Many Christians despise theology, and especially theologians (I will overlook the irony for now, but believe me I see it). “We don’t do theology – we just read and study the Bible” is a common belief, if not outright statement. Alexander Campbell stated emphatically that there would never be a chair of theology at the first college established for ministers of the Restoration Movement (okay, more irony, but let’s move on). In my undergraduate and graduate studies I had courses in Old Testament Teaching and New Testament Teaching, but they could not be labeled Old Testament Theology or New Testament Theology.
So, last night I was reading a book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer has become one of the early 20th centuries most studied, admired, and discussed theologians. Underline that – he was a preeminent theologian, educated by some of the most famous theologians in Germany – and at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He argued with Karl Barth, for crying out loud. No one who rightly knows which end is up can argue that Bonhoeffer is anything other than a top-flight theologian.
Okay – so have I made my point?
So, as I was saying, I was reading in Bonhoeffer and I came across this section –
Theology is the discipline in which a person learns how to excuse everything and justify everything. A good theologian can never be cornered theologically; in everything he says he is just. And the theologian can acknowledge even this without a word of penance. Whoever has begun to justify himself with the help of theology itself has already fallen into the devil’s grip, and as long as he is a theologian, he can never get free! Be a good theologian but keep theology three paces away from you; otherwise eventually it will mortally endanger you. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his lecture on Pastoral Care, see Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (in English) vol. 14, Theological Education at Finkenwalde: 1935-1937, p. 591, emphasis Bonhoeffer’s).
What was Bonhoeffer’s corrective to the danger of “theology” as he presented it? Staying in the word of God, reading the word of God, preaching the word of God, meditating on the word of God, and praying unceasingly.
Hmmm. Sounds very restorationist, if you ask me. And, if you ask me again, very unpretentious of a top-rate theologian.
Where have all the soldiers gone,
Long time passing?
Where have all the soldiers gone,
Long time ago.
Where have all the soldiers gone –
Gone to graveyards every one.
When will they ever learn?
Oh when will they ever learn?
(1960’s folk scare anthem, titled, Where Have All the Flowers Gone? third verse)
I picture a scene in the late 1930’s in Berlin. It is a picture of two worlds. On the one hand an economy that was literally on the brink of disaster is now starting to show signs, not just of life, but of genuine health. The mood of the nation borders on ecstasy. The long, dark night following the embarrassment of the Great World War is fading into the dark recesses of history. People are working. There is food on the table. Instead of a waffling, insecure national government, there is a leader who knows what he wants to do – he knows what is best for his Volk, his people. He is their leader, der Fuhrer.*
Crouched over a simple wood desk a young pastor and sometimes university lecturer looks out his window overlooking Berlin and wrinkles his forehead. Through his spectacles he sees a much different Germany. The bright red, white and black swastikas that hang from the government buildings, as well as from many of the church buildings, do not indicate wholeness to him, but rather a terminal sickness. Rather than a facile prosperity, he sees the war machine fueling the new economy. Rather than unity and a restored pride in German law, he sees the systematic dismantling of basic human freedoms. As a country rises like a phoenix from the ashes, he watches a culture begin to burn with the most acrid fires of hell. And he wonders, where is the church? Where are the Christians? The church buildings appear to be full – but where is the faith? Where are those willing to follow their Lord to the cross?
America in the second decade of the 21st century shares far more in common with Germany in the 4th decade of the 20th century than many people are aware of, or are willing to admit (and, no, I am not trying to be sensational here, just point out some disturbing historical parallels). Our most recent economic scare, the “Great Recession” has long since faded from our (increasingly deficient) memory. Ever since September 11, 2001 our federal government has incrementally but steadily become more monolithic and focused on the person of the president. What once was a trip-partite “sharing of the powers” has become a totally inefficient and inept Congress and a judiciary that is nothing but a docile lapdog of the most liberal and leftist agenda. Our current president, and both of the nominees of the two major parties, have made it abundantly clear that they do not respect the constitutional separation of powers, but that, as the elected president, they will be the de-facto fuhrer of the American people.
Morally the country is in a complete free fall. No, we are not emptying neighborhoods of “undesirables” and shipping them off to death camps. But that quaint little concept of “freedom of speech” is fast becoming a relic to be studied in a museum. Do you think we are a country of laws, and not of personal privilege? Compare the story of a baker or a photographer who decline to participate in the wedding of a homosexual couple, only to be sued into oblivion, to the story of a sovereign state, the duly elected officials of which pass a law that protects the rights of individuals to exercise their religious freedoms, only to see one of the largest corporations in the country discriminate against them by removing one of their largest celebrations from the state. Who gets the praise here – those who practice their religious rights, their freedom of speech, or the state, (or corporation) that uses their legal or economic power to bully the other into submission? From newspaper editorials to talk shows to political pundits – the voice of those who defend perversity and attack those who stand for Christian morality is almost universal.
The tragedy here, from a biblical standpoint, is that the church has become utterly complicit in this decay. Instead of a clear voice (remember Amos?) all we here from the collective pulpit of American Christianity is, “Don’t say anything offensive!” “Scientists say they can’t change, so we should not burden them with guilt!” “We have to make the gospel relevant, and telling people about sin just does not communicate anymore!” I guess the worst is, “If we tell people they have to change, they might leave the church!” Yea, right. As if having them in the church is doing them or the church any good.
It’s called SIN, people. Sin in the world, sin in the church, sin in you, sin in me.
What we need is for the church – for disciples of Christ – to stand up with a unified voice and condemn that sin. Condemn the sin in the world, condemn the sin in the church, condemn the sin in us – you and me.
Despite the efforts of the young pastor – and hundreds like him – the church in Germany chose either to remain mostly silent – or to actively support the fuhrer – and the world erupted into another hell of war. Those who refuse to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.
So, I ask – Where have all the Christians gone, long time passing . . .
*Fuhrer (with the umlaut, which I cannot seem to figure out how to insert over the “u”, simply means “leader” in German.)
There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.’ (Luke 13:1-5, ESV)
Trigger alert – for those who believe that Christians must “join in solidarity” with every group that experiences some misfortune, this post will definitely be damaging to your mental health. Continue at your own risk.
Literally within hours of the horrific murders in Orlando, social media sites were lit up with accusations against Christians, Muslims, and anyone else for that matter, who disapproved of the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or questioning – I’ve heard both explanations) lifestyle. The fact that no on knew any of the pertinent facts of the case did not stop anyone. Well known and highly respected “Christian” authors jumped into the fray, calling for the “church” to join in solidarity with the LGBTQ community and excoriating anyone who dared to disagree.
Well, I disagree.
I just have one question – a question that has not been answered by any of those who call for this solidarity – “WHY?” Is it because of the manner of death? Is being shot by a crazed psychopath a more horrific death than dying as your plane falls from 30,000 feet into the ocean? Is it because of the alleged religious background of the killer? Does being killed by a Muslim terrorist make you more vulnerable than being killed by a Christian terrorist – or even an atheistic one?
No – the only reason I can decipher from reading the quotes and commentary is that Christians should join in solidarity with the victims because – they practice forms of sexual deviancy that are clearly and emphatically condemned in Scripture! Not as, “we are all sinners” (which we are, note the above Scripture), but we should be particularly sympathetic – and even empathetic – to this group specifically because of their lifestyle.
As more facts emerge from this tragedy I feel like my head is on a swivel. First the murderer was alleged to have sworn allegiance to ISIS – the terrorist group that is wreaking havoc all over our world. But, then a funny thing happened. It has also been reported that the killer had an account with a homosexual dating app – and frequented the very club in which he committed this atrocity. Apparently he was a common visitor in a part of town known for its gender-bending clientele. (So much of this is allegation, early and mistaken reporting, and who knows what else. I doubt we will know the whole truth for weeks, if not months). If any of this is true it certainly casts a deep shadow over the “Muslim terrorist” angle. I am no Muslim scholar, but I seriously doubt that Allah would approve of one of his followers hooking up on a homosexual dating app.
I understand the outrage. I feel it myself. I feel it after every mass shooting, bombing, or other form of mass murder. It was a horrific act – make no mistake and the victims did not “deserve” their deaths (contrary to the stated opinions of many other “Christian” commentators) any more than those little children and their teachers at Sandy Hook elementary school. As Christians I feel we have several responses that would reflect the love of Christ. Certainly we are to “bind up the wounds” and treat the survivors and the families of all the victims with love. I also believe that now is not the time to pull out the sermons on Sodom and Gomorrah or Romans 1. There is, as the Preacher once wrote, a time for weeping.
However, to suggest, even in the most innocent sounding or oblique manner, that the bride of Christ is somehow united or in “solidarity” with a community that flagrantly repudiates the beauty and wisdom of God’s creation is patently absurd bordering on obscene. Physicians heal, not by becoming one with the disease or the patient, but by standing over the patient and against the disease. Light does not become one with darkness, but light drives darkness away. The Son of God drew crowds of broken sinners to himself, not because he became one of their number, but because he showed them how to be reconciled to his Father.
Events such as these should cause us all to stop and reflect – to what extent are we guilty of prejudice, hatred, and, yes, even sexual sins that are just as clearly condemned in the Word of God as homosexuality. One of the most profound aspects of the faith and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was that he openly confessed the sins of the German church in regard to the crimes of the Nazi party. But while he was willing to sacrifice his life to protect the defenseless, he never proclaimed himself to be anything other than a Christian. He could, and did, protect the other, the outsider, without claiming to be the other. And it was only because he maintained that separation that he could be an authentic witness to Christ.
That kind of behavior requires an enormous amount of courage – and a clear, focused theology. Our response to events like Orlando should come from Christ, through Christ, in order to bring people to Christ. Let us work to unite the world to Christ, not the church to the world.
Been a little wistful lately (love words like “wistful.” They are so elegiac.) Along with all this wistfulness comes a very deep sense of thankfulness. Thus, a little different kind of flight through the fog today. I will proceed through a series of concentric circles.
The first circle is that of my immediate family ( and, by extension, my larger family by marriage). As I get older I appreciate my birth family so much more. My father (who passed away in 1990) was a quiet man, but more and more I am coming to understand more of his quietness. I lament the years we collectively lost when cancer took him far too soon. My mother survived her bout with the “c” word, and has lived to see two more grand babies and three great-grand babies. My sister, the aged one, is a grand-ma herself. Through marriage and births our family of four is quite large now. A deep and wonderful blessing for sure. It was in this home that my sister and I received our faith, and in this home that we learned how to love. Whatever I am, or will ever amount to, I owe to my quiet but mischievous father and strong mother. My own little family is all the more golden – my beautiful wife and precocious-yet-tender-hearted daughter. I guess time will tell if I have been able to pass on what I have been given, but I earnestly pray that I can, and have. Thank you, God, for placing me in this home, and for giving me my married home.
The next larger circle is that of my family of faith – the church. So many names and faces flash in front of my mind’s eye here – the small congregation in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the larger, more metropolitan congregation in Albuquerque. I wonder what has happened to many of those saints – I know many have passed on to await the resurrection. How many are still faithful? I know the faith that they taught to me – were they able to maintain it themselves? At least one congregation that I was associated with bears no resemblance to the congregation of which I was a part. Another has ceased to exist altogether. I was blessed to be born and to live in such a different time. When I was growing up I always knew what my elders stood for. I may have disagreed with them, but at least they stood firmly so that a person could disagree with them. Kids these days are being led by a bunch of theological wet paper bags. I hope that the younger generations will see in me someone who actually believes what he says – and does not have to stick his finger up in the air to find out which direction the cultural wind is blowing before he opens his mouth. Thank you, God, for giving me men, and women, of strength – who, imperfect as they were, yet lived their faith in you to the best of their knowledge, and who taught me that I could do the same, regardless of my many mistakes.
My next largest circle is actually a part of that circle, but I single them out because of their specific role in my life – that of educating me. Here I can name some names – because these names and the faces of these gentlemen are so engraved upon my memory: Ian Fair, Neil Lightfoot, John Willis, Everett Ferguson, Bill Humble, Tony Ash, Eugene Clevenger, Holbert Rideout, Lemoine Lewis, Richard Hughes, Leonard Allen, Thomas Olbricht, James Thompson, and David Edwin Harrell. These men comprise a virtual “Who’s Who” of scholarship within the Churches of Christ. They are great men of wisdom and human knowledge, but also great men of faith. Whatever I am on a professional level I owe to them, although in no way do I blame them the weakness of my study. Thank you God, for dropping me in the middle of the finest associations of scholars and mentors possibly ever assembled among the Churches of Christ. I certainly did not deserve such an honor, and am only now truly coming to grips with the value of the education that I received.
The next circle belongs to those giants of the Restoration Movement that bequeathed to me my spiritual heritage: Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, “Raccoon” John Smith, Walter Scott, Moses Lard, and in the next generation – David Lipscomb. I read their productions in awe – not only were they theologians of the first rate (even though they would have eschewed the title), but they were prescient in attempting to prophesy to the church a full two centuries ahead of what some so-called “prophets” of the church are now saying and writing. Their spiritual heirs have not always lived up to their ideals, and as human beings they themselves were sometimes in error, but I would much rather live with their honest mistakes than share in some of my peers’ dishonest ones. Thank you, God, for giving these men a special measure of your Holy Spirit to lead a revival of truly biblical proportions. I pray for your Spirit to lead us again!
Finally, in the last circle are those who are outside of my circle of faith, but have led me into paths of righteousness that I otherwise would never have known existed. Some I have had the pleasure of meeting – Richard Peace and Glen Stassen, although the second only by way of the phone. Others I know only through written correspondence – John Drane (who supervised my doctoral dissertation). Others I have known only through their books – David Augsburger, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, C.S. Lewis, and by far and away the single-most powerful theological influence on my life – Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I thank you God for giving these men the talent to write – and the eyes to see and ears to hear what needs to be seen, heard and written. I truly live in a blessed, blessed time as far as being able to stand on the shoulders of some spiritual giants. I pray I can share with others what I have learned from their hands.
Aye, what a “cloud of witnesses” that surround my life! What a treasure to take a trip around my office and look at book titles, certificates, diplomas, and pictures, and realize just how privileged I am.
Thank you, God, far more than words can utter. I am, among all men, most truly blessed.
A few introductory comments before I take off into the fog today –
A major section of my Doctor of Ministry dissertation was focused on the intersection of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology and the Churches of Christ. Kind of like Oscar and Felix, it makes for an odd couple, but we have much to learn from this early 20th century theologian.
Second, although this particular topic is outside of my work on confession, the topic of community is closely related to confession (as most of Bonhoeffer’s theology is closely interwoven).
Third, when reading Bonhoeffer, a person must bear in mind the circumstances under which he was writing. So, with Life Together it is critical to remember that the thoughts, if not the exact words, were formed as the Gestapo was breathing down Bonhoeffer’s neck as he ran an illegal Lutheran Seminary. Ultimately they would force the closing of the seminary where Bonhoeffer taught, and that possibility was clearly in Bonhoeffer’s mind as he worked with his seminarians.
I am re-reading Life Together for the umpteenth time, and like so many other great works of literature, there are always new things to discover in this book. I want to share just a couple of thoughts that I think are so appropriate for the situation Churches of Christ (and many other churches) find themselves today.
Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial . . . Those who dream of this idealized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others, and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands, set up their own law, and judge one another and even God accordingly . . . So they first become accusers of other Christians in the community, then accusers of God, and finally the desperate accusers of themselves. (Life Together DBWE vol. 5, p. 36.)
There are many in the Churches of Christ who want the church to be something that it is not, and frankly can never be. As a close parallel to Bonhoeffer’s time, a growing number of people want the church to be more culturally acceptable than spiritually pure. Their concept of the church is an ideal (in Bonhoeffer’s thought, think of Plato’s concept of the ideal vs. the real). So, just as with the “German Christians” of the early 1930’s, membership in the church has more to do with cultural adaptation than Spiritual sanctification. In a staggering act of irony, these purveyors of tolerance and broad-mindedness become the most intolerant and narrow-minded when confronted by those who disagree with their bent theology. Those who preach “judge not” become the harshest judges, even to the point that they end up condemning themselves. The “faux guilt” crowd that accepts (and at times even creates) blame for everything from racism to male chauvinism to homophobia is really becoming quite obnoxious. They want the church to atone for sins it is rightly guilty of – and for sins it could not even be possible to be guilty of. But, as Bonhoeffer pointed out – when you come to the church with a false idea of what community truly is, the end result is fore-ordained.
Second is this:
Two factors, which are really one and the same thing, reveal the difference between spiritual and self-centered love. Emotional, self-centered love cannot tolerate the dissolution of a community that has become false, even for the sake of genuine community. And such self-centered love cannot love an enemy, that is to say, one who seriously and stubbornly resists it.
Therefore, spiritual love is bound to the word of Jesus Christ alone. Where Christ tells me to maintain community for the sake of love, I desire to maintain it. Where the truth of Christ orders me to dissolve a community for the sake of love, I will dissolve it, despite all the protests of my self-centered love. (Life Together DBWE vol. 5, p. 43)
Now, here is where you really need to understand Bonhoeffer’s historical situation. The Lutheran “union” of churches of which Bonhoeffer had been a member had been destroyed by the heresies of the “German Christian” movement – the Nazification of the Lutheran church. Bonhoeffer was part of a number of theologians who realized that these “Christians” were no longer Christians at all – they were not just schismatics, they were heretics. However, not everyone saw as clearly as Bonhoeffer and his associates. They viewed the “Confessing Church,” of which Bonhoeffer was a significant leader, as an unhealthy and dangerous schism. The emotional toll of Bonhoeffer was tremendous. In effect, he was declaring that many people with whom he had a deep and abiding relationship were no longer his brothers and sisters in Christ. Thus, these words are NOT just ivory tower rhetoric. In these words to his young seminarians, Bonhoeffer is basically saying, “I may feel like maintaining fellowship with a particular group of people, but when the word of Christ tells me to separate from that group, I must decide to obey Christ or my emotions. I will obey Christ at all costs – even and including my human feelings.”
The siren song of liberalism and toleration is being sung at full volume within the Churches of Christ (as, perhaps, it has always been sung). The phrase, “in matters of opinion, liberty” has been expanded to mean that everything is a matter of opinion, and there are no matters of “necessity.” According to a significant, and apparently growing, number of young preachers, the only “sin” is in thinking that there is an inerrant and infallible truth to which all must submit. What is almost incomprehensible to me is the fact that this battle has been fought before, most recently in the early 20th century, and we have the writings of Bonhoeffer and others to show us the price we will end up paying if we reject the words of Christ and embrace this path to an ecclesial holocaust.
Bonhoeffer’s words are both comforting and distressing to me. Distressing because I can see so many parallels between his age and today. Comforting, because I can see where there will always be those who reject Satan’s temptations, and who stand firm in the words of Christ. As I prayed this morning, I hope that I will have the courage to reject the anemic gospel of a worldly church, and have the courage to call for authentic, and costly, discipleship for Christ.
A post or two ago I referenced the “easy believeism” that was sweeping the Churches of Christ, and a reader queried me as to what might my opinion be regarding the source of such a phenomenon. Never one to be short of an opinion, I will do my best to answer – and, it must go without saying that although this is my opinion, it has been shaped by decades of observation and years of research in the Restoration Movement.
In brief, I believe there are two reasons for this “easy believeism” – or “cheap grace” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer would put it. To begin, I have to present a little historical background. At the conclusion of the Civil War, and up to and including the beginning of the First World War, the Churches of Christ as a communion were basically poor, uneducated southerners. Those congregations that remained within the Churches of Christ in the north were still considerably less affluent than their close cousins, the instrumental Disciples of Christ/Christian Church. The reasons are fairly simple to understand: those congregations with money (and therefore community prestige) soon felt nothing wrong with adding a piano or melodeon into the worship. If you could not afford one, it was easier to argue against having instruments of music. Those congregations that were fully capable of building an elaborate building, hiring a full-time preacher, and yet remained “acapella,” were few, but they did exist. In the south the story was much different. Congregations were poor – “located preachers” were few and buildings were bare bones. Instruments were out of the question both by doctrine and necessity.
At the same time, Churches of Christ were virtually entirely pacifist. Both during and after the Civil War many leading southern preachers argued strenuously against participating in the war. Following that war, the members became solidly anti-war, and when WWI broke out this became a problem. By the end of the war the government had turned an evil eye on preachers within the Churches of Christ – and the fellowship as a whole – for what was considered “seditious” behavior. If you did not agree with going to war against Germany, that meant you supported Germany. Nothing could be further from the truth, but since when has “truth” mattered to the government? Oops, I digress. So, by war’s end, the tide had turned, and the majority of members of the Churches of Christ had become war hawks – at least in a limited sense.
The pendulum swung back slightly in the years between WWI and WWII, but following December 7, 1941, it would have been very difficult to have found a vociferous pacifist among the preachers of the Churches of Christ. Nationalism and patriotism once again reigned supreme, and even those who held to their pacifist leanings found ways to support the war effort in non-combative ways. Another development occurred after WWI, and was reinforced with the prosecution and winning of WWII. The Churches of Christ “crossed the tracks” when it came to wealth and influence. No longer were congregations housed in little frame buildings – now Churches of Christ sported huge complexes complete with all the newest and finest accoutrements, minus, of course, any instruments of music for worship.
So, roughly speaking within about 50 years the entire culture of the Churches of Christ changed. Congregations went from being counter-cultural, poor, and pacifist; to being culturally savvy, affluent, and wrapped in American Nationalism. Although the 1940’s through the 1960’s and into the 1970’s were a time of exponential growth for the Churches of Christ, huge fissures began to be visible in the foundations that united this “undenominational” denomination. As the 1980’s blossomed and we have now turned the corner into the new millennium, it is obvious (at least to some like me) where those fissures have led.
First, many of the most prominent, “big name” and influential preachers and speakers within the Churches of Christ today grew up in the turbulent ’60s and ’70s. They are also the children (and sometimes grand-children) of the sexual revolution (and anti-authority revolution) and the “me generation” of the post WWII baby boomers. They are embarrassed by the intra-sect fighting that took place after the war, and the (admittedly) sometimes vitriolic attacks on other groups. They became the most highly educated, and clearly the most affluent and well respected, “pastors” of mega-congregations that the Churches of Christ have ever witnessed.
With that new-found respectability, and sometimes popularity, has come a profound pressure to conform to the dominant culture. Now, remember, this journey to cultural accommodation started with both a rejection of pacifism and a growth in financial status as far back as the turn of the 20th century, not the 21st. So, my first answer to the question regarding “cheap grace” in the Churches of Christ has to do with the almost complete acceptance of, and even frequent promotion of, American nationalism and the enculturation that has come with it. The “must have” speakers within the Churches of Christ today are not the fiery prophets of the late 19th century, but the slick, polished, suave, charismatics that large stages and multi-site congregations demand.
At the same time this cultural shift was occurring, there was a similar doctrinal shift taking place within the Churches of Christ. (Note, some would argue the doctrinal changes created the cultural changes, or that the cultural changes sparked the doctrinal changes – I think the two are much more interconnected, and neither one “created” the other). To make a long story short, the Bible became less and less the cornerstone for settling questions of faith and decorum. I have witnessed in my own life a significant devaluing of Scripture, both within the church assembly itself and in the lives of individual Christians. Churches of Christ used to answer questions with, “the Bible says” or “Scripture teaches.” Increasingly I hear excuses for how we should NOT listen to certain passages of Scripture because the culture of their day is not reflected by our culture, therefore our culture is controlling. Which gets me right back to reason #1. This can be demonstrated in so many different areas – questions regarding marriage and divorce, the importance of baptism, restoration of the fallen, and, yes, instrumental music in worship and the increasing demand for equal roles for women in worship.
So, what caused this head-long fall into “easy-believeism” or “cheap grace” in which “I’m okay, you’re okay” and we can’t even critique other faiths because Jesus said, “judge not, lest ye be judged”? Why is it that so many congregations of the Churches of Christ have fully immersed themselves (pardon the pun) into evangelicalism and the quasi-universalism that flows from it? Why are so many congregations taking the name of Christ off of their building and replacing with words like “Community” or “Fellowship”?
First – the members of said congregations have become absolute slaves to the culture of the times, in which “tolerance” is the new golden rule and “exclusivism” is the new pariah.
Second – at the same time these congregations were making the move to total cultural adaptation, they were jettisoning the one foundation that had set them apart from other religious groups, and that was a reliance upon the Bible as the only sure foundation for settling questions of faith and practice.
It is not hard to be a member of these congregations. On the other hand, if Dietrich Bonhoeffer were to appear and preach he would be hanged again, not because he was a Lutheran, (ecumenical Churches of Christ would LOVE that) but because he demanded absolute total discipleship – and blatantly rejected nationalism and “cultural Christianity.” I’m afraid Jesus would not be accepted either – he was never very well accepted by the social or spiritual elites.
I venture forth into troubling waters today – or, to follow the theme of this blog, into foggy skies. I’ve been wrestling for the past few days with a question that recurs frequently in conversations among brothers and sisters in Christ. That question is, “Who is my brother or sister in Christ?” At the center of the discussion is the frequently repeated and much discussed phrase, “in necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus charitas.” (in matters of necessity, unity; in matters of doubt, liberty; in all things love) Confusion and ignorance reign.
There are two extremes. On the one hand there are the full, or near, universalists who will accept all or almost all who mouth the words, “Jesus is Lord.” For them everything is a matter of doubt or opinion, because if you make anything a matter of necessity or faith there would be some who would disagree and therefore be “outside” the circle of fellowship.
On the other extreme are those who come close (or who clearly demonstrate) Phariseeism. For them everything is a matter of necessity (or faith) and nothing is a matter of opinion. For them identifying those who are in the Kingdom is easy – because they are on a first-name basis with most of those they consider to be a part of that circle.
I find myself in an uneasy middle position. I say uneasy because intellectually I believe the number of the citizens of God’s Kingdom to be much bigger than my own understanding of God’s truth. However, my personality type and nature tends to push me into the second group. My tendency is toward Phariseeism. Intellectually I know God’s grace must exceed my own human limits – otherwise I would be God! – but emotionally I have a hard time welcoming those who disagree with me. After all, I am always right (c’mon – my tongue is firmly planted in my cheek).
I must reject out-of-hand the growing chorus of the “easy believeism” that is sweeping through the Churches of Christ. That is nothing other than the “Cheap Grace” identified by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. We cannot accept that two diametrically opposite views of Holy Scripture can both be correct. We cannot accept that two diametrically opposed views of worship – or especially of the requirements of Kingdom membership – can both be correct. We must allow for differences of opinion and conscience, but at some point there must be a determination of wrong and right, of heresy and of sound doctrine. Likewise, we must be careful that we do not elevate our own intellectual prowess to the level of God’s judgment. We do not tell God who is a part of his Kingdom, God does that. Refer to my Undeniable Truth for Theological Reflection #1, the foundation for theology must be humility. Our greatest error is in proclaiming that we are beyond making errors. If universalism is wrong, so is Phariseeism.
This is not an easy subject to discuss – as emotions invariably run high and convictions run deep. As long as we are in these “earthen vessels” we are going to see things “darkly.” However, that does not mean we have to abandon all discussion and inquiry into the matter.
We must, however, pray for God’s Spirit to guide us into the healthy truth – the truth that sets proper boundaries where God has placed them, and not where fallible humans have placed them.
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.
Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision: A Case for Costly Discipleship and Life Together. Paul R. House (Crossway:Wheaton, Illinois, 2015) 197 pages.
One thing that you can say about my book reviews is that I am NOT generally on the “cutting edge” of literary publications. Chances are I am reviewing books that are anywhere from five to fifteen years old – or maybe even older. Every once in a while, however, I do get ahold of a book that has been published in the preceding twelve months, and luckily for me this book is one such example.
Paul R. House has given words to something that I feel very deeply. The fact that he did so by incorporating the theology and practices of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is just icing on the cake to me. In fact, I initially bought the book because of the connection to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (I am hopelessly enthralled with Bonhoeffer, and the title of this volume piqued my interest). However, I quickly came to realize that the real value of this book lies in House’s critique and solutions he gave to a critical issue facing seminaries and schools of theology.
I write from my own perspective, and so others may have a very different opinion based on their experiences, but I will go out on a limb and say that, with few exceptions, Churches of Christ do not do a very good job of preparing ministers. The Bible departments in our colleges and universities, our graduate schools, and our schools of preaching do a passable job in teaching the content of what a preacher needs to know (and some do that better than others), but on an over-all basis the schools that are tasked to prepare the next generation of congregational preachers do not do a very effective job of forming the life of the minister. There is a kind of silent code that states, “our job is to provide a student with the skills he will need to be a preacher, it is up to the candidate to be the kind of Christian he will be.” This was certainly the case when I was in school 30+ years ago; I am not sure how true it is today. Just a hunch based on some very unscientific observations, but things have not changed much in the product, however much has been changed in the theory end of the equation.
If my observation is valid at all, that would mean that the Churches of Christ fare no better, although probably not any worse, than the situation House describes. He challenges the notion that ministers of the gospel can be trained in sterile, “academic” settings exclusively. He especially challenges the idea that a minister can be shaped or formed through the process of “on-line” courses which basically amount to nothing more than the transfer of data between two computers. House is no neophyte – he has a Ph.D from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and has been involved in seminary education for over 30 years. His academic credentials are impeccable. What he says needs to be heard, whether you ultimately agree with him or not.
Basing his argument on two of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s more popular (and readable) works, Discipleship, and Life Together, House defends his argument that theological education – at least the kind of theological education that shapes and forms a minister’s life – needs to be done in community. While rigorous academic work must be a part of the seminary experience (the part I think our schools excel at), there must be a high level of face-to-face mentoring and spiritual formation that occurs as well. House demonstrates that Bonhoeffer had his greatest impact on the future of the church through the experiences he had with his seminarians, beginning at Zingst, and then moving to Finkenwalde and ultimately to the collective pastorates in Kosslin and Gross Schlonwitz. Bonhoeffer was a demanding educator – he expected a high level of exegetical acumen from his students, but he was equally concerned with who the young men were, and what they were training to become. Bonhoeffer did not just want to share information or pass along esoteric tidbits of theological trivia. He wanted to form ministers who could go out into one of the most demanding, and physically terrifying, situations in church history and not only survive, but to thrive and help their church members to thrive.
The fact that a majority of Bible majors in universities and colleges associated with Churches of Christ do not plan to or even want to enter into congregational ministry* is a devastating indictment against the education they are receiving. Various reports are suggesting that there are not enough students enrolled to adequately serve the number of congregations who presently need ministers, and with the baby boom generation of preachers getting ready to retire or are no longer able to serve the congregations, the need for additional servant-ministers will soon become acute. The ultimate answer to this need is no doubt far more extensive than the suggestions in this thin volume, but if you are looking for a place to begin, the wisdom in this book would be my first suggestion.
*Based on a personal report of one prominent university dated some years ago. Other colleges and universities may have a much higher proportion of students who not only desire, but are actively planning, to enter into congregational ministry. My apologies if my brush is painting with too broad of a stroke.
Andrew Root, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker: A Theological Vision for Discipleship and Life Together (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014)
I am a Bonhoefferophile. Happiness to me (if I cannot be fly fishing somewhere on a cold trout stream) is a big cup of Earl Grey tea, a book by or about Bonhoeffer, and a long afternoon. But, that having been said, there is nothing worse than a bad book about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Regardless of how much you like steak, there come a point that if it is cooked poorly, even a filet mignon is a wretched piece of meat. So, when I heard that a book about Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a youth worker had been published, I was immediately and deeply suspicious. Possibly no theologian has been used and abused more than Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Liberals see Bonhoeffer as the consummate liberal, conservatives see Bonhoeffer as a flag carrying conservative. I was afraid to find that Mr. Root would make Dietrich Bonhoeffer out to be the paragon of modern “pizza and praise God party” youth minister. I read some encouraging reviews, so I cautiously bought the book. The siren call of another study on Bonhoeffer was just too strong to resist.
Boy, am I glad I did.
My fears of Mr. Root transposing American youth ministry onto Bonhoeffer were dispelled on p. 3 when he wrote, “Actually, as we’ll see in the chapters below, Dietrich Bonhoeffer more than likely would have been strongly against many of the forms American youth ministry has taken since its inception.” Mr. Root is still too kind, but at least he put my mind at ease. The rest of the book served this summary well – he clearly demonstrated the vast difference between Bonhoeffer and American elitist, entitlement based youth ministry.
Root’s work is divided into 14 chapters and runs 208 pages long – so the book moves quickly. Root takes a chronological approach to studying Bonhoeffer’s work with youth, which is not the only way to study Bonhoeffer’s theology, but it works very well in this case. Root demonstrates that throughout his work with youth (which is far more extensive than most people realize), Bonhoeffer was consistent and demanding. Bonhoeffer was a theologian first and foremost and not at all concerned with the “bottom line” that defines so much American youth ministry. However, he was particularly adept at recognizing the capacity of his audience to perceive and adopt theological concepts, and so Bonhoeffer was a master at pedagogy as well as theology. Reading this book illuminates how important it is for a youth worker to be firmly grounded in theology, as well as methodology to convey that theology. (Note especially chapter 6, “Tears for Mr. Wolf: Barcelona and After”, and chapter 9, “They Killed Their Last Teacher! The Wedding Confirmation Class.”)
I am afraid that many (if not most) American youth ministers will not like this book – if they even understand what Root is saying. Most American youth ministry creates idols out of young people. “Do this, or we will lose our youth!” “Don’t do that, or say that, because our young people will not like it and they will leave!” Most critical, youth ministry in America treats theology like the plague – you can do just about anything, but for crying out loud stay away from theology. Even if you have to (horrors) talk about God, make sure he comes across as a BFF, so that you will not scare the poor little darlings.
Bonhoeffer, as Root so powerfully and eloquently demonstrates, viewed young people as individuals who were both capable and responsible for learning about the great and deep things of God. And Bonhoeffer viewed youth ministry as a critical part of the entire congregation – Bonhoeffer never wavered from his insistence that the church, and especially the congregation, was the center of the world for the Christian. I think Bonhoeffer would be aghast at the way our youth ministries pull young people away from the church – we actually destroy the community of the saints by isolating one of its most critical components.
Root demonstrates beyond question that for Bonhoeffer, theology had to be the center for youth ministry. How he managed to accomplish what he did is another story – certainly not everyone is going to be as gifted as Bonhoeffer in working with youth. But, if you love young people, if you are concerned about the young people in your church, and especially if you are currently involved in ministering to young people, this is one book you need to buy, read, and most important, fit into your ministry.
Just do not expect to find a 21st century youth minister in Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was not, and for that we should all be very grateful.