” act is if the act of not voting would be actively destroying the principles upon which the country was founded. The problem is we vote for people, not principles. It seems to me that if we are forced to vote for someone who clearly is working to overturn the principles upon which this country was founded, it would be more patriotic NOT to vote. I have listened to most (albeit not all) of the candidates for president this election cycle, and I can assure you that NONE of them espouse a purely Christian viewpoint. Admittedly, some are more acceptable (from a purely secular viewpoint) than others, but what part of patriotism says I have to hold my nose and close my eyes when I pull the lever at the ballot box? I am not going to vote for someone as a “patriotic” duty, only to see the principles upon which this country was founded be trampled and trashed.

But, second, and by far the most important to me: where is it written in Scripture that it is the duty of a Christian to vote? The closest anyone can come is a mis-application of Romans 13. The only thing Paul (and Jesus!) had to say about the government was that it is the duty of a Christian to live in such a way as to not bring reproach upon the Kingdom of God. If the government forces us to pay taxes – then pay taxes we must. However, the process of casting a ballot is a freedom, a choice, and one that should only be used with the greatest care and only with Kingdom principles as the goal. To say that we have to vote for brand “X” because he/she is marginally better than brand “Y” is just foolishness – and dangerous to the extreme!

Shortly before World War II, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was asked what he would do if war broke out. He said that he would have to pray that Germany would be defeated, in order for Christianity to survive in his country. The government would view that sentiment as treason – the ultimate act of anti-patriotism. Not so! Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the ultimate patriot. He loved his country so much that he wanted it to be defeated in war – so that it could survive in peace.

That, my friends, is patriotism. So do not lecture me about how I have to go vote for someone (anyone) that I am convinced will only work to violate God’s Kingdom principles.

Gays, Guns, Flags . . . and Faith

I started out my devotional time this morning with a prayer. Funny for me to admit this, but I usually do not – I usually pray to conclude my Bible reading time, but only infrequently will I pray before. That is something I need to change, but I digress.

I guess I felt a special need to pray this morning. This is not a happy time for me right now. For the second time in 12 months my wife and daughter are going through a significant period of loss. A year ago it was the death of a precious friend and mother of my daughter’s friend. This year it is a loss by relocation – but a significant and painful loss nevertheless. I’m also struggling with a number of other things – nothing major, yet nothing trivial either. Just life.

So, I prayed. I asked God for help. I asked Him to speak to me through his word. I wanted some comfort, if not some specific answers.

Then, I turned, as I always do, to my first section of reading, from the Psalms. This is what I read –

Don’t put your confidence in powerful people; there is no help for you there. When they breathe their last, they return to the earth, and all their plans die with them. But joyful are those who have the God of Israel as their helper, whose hope is in the LORD their God. (Psalm 146:3-5, NLT)

I could quote the entire Psalm, and if you are interested you can read it. It is a powerful message of faith, and quiet confidence.

I am sick to death with our “government” in the United States. The Supreme Court just ruled that individuals who pervert the most sacred gift God has given human beings now have the right to “marry” each other in all 50 states. It is sickening. But what is just as sickening is that the Chief Justice, John Roberts, flapped his jaws about how the ruling was all about imposing the will of the Supreme Court instead of upholding the Constitution, when it was HIS pathetic and inexcusable imposing of HIS will that permitted the greatest rape of the Constitution in decades with the Affordable Care Act. The man must have no conscience at all.

Yea, I know – inflammatory rhetoric and all that hogwash. Well, like I said, I am not in a happy place right now, and I tend to be a little blunt at times. But, as angry as I am with the entire miscreant government that we now have, I am only too aware that human governments are human governments, and human governments are steeped in sin and perpetuate sin. So, the ruling by the SCOTUS this morning was sickening, but fully expected. I would have been shocked had the decision gone the other way. When sinful people are given that much power, it is folly to expect a Godly outcome.

What really, really upsets me (and here I WILL bite my tongue – er, keyboard) is that the CHURCH is just as culpable. Yes, you read that – We, the people of God, share absolutely in this decision. For years, decades, and now going on centuries, we have put our faith, our trust, our hope, in the fallible minds and hands of the congress, the president, and the constitution. We have given what is holy to the dogs and we have cast our pearls before swine. We have sown the wind, and we are reaping the whirlwind (tornados, for those of you in West Texas). So, before we go marching off to some rally and demand that we elect more sinful, fallible, broken human beings to a sinful, fallible and broken system of government, maybe we should get down on our knees and profess our faith and submit our heartfelt repentance before a Holy and Transcendent God.

It sickens me to see what our country has lost. It sickens me far more to see the church, God’s people, become so compliant by trusting in the human system that created this cesspool. We can pray all we want, and say “In God We Trust” all we want, but if our initial reaction to today’s ruling is, “We have to elect more Republican (read, “God Fearing”) Senators, Representatives, and a Republican President” then we deserve every single one of the Godless rulings this SCOTUS has handed down over the past decade or more.

No, dear Christian friend. Electing sinful, broken and power-hungry Republicans will not solve any of our problems.

We need to start acting like we actually believe Philippians 3:20 and Hebrews 13:14. We need to start acting like our hope is in the LORD our God, and not some empty suit in Washington D.C.

The early Christians turned the world upside down, and basically converted most of the known world, when the ruling government actively sought to destroy them. Homosexuality and other sexual perversions were rampant. Violence was systemic, not occasional. And, yet, the Christians prevailed, because they believed their LORD was in heaven, not in Rome.

Get it?

Book Review – The Church According to Paul (James W. Thompson)

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The Church According to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ James W. Thompson, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), 289 pages including bibliography and indices.

I’ve noticed that most of the book reviews I write are on books that are years, if not decades old. So, it it nice to finally read (and review) a recent publication. This book has a 2014 publication date, so you cannot get much more recent than that. And, the subject matter is relevant to so many discussions regarding the church today.

Dr. Thompson’s main thesis is that in all of the discussions (written and oral) about the church today, the one voice that is missing is the voice of the apostle Paul, and since he had the most to say about the New Testament church, it just makes sense to go back and read what he had to say about the church. Throughout nine chapters this is exactly what Dr. Thompson does – examining such topics as the key themes in Paul’s ecclesiology, the corporate nature of the church, the visible manifestations of the church, spiritual formation and the church, justification, evangelism, the universal church, the relationship between the universal church and house churches, and leadership in the church. Dr. Thompson concludes with a summary chapter discussing the church after christendom. Dr. Thompson moves well beyond the Roman Catholic position, as well as the standard Protestant definition of the church. He also challenges the standard understanding of the church in the American Restoration Movement (I’m not so sure I agree with his views on Paul’s teaching regarding the importance of baptism, but that is a minor point in the book). Dr. Thompson explores the rich nuances of Paul’s ecclesiology in-depth, and opens the path to a much deeper and more vibrant understanding of what it means to be the church of Christ.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book – there is hardly a page in my copy that does not have multiple sentences underlined and maybe a passage or two with a star in the margin. The book is written in an academic style, but Greek words and phrases are transliterated so that the reader who does not know Greek can follow along. Dr. Thompson employs voluminous Scripture references – no one can accuse Dr. Thompson of avoiding the text. The reader may not agree with Dr. Thompson in every point (I did not, nor do I ever fully agree with an author), but you know that Dr. Thompson has done the heavy lifting to research his topic and to present his material in an easy-to-follow format.

Regarding those who will disagree with this book – those in the “the church has to be missional to be a church” crowd will not enjoy this book. Maybe that is why I enjoyed the book so much – the whole “missional” movement has left me utterly flat – few can define what they mean by “missional,” and even those who try to define it cannot do so with reference to the Bible. Usually what they end up doing is quoting some Latin phrase (missio dei) or some such and then grinning really big like they have said something important. (How about this for a quote, “The word ‘missional’ seems to have traveled the remarkable path of going from obscurity to banality in one decade.” p. 12, quoting Allan J. Roxburgh in footnote #55).  Dr. Thompson challenges vapid thinking, and this book is a healthy and very much needed corrective to the pabulum being touted as the next thing to save the church from obscurity. But Dr. Thompson does not just attack the “missional” church movement and leave the scene of the fight. Dr. Thompson provides a healthy and scriptural response to those who follow the “missional or bust” movement.

Regarding the aspects of the book I did not appreciate – Dr. Thompson has an irritating habit throughout the book of making reference to “Deutero-Isaiah” and “the contested letters of Paul.” Now, I am fully aware of the controversy regarding the authorship of the book of Isaiah. But, we do not have an Isaiah, a “Deutero-Isaiah,” and a “Trito-Isaiah.” What we have in our text is the book of Isaiah. If you are quoting from the book of Isaiah, quote Isaiah, not from some unproven theory that there were multiple authors of Isaiah. If you are writing a commentary on Isaiah, or if you are writing a critical introduction to the book of Isaiah, then by all means cover the relevant arguments and state your conclusion. The same holds true with the “contested” letters of Paul. So what if the authorship is contested? Either they were written by Paul (if so, say so and move on) or they were not (if so, why even mention them in a book discussing Paul’s ecclesiology?) then state your reason for not including them in your book. Oh, well, that is why Dr. Thompson has his work published by Baker Academic, and mine won’t be. Still, it is irritating to constantly be confronted with these phrases, which, at least to me, are not just descriptive, but have crossed the line into being judgmental.

Dr. Thompson’s book is timely, and for those who are interested in the health of the church, is a much needed addition to the study of ecclesiology (the study of the church). Doubtless, Dr. Thompson’s conclusions will upset some people – he certainly challenged me in many healthy and beneficial ways. But, agree with him or disagree with him, you must appreciate the depth of the study and the imminently readable fashion in which Dr. Thompson writes. Sure, there are some things that I wish he would have changed, but this book should be on the “to read” list of any minister, elder, deacon, or Bible class teacher who is vitally interested in the health of today’s church.

Dialoguing On The Need For Christian Dialogue

not equal

not equal (Photo credit: holeymoon)

I just made a discovery – about my own interpretive process. The process itself is not something new to me, I guess it is the way I have been thinking for quite some time. But the end result of my thinking has just become much more clear. You’ll have to wade through the whole post for my last sentence to make any sense. But it is where I am today.

Let me begin by saying dialogue is great. I heartily support dialogue. Dialogue is necessary and in most cases is quite pleasant. Dialogue is absolutely necessary if two people, or two groups, are to find common ground and negotiate a mutually acceptable position in the midst of a heated and bitter conflict.

Which is why the Church of Christ should never, ever, in any way, shape or form, enter into a dialogue with anyone or anything.

A dialogue takes place between two equals, or between a lesser who appeals to a greater, in the hopes of finding a mutual agreement. A dialogue is a prologue to a compromise. Married couples sometimes need to have a refereed dialogue. Big companies and organized labor quite often need to come to a bargaining table and have a refereed dialogue. Prosecuting and Defending attorneys dialogue quite often to avoid the bother and expense of a trial. On occasion antagonistic countries need to be brought to a negotiating table in order to have a peaceful dialogue.

The Church is not a marriage partner to anyone or anything in this world. The Church is not a big company, nor is it an amalgamation of unionized workers. The Church is not a country, or an aggrieved individual. The Church has no equal on this earth with whom it can compromise. When the Church compromises it loses its nature. It simply ceases to be the Church. To put it bluntly, the Church has no one or nothing with whom it can dialogue.

Over the past 50 years virtually every church group, religious group, denomination, whatever you want to call it, has entered into a “dialogue” with a group that wanted it to become more modern, more “relevant,” more in tune with secular practices and mores. The “Social Gospel,” militant feminism and now militant homosexuality are just three areas in which a religious group has “dialogued” and come out looking far more like the world than when it entered the conversation.

Can you name a major religious group, denomination, or independent church that is theologically more conservative or less “progressive” today than it was 50 years ago? I cannot. Some may not have changed (although, I would argue very few), but I cannot think of a single Christian faith group that is more conservative today than it was just a scant half-century ago.

The only way a group has been able to maintain any kind of conservative, narrowly biblical interpretive stance is to split off from a larger, more “progressive” movement. So we have seen huge defections from the Anglican/Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Lutheran Church and many Baptist and Church of Christ congregations. Whenever anyone says, “We need to reexamine our beliefs about….” what they are really saying is “we need to change our beliefs about…..” and “dialogue” becomes the vehicle by which that change is effected.

All of which makes me very nervous and very skeptical when I hear certain voices promote a new or ongoing “dialogue” between the church and atheist movements, or agnostic movements, or further dialogue with proponents of homosexuality or feminism or militarism or any other king of “ism” for that matter. This would extend, by the way, to “dialogues” with religious groups with whom I might share one or two core convictions, but who have chosen to make substantive departures from what I believe to be Scripture itself is to be viewed.

So my question for these proponents is this – what exactly do you mean by “dialogue?” The way I read the Bible, the Church of Christ does not negotiate anything. The Church does not have the power to compromise with anyone or anything. The Church of Christ is not an equal to any secular power or entity. Therefore, the Church of Christ is under no compulsion or expectation to “dialogue” with anyone.

Nor am I, as a member of the Church of Christ, authorized or deputized to “dialogue” with anyone or any group and speak for “The Church of Christ.” I can only speak for my own convictions, my own beliefs, and my own interpretations of Scripture. And, as much as they may want to argue, no one can speak for me based on his or her interpretations, convictions, or beliefs. I cannot even speak authoritatively for the congregation of which I am a part, and for which I serve as a minister.

In a sentence, the “Church” is a group of people who live their lives in a submissive relationship to the absolute authority of Jesus Christ the Son of God.

So, when you say “the church needs to dialogue with ……,” exactly what authority are you giving the Church that God himself has not given it? And who will speak for the “Church” that you think needs to enter into this dialogue? And what power or authority does that person (or persons) have to bargain with?

Membership in the Church is non-negotiable. That is the thing about the church that the world never has understood, does not now understand, and will not likely ever understand. Discipleship is a total and complete surrender to a Lord and Savior who demands our complete devotion.

So, when I say that I cannot enter into a dialogue with a certain group or with a certain person, I am not trying to be mean, nasty, ugly or unduly obstinate. I am simply living out my conviction that I do not have have the power, the authority, nor the freedom to “dialogue” with someone who refuses to accept the God under whom I have placed my life, and His Word, which I hold to be absolute in guiding my life. I can teach, I can “give a reason for the hope that is within me.” I can evangelize – that is – spread the good news. But I cannot, and I will not, lower my understanding of the nature of the Church of Christ to make it be something that is equal to or lesser than a vain philosophy of this world.

And that, dear reader, something that I am discovering in increasing measure, is profoundly unpopular.

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