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Acceptance, or Approval?

Sometimes I wonder what people think about me. At other times I’m fairly certain, but I try not to think about those times. Specifically, I wonder what people think about me when I stress the significance of the meaning of similar, but ultimately different, words. I imagine most people think I’m a nut. Who cares what words mean? A word means what I want it to mean, so just get over it.

Well, I am an inveterate lover of words, so I cannot just “get over it.”

So, I was reading a commentary today in which the author made several references to Jesus “accepting” sinners. Every time he used the word “accept” or “acceptance” I cringed and made a little comment in the margin of the book. (I am always correcting authors when they make mistakes. Hopefully, none of them will ever see my corrections.) Something made me pause and ponder for a moment why it was that I was so put-out with the word “acceptance.” I realized that I was reacting against what I perceive to be the modern connotation of the word. When I hear the word accept used today it is virtually always used in the context of approval. When someone suggests that I “accept” a particular viewpoint or choice of behavior, they are not suggesting that I simply recognize the behavior and move on. That person (or persons) want me to approve the behavior or ideology. So, when I read the author’s continued use of the word “accept” for Jesus’s association with sinners, all I could think of was that the author was trying to communicate that Jesus saw nothing wrong with the behavior of the people he chose, or allowed, to be around. That grated on my nerves – and still does, for that matter.

The meanings of words change with time. Take, for one tragic example, the word “gay.” It used to mean “happy, carefree, exuberant, joyful.” Now it means – well, you know what it means. I fear that the word “acceptance” or “accept” has changed as well. Maybe it is just me, but I cannot accept (pardon the pun) that a lifestyle of sexual depravity is normal or – to use a word to define a word – “acceptable.” In other words, I cannot approve of a lifestyle that is condemned in Scripture – and that would include lifestyles marked by any of the “works of the flesh.” Sin still has to be sin; otherwise the sacrifice of Jesus becomes far less than divine, indeed it becomes positively diabolical.

I want to acknowledge that Jesus freely associated with those that the Pharisees referred to as “sinners.” Some of those people were truly rebellious against God – and some probably just did not wash their hands before supper. But I struggle with the modern connotation of the word “accept.” He recognized sinners, freely associated with sinners, even perhaps welcomed sinners – but in absolutely no way, shape, or form did he ever approve of their sinful behavior.

Maybe I am making a mountain out of a molehill, straining a gnat while trying to swallow a camel. As one whose life depends upon the correct usage and understanding of words, however, I must urge caution when certain words are used in relation to the life and teachings of Jesus. We may intend to mean one thing, and our audience may hear something entirely different. I suppose to a certain degree this is unavoidable – but we do not need to carelessly compound the issue.

Thanks for flying in the fog today – I hope you will excuse me, I need to get back to correcting some more authors.

Orlando – Outrage, but No Solidarity

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.

It’s Not Just About Bathrooms

Okay, a word of warning. Today’s installment is going to be a tad more theological than most of my fulminations. It will be perhaps a bit more philosophical as well. I will attempt to keep it as short as possible. (Yea, you’ve read that before!)

I was tempted to title this piece, “An Anthropological Defense of Theology,” but I figured no one would know what I was talking about. I’m not sure I would even understand that title (but it just sounded so erudite.) So, I went with a simpler, and perhaps more “click bait” title as above. So, I am going to be addressing the current debate over gender and all the related issues. But, understand, this discussion is not just about bathrooms, locker rooms, and the associated politics.

One truth I have discovered over the past few years is this, stated in bold and italics to emphasize its importance to my argument:

We cannot come to know, love, or serve God as He has called us to know, love, and serve him until we become fully what he has created us to be. In other words, we cannot be transformed into His likeness until we become fully and completely human – created to be in his perfect likeness at the beginning of time.

There, now you may want to get another cup of tea and cogitate on that for a while . . . I’ll be here when you get back.

And, (drum roll, please), the very, very first physical description of the what he created when he created mankind is . . . “male and female.” Yes, folks, you read it here first, there are two flavors of humanity – male and female. XX and XY chromosomes, and nothing else. At the very core of our being is the description “in the image of God.” Attached to that core – inseparable from that core – is our maleness and femaleness. Our gender* is a biological gift from God, written into the very DNA which also determines our fingerprints, eye color, and whether we will ever have the ability to play for the Minnesota Vikings or not.

How we accept this basic anthropological fact determines our theology. We cannot, and I repeat, we cannot, have a true and healthy understanding of God if we reject this fundamental truth of our own existence. While I am sure that volumes could be written (and indeed have been written) further exploring this concept, I want to bring that truth to bear on this issue of “gender” and bathrooms, and, just to make everyone mad, the issue of male spiritual leadership in the church.

The most fundamental question is this: Do we get to choose our gender? The answer from God’s word is an unequivocal “No.” We are born male or female. Now, it is also clear from Scripture that we as humans can choose how we participate in sexual behavior once we reach the age of maturity, but we cannot change our birth gender (surgical procedures and massive doses of hormones cannot change DNA structures!) From that fundamental question a host of questions follow. One of those questions is “What happens when I feel like I am a member of the opposite gender?”

The psychology of gender dysphoria is well beyond my expertise. I will, however, offer this thesis – having a feeling, and acting on that feeling, are two entirely different kettles of fish. I may feel like I am qualified to play running back for the Minnesota Vikings, but the reality is I would die trying to live out that feeling.

I see a profound irony in the current discussion of “transgender” and the use of restroom facilities. There is (currently) a huge uproar over the possibility of a full grown man who “feels” like a woman walking into a women’s restroom or gym locker room and being able to undress and shower with females who resent his presence. But, a woman who “feels” like she is gifted and can fulfill the responsibilities given to males is honored and praised. Am I the only one who sees this incongruity?

Regardless of the position you hold regarding complementarianism or egalitarianism, there is one thing you cannot deny. Throughout Scripture it is the male who is given the role of spiritual leadership. Now, if you hold the egalitarian position you can (attempt to) explain this univocal position away – but you cannot deny the fact of its existence. From Adam to Noah to Moses to David to Jesus to the apostles, there is virtually no variation in the role of men providing spiritual protection and leadership.**

It is an inconvenient truth – a number of women want to keep men out of their locker rooms, but have no problem at all with accepting the mantle of spiritual leadership. The irony, at least as far as I see it, is that they deny the “feelings” of the transgender male/female, while at the same time they want to legitimize and promote their “feeling” that God has given them the same gifts and responsibilities as a male.

I don’t get it.

If a woman can “feel” gifted and therefore demand the role of a male regardless of her physical gender, why is it so hard to believe that a male can “feel” feminine and therefore demand access to facilities our culture has previously limited to those of genetic femaleness?

I return, then, to my statement made earlier in bold and italics. Until we come to fully accept our humanity – including our birth gender (sex) – we will never be able to be transformed and grow into the full likeness of God.

Has the church been too “patriarchal?” Have we limited the role of women in the church more than what God would have them to serve? Can we do a better job of honoring and promoting the gifts and abilities of the women in the church? Perhaps the answer to all of these questions is a resounding “yes!” I do not want to perpetuate stereotypes just because they are comfortable.

But this is not just about bathrooms, people. Ultimately, this is about how we understand God. If we can’t understand anthropology, how in the world do you think we can understand theology?

*There is a considerable debate as to whether the correct word should be “gender” or “sex.” I have heard it argued that “gender” is the appropriate term for the study of linguistic categories (as in, masculine, feminine or neuter nouns in inflected languages). Others interpret the word “sex” as primarily a verb – we participate in sex (as in sexual intercourse) but we are born with a gender. Honestly the debate is over my head. I prefer the less provocative term “gender,” but if it is a technical misuse of the word, I would be content to use the word “sex.” For the purpose of this article, I will use the term “gender” to refer to our maleness or femaleness. If any of my readers can explain the difference to me, I would love to be set straight.

**Whatever her position was, Deborah was not described a spiritual leader. The role of “Judge” was more of a political/tribal leader, not spiritual (see Samson, for example). The weak and highly debated arguments from Romans 16 suggesting that a particular female was a leader of a church would only describe a significant exception (if proven), not the rule. With no unambiguous evidence to the contrary, I will defend the position that the leaders of the New Testament congregations were all males.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Community, and the Churches of Christ

A few introductory comments before I take off into the fog today –

A major section of my Doctor of Ministry dissertation was focused on the intersection of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology and the Churches of Christ. Kind of like Oscar and Felix, it makes for an odd couple, but we have much to learn from this early 20th century theologian.

Second, although this particular topic is outside of my work on confession, the topic of community is closely related to confession (as most of Bonhoeffer’s theology is closely interwoven).

Third, when reading Bonhoeffer, a person must bear in mind the circumstances under which he was writing. So, with Life Together it is critical to remember that the thoughts, if not the exact words, were formed as the Gestapo was breathing down Bonhoeffer’s neck as he ran an illegal Lutheran Seminary. Ultimately they would force the closing of the seminary where Bonhoeffer taught, and that possibility was clearly in Bonhoeffer’s mind as he worked with his seminarians.

I am re-reading Life Together for the umpteenth time, and like so many other great works of literature, there are always new things to discover in this book. I want to share just a couple of thoughts that I think are so appropriate for the situation Churches of Christ (and many other churches) find themselves today.

First this:

Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial . . . Those who dream of this idealized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others, and  by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands, set up their own law, and judge one another and even God accordingly . . . So they first become accusers of other Christians in the community, then accusers of God, and finally the desperate accusers of themselves. (Life Together DBWE vol. 5, p. 36.)

There are many in the Churches of Christ who want the church to be something that it is not, and frankly can never be. As a close parallel to Bonhoeffer’s time, a growing number of people want the church to be more culturally acceptable than spiritually pure. Their concept of the church is an ideal (in Bonhoeffer’s thought, think of Plato’s concept of the ideal vs. the real). So, just as with the “German Christians” of the early 1930’s, membership in the church has more to do with cultural adaptation than Spiritual sanctification. In a staggering act of irony, these purveyors of tolerance and broad-mindedness become the most intolerant and narrow-minded when confronted by those who disagree with their bent theology. Those who preach “judge not” become the harshest judges, even to the point that they end up condemning themselves. The “faux guilt” crowd that accepts (and at times even creates) blame for everything from racism to male chauvinism to homophobia is really becoming quite obnoxious. They want the church to atone for sins it is rightly guilty of – and for sins it could not even be possible to be guilty of. But, as Bonhoeffer pointed out – when you come to the church with a false idea of what community truly is, the end result is fore-ordained.

Second is this:

Two factors, which are really one and the same thing, reveal the difference between spiritual and self-centered love. Emotional, self-centered love cannot tolerate the dissolution of a community that has become false, even for the sake of genuine community. And such self-centered love cannot love an enemy, that is to say, one who seriously and stubbornly resists it.

Therefore, spiritual love is bound to the word of Jesus Christ alone. Where Christ tells me to maintain community for the sake of love, I desire to maintain it. Where the truth of Christ orders me to dissolve a community for the sake of love, I will dissolve it, despite all the protests of my self-centered love. (Life Together DBWE vol. 5, p. 43)

Now, here is where you really need to understand Bonhoeffer’s historical situation. The Lutheran “union” of churches of which Bonhoeffer had been a member had been destroyed by the heresies of the “German Christian” movement – the Nazification of the Lutheran church. Bonhoeffer was part of a number of theologians who realized that these “Christians” were no longer Christians at all – they were not just schismatics, they were heretics. However, not everyone saw as clearly as Bonhoeffer and his associates. They viewed the “Confessing Church,” of which Bonhoeffer was a significant leader, as an unhealthy and dangerous schism. The emotional toll of Bonhoeffer was tremendous. In effect, he was declaring that many people with whom he had a deep and abiding relationship were no longer his brothers and sisters in Christ. Thus, these words are NOT just ivory tower rhetoric. In these words to his young seminarians, Bonhoeffer is basically saying, “I may feel like maintaining fellowship with a particular group of people, but when the word of Christ tells me to separate from that group, I must decide to obey Christ or my emotions. I will obey Christ at all costs – even and including my human feelings.”

The siren song of liberalism and toleration is being sung at full volume within the Churches of Christ (as, perhaps, it has always been sung). The phrase, “in matters of opinion, liberty” has been expanded to mean that everything is a matter of opinion, and there are no matters of “necessity.” According to a significant, and apparently growing, number of young preachers, the only “sin” is in thinking that there is an inerrant and infallible truth to which all must submit. What is almost incomprehensible to me is the fact that this battle has been fought before, most recently in the early 20th century, and we have the writings of Bonhoeffer and others to show us the price we will end up paying if we reject the words of Christ and embrace this path to an ecclesial holocaust.

Bonhoeffer’s words are both comforting and distressing to me. Distressing because I can see so many parallels between his age and today. Comforting, because I can see where there will always be those who reject Satan’s temptations, and who stand firm in the words of Christ. As I prayed this morning, I hope that I will have the courage to reject the anemic gospel of a worldly church, and have the courage to call for authentic, and costly, discipleship for Christ.

Churches of Christ – The Road Ahead

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.]

Reader Question: “Easy Believeism and the Churches of Christ”

A post or two ago I referenced the “easy believeism” that was sweeping the Churches of Christ, and a reader queried me as to what might my opinion be regarding the source of such a phenomenon. Never one to be short of an opinion, I will do my best to answer – and, it must go without saying that although this is my opinion, it has been shaped by decades of observation and years of research in the Restoration Movement.

In brief, I believe there are two reasons for this “easy believeism” – or “cheap grace” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer would put it. To begin, I have to present a little historical background. At the conclusion of the Civil War, and up to and including the beginning of the First World War, the Churches of Christ as a communion were basically poor, uneducated southerners. Those congregations that remained within the Churches of Christ in the north were still considerably less affluent than their close cousins, the instrumental Disciples of Christ/Christian Church. The reasons are fairly simple to understand: those congregations with money (and therefore community prestige) soon felt nothing wrong with adding a piano or melodeon into the worship. If you could not afford one, it was easier to argue against having instruments of music. Those congregations that were fully capable of building an elaborate building, hiring a full-time preacher, and yet remained “acapella,” were few, but they did exist. In the south the story was much different. Congregations were poor – “located preachers” were few and buildings were bare bones. Instruments were out of the question both by doctrine and necessity.

At the same time, Churches of Christ were virtually entirely pacifist. Both during and after the Civil War many leading southern preachers argued strenuously against participating in the war. Following that war, the members became solidly anti-war, and when WWI broke out this became a problem. By the end of the war the government had turned an evil eye on preachers within the Churches of Christ – and the fellowship as a whole – for what was considered “seditious” behavior. If you did not agree with going to war against Germany, that meant you supported Germany. Nothing could be further from the truth, but since when has “truth” mattered to the government? Oops, I digress. So, by war’s end, the tide had turned, and the majority of members of the Churches of Christ had become war hawks – at least in a limited sense.

The pendulum swung back slightly in the years between WWI and WWII, but following December 7, 1941, it would have been very difficult to have found a vociferous pacifist among the preachers of the Churches of Christ. Nationalism and patriotism once again reigned supreme, and even those who held to their pacifist leanings found ways to support the war effort in non-combative ways. Another development occurred after WWI, and was reinforced with the prosecution and winning of WWII. The Churches of Christ “crossed the tracks” when it came to wealth and influence. No longer were congregations housed in little frame buildings – now Churches of Christ sported huge complexes complete with all the newest and finest accoutrements, minus, of course, any instruments of music for worship.

So, roughly speaking within about 50 years the entire culture of the Churches of Christ changed. Congregations went from being counter-cultural, poor, and pacifist; to being culturally savvy, affluent, and wrapped in American Nationalism. Although the 1940’s through the 1960’s and into the 1970’s were a time of exponential growth for the Churches of Christ, huge fissures began to be visible in the foundations that united this “undenominational” denomination. As the 1980’s blossomed and we have now turned the corner into the new millennium, it is obvious (at least to some like me) where those fissures have led.

First, many of the most prominent, “big name” and influential preachers and speakers within the Churches of Christ today grew up in the turbulent ’60s and ’70s. They are also the children (and sometimes grand-children) of the sexual revolution (and anti-authority revolution) and the “me generation” of the post WWII baby boomers. They are embarrassed by the intra-sect fighting that took place after the war, and the (admittedly) sometimes vitriolic attacks on other groups. They became the most highly educated, and clearly the most affluent and well respected, “pastors” of mega-congregations that the Churches of Christ have ever witnessed.

With that new-found respectability, and sometimes popularity, has come a profound pressure to conform to the dominant culture. Now, remember, this journey to cultural accommodation started with both a rejection of pacifism and a growth in financial status as far back as the turn of the 20th century, not the 21st. So, my first answer to the question regarding “cheap grace” in the Churches of Christ has to do with the almost complete acceptance of, and even frequent promotion of, American nationalism and the enculturation that has come with it. The “must have” speakers within the Churches of Christ today are not the fiery prophets of the late 19th century, but the slick, polished, suave, charismatics that large stages and multi-site congregations demand.

At the same time this cultural shift was occurring, there was a similar doctrinal shift taking place within the Churches of Christ. (Note, some would argue the doctrinal changes created the cultural changes, or that the cultural changes sparked the doctrinal changes – I think the two are much more interconnected, and neither one “created” the other). To make a long story short, the Bible became less and less the cornerstone for settling questions of faith and decorum. I have witnessed in my own life a significant devaluing of Scripture, both within the church assembly itself and in the lives of individual Christians. Churches of Christ used to answer questions with, “the Bible says” or “Scripture teaches.” Increasingly I hear excuses for how we should NOT listen to certain passages of Scripture because the culture of their day is not reflected by our culture, therefore our culture is controlling. Which gets me right back to reason #1. This can be demonstrated in so many different areas – questions regarding marriage and divorce, the importance of baptism, restoration of the fallen, and, yes, instrumental music in worship and the increasing demand for equal roles for women in worship.

So, what caused this head-long fall into “easy-believeism” or “cheap grace” in which “I’m okay, you’re okay” and we can’t even critique other faiths because Jesus said, “judge not, lest ye be judged”? Why is it that so many congregations of the Churches of Christ have fully immersed themselves (pardon the pun) into evangelicalism and the quasi-universalism that flows from it? Why are so many congregations taking the name of Christ off of their building and replacing with words like “Community” or “Fellowship”?

First – the members of said congregations have become absolute slaves to the culture of the times, in which “tolerance” is the new golden rule and “exclusivism” is the new pariah.

Second – at the same time these congregations were making the move to total cultural adaptation, they were jettisoning the one foundation that had set them apart from other religious groups, and that was a reliance upon the Bible as the only sure foundation for settling questions of faith and practice.

It is not hard to be a member of these congregations. On the other hand, if Dietrich Bonhoeffer were to appear and preach he would be hanged again, not because he was a Lutheran, (ecumenical Churches of Christ would LOVE that) but because he demanded absolute total discipleship – and blatantly rejected nationalism and “cultural Christianity.” I’m afraid Jesus would not be accepted either – he was never very well accepted by the social or spiritual elites.

Boundaries of Brotherhood – The Exclusive Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boundaries of Brotherhood – The Case for Inclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boundaries of Brotherhood

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.

Not Quite a Full Book Review – The Pastoral Epistles (George W. Knight III) [NIGTC series]

I am diving into some long-neglected textual studies, and the book I selected to serve as my first effort is George W. Knight’s The Pastoral Epistles in the New International Greek Testament Commentary series (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1992.) This is not a full book review, as I have only really moved beyond the introductory material, but I had to share this information with anyone who is interested.

In the discussions (wars?) between those who agitate for equality for women in the leadership roles of the church and those who posit a more conservative (complementarian) view, one argument that is presented prominently by the egalitarians is that the Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus) were not written by Paul (as they clearly claim to be). The “evidence” provided is that the letters demonstrate a development of congregational leadership that did not occur until the early 2nd century, and that the language, style, and even the content of the letters is vastly different than the “acknowledged” letters of Paul. The purpose of this argumentation is transparent – if Paul did not write the Pastoral Epistles, and they can be demonstrated to be from a much later time period, then the instructions regarding male leadership can be dismissed because they are “sub-apostolic” or “post-apostolic.”

What I want to share is that Knight provides probably the best, most complete, and forceful refutation of those arguments I have ever read. The material from pages 21-52 should be mandatory reading for any student of the Bible – if for no other reason than Knight works methodically through the arguments against Pauline authorship, and demonstrates that each and every one is either demonstrably false, or at the very least, has equal basis for Pauline authorship.

I have only briefly skimmed Knight’s material on the qualifications for the eldership, but his treatment of 1 Tim. 2:8-15 is equally forceful in refuting the arguments of the egalitarians. (Knight does not personally wade into the “gender wars.” He simply explicates the text, allowing the clear meaning of the text to come through.) Those who oppose Knight must come to the discussion with far more “ammunition” than what I have seen presented. The text of Timothy (and I would argue the rest of the New Testament as well) simply does not support their contentions.

To summarize this brief glimpse, the introductory material in this commentary demonstrates how wrong various scholars are when they attempt to date the Pastoral Epistles past the time of Paul, and therefore the attempt to dismiss Paul’s teaching on male spiritual leadership is equally wrong. Knight refutes each argument (elegantly and powerfully), concluding that Paul was indeed the author and therefore the teachings in the book are fully apostolic and trustworthy.

One brief additional note: the commentary is indeed based on the Greek text, so a reader who has no background in NT Greek will be handicapped once the textual commentary begins, but the contents of the commentary would still be valuable to an “English only” reader. It would just take a little more effort to understand completely what is being presented.

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