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Love Letters to a Young Minister (letter 1)

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

Dear young preacher,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,

An old friend.

A (Silent) Lesson from Abraham

Here is another thought I had from a recent exercise in my daily Bible reading. How often do we think about the “Law of Abraham”? How many lessons do we teach on the “10 Commandments as told to Abraham”? Do we even connect Abraham to law?

No. Abraham is the hero of faith. Abraham is the “go-to” guy when we want to contrast belief, or faith, and law-keeping. Abraham gave us the apostle Paul, Moses gave us the Pharisees.

So, what do we do with Genesis 26:2-5:

And the LORD appeared to him [Isaac] and said, ‘Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land of which I shall tell you. Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father. I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws. (Genesis 26:2-5, ESV)

Just in case you did not catch it, those last few words (charge, commandments, statutes, laws) are exactly the same terms used to describe the Law of Moses throughout the Psalms (and other references in the Old Testament).

So, a question arises: when did Abraham receive these charges, commandments, statutes, and laws? We are not told (at least, specifically). The Scriptures are silent as to when or how Abraham received them – but as this text makes obvious, clearly he did receive them – and in much the same fashion as Moses, as the language is virtually identical.

As much as I am loathe to make arguments from the silence of Scripture, I want to use this example to make a point: often we are told the result of something, or a derivative of something, or a consequence of something, without ever having been told what that something is. That something was plain to the original audience, and while it would be derivative to us, its truth is no less, well, truth!

At the risk of offending many in today’s “anything goes” world, I have a couple of applications where I believe this principle is valuable in instructing us, if not binding (and, once again, I am loathe to use the silence of Scripture to bind anything. That is a recipe for disaster).

In two contemporary battles being fought in the church, Christians are being told that, since Scripture nowhere explicitly condemns or negates a practice, then that practice is either allowable, or even is sanctioned. One practice is allowing women to have equal roles in leading, teaching, and shepherding a church; and the other is in regard to allowing many forms of worship, including, but not limited to, instrumental accompaniment to singing, “liturgical” dance (?), and various other forms of making worship more entertaining, or “relevant” as promoters would say.

Now, in regard to the first example (egalitarianism) I firmly believe Scripture to have a clear and unequivocal voice (as I have written about previously). But, many protest that there is no CLEAR teaching in the New Testament regarding this topic. I would suggest that those arguing the second example (worship additions) have a stronger case – but only in the sense that there is no overt rejection of such practices.

What does Genesis 26:1-5 have to do with these questions? Simply this – nowhere are we specifically told that God gave Abraham a list of charges, commands, statutes and laws, at least not with the specificity later given to Moses. Yet, clearly God did, or Abraham could not have obeyed them. This later comment (statement) demands that a previous event had to have taken place. In regard to the two examples given above related to our contemporary situation, what Paul (and others) wrote about the roles of men and women in the assembly, and about the proper decorum in that assembly, had to have had some basis in a previous word from God, or it would have been meaningless to Paul, Peter, or anyone else in the first century. Thus, 1 Corinthians 14, 1 Timothy 2 and 3, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 3, had to have been written from a larger God-inspired context of male leadership or the words would have been meaningless to a primarily pagan culture (they would have made perfect sense to a Jewish culture, however). The transition from a sensual worship experience (musical instruments, liturgical dance, exotic aromas, etc) had to have a basis in a teaching from the apostles, or the omission of those items from worship as viewed in the New Testament would have been seen as ludicrous. The few passages we have (Ephesians 5, Colossians 3, the basic theme of Hebrews) that do indicate a rejection of the sensual/physical from a majority of practices of worship make perfect sense if we understand an underlying command or instruction from God to do so. And, just to add one more thought here – the emphasis in the New Testament to two very sensual/physical aspects of the assembly – baptism and the Lord’s Supper – makes it clear that it is not just the physical/sensual that is being rejected, but the very aspects of the physical and sensual that were meant to be types of a later more spiritual worship. God gave us our bodies and they are intended to be used in worship, but just as Christ superseded the Old Covenant, so too New Covenant worship is to go beyond Old Covenant worship.

Okay, I know I have drawn a tenuous parallel from one Old Testament text to the modern worship wars. But this is the role of theology – to use the gifts of our intellect to draw fair and legitimate conclusions from Scripture in order to make sense out of a world gone horribly awry. I will leave it to you to judge if my conclusion is valid. While I am certainly not saying my conclusion has the force of Scripture, I am definitely offering the idea it is worth debating.

In sum, I wanted to make one point and then to illustrate how that point might be applied today: We are NOT told every single detail about every single encounter between God and his servants the prophets. Sometimes, we are given a later word that clarifies or magnifies an earlier, unrelated encounter. I believe it is fully within the realm of possibility, and even probability, that our New Testament authors were writing with the clear and unambiguous leading of the Holy Spirit when they penned their instructions on practices related to the worship assembly of the church. We denigrate or minimize that leading to our own peril.

America: Land of the Soft and Home of the Victim

I begin my 2017 musings in a minor key, but addressing an issue that I believe is important if Americans in general, and Christians in particular, are going to make any kind of difference in the world today. If you narrow the audience down to members of the Churches of Christ, then I would say this topic rises to the level of urgent, if not critical.

I shall begin by posing a question (two actually): When, and how, did Americans become so soft? How is it that we have become a nation of victims?

I recently viewed a video clip of some twenty or thirty something year old who was discussing the issue of the problems facing millennials (the generation born in the 1990’s and into the 2000’s). He was making some really good points: this generation was raised by parents using a defective parenting philosophy. This was the generation that was told it was impossible to “lose” and that no one was “superior.” Everyone gets a trophy or a medal, no matter if you come in first or last. Parents were told to become their children’s best friends, and the child’s self-esteem is the be-all and end-all of parenting. Also, technology has had a significant impact on this generation – from smart phones to iPads to social media platforms, this generation is truly drowning in technological inventions. This has created an entire set of social problems – a millennial can have hundreds of “friends” and thousands of “likes,” and yet be utterly alone and bereft of any social skills whatsoever. Additionally, this is the age of instant gratification. From microwave ovens to instantaneous download speeds, this generation simply does not know how to wait. Patience? That is so yesterday – or worse.

Then, just when I thought the speaker was on to something, he launched into a blistering indictment of modern culture and how “we” were going to have to act if this generation was to be salvaged. “We” (and I’m not really sure who he was speaking to, although corporate America seemed to be the general focus of his tirade) are going to have to change everything so that this generation can cope. These poor little darlings are so fragile, so soft, that any challenge to their survival is going to have to be overcome by anyone and everyone who is not a millennial (because, obviously, the millennials did not create any of these problems, so how can they be expected to solve them?)

Assuming his earlier points were valid (and I thought he was pretty astute), let me ask a few follow-up questions:

  • Which generation alive today was raised by perfect parents? I defy you – no generation has been perfect, and every generation has had to deal with dysfunctional family situations.
  • Which generation has not been told they are brighter and smarter and more likely to succeed than their parents? In other words, which generation has been told they are the one exclusion of the evolutionary family tree? I posit that none have been.
  • Which generation has not been significantly impacted by technology? My grandfather, for instance, was born before the Wright brothers made their first flight, yet he lived to see Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. Can any millennial claim to have witnessed that kind of technological leap? I dare say, NO.
  • Which generation alive today was not handed a critical, life changing and potentially world altering political crisis? I would suggest there is only one – the one generation that claims to have had life the worst – the millennials. World War 1 and 2, Korea, Vietnam – these were real shooting wars, and the last three involved the use (or at least the potential use) of atomic weapons, so, please, do not tell me that the events of 9/11/01 or the election of Donald Trump qualifies as a real crisis.

I think I could go on, but I hope you get the point. The millennial generation is no worse off, and in a number of ways is so much safer and more prosperous, than any generation in recent memory. Yet, to hear the majority of Americans talk today, you would think we are the most impoverished, insulted, abused, and persecuted culture to have ever existed. How did we get so soft?

And, lest you think I am drawing a line of distinction around Christians, think again. Just let someone say, “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” and you would think Adolf Hitler himself had been resurrected. Persecuted?? Because prayer has been taken out of public schools?? Because homosexuals have been granted the “right” to get married?? From what I hear from a lot of “Christians,” prayer has been removed from a lot of churches and “Christians” have long been trashing the sanctity of marriage as well, but I suppose that is a rabbit that will better be chased on another day.

My point is that we, as Americans – and that includes Christians equally, if not more – have raised victimology to a fine art. Everyone is offended by everything these days. Political correctness has not only destroyed higher education (exhibit “A” – the number of colleges and universities that had a collective emotional melt-down the day after the general election), but it has permeated and is in the process of destroying the church as well. Preachers should not be worried about Hollywood or Washington telling them what they can or cannot preach – they should be worried about the members in the pews who do not know the definition of the word “sin” or the significance of Jesus’s death on the cross. Jesus did not die because humankind was perfect – he died so that his disciples might be made perfect. And the only way his disciples can be made perfect is to die themselves – die to the world that is so blatantly seeking to destroy the church today.

I have no idea what the future holds for America. Politically and socially we are on a downward trajectory and I personally see no reversal in the near future. If we continue this head-long plunge into narcissism I fear for the future of the Republic. However, we as a nation have proven ourselves to be incredibly resilient against a number of enemies, so maybe we can overcome our own seeming desire for self-annihilation as well.

As regards the church, this I know for sure. We will not be able to save ourselves. Humankind never has, and never will be able, to overcome this depth of fatal self-absorption. We are going to have to return to being a people of the cross – that horrible symbol of God’s judgment on human hubris – if we are going to have any meaningful message to speak to the world.

In the vernacular of the day, we are going to have to put on our big boy pants and suck it up, buttercup. We are not the victims, we are the sinners. We, the church, collectively and individually as members of it, are all “miserable sinners” (in the words of the older Anglican confession. Sadly, even that has been modernized.). We are going to have to start preaching against sin and we are going to have to start practicing both positive and negative church discipline. If we (the church) had been faithful to our mission we (society as a whole) would not be in the mess we are in now. So, let’s be honest with ourselves, honest with God, and honest with the world.

Let us pray that in 2017 we can have the courage to stop being victims, and start being responsible disciples of Christ.

Book Review – Baptism and the Remission of Sins: An Historical Perspective (David Fletcher, ed.)

Strange introductory paragraph: within the past year or so I read (and reviewed) a book on baptism edited by Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright entitled Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ. The book is basically a refutation of the arguments in favor of infant baptism, or to put it positively, a defense of adult, believer’s baptism. As the purpose of the book is the efficacy of infant versus believer’s baptism, the topic of baptism for the remission of sins is dealt with only tangentially. And, because the editors (and, I would assume, most of the authors) are Baptists by denomination, you will not find much of a defense of Restoration Movement beliefs regarding the importance of baptism for the forgiveness of sins. However, and this is the point of this really strange introductory paragraph – I learned a great deal about the Calvinist approach to baptism, and why even many neo-Calvinists are opposed to infant baptism. It is an enlightening book, and I highly recommend it to all who are interested in theology, and especially the topic of baptism.

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Baptism and the Remission of Sins: An Historical Perspective, David Fletcher, ed. (Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing Co., 1990) 432 pages.

I’m not exactly sure when I first read this book, but my copy has a 1990 publication date, so undoubtedly it was sometime in the  1990’s, or perhaps early in the first decade of the 2000’s. I just finished re-reading it, and I am struck with a profound thought: This is a book that needs to be read and digested by every member within the Churches of Christ who is concerned about the recent developments within the brotherhood of congregations of the Churches of Christ. Quite simply, this book places the Restoration Movement’s theological wrestling with the practice of baptism within its historical perspective, and as such, provides a wealth of information for understanding the rejection of the importance of baptism by many of the “leading voices” within the Restoration Movement.

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The book is a collection of independent studies, and as such, suffers from the general problem of collections: some are outstanding, some are not so much. The opening chapters by Jack Cottrell I hold to be nothing less than brilliant – and provide a historical perspective that is utterly missing in most discussions regarding baptism. Beyond question, the information detailing Huldreich Zwingli’s distortion of baptism is absolutely critical to understand if you want to fully grasp the significance of Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, and the other Restoration leaders. Chapter 3 on the British Restorers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was valuable, but not as illuminating as the first two chapters. Chapters 4 and 5 examining Alexander Campbell’s views on baptism (by John Mark Hicks) are superb – distilling the amount of material and the oftentimes contradictory nature of Campbell’s teaching is a monumental task. Hicks performs the task admirably, and if you know nothing of Campbell and his writings, these introductory chapters will help you immensely. Chapter six is especially eye-opening, and is critical to know in light of present controversies: it details the debate between Campbell and John Thomas regarding the necessity (or lack thereof) of a person’s knowledge and understanding of the meaning of baptism prior to that person’s baptism. My guess is that chapter alone will shock and disturb many within the Restoration Movement. I was personally disappointed with Michael Greene’s treatment of Barton W. Stone in chapter 7 – I believe a far more sympathetic view is both possible and necessary – but I tend to be more of a Stoner than a Campbellite, so I am a little prejudiced there. Chapters 8 and 9 are good (discussing the Rebaptism Controversy between David Lipscomb and the Gospel Advocate versus Austin McGary and the Firm Foundation; and the Open Membership controversy between the Christian Church and the Disciples of Christ), but not exceptional. I believe the subject matter of chapter 8 deserved greater detail, and the material of chapter 9 was also covered in far too cursory manner – but still those are tiny quibbles against two very informational chapters.

So much is being written and discussed today about the meaning and purpose of baptism, how much one must know before baptism, and probably most discussed – how should the members of Churches of Christ view the baptisms performed in the denominations (and increasingly, non-denominational churches)? The practice of baptism is becoming more and more common, and more and more theologians are openly discussing the importance of baptism related to a person’s salvation. I find it distressing to the point of absurdity that, at the very moment when the eyes of more and more preachers and theologians are turning to baptism again, so many “leaders” or “prominent preachers” within the Churches of Christ are backing away from baptism as fast as they can, and promoting the neo-Calvinistic view of baptism promoted in Schreiner and Wright’s book.

While not the only reason I can give for this movement, I would suggest that increasingly more and more preachers, elders, and congregational leaders within congregations of the Churches of Christ are utterly ignorant of the history, and yes, theology, of the practice of baptism. While this book does not delve deeply into the second topic (chapter 10 does cover the design of baptism), the history of baptism as practiced in the early church, the Reformation, and particularly within the Restoration Movement is covered in exceptional care in this collection of essays. If you are struggling to understand baptism in this post-modern context, or if your congregation is struggling to understand baptism today, you owe it to yourself and to your fellow believers to buy, and study, this book.

(Note: In searching for images of the cover of the book, I noticed a 2009 publication date – I provided images of both titles of the books. I could not discern if there was a substantial change from 2000 to 2009, so the 2009 might be a simple re-print, or it could entail an updated and/or corrected copy.)

Correction, Confrontation is not Condemnation

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.

Who Says Theologians are Stuffshirts?

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.

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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.

What Has Changed?

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?

What Does It Matter, Anyway?

This post is intended to be a companion piece to my post of yesterday, so if you did not read that article, use the little arrow thingy and back up a page.

I think most Americans are familiar with the screech made by our former Secretary of State when she was being questioned about the murders of our ambassador and assistants in Benghazi. “What does it matter, anyway?” was her response when being questioned about what she knew, when she knew it, and what could have been done differently. “What does it matter, anyway” has become the mantra of an entire generation of Americans – not just politicians with a failed policy on their hands.

Yesterday I discussed the fact that we (primarily in the church) simply do not have the ability to stand firm anymore. Well, that is only partly true. We will fight to our last drop of blood over the color of the curtains, the positioning of the furniture, and the name of the song book that gathers dust in the book rack; but when it comes to issues of genuine faith, of matters that cut to the core of the gospel, we have one timid little response – “What does it matter, anyway?”

I see three primary reasons why congregational leaders, and therefore the congregations they lead, have found it impossible to stand firm against the onslaught of post-modern secularism. They are: a lack of a foundation, a lack of support, and a lack of courage. Let me address each of these individually.

First, I see the primary issue involved in an inability to stand firm as being the complete lack of a solid foundation. Most important, we have lost the foundation of knowing Scripture. Although we exist with the veneer of being a “Bible people,” we really do not know the Bible. This is true to varying degrees in many elderships, and is only magnified as we move down the generations. Elders today are not selected because of their knowledge of the Bible and their ability to put that knowledge into practice. Elders today are chosen because they are good business men, they are popular, they have the “perfect” family, and maybe even because they come from a long line of previous elders. My wife relates the story of having an elder get furious with her because she corrected him during a teen Bible class. If teenagers can correct men who are supposed to be the spiritual leaders of a congregation, that congregation is in serious trouble. I wonder, though, how many teenagers would know more Bible than their elders? Our knowledge of the Bible is pathetic, and it is impossible to stand for issues of faith when we do not know what that faith is.

In addition to a lack of knowledge of Scripture, we have an even lower (if possible) level of knowledge of our history – our tradition. Some would even argue that we do not have a tradition. Yea, and babies come from underneath cabbage leaves. Tradition is a wonderful thing – a blessed thing. But you would not know that by talking to the average member of the Church of Christ. We know nothing of Alex and Bart and Walt and my favorite – ol’ Raccoon John himself. How could we know anything of our history, and why would we even want to, the way it is disparaged and ridiculed from the majority of pulpits and lectureships in the country? Here is a indisputable but despised fact: the more liberal a person is, the closer that person is to the most radical conservative in at least one respect – they both hate our history. Liberals hate it because, to them anyway, it makes us look foolish, immature, and ignorant. Ultra conservatives hate it because we are simply not supposed to have a history – we popped out of the ground fully grown in 33 A.D., and except for a few hiccups now and then, have been pretty much a perfect people. Both extremes are utterly and damnably wrong – contra the conservatives we have a history that stretches back to Abraham at the very least (remember, the “Father of the faithful”), but is made up of every nook and cranny of human history from that point on. And, contra the liberals, it is a wonderful, beautiful, mesmerizing, and totally enlightening history. Alex and Bart and Walt and ol’ Raccoon were brilliant theologians and practitioners. But you would not know it if you read any of our most recent attempts at explaining our Restoration History. (Okay, rant over.)

Second, elders – and especially our young people – find it difficult, if not impossible, to stand firm because they get little or no support when they try. It’s one thing to get shot in the chest when you are facing an opponent – but it is something entirely different when you are getting shot in the back at the same time. I have seen good men reduced to meaningless figureheads not by their opponents, but by the congregation they were leading. There is a good reason the author of the book of Hebrews wrote, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account.” (Hebrews 13:17). It is frustrating when an eldership appears to be paralyzed, but it is disastrous when an eldership takes a stand on an issue they consider to be a matter of faith, only to be skewered by the flock they are attempting to protect. Or imagine the confusion of a spiritually mature 16 year old girl who objects to having to shower next to a psychologically damaged 16 year old boy (in all his anatomically glorious self) only to be told that she is being a bully and needs to be more sensitive – and this by members of her own congregation! It is often difficult to take a stand when you know it is going to be controversial, or even worse, contradictory to secular theories. That difficulty is multiplied exponentially when the people you believe to be your spiritual family abandons you.

Finally, there is the issue of courage. It is difficult to take a stand on a matter of faith if you are confused about what that faith is, and if you are convinced that no one will stand with you if you try. But it is utterly impossible to take that stand if you are a coward, even if you know the truth and have a whole army standing behind you. I believe most elders and a majority of young people are good men and kids. But there is a disturbingly large percentage of elders (and adolescents) who are nothing more than weak-kneed, limp-wristed, lilly-livered cowards (I am trying to restrain myself here). These are individuals who know the truth, and who know that there are people who are looking to them for leadership and will defend them to the last bullet. They choose – willingly – to accept the path of least resistance anyway. They do not want to cause a scuffle. They do not want to be seen as being “old fogies.” They are more interested in their image than in their position of leaders (and yes, young people can be awesome leaders). Ignorance can be educated away. Support can be generated. But cowardice? Cowardice kills before the battle is even joined. “There is nothing to fear, except fear itself.” Oh, what timeless words.

Christians who are concerned about the perilous times in which we live must do three things. We must return to the Bible, we must once again become a people of the book. We cannot stand firm for a faith of which we are ignorant. We must also not only accept, but we must come to appreciate our history – from Abraham to the apostles to the Reformation to the Restoration to our present day. We are products of our history – and we must learn from that history or we are certainly doomed to repeat its disasters. We must stand in solidarity with those who are taking a risk to defend their faith. We must support our elders when they say “no” to the Baals and Asherahs of secularism. We must support our young people when they refuse to be driven by the twisted beliefs of this culture. And finally we must learn what it means to be biblically courageous – to “Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong” (1 Cor. 16:13). In a memorable line from one of my wife’s favorite movies, “Courage is not the absence of fear – courage is the decision that there is something more important than fear.”

All of this is critical because our faith, our morals, our beliefs, that which we stand on – all of these things matter very much.

What does it matter anyway?

Stand at the foot of the cross and ask that question. Then you may get it.

(Update, Aug. 11, 2016 – it occurred to me that some might notice that I omitted preachers from this discussion. Be assured, I have no mistaken ideas that ministers/preachers are exempt from being cowardly and just flat-out ignorant. As I was writing I was thinking primarily of congregational leadership, and for some strange, backward, unknown reason I still believe that ministers serve under the eldership, not above them. Yes, ministers/preachers lead, but if the elders would exert their God-given authority, fewer young trash-talking preachers would have a pulpit to do so.)

The Inability to Stand Firm

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.

In Memory – Randy Becton

I just learned today of the passing of Randy Becton. Perhaps not many recognize the name, but I know there are thousands throughout the country (and the world) who do. We have lost a real treasure with his passing.

I was lucky enough to have a class under Randy. It was a class related to Christian ministry, although I would have to research my records to find the exact title. It was in that class that I was most fully made aware of the concept that God uses wounded people to heal other wounded people. As we are all wounded in one way or another, that means God can use each of us to heal others around us. The first step, obviously, is to recognize how we are wounded, then we must see how God has redeemed (healed) us, and then we must learn how we can use our broken-but-healed selves to bring others to Christ. The class was transformational, to say the least.

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I have one other memory of that class that I would like to share. Randy suffered with lymphoma as a young man. Once, during one of his long hospital stays, an elder came to visit him. Randy could tell some pretty horrifying stories of what people would say to him while he was in the hospital. As he related the story of this elder’s visit, he shared what many would think would be a rude and insulting question that this elder asked of him. The elder asked Randy if there was any sin in his life that Randy might see as an underlying source of the cancer. Note – not the cause of the cancer, but that God was using the cancer to “wake” Randy up to a more critical spiritual issue. As Randy retold the story there were tears in his eyes. You have to understand the context to the situation – the elder had a close relationship with Randy. This was not some “fix-it” spiritual charlatan that was looking to score some death-bed confession. This was a man who was vitally interested in Randy’s spiritual and physical health, and he was probing to help Randy see that the two realms are not as separate as we often make them out to be. Randy’s point was this – many people said rude and insulting things to him with the idea of making him “feel better.” This elder, with the true and honest question that revealed his sincere love for Randy, asked what some would consider to be an insulting question, yet for Randy it was one of the most loving visits he could remember.

Now I must caution you – do NOT go to every hospital room and start asking people to spill their deepest, darkest sins to you. Not unless you have a deep, personal relationship with that individual, and are asking with the most pure and God-like intentions. Otherwise, you will likely get a bed pan thrown at you, and for good reason. My point in relating that story is to share with you what Randy impressed upon us – true love, caring love, shepherding love – sometimes leads us to places we might be uncomfortable, but it is exactly in those places of discomfort that true ministry takes place.

I also must relate that Randy was one of the very few instructors who ever chewed me out in front of a class. To this day I have no idea what it was that I said that upset Randy, but I can honestly say that I would rather be chewed out by Randy Becton than be publicly praised by some of my other instructors, whose sincerity I could neither trust or believe.

I was truly blessed by Randy Becton. He was a huge man with an even bigger heart. Our loss is his graduation to glory.

Requiescat in pace.

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