And the people of Israel cried out to the LORD, saying, “we have sinned against thee, because we have forsaken our God and have served the Baals.” And the LORD said to the people of Israel, “Did I not deliver you from the Egyptians and from the Amorites, from the Ammonites and from the Philistines? The Sidonians also, and the Amalekites, and the Maonites, oppressed you; and you cried to me, and I delivered you out of their hand. Yet you have forsaken me and served other gods; therefore I will deliver you no more. Go and cry to the gods whom you have chosen; let them deliver you in the time of your distress.” (Joshua 10:10-14, RSV)
For someone who loves a good sense of irony, this passage is just perfect. The Israelites were up against it. They were being attacked by the Philistines and the Ammonites. The Israelites had been serving the gods of these nations, but it was obvious that the faster they went, the behinder they got. Finally, somebody (or a few somebodies) decided, “Hey, let’s call on that LORD God, you know, the one that helped our parents and grandparents and great-grand parents. Maybe he can help.”
And the LORD, master of everything including dramatic irony, said “Pfffft.” (I paraphrase slightly.) Israel had made its bed, sleeping with all the Blue-tick hounds, and now they were complaining about the fleas. “Tough luck” said God – “Why don’t you call on all those fancy idols you have been worshiping for so long – maybe they can help.”
Well, we all know the story – Israel did put away the false gods, they (re)committed themselves to serving the One True God, and once again God heeded their cries and provided them with a deliverer.
I wonder if God does not refer to the same playbook every once in a while.
All across this wonderful fruited plain we hear the cry of the “oppressed.” “Lord, save us” is the cry. “We are in a bit of a pickle down here, and we could really use your help!”
And God says, “Pfffft.” (Once again, I paraphrase slightly.) “Go and call on those gods you have been worshiping for over 200 years now – see if they can rescue you!”
Let’s see if these gods can save us –
Politics – yeah, like mixing oil and water has worked so well for us. The crass greed of the Republican party versus the even more crass licentiousness of the Democratic party. “Vote for me because I am less evil than my opponent.” The wonder is not that our system is collapsing, the wonder is that it has taken this long to collapse.
Philosophy – okay, if our own muddled thinking got us into this mess, maybe our own muddled thinking will get us out! And we wonder what defines insanity.
Technology – I know, let’s create something – fashion it with our own hands (not really understanding what the long-term results will be) and then place the entire survival of the human race on that creation! Dynamite was supposed to be so powerful that its creation would end the possibility of war (so thought its creator – Alfred Nobel). Nuclear energy has worked out so well for us. Huge wind turbines are the latest, greatest saviors of life on the planet – unless you happen to be a migratory bird, and then, well, too bad for you.
Education – this one might have helped, except that we quit applying it about three decades ago. Who knows if it would have been all that great, seeing as how it was the source for numbers two and three above.
The point is that we (American Christians and secularists alike) have been worshiping at the altar of idols for most, if not all, of our history. There have been brief periods when we “call upon the LORD,” but they have been few and short-lived. Even today, when conservative Christians bewail the moral stagnation of our country, our solutions are based entirely upon idols – we look to a new President, or a new Congress, or a new Supreme Court. We demand a new educational system. We demand new (and expensive) weapons to guarantee our “peace,” when we live in terror every day.
To all of this I say, “Pfffft.” (And I do not paraphrase here). I am tired of trotting out the old solutions, the solutions that have not solved anything. I would like Christians to try something we have tried all too infrequently throughout the history of the United States – I would like Christians to rely upon the power of Christ living in and through the church. I want to see Christians feeding the poor and housing the homeless – who needs government programs? I want to see the church assume the responsibility of teaching our young people – and who cares about the Department of Miseducation? I want to see the church take the role of changing the lives of prostitutes and drug addicts and the hungry and the naked and the “poor and huddled masses, yearning to be free.” And I would like to see the church expect – demand even – that a changed moral life accompany a changed physical life. Jesus healed the sick – but he also healed the sickness of sin and bade his followers leave their former lives of rebellion against God.
It can happen. It should happen. It would happen if we would just try it. Otherwise, our faith in God is just empty, vain, words.
And if you don’t believe me, well, all I have to say is “pfffft.”
When you are flying in the fog the worst thing that can happen to you (at least, before you crash) is that you become disoriented. It is a bizarre physiological reality – but you can be in just about any flight position – right side up, up side down, nose high, nose low, extreme bank angle – and your body will tell you that everything is just hunky-fine. There is a mistaken idea among non-pilots that you would just know if something was wrong. On the contrary – your eyes, your inner ear, your “seat,” basically your entire body will conspire to tell you the most pernicious lies. Graveyards full of disoriented pilots silently proclaim the grim results. The mantra of flight instructors becomes the pilot’s only way of survival – don’t trust your senses, trust your instruments (and keep a good cross-check going, because one of your instruments may have failed!).
I have spent the past week severely disoriented. Following the murder of the five police officers in Dallas I have gone through a dizzying range of emotions. Initially I felt an almost uncontrollable rage. I just wanted to strike out at anything – a punching bag would have been most helpful. Along with that emotion came confusion – how could anyone actually support the actions of the killer (and there were several who did)? I was caught in a “death spiral” – all I could do was depend on my senses, and my senses were telling me that everything was incomprehensible.
Incomprehensible – that is just the word for what I feel. I cannot comprehend the rhetoric surrounding the events of the past week. I do not understand how one of the most blatantly racist and militant protest groups is afforded blanket amnesty from virtually every segment of our society – with the result being the ambush and murder of five law enforcement officers, and the wounding of a number of others. What is particularly galling to me is that the response of supposedly “Christian” leaders is not to challenge or criticize this blatant racism, but to actually support and encourage it. This just reinforces my conviction that many so-called “Christian” leaders are concerned not about the truth of the gospel, but only about pandering to special interest groups in order to maintain their aura of sanctity – and power!
Every Christian should be appalled when a police officer abuses the power that is invested in him or her and uses that power to insult, injure, or kill an innocent civilian. It should not be a surprise that with the number of law enforcement officers that there are some who should not be wearing the badge or shield (one statistic I read was 800,000 LEOs nationwide). There have been far too many situations where an officer is clearly out-of-control, or worse, guilty of a major crime. With that fact only too well documented, it should also be noted that in a number of supposedly “clear” examples of police brutality, the factual evidence demonstrated that the officer was acting well within his/her authority, the “victim” was actually the aggressor, and the officer acted to protect his/her life or the lives of others nearby. Such inconvenient truths do not matter – the officer’s life is ruined, property is destroyed, and livelihoods of truly innocent business people are either wiped out or severely damaged, all in the name of “justice.”
Like I said – I just do not get it. Some brave voices in the media have pointed out that our nation is being ripped apart at the seams. It should come as no surprise when good is called evil and evil is called good that the foundation of civility is cracked. Just stop and consider what “justice” and “freedom” look like in the United States today – the relentless murder of millions of unborn children, the glorification of sexual perversity including, but not limited to, transgenderism and homosexuality, the systematic attacks against and removal of the safeguards of religious expression. But when the leading voices of the “Christian” church are either silent – or worse, are actually complicit in this degradation – how will the truth be heard?
The way in which a pilot safely navigates the fog and storms that envelop his or her plane is to rely completely upon the instruments that tell him or her what the plane is really doing. In the moral fog that has descended so thickly upon our culture it is imperative that disciples of Christ stop trying to “feel” their way out and begin to trust the Scriptures once again.* Those who do will be unpopular, they will lose their “power” (whatever they think that power is) and may actually be vilified. But disciples also know that submission to the will of God is the ONLY way to bring reconciliation and wholeness (both physical and spiritual) to this earth.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. (Matthew 5:9, RSV)
*In saying this I am not suggesting that the Bible itself is to be worshipped – that would be bibliolatry. I am saying, however, that God’s “instrument” that he has given us for our safety and protection is his written word. We cannot say we trust, or believe in God, and at the same time disparage, dispute, or minimize the Scriptures.
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.
I do not usually steal other people’s material – I suppose I am vain enough to think that if I share other people’s material then no one will read my material. But, some laws are just made to be broken, and this post is one of those times.
Below is a link to a post by Tim Archer, a blogger/author/teacher/preacher/missionary who always has good stuff. I highly recommend you follow him, if you are not already doing so. Tim is not always perfect – he is a fan of the San Antonio Spurs – but I choose to overlook the little things.
Anyway – he said everything I wish I could have said, in a lot fewer words that I would have used (another gift that Tim has).
So – read and be challenged.
I shared last post about silence. Today I move from silence to prayer. Silence is the ground from which prayer is grown.
In my last post I attempted to stress the critical importance of silence. God created, God spoke, out of the primordial silence. Jesus was led into 40 days of wilderness before his speaking ministry would begin. “Be still (silent)” the psalmist directs, “and know that I am God.” If there is no silence, then speech becomes meaningless. It is silence that gives meaning to our words.
Silence, however, is not our highest passion. We are not called to vows of silence. We use the silence we are given (and that which we create) in order to move into prayer. Prayer is the proper goal of silence.
I know I am in the minority when I say this (perhaps the ONLY one who would say this), but I believe Christians have destroyed the gift of prayer. Christians have trivialized it, manipulated it, commercialized it, secularized it – and emasculated it. Far from being a path into the awesome throne room of the Almighty God, we have turned prayer into a perfunctory prelude before a meal, or worse yet, the opening rite before a disturbingly violent and utterly un-godlike sporting event. We use prayer to begin a legislative session in which women are given the right to murder their children, and where laws are passed to protect and even promote the deviant lifestyle of those who pervert God’s design for human sexuality. To salve our wounded conscience we declare one day out of 365 to be a “National Day of Prayer.”
National prayer for what? Have we never read Jeremiah 7:16ff and 11:14ff? Brothers and sisters, those are terrifying passages of Scripture! How can we be so hypocritical?
What then, is prayer?
Prayer is the path I take to align my bent and broken will to that of my Father in heaven. Prayer is the process by which I submit my heart and my body to the service of my Lord. Prayer is the method of communication that God has given me so that I can be at one time utterly human, and at the same time share in his transcendence. Prayer allows us to touch the infinite. Properly understood and practiced, prayer is the most powerful gift of expression that humans are allowed to use. Is it any wonder that when Jesus’ disciples heard him pray that they begged him to teach them how to pray? How many of us get down on our knees and ask God, “Teach us to pray!”?
This partially explains why we cannot pray today. Our world is so full of our words, of our noise, of the expression of our self importance, and even our own self righteousness that we cannot grasp the single most important component of prayer – the humiliating (making humble) and purifying presence of the gift of silence. We must listen before we can pray. It is then through the penetrating silence of God’s presence that we can begin to lift our own voice.
God wants us to pray. Jesus taught his disciples (and through their words, he has taught us) how to pray. The apostles commanded unceasing and fervent prayer. It is one of the great tragedies of the church that we have taken such a gift, yes, even such a command, and have turned it into something so base, so trivial.
Are we, as Christians, really serious about prayer? Maybe we need to begin by asking God to teach us, really teach us, how to pray.
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come, your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
(Matthew 6:9-13, ESV)
In response to my last post I received another good question – “So, where do the Churches of Christ go from here?” It seems to this feeble mind that I had already penned an answer somewhat close to answering that question, but I cannot find it – so I guess I did not. Anyway, since I clearly pointed out two reasons for what I would refer to as a “descent” into “cheap grace,” I will begin where I left off.
The first answer is so laughably easy to type, and so insanely hard to implement. You might even say, “pie in the sky by and by when we die.” But, to be utterly simplistic, Churches of Christ are going to have to change their culture. We are going to have to give up the victories we have won and the gains we have made in cultural accommodation. The first few centuries of Christianity clearly illustrate that the church was at best only tolerated, and frequently quite viciously hated, by the dominant culture in which it was placed. It is one of the great ironies of our movement that we look back to the first century as our polar star and at the same time try to move heaven and earth to try to be accepted by our 21st century hedonistic, secular culture. When a congregation can say, “you don’t have to change to be a member of this church” then you know that “the glory of the Lord has departed from Israel.”
Second, the Churches of Christ are going to have to rediscover the Bible. Yes, I said it. We are going to have to stop leaning on our professed affection for Scripture, and we are going to have to start using Scripture the way in which it was intended. The Bible was never meant to become an idol. The Israelites were guilty of thinking they were safe if they could utter the mantra, “The temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD” (Jer. 7:4). Contemporary Churches of Christ have modified that statement to be, “the Bible, the Bible, the Bible.” The word of God is a sign and a path, NOT a destination. One of the things you learn when you step outside of your own tradition is how other traditions have used what you thought was your own possession, and sometimes with much more accuracy and perfection than you have. Many churches claim to follow the Bible only. We have been claiming to do so for right at 200 years now. I have to ask in all honesty and conviction – where is the proof? Do members of the Churches of Christ love each other, and their neighbors, more than any other group? Are members of the Churches of Christ willing to go to prison for their convictions? Are members of the Churches of Christ the most charitable among all the other Christian churches? Are members of the Churches of Christ more willing to share the story of Jesus with those who have never heard it? Are members of the Churches of Christ the most hospitable of all religious groups? I think I could go on. The point is we love to love the Bible, but I am just not too sure we love the core message of the Bible. And I have been and am a continuing part of that digression.
I have often been a critic of our concept of “Bible study.” This is somewhat of a caricature, but not too far off. It goes like this – a teacher is recruited about two weeks before a quarter begins. A workbook is quickly ordered from a “sound” Christian publishing company. It arrives, but remains untouched until the first Sunday of the series. Twenty minutes before class the book is grabbed off the bookshelf as the family goes screaming out to get in the car. Five minutes before class the book is finally opened as the teacher stands behind the lectern, greeting his class members to an hour of “Bible study.” He begins by reading the book in a monotone voice, never once realizing that no one is really paying attention to him. It doesn’t matter whether the class is the adults in the auditorium, the high school class or the 2nd grade class. The process is mind-numbingly common in all too many congregations.
I pray your situation is different. I pray you have a teacher that is on fire every time his or her class meets, and they end the class session drenched in sweat and even more excited about next week. I pray you have a teacher that teaches from a bucket that is overflowing with equal parts passion and information. I pray you have a teacher that both assigns homework and insists on the completion of that homework. I pray you have a teacher that demonstrates and expects world work as well – the faithful practice of the lessons learned from the text of the week. I pray you have a teacher that sees Scripture as a journey into the Kingdom of God, where justice and mercy meet.
I have no illusions that the scenario I have described above will happen any time soon, at least not on a national scale. If it happens it must begin on a person by person, congregation by congregation basis. It is going to take strong elders who lead their congregations away from the siren song of American nationalism back to the vision of dwelling in the Kingdom of God. Those elders are going to have to have the backbone necessary to resist – and even confront – those who claim that the Stars and Stripes are equal to the stripes and the cross. The church is going to have to be led by those who see the church as a path to the future and not just a relic of some mythical ‘golden age’ here on earth. In the most simple terms, the church is going to have to become solidly counter-cultural, unapologetically apostolic, and deeply apocalyptic in order for all of this to happen.
It has happened before. It can happen again. But there is only one way in which it can, and will, happen: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts.” (Zechariah 4:6)
[In case anyone is interested, here is a handful of resources that have been helpful to me in this study: The Worldly Church: A Call for Biblical Renewal 2nd ed., C. Leonard Allen, Richard T. Hughes and Michael R. Weed (ACU Press, 1991); The Cruciform Church: Becoming a Cross Shaped People in a Secular World rev. and expanded ed., C. Leonard Allen (ACU Press, 2006); Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of the Churches of Christ in America and Reclaiming a Heritage: Reflections on the Heart, Soul, and Future of Churches of Christ both by Richard T. Hughes, (ACU Press, 2008 and 2002 respectively); Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, (IVP, 2003); Dissident Discipleship: A Spirituality of Self-Surrender, Love of God, and Love of Neighbor, David Augsburger (Brazos Press, 2006); Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World, 2nd ed., Lee C. Camp (Brazos Press, 2008); Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…And Why it Matters and You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church … and Rethinking Faith both by David Kinnaman (Baker Books, 2007 and 2011 respectively); Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 4, (Augsburg Press, 2001). And, the coup de grace, the stunningly brilliant examination recently done by someone we all know and love, We Can Bear It No Longer: Toward a Confessional Theology Within the Churches of Christ (unpublished dissertation, Fuller Theological Seminary, 2015). Caveat emptor: with perhaps the last source as the only exception, I do not agree with every conclusion of each of these authors. Actually, I don’t always agree with the last author either. Read carefully and judiciously – and always compare what a human writes with the one Word of God.]
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.
This is the third, and final, entry in a series of thoughts I have been wrestling with regarding the boundaries of brotherhood – stated another way, defining the limits of the Kingdom of God. As I hope I have made clear, I am not at all comfortable in stating my conclusions as being beyond debate. However, one cannot “wrestle” if one does not have at least some place to begin, and so what I have written so far is a record of where I stand. As Martin Luther is reported to have said, I can do no other.
Yesterday I examined those indications, or allusions (however poorly my choice of words might indicate) that God’s kingdom is much larger than what some (including myself) might recognize. Today I examine the flip side – that the Kingdom might be far more restrictive than some (including myself) might want to admit.
I have stated that this is where I exist in my “gut” feelings. This is NOT to say that this feeling is not supported by intellectual arguments or textual evidence. Much to the contrary, this position is well attested throughout Scripture. When I say that this is my “gut” reaction, I am simply saying that it is more natural for me to think in terms of an “exclusive” nature of the Kingdom than it is for me to think of an “inclusive” Kingdom. We all live in our own unique little world, and this feeling is a part of my world.
To begin, I want to return briefly to yesterday’s post. Today I want to emphasize what I admitted as contra-evidence to the inclusive nature of God’s Kingdom. While Ishmael was circumcised along with Abraham, and while he was certainly to be blessed, and while he was (and his descendants remain) a “child” of Abraham, God’s special covenant was to go through the lineage of Isaac. God did deliver the Philistines and the Syrians, but their inclusion in the message of Amos was to highlight the very special relationship God had with Israel. God did certainly send Philip and Peter to the Ethiopian eunuch and to Cornelius respectively, but the message they presented was not that they were secure in their beliefs, but that they had to confess their faith in what was, and is, an undeniably Jewish Messiah. So, even within the evidence of inclusion, there is an unmistakable link to exclusion. Some are chosen, others are excluded – this is the story of Scripture!
Prior to the deluge Noah was chosen, the other humans were excluded. When the people of Israel (God’s chosen people) refused to enter the promised land the first time, an entire generation was excluded, and only their children were permitted to be “included” in the eventual conquest. Only a “remnant” from the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles were allowed to return to Jerusalem. The message of John the Baptist to “Repent” is meaningless unless it is understood that (a) the people were in an “excluded” relationship and needed to return to God, and (b) some would, and some would not, “repent.” Jesus began and ended his ministry with warnings of the “exclusive” nature of the Kingdom: “…the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13, 14) and “…many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matthew 22:14) A significant theme in the book of Romans is that, even among God’s “chosen” people, there are those who can reject their inheritance and thereby be “excluded” from the Kingdom. (Romans 1-3).
The examples both for “inclusion” and “exclusion” can be multiplied – I am not suggesting that my examples are exhaustive. What I hope that I have demonstrated is this: when it comes to establishing boundaries for the Kingdom of God, it is God that has set the boundaries, and as humans we are NOT in a position to make those boundaries either more inclusive than what God has determined, or more exclusive than what God has determined. In our never-ending struggle to be more like God than to accept our blessing to be in the image of God, we attempt to both include what God has excluded, and exclude what God has included.
I see this tendency especially problematic within the Churches of Christ, my only experience with a group of faith. On the one had there are those who are willing to accept any and all who profess even the most lukewarm and shallow expression of “faith” in Christ. Any passage of Scripture that might appear to be exclusive is excused away due to the “primitive” nature of the writings of the New Testament. We are so spiritual now, so intelligent; therefore we must remove ourselves from such tribal thinking. On the other hand are those who draw the circle of fellowship so small that only their little “righteous remnant” will be qualified for eternal bliss. For them a violation of any shibboleth, no matter how minor, constitutes an eternal sin which can be forgiven only upon the most ghastly of penances. This forgiveness is only provisional, however, pending any further deviations from the decisions of the quorum.
So, where do I draw the boundary of the Kingdom of God? Hopefully, only where God has drawn it. I must make every effort to learn where God has drawn that boundary in the pages of his revelation – the Bible. Issues of the new birth (baptism) and a continued life of discipleship and sanctification are fundamental – not incidental. Jesus did not just say, “you are healed,” he also added, “go and sin no more.” I must also, for matters of conscience, draw the limits of my fellowship along areas of doctrine where I feel I am safe to do so. But in so doing I must accept that my circle must be fluid, and that God may indeed have drawn his boundary of the Kingdom much larger, and in some situations much smaller, than my circle of fellowship. I am not God, and I cannot determine the limits of the Kingdom of God. The fact I choose to welcome, or to distance myself, from certain practices is not a decree that God himself must adhere to. I may have brothers and sisters with whom I cannot share table fellowship. I may have brothers and sisters with whom I would love to fellowship, but who feel that they cannot fellowship with me. This is wrong, make no mistake, and every effort should be made to mend those divisions.
But – let me be clear – I am not the one to tell God who is, or who is not, his child. God creates, God redeems: I must follow.
Yesterday I spoke of a struggle I have – and probably share with many others. That struggle is with the concept of boundaries, specifically boundaries of the Kingdom of God. I expressed that by nature I tend to be more exclusivistic (the word I used was Pharisaical), but by virtue of intellectual process I know that my “gut” can often be wrong. Today I argue against myself, taking a quick look at those passages in the Bible that let us know that, however much God has revealed of Himself, he is still ineffable, transcendent, and Holy. God is God, and we dare not attempt to tell him what he can or cannot do.
I suppose we need to begin with Ishmael. We all know that Isaac was the chosen son, the son of promise – the one from whom the nation of Israel was to come. Let us not, however, dispense with Ishmael so cavalierly. We learn that Ishmael was to be “blessed” by God, and he himself would be the father of 12 princes (foreshadowing Jacob, anyone?). A few verses later we learn Ishmael was circumcised along with Abraham, and all those who were a part of Abraham’s entourage, whether natural born or bought as slaves (Genesis 17:20, 22-27). The point of the story is clear: Isaac is the chosen son, the son of promise. Ishmael was not forgotten, however – he was a natural “child of Abraham.”
Another text that gives me pause is Amos 9:7. Remember the story of God delivering the Israelites from Egypt? Well, apparently God is in the delivering business for a number of nations, because he pointedly reminds the Israelites that he had done the same thing for the Philistines and the Syrians. Yes, I know – Israel is the chosen people, the “family” of God. Just as with Ishmael, however, God’s reach extends slightly further than Israel wanted to admit. Sometimes God has to remind Israel of that fact.
Another text that causes grief between my gut and my head is John 10:16. In the great passage of the Good Shepherd (we all love that passage, right?) Jesus had this to say, “And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them in also, and they will heed my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (John 10:16) Now, I know (or at least I believe I know) to whom Jesus is referring – the “flock” of the Gentiles to whom he would be sending his disciples after his death. What I want to point out is that at the moment Jesus is speaking these words, the disciples had absolutely no idea that this other “flock” would even be considered for salvation – unless, of course, they would change and become exactly as they (the original flock) were. It actually took a fairly significant kick in the seat of the pants to get the first flock to welcome the second flock into the fold. Point is – there was a second flock the first flock had no idea existed. To Jesus, however, it was just one flock that had not been unified yet.
I could go on here to point out the Ethiopian eunuch, Cornelius, and the church council of Acts 15. The people of Israel, the Jews – God’s chosen people – were very slow to recognize and to welcome this “other flock.” The inclusion of this “other flock” did not meet their standards of propriety. God’s plan did not work like their plan did. They wanted to draw the boundaries of brotherhood in one fashion – and God had another design entirely. It took a while, but God’s design finally won.
Now, before everyone lines up to melt the tar and pluck a goose, I am NOT arguing here that any and every “religion” is equal to New Testament Christianity. I have not ever, do not now, nor will I ever, argue that “all roads lead to heaven.” I hope that I have clearly stated my understanding that the covenant promise begins with Isaac and ends with Jesus. My only point in this little exercise is to illustrate that it is God who draws the boundaries, and sometimes those boundaries were just a little bigger than what his followers were able to see. If God is God, then we must always bear in mind that, while we must always and in every way follow his commands and submit to his will, there will be areas of his reign that we simply cannot understand. He has given us everything we need to know (2 Peter 1:3-4), but that does not mean that he has given us everything that HE knows.
To be blunt: I know what God expects of me, but I can place no expectations upon God. I must accept the boundaries that God has created, whether I agree with them or not.
Tomorrow: I return to my instinctual perspective, and argue the case for exclusivity.
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.