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Conformational Christianity vs. Transformational Christianity

This semester’s schedule calls for me to get back into Christian ethics. So, in addition to the basic text I am using, I have been reading some sources that are “new” to me, John Howard Yoder, in particular. Yoder is perhaps the most persuasive and well-known among pacifist writers. Whether you agree with Yoder, disagree with Yoder, love him or hate him, if you are going to wade very deep into Christian ethics you have to deal with Yoder and the application of his views.

This, however, is not really a post about Yoder. Perhaps I will do that at another time.

What Yoder got me thinking about was how diluted Christianity has become. With very, very, few exceptions, most congregations of virtually every stripe or color of Christians have become conformational. This fact is astounding, given the reality that Jesus called upon his disciples to be transformed, and transformational, and the apostle Paul wrote emphatically that disciples of Christ are to be transformed and transformational. (see Romans 12:1-3)

To explain my terminology here, conformational Christianity is a Christianity that has conformed itself in one or more aspects to the culture in which it resides (for us Americans, that would be a free-market, capitalistic, militaristic, representative republic). We look like good Americans, we act like good Americans, we talk and buy and sell and defend and basically exist as if America was the “promised land” of which Moses spoke to the Israelites.

Transformational Christianity, both individual and communal, would examine that culture (or cultures) and work with the remnant of ideas that might be God affirming, and would reject or transform everything else in order to live fully and whole-heartedly within the “reign of God” on earth. A transformed Christianity would look nothing like its surrounding culture, except as that culture has itself been transformed by the Christian leaven working within it. A transformed people would be known by their inexplicable love for one another. They would be known for their total devotion to the ethics of the Kingdom of God. They would not be concerned about money or power or prestige or whether or not they were being treated fairly under the Constitution. A transformed church would live as if this world was a transition to a better world, a re-created Garden of Eden in which Christians will all share in a re-established image of God.

Conformational Christianity asks, “What is culture saying that we must do in order to appeal to consumers looking for the best religious deal?” Transformational Christianity asks, “How has Christ changed my life, and how can I go out and change my world.” Conformational Christianity asks, “What can we do to keep our young people from choosing another church or to leave the church altogether?” Transformational Christianity says, “I have no idea what you are talking about, our kids are begging for opportunities to serve and lead.” Conformational Christianity worries that maintaining any tradition will hamper its effort to “be relevant.” Transformational Christianity rejoices in traditions that keep its message pure and alive, while willingly looking for new ways to express its faith – with no regard whatsoever for the issue of “relevancy.” Transformational Christianity knows intuitively that a person cannot make the church “relevant” (what ever that means), it knows that the church is relevant for the purpose of transforming people’s lives as a basic, fundamental part of its existence.

I know of too many churches that are sell-outs to cultural pressure. They define the term, “conformational Christianity.” They conform to both the style and content that the western culture demands of them. In the words of Jesus’ parable, they are worthless, their fate is to be thrown on the dung heap.

Transformational churches are salt and light in the midst of a bent and broken world. Jesus called on his disciples to be transformational people (Matthew 5-7). Paul echoed that call in Romans 12. Peter called on the churches to whom he was writing to be a Holy people, just as the God they worship was Holy (1 Peter 1:13-16).

Be Holy. Be Transformed. Be Transforming. That is the challenge given to the Church of Christ. I pray we have the courage of our convictions, and that we can accept this challenge without fear or favor to any earthly power.

Right-Wing Ideology is Abhorrent, “Christian” or Not

I’ll give you two quotes, you decide which one is acceptable and which one is unacceptable.

Ideology Icon

Ideology Icon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Infidels in the region have three choices: convert to Muhammed, pay a tax, or die.” – The Islamic State to non-Muslims in their territory.

“The time has come that we need to either convert them, which I think is next to impossible, or kill them.” Phil Robertson, patriarch of the “Duck Dynasty” family and elder in the Church of Christ, speaking about the Muslim extremists on the Sean Hannity radio show.

Okay, have you figured out which one is wrong? I’ll give you all the time you need……

Here is a hint. Both statements are reprehensible, and for the same reason. Both are born of a far right-wing ideology that replaces faith with fanaticism. “If you do not agree with me, you deserve to die, no questions asked, no quarter given.”

The first statement is reprehensible enough coming from practitioners of the “Religion of Peace.” The second is even far more reprehensible, coming from a follower of the Prince of Peace, who sacrificed his own life so that all men could have the hope of a reconciliation with a Holy God.

How is it that men can replace religion with such hatred? Especially coming from one who claims to follow the Christ who said, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” Somehow I do not see how, “Convert or we will bomb you into eternity” is much of a loving or prayerful statement.

Tonight in our college Bible study we read and discussed the book of Jonah. The college kids got it. God loves all people. Even the people of Nineveh, the capital of the nation of Assyria.

As in, the capital of the proto-nation of Iraq, the modern day nation of all the Muslims Phil Robertson wants to convert or kill.

God actually loved the Assyrians enough to send a prophet to them to warn them of their sinful ways. Yes, the message was, “repent or perish,” but that message came from a God that is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”

I think Phil Robertson needs to read his Bible a little more carefully. I think he needs to read the Sermon on the Mount, and I think he needs to read the book of Jonah.

And I think that anyone who agrees with the kind of faith that would rather bomb someone into damnation rather than pray for them a path into glory should really, really re-examine whether they are following the Prince of Peace or a hate-filled creed that is as damnable as the ideology they seek to destroy.

The Churches of Christ – A Personal Reflection and Appeal – #1: Politics

“Chocolate Cake for Breakfast”

Anyone familiar with the comedian Bill Cosby has surely heard this story. His wife leaves him in charge of the children for a few days and the first crisis he meets is what to feed the kids for breakfast. They clamor for chocolate cake. He refuses. He is thinking in terms of healthy foods like eggs and milk. They beg, wheedle, demand and otherwise make it obvious they want chocolate cake. He still refuses, but something happens. He reviews the ingredients that comprise the chocolate cake. Eggs. Milk. Wheat. Healthy stuff. The kids get chocolate cake for breakfast.

The Churches of Christ in the United States over the past 200 years or so have been anything other than monolithic. The only thing that members of Churches of Christ universally agree on is that we cannot agree universally on anything. Well, almost anything. There is probably someone out there who even disagrees with what I just wrote. So, with that caveat clearly understood, what I have to share in this series of articles is purely my own observations and reflections. I speak for no one but myself unless a person so desires to publicly agree with me.

It might be argued that in its deepest psyche the Churches of Christ in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries have been bi-polar. I believe this position could be sustained by the careful examination of two of the brightest lights in the formation of the group that now bears the name, “Church of Christ” – Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell. While similar in certain respects, these men held vastly different views of human nature and the nature of the restoration to which they were committed.

English: Barton W. Stone (1772-1844) Português...

English: Barton W. Stone (1772-1844) Português: Barton Stone, pastor e teólogo estadunidense. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Alexander Campbell (1788-1866) Religi...

English: Alexander Campbell (1788-1866) Religious reformer on the American frontier (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Briefly summarized, Barton Stone was a deeply spiritual man who was convinced that the Holy Spirit was active in the early years of the 19th century to lead the church back to a pure form of worship. He was distrustful of human nature, and especially human government, and believed that while God would ultimately make things right, humans had very little or no power to do so. What humans could do was to follow the leading of the Spirit and submit completely to the will of God, particularly as revealed in the New Testament. Alexander Campbell was equally as spiritual as Barton Stone, but in many ways was the reverse image of  Stone. Just as convinced in the power of the human being as Stone was distrustful, Campbell believed that humans could, and in fact were in the very process of, ushering in the millennial reign of Jesus on earth. Where the two agreed was in the normative power of the New Testament to guide the “restoration” of the church to a pure, apostolic form. Thus the two agreed to merge their fledgling movements under one broad canopy, but philosophically the two were nowhere close to being united.

Barton Stone’s “DNA” was carried down through the middle and late years of the 19th and into the 20th centuries by men such as Tolbert Fanning and David Lipscomb. In their writings we see this distrust, even blatant rejection, of human political structures and a greater reliance upon the Holy Spirit. While not exactly premillennial in outlook, their spirituality has been described as being “apocalyptic,” and that word accurately communicates what they believed and taught. As much as they looked back to the time of the apostolic church, they looked forward to the kingdom of God being made manifest on earth, and they knew that humans had no control over that event occurring. It would occur when, and how, God wanted it to.

It is extraordinarily difficult to remain apocalyptic in outlook when everything in the world seems to be proving that mankind does have the ability, and perhaps even the responsibility, to make things perfect on earth. So, little by little the influence of Stone, Fanning and Lipscomb disappeared from the ethos of the Churches of Christ. The first World War almost eliminated this counter-culture viewpoint. By the time the Japanese had crippled the American navy at Pearl Harbor the thought of remaining critical of, and aloof from, the American flag and “the republic for which it stands” was simply unthinkable. Except in small and isolated situations the Churches of Christ made the leap to equating faithfulness with patriotism, and the twain have never since been sundered. So, today a pacifist would not only be viewed as being “unAmerican,” he or she would be viewed as “unchristian.” Pleas for responsible gun control efforts are most vehemently rejected by ministers of the Churches of Christ who point, not to Scripture, but to the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution, for their support. Prayers for the members of American military forces are routinely offered during worship services, but any mention of the civilian victims of American military actions are never confessed, repented of, or even mentioned. The one area where church and state are most certainly NOT separated is in the auditoriums of many Churches of Christ, where God, church and country are fused into one uniform entity.

David Lipscomb (1831-1917) co-founded the Nash...

David Lipscomb (1831-1917) co-founded the Nashville Bible School in 1891. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Which, after over 900 words, brings me to the main point of this first reflection – (and to admittedly sweep with too large a brush) I suggest that a large majority of members of the Churches of Christ are far too wedded to the prince of this world than they are the slaughtered Lamb of God. And, if I am correct, within the next three years this incestuous marriage will have profound and irreversible implications for the future of the church.

The presidency of Barak Obama has pushed the United States past a tipping point. Never before has a president been able to achieve the legislative and moral changes as has President Obama. From sweeping judicial changes, to the passage and implementation of a radical new health care mandate, to the unparalleled changes in the moral distinction of homosexual behavior, this president has indeed accomplished his goal of transforming America. If I am not mistaken, this surge past America’s previous conservative worldview will only accelerate after the presidential elections in 2016. As I view the political landscape the only thing that will prevent Hillary Clinton from becoming the first female president of the United States is if she declines to run, or if she should die before being elected. There are several solid reasons for my conclusion. The primary one is that President Obama has turned the citizens of the United States into wards of the state. Everyone is now dependent upon the government to a greater or lesser degree. Our national debt is exploding, but no one wants to surrender his or her entitlements. No true conservative, one who openly suggests that our government is out of control and must be scaled back, has much of a chance to defeat a progressive who will suggest that, far from being too intrusive, the government needs to take a greater role in directing the lives of its citizens. Simply stated, America’s narcissism virtually guarantees the victory of the nominee of the Democratic party in 2016, especially if that nominee is Hillary Clinton. I do not foresee any realistic chance of a conservative winning the election even if another Democrat should become the nominee.

Which, then, brings me back to my main point – because the majority of members of the Churches of Christ have not only been complacent as this political and moral metamorphosis has taken place, but have actually aided and abetted it with their defense of and subjection to the Constitution of the United States, a radical change is going to have to occur in the hearts and minds of these members of the Church if the Church is going to survive in any meaningful way deep into the 21st century.

In other words, we are going to have to reject the Campbellian (and utopian) view that mankind is smart enough and spiritual enough to direct its own footsteps. We are going to have to return to the Spirit led, overtly counter-cultural and biblically apocalyptic world view of Barton Stone, Tolbert Fanning, and David Lipscomb.

The New Testament begins with a radical sermon – one that calls upon its hearers to reject man-made philosophies and to accept whole-heartedly the vision and Spirit of the God who created this world. The New Testament ends with the most majestic description of this counter-cultural kingdom – a kingdom in which the godless powers of worldly governments are cast like large stones into the abyss. In between the sermon and the vision are the words of God revealed through the power of the Spirit, and not one single word teaches or even suggests that the way in which the final Kingdom of God will be revealed is through the power of a human government. While citizens of this kingdom must temporarily live in subjection to the laws of a human government, the worship of the citizens of the Kingdom of God must never be divided.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer - among others - lecturer ...

Dietrich Bonhoeffer – among others – lecturer at the preacher seminary in Stettin-Finkenwalde. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Either we worship God, or we worship the political powers of this world. There simply is no other choice.

In one respect I fear for the future of the Church of Christ. I fear because we are too American, too incestuously married to the spirit of this world. We depend more upon the Constitution of the United States than we do the inspired word of the eternal God. We allow politicians, comedians and common men and women to mock and despise the teachings of the Bible, and yet when our “rights” or “entitlements” are even remotely threatened we become apoplectic. Some members of the Churches of Christ have more of the Bill of Rights memorized than they do the Sermon on the Mount. And that, my friends, is truly pathetic.

On the other hand, my faith is not in the Church of Christ, but in the God who created this world and who established the church of Christ for a dwelling place for his faithful people. The church of Christ will survive, even if the Church of Christ should one day disappear.

I am an unabashed and proud member of the Restoration Movement in general and the Church of Christ in particular. I believe deeply in her goals and aspirations. I am firmly committed to the precepts and objectives of men such as Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell. I am also well aware of their failings and short-sighted goals, even the well-intentioned ones. I am aware that they were human, lived and breathed the hubris of the time in which they lived, and that as any human being, they made mistakes in what they taught. I also believe they were brilliant men whose vision far exceeded the time in which they lived. Those of us today who love and respect their work are truly standing on the shoulders of giants – and I will never, not for one moment, surrender that heritage.

But as a child of God and an heir of the Kingdom of Heaven I must also be aware of the fact that any human association can fall from its pure intentions. So, while I am deeply committed to the Church of Christ (capital letter C), I am first and foremost a member of and committed to the church of Christ (little letter c, meaning that assembly devoted to Christ whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life). Some say the two are identical. I cannot – for the very reasons that I have articulated. Far too many members of the Church of Christ have surrendered to the beast and proudly wear the number of its name. They want to walk, and talk, and do business with the beast while demonstrating the semblance of submission to the Lamb. While here on earth it is impossible to fully recognize those charlatans, but I rest in full assurance that God knows who is His and who is not. That will be made clear at the last judgment.

In other words, I just want to be a disciple of Christ. I do not want the additives that turn the Church into something that it never was intended to be. I certainly do not want to be a part of a religious institution that is simply a front for, and defender of, a godless and corrupt government. I want to be lead by the vision of the Kingdom of God as described by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and in the Revelation to John. While respecting my heritage and its respect for the past, I want to be pulled forward by the biblical vision of the Bride of Christ. As I have previously written, you cannot fly an airplane by looking in a rear-veiw mirror.

A juvenile world wants chocolate cake for breakfast, lunch and supper. Our government says, “Look at all this wonderful cake – full of sweetness and covered with all this luscious icing.” The Church must recover its apocalyptic voice and renew its strength to be able to say, “No. We will not be fooled. Politics is the play toy of the damned. We are children of the King. We will serve our God and worship Him only.”

Church, it is time to grow up. And if that means we must leave the chocolate cake on the table and be viewed as unpatriotic traitors, then so be it.

“I lift my eyes to the hills – from where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth.” Psalm 121:1

Sources: I rely on many fine works related to the history of the Restoration Movement, and the Churches of Christ specifically. Of particular interest in regard to this subject are: David Edwin Harrell, Quest for a Christian America and Sources of Division in the Disciples of Christ 1865-1900; Richard T. Hughes, 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; C. Leonard Allen, Richard T. Hughes and Michael R. Weed, The Worldly Church: A Call for Biblical Renewal; and Richard T. Hughes and C. Leonard Allen, Illusions of Innocence: Protestant Primitivism in America, 1630-1875. Beyond my love for Churches of Christ, I have been deeply touched and challenged by the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, these writings are simply too immense to list individually. His complete works are published by Fortress Press and can be found in the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works series,  16 volumes which includes all of his major writings, letters, sermons and theological reflections. In addition to Bonhoeffer’s original works, there are numerous secondary works of significant value. Chief among them would be Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Society; and Keith L. Johnson and Timothy Larsen, eds. Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture; and a book I am currently reading, Mark Thiessen Nation, Anthony G. Siegrist, and Daniel P. Umbel, Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking.

Can Christians Force Homosexuals to Change Their Behavior?


Bookends (Photo credit: brainwise)

If you have not already guessed, today’s post is the bookend to yesterday’s post. In it I discussed the possibility, and in some people’s minds (mine among them) the growing probability that at some point there will be a direct conflict between an aggressive LGBT proponent and a church or religious figure who refuses to perform a same-sex marriage or allow that the same-sex marriage be performed in their facility. I hope this is a “chicken little” fear and that nothing of the sort occurs, but viewing the trajectory of court decisions and even popular referendums I cannot but think that such a confrontation is not that far off in the future.

However, today I want to “flip the coin” and look a one possible reaction that is frequently discussed among Christians, especially conservative Christians, that I hope does not happen. That reaction is to push for greater and more restrictive legal measures that would attempt to change the outward behavior of homosexuals by legal fiat.

You may think that I have lost my mind, but bear with me here. There is a meaning to my madness.

The attempt to coerce or even more minimally adjust moral actions and thoughts through the process of legal demands has never worked. It never will. You can legislate the legality or illegality of certain behaviors, but you cannot enforce moral behaviors and thoughts. As an example, you can legislate that prostitution is a behavior punishable by fines or imprisonment, but you have hardly begun to touch the underlying reality that women are going to sell their bodies if men are willing to pay for sex, and men are going to pay for sex if they can find a willing partner. The act may be illegal, but a glance in the local phone book will tell you that it is hardly curtailed.

We could, theoretically at least, pass a law tomorrow that made all homosexual behaviors illegal and what would we accomplish? Absolutely nothing except to alienate an already alienated group of people and exacerbate an already deteriorating social conflict.

So, if legislation will not solve the problem (and I defy anyone to prove that passing any kind of law will solve any moral problem) what are we to do? Are disciples of Christ simply to surrender, to walk away from the struggle, to “hunker and bunker” and await the coming apocalypse? No, no, no and no.

Abraham was in a numerical and moral minority when he left everything to follow the unimaginable call of God. Moses was in the numerical minority when he faced the awesome power of the Egyptian army. Daniel was in the numerical and moral minority when he stared down the king of Babylon. Jeremiah was virtually a solitary individual fighting against an immoral Jewish leadership. Jesus was born in a time in which the Jewish nation was a numerical and moral minority. The Pharisee Saul left the comfort of numerical superiority to claim both numerical and moral minority status as a disciple of Christ. The apostle John wrote to an oppressed and clearly minority group of people spread out throughout Asia and told them that in spite of their numerical insignificance they were still the army of God. It would appear from even a cursory reading of the Bible that God works His greatest wonders and reveals His glory to be the brightest when it appears from a human standpoint that He is outnumbered and on the losing end of the moral battle.

I do not want to use the weak and beggarly tools of Satan to attempt to coerce the behavior of those who disagree with me because I believe God has a far greater plan in mind. And I do not mean the coming apocalypse.

God’s plan, quite simply, is for His people, His chosen and redeemed sheep, to start living like they actually believe the words they have been mouthing for centuries.

I AM The Good Shepherd....

I AM The Good Shepherd…. (Photo credit: prayerfriends)

I want disciples of Christ to actually start acting like they believe marriage is a holy and inviable commitment between a man and a woman. I want disciples of Christ to start raising their children instead of turning them over to the state to raise. I want disciples of Christ to start treating all men and women as if they are created in the image of God and to stop using derogatory terms of hate and ignorance. I want disciples of Christ to start actually worshiping God instead of creating more hedonistic practices to soothe guilty consciences. I want disciples of Christ to start honoring and praising the differences between the genders instead of working with the prince of this world to blur the distinctions between male and female. I want disciples of Christ to repudiate and work against the destructive powers of pornography and the sex trade. I want disciples of Christ to actually stand up and be counted as advocates for the preservation of life – all life- instead of just mouthing a few mantras concerning being against abortion. I want disciples of Christ to acknowledge that it is theologically impossible to be pro-life and to advocate a military complex that is designed to obliterate entire nations and not simply for the defense of one’s homeland.

In other and far more simple words, I want disciples of Christ to start living the Sermon on the Mount. All of it, and not just the parts we like.

We will never be able to coerce behavior and thoughts by people who look at us and only see bigotry, hypocrisy and immeasurable pride. We cannot preach chastity if we are spiritual whores. We cannot preach moderation if we are spiritual gluttons. We cannot preach humility if we are arrogant spiritual jerks.

I predict the next few years will be profoundly disturbing to many people, myself included. I pray that we, as disciples of Christ, will be able to stand in the face of the coming maelstrom and respond with the love and fortitude of Jesus. Love, that we not hate and demean our opponents. Fortitude, in that we do not betray him nor his and our Father. The coming years will, in all likelihood, be difficult.

But, has not God called us for this very hour and purpose?

Book Review: “Living the Sermon on the Mount” (Glen H. Stassen)

Many of you have followed my series of articles on the Sermon on the Mount, and several have commented on one or more of the entries. I realize that there are many who would like a more in-depth treatment of the subject, but are either unable or unwilling to access the material I referenced because of two very good reasons: (1) Dr. Glen Stassen’s book Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context is 491 pages long and not everyone wants to wade into a volume that long and complicated, and (2) the article “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount” is found in the Journal of Biblical Literature, a resource not many people have access to or even the desire to access. In order to alleviate those two issues I suggest a third possibility – Dr. Stassen’s smaller and much more accessible book, Living the Sermon on the Mount: A Practical Hope for Grace and Deliverance (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006) 201 pages in an easy-to-read format with many pages consisting of graphic illustrations.

This book eliminates several of the problems that are associated with longer, college text-book type volumes, and especially with articles in peer-reviewed journals. The book is written for the common member of the church, with few (but adequate) endnotes and a non-technical writing style. However, in terms of content, the book follows Dr. Stassen’s explication of the fourteen triads of the Sermon on the Mount and even goes beyond the more technical works in providing some concrete proposals for how the “transforming initiatives” can be worked out in our contemporary society. The book is divided into 10 chapters, but in his preface Dr. Stassen provides information about how to divide three chapters in half, thus providing for a 13 week study of the Sermon on the Mount to fit into a congregational Bible class format.

Even though the book is relatively short (the 201 pages are easily read – this is not a cumbersome technical exposition) do not be misled – there is a lot of “meat” in this book. Dr. Stassen has studied the Sermon on the Mount in-depth and his writing reveals his research. One thing I found particularly valuable was the many ways Dr. Stassen ties the Sermon back into the prophets, particularly the prophet Isaiah. This is important because I think that all too often we believe that Jesus was teaching something new and never-heard-before, while all along he was teaching what His Father had been teaching through the prophets for generations.

Another aspect of the book that I genuinely appreciated was the illustrations depicting the “traditional teaching, the vicious cycle, and the transforming initiatives” that are located throughout the book. For those of us who are visually oriented, this is a big help.

Another thing I like about this book is that Dr. Stassen included a much longer section about the spiritual disciplines in this book, as opposed in particular to the JBL article, and this is a significant addition. In fact, Dr. Stassen goes to great lengths to show that the section on prayer is the pinnacle of the sermon, and every other teaching found in the sermon is incorporated into Jesus’ model prayer. It is this kind of working through the text as Matthew constructed it that makes this little volume so valuable.

This book is NOT a critical commentary on Matthew 5-7. If you are looking for a careful definition of terms and high-falutin’ biblical language, you will not find it in this book. This is a book designed to the the word of the Sermon on the Mount into our hearts, and therefore into our hands and feet. The scholarship behind the book is solid, but the presentation is in a popular writing style.

The standard caveat directed to every book applies to this one as well. I am sure that you will find something that Dr. Stassen writes with which you disagree. So be it. I have more than one question mark placed in the margin of my copy, along with an editorial “hmmmm” or two. But I do not buy nor do I read books simply to reinforce that which I already believe. Those volumes are okay to a point, and I have several of those type books on my bookshelves. But what I really look for in a book is the answer to the question, “What does the author have to tell me that I do not know, or that furthers my understanding of a particular topic?” Closely related to that question is another: “How well has the author prepared himself/herself to write this book, and how well does he/she present his/her research?” On the basis of these two questions I can recommend Dr. Stassen’s works on the Sermon on the Mount unreservedly. He is an accomplished scholar and knows how to write both professionally and popularly. He challenges with his insights, and even when you disagree with him you have to accept that he has done his homework well and that he presents his case energetically.

Bottom line – this is a fine addition to your “Sermon on the Mount” section in your library.

A Radical Sermon – Dogs, Pigs and the Kingdom (Matthew 7:6-12)


pig (Photo credit: Ro Irving)

Have you ever been relatively sure of something, or maybe even profoundly sure of something, only to find out at a later time that you were relatively, or maybe even profoundly wrong? I hate it when that happens. Especially when I am the perpetrator and the victim.

Matthew 7:6 has always been a “question mark” verse for me. I know how others have interpreted it in the past, and for the most part I have agreed with them. The traditional interpretation is that Jesus is telling us to not call people dogs or pigs (I mean, in 7:1 he just told us not to judge, right?); but, as the interpretation goes, some people are just dogs and pigs. So, even though we are not supposed to, we end up judging people. We decide they are not worth having the gospel preached to them (“that which is holy” and the “pearls”). The amplified interpretation is that, while we are not supposed to judge people’s hearts or motives, we are supposed to be “fruit inspectors” (Mt. 7:16) and if someone looks like a pig, grunts like a pig, and acts like a pig, well, who are we to say otherwise?

As I said, this was my standard interpretation – one I taught and preached for years. I’ve never been 100% comfortable with that interpretation because there was always a nagging question in the back of my mind about how 7:6 was related to 7:1. But, many minds much more brilliant than mine have taught this traditional interpretation, so I put aside my uneasiness and just assumed I was being a little too hyper-critical.

In his article, “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-7:12), Dr. Glen Stassen has finally given me the answer to my question mark. I encourage you to find the article and read it in its totality, as I do not have the time or the inclination to repeat Dr. Stassen’s entire article here. However, to make a  fine and complex argument very short, Dr. Stassen points out that in the contemporary literature that would be circulating during Jesus’ lifetime, the epithets “dog” and “pig” was most uniformly applied to the Romans, and to the Roman government in particular. It is true that the epithets were hurled at other groups, but the overwhelming majority of uses applies to the Romans and the Roman government.

As a striking example of how this played out in the gospel, note the story of Jesus healing the demoniac at Gerasa (Mark 5:1-20). Note the language. Jesus asked the demoniac what his name was, and the man replied, “legion.” Now, a legion is a lot of demons, but a “Legion” was also the identification of a Roman military unit. When Jesus cast the demon(s) out of the man, the “legion” entered into a herd of pigs. Dr. Stassen points out that in the first century, in a culture in which the Roman occupation was hated with a deep passion, this little play on words would not go unnoticed. Was Mark trying to make a point about Jesus’ power over the Roman government, or was this just a fortuitous slip of the pen? It does certainly give me pause to think that there is something else to be considered in Matthew 7:6.

By keeping the “triadic” formula in mind, we see that Matthew 7:6a fits the “traditional teaching” portion of the triad. The “vicious cycle” comes next – if we give that which is holy and the costly pearls to the dogs and pigs they will not care about them or us. They will trample that which is holy and valuable and turn to attack us. The “transforming initiative” then follows, with an extended illustration. We are to continue to keep asking God for that which we need, we are to keep searching for that which we need, and we are to keep knocking at the throne room of heaven. If we ask, we will receive; if we seek we will find; and if we knock it will be opened to us.

But what is Jesus talking about here? Going back to Matthew 6:19 (the verse that takes up immediately after Jesus’ emphasis on the spiritual disciplines) Jesus has been focused on the Kingdom of God, and our relationship to that Kingdom. What Dr. Stassen points out is that we are to keep asking, seeking and knocking for the Kingdom to arrive on earth. Our trust, our hope, the point of our asking, seeking and knocking must be the reign of God on earth. If we hope and trust in his reign, if we ask for it, seek for it and knock on heaven’s door for it to be opened, we will receive, find and have it given to us.

So, if “that which is holy” and the costly “pearl” is our hope, our faith, our trust, how do we throw those things to the dogs and pigs? Simply by giving our faith, our hope, our trust to any and or every human government that we find ourselves subject to.

Bingo! Just like the light bulb coming on over the cartoon character’s head, suddenly now I get it.

Vicious-looking dog

Jesus is saying here that the most precious thing we can give to God is our hope, our faith, our allegiance. If we give those things to an earthly government, it will not respect those gifts nor those who give them. They will trample those precious gifts underfoot and then turn and attack the people who surrender those precious possessions.

Can anyone say, “The United States Government?”

English: Detail of Preamble to Constitution of...

English: Detail of Preamble to Constitution of the United States Polski: Fragment preambuły Konstytucji Stanów Zjednoczonych (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I know I sometimes sound like a broken record – the same line being repeated endlessly. But I am just struck by how profound this teaching is throughout Scripture, and this view of Matthew 7:6-21 simply magnifies that teaching to me.

For well over 200 years now Americans have given their allegiance, their hope, their faith, and their trust to a piece of paper called “The Constitution of the United States of America.” Certain individuals have viewed it as the 67th book of the Holy Bible. Some conservative Christians can quote from the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence more accurately than they can quote the words of Jesus. But let me ask every conservative, red-white-and-blue, flag waving Constitutionalist what that devotion, how that adoration has benefited the church of Christ?

We now have abortion on demand – and millions of babies die each year at the simple request of their mother. We have some states in which assisted suicide is legal and protected. The use of mind-altering drugs is increasingly becoming legal and protected (the most obvious is alcohol!). Building, staffing and filling prisons with prisoners is a growth industry. We have states in which same-sex marriage is legal and protected. But formal prayers in public schools and in public meeting places is illegal. Posting portions of Scripture in a public place is not allowed. Increasingly we have more and more limits on what once was considered to be free speech. On the other hand, vulgarity, nudity and violence are common themes even in forms of entertainment that are primarily oriented toward children. The divorce rate is astronomical, the birth rate among unwed teenagers is unconscionable, and a federal judge just ruled within the past week that any female should be able to receive an abortifacient drug over-the-counter with no prescription needed. Yes, indeed. We truly are a Christian nation.

We gave everything we considered to be high and holy to the government, and it return it trampled those offerings under foot and now has turned and started to attack those who surrendered those gifts.

Just like Jesus said it would happen.

When will we wake up, disciples of Christ? When will we quit throwing that which is holy and our precious pearls in front of a government that despises them and us? When will we finally understand that the only thing that the government wants is more power? And how long will it take us to finally realize that the government will do anything and everything it needs to in order to achieve that ultimate power?

And when will we start giving our faith, our hope, our trust, and our allegiance back to God?

“But seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you.” Matthew 6:33.

This ends my series of thoughts on the Sermon on the Mount, and in particular, Dr. Glen Stassen’s profound explication of this sermon. I hope it has benefited you as much as it did me.

And I hope that we will soon begin to put this Radical Sermon into some very concrete behavior!

(Note: some bad grammar and punctuation fixed, and sentence clarified 4/14/13. Sorry about the confusing sentence.)

A Radical Sermon – Keep Your Condemnations To Yourself – (Matthew 7:1-5)

The Conflict of two Natures

The Conflict of two Natures (Photo credit: Chris Yarzab)


Dr. Glen Stassen, in his article on the fourteen triads of the Sermon on the Mount, says that, ‘The structure of the next triad is straightforward.” That is helpful because some of the triads have not been exactly “straightforward,” at least to a Western, linear thinker like me. So, having something be a little more obvious is always appreciated.


The “traditional teaching” is found in verse 1, and is very similar to the “You have heard it was said…” statements in chapter 5. Jesus simply repeats a proverbial statement that must have had some currency during his ministry: Do not judge, and you won’t be judged. Dr. Stassen views verse 2 as a continuation of the traditional teaching. However, I note that verse 2 could also be the beginning of the “vicious cycle” that virtually always accompanies some self-righteous judgement. If we apply some rigid form of judging, others will apply that same form against us, but usually they will add a little bit to it. We very rarely ever give back exactly what we have been given, we always all a little vinegar along with it. The vicious cycle is then discussed more completely in verses 3 and 4. Invariably what occurs is that we begin to examine others with a microscope when our own sins are so blatant they can be identified a mile away. A mile away, that is, by everyone but us. The illustration Jesus used is meant to be ironic and I believe meant to generate some uncomfortable laughter – at least until the reality of the irony sets it. We are always far more willing to remove specks when the log is protruding from our eye.


What, then, is the “transforming initiative?” It is really quite simple. It is called “repentance.” It is removing the very large and blatant sin in our own life so that we can see clearly to analyze the problem in the lives of others. I think something else is taking place here. Jesus is not giving us a blank check to start solving other people’s problems just as long as we superficially whitewash over our own. What Jesus is saying is, “If you are going to condemn someone, start with yourself. Examine your relationship with God. How pure are you? What is your attitude? How have you acted? What is your motive? And how have your actions been in line with the thoughts, intentions and motives of God?” When we really and truly place ourselves under the same microscope under which we love to place others something transforming should happen. One, we should see just how far we have fallen from the standard we would like to think we have exceeded, and two, we begin to notice that the “speck” in our brother’s eye is not so serious at all. It may need to be removed, yes. But instead of trying to remove it with a rusty pair of vice-grips we use sterilized tweezers and an appropriate amount of anesthesia. True biblical repentance should have a profound and lasting effect upon our willingness to condemn other people.


It has often been noted that the best teacher in any subject is the person who, as a student, had to struggle intensely to overcome any misunderstandings and setbacks. I can relate perfectly. As a flight student I had a bear of a time trying to master flying with reference only to my instruments. I had a mental block, and a pretty sizable physical problem as well. Things just did not seem to want to work for me. With patience and enough time I did earn my instrument rating, went on and earned my Commercial Certificate and both Flight Instructor and Flight Instructor/Instrument ratings. Then the day came for me to start teaching students how to earn their Instrument rating. Because I had made virtually every mistake known to flight students in my own instrument training, I picked up on most of my student’s mistakes very quickly. Not only that, but I was able to sympathize with them and give them encouragement. At my first instructor job I was given several of the “problem” students because either (a) I was good enough to get them graduated or (b) I was too sympathetic to turn them down or a mixture of both. But my success rate was pretty good – something that I look back on with a certain amount of pride.


But, the person who is only able to see the faults of others makes for a lousy teacher. That person makes for even a more lousy judge. That person makes for even a more lousy Christian. The life of discipleship is a life that demands first of all that a person is willing and capable of examining him or herself and making the necessary changes before there can be any confrontation of others.


Psalm 51:10-12

Psalm 51:10-12 (Photo credit: Heather T Imagery)


I wonder how the national debate on homosexuality and same-sex marriage would change if the church would simply focus its attention on the sexual dysfunction of its own heterosexual members before it started to “fix” the homosexual population who has no intention of ever being a part of that church to begin with. That is just one example, but the general principle should be clear. The church has a huge blind spot regarding sexual sin, greed, covetousness, racism, compromise with political powers (idolatry) and the environment. How can we justify much of our own myopic rhetoric when we are so complacent toward and complicit with so many behaviors that God specifically condemns in His eternal revelation?



Our world is bent and broken, to be sure. Of that there is no question. But the church shares that same bentness and brokeness. If we do not seek to repent and remove the log in our own eye we will be incapable of helping the world see its own bentness and brokeness. The church’s great commission does not begin in Matthew 28:16-20. The church’s great commission begins in Psalm 51:1-19 (among many other Psalms of lament). If we do not have a broken heart, no amount of preaching and teaching will ever be acceptable in the Kingdom.


A Radical Sermon – The Pressures of Being Affluent (Matthew 6:24-34)


Money (Photo credit: 401(K) 2013)

It has been a while since I have spent any time in the Sermon on the Mount, so if you are new to this series you may want to backtrack a little and pick up the context and the pattern for what we have been discussing.

In his article (“The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-7:12)”), Dr. Glen Stassen does a good job of demonstrating how 6:24 really fits the context of what follows rather than what precedes. The verse really sounds like a concluding pronouncement, but in light of what has been discussed so far, the argument in favor of linking v. 24 with vv. 25-34 is quite convincing. As we will see in a couple of articles yet in the future, this stylistic manner of looking at the Sermon truly does open it up to a greater degree of understanding.

So, using the pattern Dr. Stassen has identified throughout his article, the “traditional teaching” that Jesus begins with is, “No one can be a slave to two masters.” [With my tongue firmly in my cheek this is perhaps the clearest reason given in Scripture as to why polygamy is wrong.] The “vicious cycle” is either found in the next phrase or the last phrase of the verse. I tend to think that the vicious cycle actually begins with the loving the one master and hating the other. However, Dr. Stassen connects that phrase with the “traditional teaching” and identifies the “vicious cycle” as, “You cannot be slaves of God and money.” Verse 25 continues the vicious cycle – those who are torn between possessions and God are constantly anxious, worried about everything there is to worry about.

The “transforming initiative” is found in three imperatives given in verses 26-28, “Look to the birds, learn from the wildflowers, seek first the kingdom of God.” The behavior that changes everything connected to anxiety and worry is to consider how God takes care of his creation. If man truly is the pinnacle of that creation (which a solid theology of the opening chapters of Genesis clearly pronounces), then God will certainly take care of his highest creation. The most imperative of the three imperatives (not to be redundant) is the command to “seek first the kingdom of God.” This is the major theme that has been running throughout the entire sermon up to this point, although clearly enunciated here for the first time. The Beatitudes illustrate the life that is given over to the Kingdom principles. The discussion of the “traditional teachings” and “traditional practices” that we have examined so far are all illustrative of the vast difference between those who seek the kingdom of this world over the Kingdom of God. Jesus straightforwardly demands that we pray for God’s Kingdom to arrive on this earth just as it exists in heaven. And so here at this climactic point in the sermon, Jesus tells us that any attempt to serve this-worldly kingdom and God’s kingdom is doomed to failure. Quite bluntly Jesus announces that anyone who is worried about the things of this transitory world cannot be concerned about things of the eternal kingdom. Conversely, those who are truly concerned about bringing the eternal Kingdom to the earth will not be distracted nor consumed with the things of this temporary world.

The problem I see with the church today has been amply identified by individuals far more capable of discussing it than  I am. The problem is not that the world has defeated the church. That can never happen. The problem is that the church has opened its doors far too wide and has swallowed too much of the world. The church is consumed with concerns that are only important to the kingdom of the Accuser. The church is worried about power (i.e., who is elected in the next cycle of elections), status (do we have the latest technology housed in the most beautiful building?), relevance (are we reaching the next generation?) and its own future. What the church should really be concerned about is love, justice, and mercy. The church should be concerned about Kingdom issues, not power or status or relevance issues. God does not care if we are powerful (because He is our power) our status (because our status is only important in Him) or relevance (it is absolutely blasphemous to think that WE can make God relevant). God is concerned about whether we are faithful in obedience to his commands, which are ultimately based in his grace. If we are disobedient, that is an indication that we either do not recognize or do not trust his grace.

The Sermon on the Mount truly is radical. And, if we would just believe it, would make us a radical church!

A Radical Sermon – Possessions (Matthew 6:19-23)

A treasure chest

A treasure chest (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Throughout this examination of the Sermon on the Mount we have see where Jesus begins with a traditional teaching (or practice), identifies a descending cycle of behavior (often vicious) and then offers a “transforming initiative” that not only breaks the cycle, but restores the “traditional teaching/practice” to its original, God intended purpose. Thus we see where these instructions truly are instructions for living in the new “reign” or “kingdom” of God.

The traditional teaching here is the injunction not to store up treasures on earth. This is certainly a laudable prohibition, very much in line with “do not murder” and “do not commit adultery.” The vicious or descending cycle is briefly noted: moths and rust eat away both soft materials and some metals, and thieves break in and steal that which is more permanent, but is vulnerable none-the-less. The “transforming initiative” occurs in v.20, store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. A repudiation of the “vicious cycle” then occurs, moths and rust cannot destroy nor can thieves steal that which is “in heaven.”

With this section of the sermon the question does not so much lie with “what is the traditional teaching” or “what is the transforming initiative” but is more practical – “how in the world can you lay up treasures in heaven?” That appears to be one of the “impossible commands” that this method of examining the Sermon seeks to avoid.

The answer, as Dr. Stassen points out (readers new to this series of posts need to review the first couple of posts of this title to get the bibliographic information I listed in several posts) is to separate the idea of “this life” vs. the “life hereafter” from the idea of the life that is lived here on earth that is devoid of the reign of God and the life that is lived here on earth that is bathed in the reign of God.

Think of the contrast this way: if you invest heavily in things, if you take pride in your house, your possessions, your retirement portfolio, etc., that is where your heart is going to be. With every new purchase or with every new addition to your collection your level of worry is going to increase proportionally. You will need to buy better locks, invest in an alarm system, maybe buy a vicious guard dog, buy a whole warehouse of guns and ammunition. You will watch the stock market reports like a hawk – and worry incessantly about trends and events over which you have absolutely no control. Where your treasure is, your heart will follow.

Now, contrast that with the one who invests heavily in the reign of God. This person gives to make sure there is justice for those who cannot afford it, who provide food and clothing for those who need it, who share their physical blessings so that those who are lacking in certain necessities are able to receive them. This person will be vitally concerned about the reign  or the kingdom of God because he or she has already invested heavily in that reign and kingdom. This person’s heart will follow their treasure as well. Except this person’s treasure cannot be taken away from them; it cannot be destroyed, and it will not self-destruct. This person’s treasure in invested in the kingdom of God. That is, this person’s treasure is invested in the very heart of God Himself. No worries here about the stock market or buying a bigger dead-bolt lock.

As Dr. Stassen points out, there is some debate as to whether v. 24 is attached to this teaching, or begins the next section. If it belongs with this teaching the meaning is self-evident. If you love your treasure here on this earth, you cannot claim to love and follow God. If your heart is firmly attached to kingdom concerns, then you will not be worried about following the god of this world.

Until next time, keep the shiny side up and the oily side down!

A Radical Sermon – Spiritual Disciplines (Matthew 6:1-18)

The Spiritual Disciplines

The Spiritual Disciplines (Photo credit: Chiceaux)

In his treatment of the Sermon on the Mount in the article, “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-7:12), Dr. Glen Stassen compresses Jesus’ teaching on the spiritual disciplines of giving, prayer and fasting into one brief but in-depth treatment. I will attempt to be as brief.

First, the four sections are set up in parallel – “When you give alms…when you pray…and praying…and when you fast.” So there is thematic as well as grammatical cohesiveness to this section. Second, instead of a “traditional teaching” what we see Jesus discussing is a series of “traditional practices” that, just like the traditional teachings, can devolve into a “vicious cycle” that gets the worshipper nowhere. And, third, the pattern that we saw in the first section of the sermon continues with a series of “transforming initiatives” in each of the four teachings on these spiritual disciplines. These initiatives transform both the practice and the one practicing them.

In regard to these spiritual disciplines, the “traditional practice” that Jesus confronts is doing them in order to be seen and praised. The “vicious cycle” is that “they have their reward” but it is not the reward that ultimately matters. Their reward lasts only as long as it takes for someone to give more, pray longer, or fast more solemnly. So, the struggle to win praise and admiration from the crowds because of spiritual practices never ends – in fact, it only gets more and more difficult.

However, the “transforming initiative” for each of these practices focuses on God as the recipient. God receives the alms and thus blesses. God hears the prayers and thus responds. God notices the fast and thus rewards.

So the pattern that Dr. Stassen identified for the section 5:21-5:48 holds true for 6:1-18. Jesus confronts the traditions of those he lived with, and by doing so confronts our traditions as well. Do we practice the “five acts of worship” (singing, praying, Bible study, Lord’s Supper and giving) as rote practices that must be performed as check boxes to be completed, or are we entering into a special relationship with God through each of these (and more)? It is interesting that in the heritage in which I was raised fasting was something that was never taught as a spiritual discipline, or if it was, it was taught as something that was not necessarily a “command” in the Bible. I think just as frequently it was taught as a Roman Catholic practice that we did not have to share (sort of like eating fish on Friday). But notice, Jesus did not say, “If” you fast, he said, “when” you fast. It has been encouraging to me that fasting has made somewhat of a comeback in non-Roman Catholic circles, and I believe the church would be much stronger, and individual Christians would be much stronger spiritually, with a restoration of this very biblical and very Christ-like practice.

I just wish that I could develop the spiritual discipline of fasting. I speak to myself first and foremost.

Brief, yes. Critical, absolutely. Giving, praying and fasting (among the other spiritual disciplines) must be returned to their proper place of emphasis within the church. But that emphasis is on worshipping a holy God, not for the purpose of being seen and praised.

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