Stop Trying to Defend God!

Add the name Andy Stanley to the list of “mega-church pastors” who feel like they have to defend God from himself. The list is long and shameful. Poor God – without guys like Stanley and Rob Bell and Brian McLaren (and a few others who hit much closer to home) – God would not stand a chance in this world. But, with their apologies and explanations, God can sleep comfortably at night, knowing his honor is well protected.

C.S. Lewis was much more than a Christian defender. He was also a prophet, of sorts. He recognized that in his day something profound had occurred, and whether Lewis knew it or not, it was only going to get worse. What Lewis observed was that prior to the Enlightenment (and really maybe even closer to his day), man lived with the reality that God was right, and therefore mankind had to adjust its understanding of “right” to line up with that of the Divine. However, Lewis noted, in his day it was not God as the judge and man as the accused, but it was Man that was the judge and God that was in the dock (in our judicial system, at the defense table). Today, more than ever, God has to be defended, protected, and absolved of many pernicious crimes.

This is exactly what so many “Christian” leaders espouse today. God might not be wrong, per se, but he is clumsy, rash, intemperate. He has a really bad P.R. department, and it is up to this new generation of preacher/apologists to set the record straight. They do this by “explaining” the text in such a way that it really doesn’t say what it says. So, God “really” did not destroy Sodom because of sexual deviancy – it was because of social injustice. God did not “really” command the Israelites to destroy nations – he only wanted them to nudge them out of the land a little. And, if they cannot set the record straight – they simply expunge the record. If the Old Testament is embarrassing, simply “un-hitch” the Old Testament from your Christianity and then you will not have to carry around all that excess baggage.

Of course, none of this can fit the definition of biblical Christianity – it is decidedly unbiblical. The sad thing is that these mega-pastors have such a star-struck and devoted following that the issue, the teaching, cannot be questioned because to do so casts aspersions against the teacher – and that simply cannot be allowed.

I worry a lot about the church. I worry because I see and hear so much that resembles this noxious teaching – that somehow or another we have to sanitize the Bible, that we have to make the church “relevant” or we have to “make the gospel appealing” to our culture. I hear and read so much about how we have to change our message. All of this ultimately puts the blame on God and the biblical writers for our unbelief or outright rebellion.

Let’s face it – at the core of the biblical message there is a very unpleasant and disagreeable fact – all men and women have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God. There is only one way for God to deal with this sin, and it is through his divine judgment. For those of us living today, the central event of that judgment was the cross of Jesus where he took our guilt and shame and paid the price for our rebellion. The light and beauty of the sacrifice of Jesus can only be properly understood in the depth of the darkness of human sin. God does not have to be justified or defended – man does. This is what the Old Testament and the New Testament both attest. To be embarrassed by the Old Testament – or for the New Testament, for that matter – is to be embarrassed by God himself.

Just stop trying to defend God! He doesn’t need your help, and you only make yourself look like a fool when you try. If what you read in the Bible does not line up with your sensibilities – who is wrong? You, or God? Before you accuse God of sin, I think you had better review your facts.

Let us ascend by descending lower.

Political – or Biblical?

As a preaching minister I have long made it a goal to avoid overt political posturing in the pulpit. One of the most egregious violations of this principle occurred while I was actually not preaching, but the offending preacher did everything in his power except name names in attempting to get the congregation to vote for one particular candidate. I do my best to avoid overt political issues for one very important reason: I believe doing so cheapens the message of the gospel. Our political system cannot be placed on a par with the message and mission of the church. In my opinion, there should be a very clear boundary separating preaching the gospel from advocating for a political party or candidate.

The question arises, however – just what constitutes political posturing and what constitutes biblical preaching? Let me explain with a simple scenario:

Let’s say one Sunday I stand and preach a sermon condemning homosexual behavior, and along with that the behavior all of the associated gender-bending issues that our culture is being inundated with today. If I were to assemble a cross section of all of the congregations of which I have been a member, I would hazard a guess that the overwhelming majority of them would compliment my lesson, tell me I was very brave, and generally not even consider whether the sermon was political or not. So, the very next Sunday I get in the pulpit and preach a “hell fire and brimstone” sermon condemning greed, covetousness, and the racial/economic discrimination that our free-market capitalism has produced in America. Without any firm numbers, I can say almost without hesitation that those very same people who were so supportive of my condemnation of sexual perversions would have a very negative reaction to my sermon on economic perversions. Whether they would actually confront me or not (and a few would), my guess is that the overwhelming majority of them would categorize a sermon condemning racial and economic discrimination as being “political,” while a sermon condemning sexual sins as being “biblical.”

Yet, from cover to cover, does the Bible have more to say about racial, social, and economic injustice, or sexual sins? Consider the teachings of Jesus – which subject occupies more of Jesus’s time and attention? This is not to say that sexual sins are never addressed – the New Testament is replete with exhortations toward sexual purity and condemnations of sexual misbehavior. I am only illustrating a point – which subject receives the majority of discussion? In my understanding the results are not even close. While either or both subjects could be addressed as political topics, it is perfectly possible, and I would say necessary, to address both as matters of biblical doctrine

Speaking only for myself here, but I think the answer to this problem lies not with our desire to re-write the Bible. Its just that, in the words that I saw on Twitter the other day, it is so much easier to confess other’s people’s sins than it is to confess our own. It is easy to condemn sexual sins because, at least for the majority of Christians, that condemnation has been a part of our vocabulary since we were little children. Greed, covetousness, avarice, racial discrimination – all of these things have been singled out as being sinful, but how does one identify a greedy person when everyone in the community is bent on buying the latest model car, the newest cell phone, the most popular makes of clothing, etc.? It is easy for “conservative” Christians to wag our finger in the face of an adulterer or practicing homosexual, but who wants to condemn covetousness while we are standing in line for the newest and greatest smart phone?

So, I will continue to maintain my aversion to preaching overtly political sermons. I refuse to preach “get out and vote” sermons just before elections, because I do not want the cross of Christ to be seen as some platform for our American political system. But – and read me careful here – faithful preachers should reserve the right to preach on every issue discussed in the pages of Scripture that has a direct bearing on the manner in which a disciple of Christ lives his or her life. That means when the text demands we preach against sexual sins, we will preach against sexual sins. And when the text demands that we preach against issues related to racial discrimination, legal justice, and economic fairness, we will preach on those issues as well.

I just pray that when I do preach on any subject, I do so with the humility of Christ (and his apostles), knowing that the first person that hears any of my sermons is the man in the mirror. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it “theology from below,” and its a pretty good description. Let us all realize we are called to live under Scripture, not above it as its master.

Let us ascend by climbing lower.

Ezra’s Prayer (Ezra 9)

I’ve been preaching on prayer (if you do not get the irony of that, let me know) and I’m finally getting around to examining some of the prayers in Scripture. This past Sunday I started with Ezra’s great prayer of confession. Some passages just preach themselves without any comment from preachers like me – but I went ahead and added my thoughts on this great chapter. Probably ruined the sermon. Here are some highlights (or low lights, depending on your perspective.)

I wrote my dissertation for my Doctor of Ministry on the topic of confession, so I guess you could say I’m kind of nerdy about the topic. Having worked for about 2 years in general, and several months intensively, on this subject, there are passages regarding confession that just jump out at me. It should be obvious that Ezra 9 relates to confession, but there are some aspects of this prayer that stand out to me as being unique – or at the very least – instructive regarding the practice of confession. Here are just a few (and you may discover others!).

First, this prayer is pure confession! There are no dodges, no excuses, no explanations, no sniveling. One of the major hindrances to our prayers of confession is the word “but.” We may have the intention of confessing, but that little three letter word sneaks in and blows the whole process up. We say things like, “God, you know I sinned today, BUT you know I am just a human.” Or this, “God, I sinned today, BUT honestly, the situation I was in was just too much for me to handle.” You will search in vain for anything resembling a “but” in Ezra’s prayer. It is pure confession, from beginning to end.

Second, Ezra owned the sins of his ancestors. He did not try to excuse the behavior of his generation by making his contemporaries look better than their fathers – in fact it was the exact opposite. He owned the sin of his ancestors, and therefore admitted to the sin of his own generation. In a common figure of speech, he admitted that the nuts did not fall very far from the diseased tree. But, look even deeper – by admitting the sin of his fathers, he actually compounded the contemporary sin of his generation. He is saying that instead of being more likely to sin the same sin, his generation should have known better, therefore are guilty of a greater sin – sin upon sin. It takes courage to admit our parents – or grandparents – were wrong. It takes monumental courage to admit that we have compounded the sins of our parents and grandparents.

In Ezra’s specific situation the sin was intermarriage with the pagan peoples surrounding Jerusalem – and therefore opening up the possibility (and even reality) that their worship of idols would soon follow. Ezra confessed the sins of his fathers, and then the sin of his compatriots. I am not suggesting here that every public prayer should include every single sin of every member – there is a clear line between confession and voyeurism. But in our private (or family) prayers I believe specificity is absolutely necessary. Don’t just say, “God, I sinned today.” Be specific. “God, you know I lost my temper and used profane language.” “God, you know I had impure thoughts and sinned with my eyes today.” “God, you know that story I told today was pure gossip, and damaged the reputation of another person.” I do believe that it is possible for a congregation to sin (read Revelation 2-3), and when that sin is realized it must be confessed as well. The point is let us be done with salving our consciences with generic prayers of confession when specificity is demanded.

Third, and this is what I  find very interesting about this prayer, there is not a single word asking God for forgiveness. There is no seeking of absolution here – just pure confession (see point #1). I have been in church services ever since I was just days, or maybe weeks, old. I cannot remember a single prayer that was simply, pure, and unmotivated confession. In fact, except for the generic “Lord, forgive us of our many sins” I have not heard that many prayers of confession at all. Shame on us.

Our culture today teaches us not to make confession – it punishes those who confess and rewards those who dodge confession. Consider the most common form of apology today – “I apologize if I have hurt or offended anyone.” Did you catch what we did there – we put the blame of offense on the other person. In effect what we are saying is, “I don’t think I did anything wrong, but if you do, well, I am so sorry that you have this issue and I deeply regret your thin skin and your hyper sensitivity.” It’s what I call the “Bill Clinton Apology.” Or we could call it the “Donald Trump Apology.” (And, if you are offended that I used the name of Bill Clinton or Donald Trump, I am sorry that you are so thin skinned and hyper-sensitive.)

Just try that with God. “God, I did not do anything wrong, but I am very sorry that you were offended.”

Ezra is frequently seen as a second Moses. Just as Moses led his people out of Egypt and brought them to the mountain of Sinai, so Ezra leads his people out of Babylonian captivity and supervises the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. There are striking parallels. Just one of those parallels is the manner in which Ezra “stands in the breach” here to intercede for the people of Israel. It is a beautiful prayer, a powerful prayer, a dangerous prayer if we fully comprehend it’s import.

What we see in this prayer is the essence of confession. It is pure, it is specific, and there is no begging or cajoling of God to wheedle out a statement of pardon.

It’s what I call ascending by descending lower.

Book Review – Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament (John H. Walton)

John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006) 334 pages plus and appendix listing Ancient Near Eastern gods.

I like some books because they are rich and satisfying. I like some books because they challenge and goad me. I like some books because they explain in far greater detail or provide the evidence for what I already intuitively believe to be true. I like some books because when I finish with them I consider myself to be a wiser, or at least more knowledgable person. This book by John Walton elevates each of those reasons to heights I rarely experience.

In phraseology of common digital conversation, My. Mind. Is. Blown.

Many books written on subjects as esoteric as Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) thought can be, and are, so specialized that they are virtually opaque to the average reader. Thankfully, this is NOT one of those books. I do have to admit to a certain degree of eyes-glazed-over and bewildered response to part 2  of the book (a summary of the literature of the ANE) because in my very limited exposure to such literature, it all seemed so repetitive. However, the remaining sections of the book (and the first, for that matter) are simply wonderful in terms of content, ease-of-reading, and application.

A couple of disclaimers are appropriate: first, if you are looking for a book that simply equates the Old Testament with ANE literature, you will be horribly disappointed. Second, if you are looking for a book that proves the Old Testament has nothing in common with ANE literature, you will be horribly disappointed. What Walton sets out to do, and in my opinion accomplishes with great success, is to demonstrate both the similarities and differences between the Old Testament and ANE thought. Here the reader must take careful notice of the title: this is book that examines the Old Testament in light of the conceptual world of the ANE.

I believe one way modern people view the Old Testament is through the idea that the Israelites lived in a protective bubble – that God’s covenant with Abraham through Moses and extending through David and the monarchy somehow protected and insulated the writing of the Old Testament from any outside influences. What Walton demonstrates is that while there are marked differences between Israelite culture and the surrounding nations, the authors of the Old Testament were fully aware of the thought world in which they existed, and that this familiarity shows up in in the text of the Old Testament. By more fully understanding the conceptual thought world of the ANE, both the similarities and the differences between the pagan cultures and the Israelites becomes more explicit.

While my “book reviews” are not actual reviews in the technical sense of the term, I do want to share one aspect of the book that I thoroughly appreciated. Walton devotes the majority of each chapter to the thought world of the ANE (hence, the title of the book). However, within each chapter he pauses to draw attention to a specific aspect of the Old Testament that has a bearing on the subject at hand. These discussions are set off in a grayed-out “side-bar” type of arrangement, and come with their own footnotes. In a pure lecture format, it is as if Walton is stepping back from his main topic and saying, “Okay, that is what the thought of the ANE is, now let’s see how the Old Testament either reflects, or does not reflect, this particular aspect of ANE thought.” While the basic text provides the meat and potatoes of the book, these shorter illustrations provide the icing on the cake, so to speak.

I have honestly rarely been so engrossed in a technical book to the point that I did not want to put it down, and actually looked forward to continue my reading. Maybe I am a nut (okay, that point is not up for debate), but this book was just that good. If I was an instructor in a course of Old Testament study, this book would be mandatory reading. I assure you, if you take Walton’s thesis seriously, you will never read the Old Testament the same way you have always read it (unless, of course, you already accepted Walton’s thesis without knowing it.)

Do not be put off by the technical nature of the subject. This book is easily understandable. All foreign language words are transliterated into English, and if I can follow the author’s train of thought with my embarrassingly limited understanding of ANE literature, anyone can. With all of the usual caveats duly noted (“you are not going to agree with everything the author says,” etc., etc.), I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I so wish I had this material presented to me when I was either in my undergraduate or graduate studies. But, I am thankful I have it now, and I plan on making further examination of this material a point of emphasis in my continued growth in biblical studies.

The Christian Response to Racism (Part 2 of 2)

In my first part, I attempted to point out how pervasive and systemic racism is in our American culture, and how it has been so from the very founding our our nation. In this part I want to address how it might be possible for us as a nation to move on, past our historic past.

In a sentence: the only way we as a culture will move past racism is to full admit that every race and people can be, and are, racist in our thinking and in our actions. Yes, in America that racism is predominately skewed toward the white race – but it is far from limited to the white race.

In my last post I stressed how critical it is for the white majority to admit our systemic, pervasive racist views. In no way am I suggesting that every white person alive today is guilty of being racist – or for personal guilt in our racist past, for that matter. What I am suggesting is that until we admit that racism can be, and often is, systemic, we will never be able to move to a truly “color neutral” society.

The flip side of that coin is that every person who falls into the “minority” category must admit that their race can be, and almost without exception is, equally racist. It does not take a sociologist to recognize the hatred espoused by the Nation of Islam toward Jews, to mention just one example, or the racism that I see and hear regarding one local tribe of Native Americans to their neighboring tribe. The blatant racism preached by many elected officials in Washington is repugnant, to be honest, but the prevailing culture among the “main stream media” is that it cannot be labeled as “racism” because it originates from an ethnic minority.

So, to be brief, racism is chiefly a human condition, and that condition is sin. Racism in the United States will always be a part of our culture so long as it is only addressed from one side. This is the “dirty little secret” that is rarely, if ever, discussed in conversations regarding racism. But I hold no hope for Martin Luther King’s dream of a nation where a person is judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin, as long as every action, every word, every thought, is viewed through the lens of the color of the skin of the actor, speaker, or writer.

It is at this point that I feel we as a people have failed the vision of Dr. King. Instead of attacking the concept of racism itself, we have simply shifted what it means to be racist – and I will probably be called a racist for writing that. As much as I recognize the guilt of white Americans in establishing what can only be described as systemic racism, I simply refuse to accept the accusation – either expressed or implied – that only whites can be racist.

I repeat – racism is a part of the human condition, and that is sin. Racism is a theological problem, not just a political or sociological problem. Until racism is attacked from the point of view of the cross and the gospel, it will never be adequately addressed. And it is exactly at this point that I believe so many religious leaders have failed. We think that if we can write a couple of new laws, or hold some “unity” meetings, or have a couple of marches, all will be well. Well, it is not ever going to be “well” unless and until preachers start preaching on the sin of racism – in every possible way, shape, and form. In predominately white churches those sermons are going to sound different than sermons preached in minority churches (because the visible forms of that racism are different), but it is only at the foot of the cross that we are going to be able to move into a truly color neutral society.

[By the way, I never want to live in a “color blind” society. I do not want African-Americans to give up their African roots, nor do I want to Latin Americans to give up their Latin roots, or Asians to give up their Oriental roots, or Irish Americans to give up their Irish roots. That is not what the American dream is all about – for me it is about maintaining those ethnic and social connections while at the same time blending in with every other culture. When it works, it is a beautiful thing, and I believe it is the highest of aspirations for every American.]

I must also address a phenomenon that repulses me as much as overt racism – and that is the false or pseudo guilt promoted by so many white politicians. They “claim” to be genuinely concerned for the plights of minorities, and yet with every law that is passed and every speech that is uttered, those to whom they claim sympathy are further degraded. Consider the results of programs such as welfare. What was thought to be assistance to mothers with dependent children, has instead created a permanent under-class of families with no father in the picture. Every study ever conducted has proven that children in fatherless homes fare far poorer than families in the same socio-economic class where there is a father present. Yet, to challenge the idea of welfare is considered to be the greatest of racist “sins.” Here again we see how racist whites can be – all in the guise of helping to overcome racism.

A personally vexing related question for me is this: what action, or series of actions, will constitute an adequate confession of our racist past? How many times, and in what ways, will the white majority have to admit to our sinful past? I ask this because I am honestly ignorant as to the answer. It is clear to me that a significant minority – if not a majority – of white Americans still have not come to grips with the enormity of the problem of racism. So, if that is true, what is the goal to which we should be moving? And how will we know when we get there?

I titled these couple of posts a “Christian Response to Racism” and I fear I have not proposed much of a solution. For me, the only answer is to preach Christ and him crucified. When we stand at the foot of the cross and realize the depth of our sin, we in no way will be able to judge another person simply based on the color of their skin or their nation of origin. It is because we refuse to accept the Lordship of Christ that we are racist – and to deny that is to reject the Holy Spirit who makes us all one in Christ. In the words of the Book of Common Prayer, we are all “miserable offenders.” We can all be “blessed forgiven,” but we are all going to have to confess our guilt first.

Lord, save us from our miserable failure!

The Christian Response to Racism (Part 1 of 2)

I have often thought of broaching the subject of racism and Christianity, but I have always ultimately shied away. This was not because of a lack of interest, or because I thought the subject unimportant, but I never really felt like I had an adequate entry point to fully express my thoughts. That changed recently, and so I want to express some thoughts that I know will offend just about everyone – and I know that because these thoughts first offended me.

First, I need to acknowledge that this opening thought is not my original thinking. It was brought to my attention by an old colleague, one whose insights I trust greatly. I will personalize it, however.

It has always been somewhat of a mystery to me how the German people (as a whole, I’m generalizing) can either deny or minimize the horror of the holocaust. This is not true of every German citizen, to be sure, but even today the account of what happened to Jews, Gypsies, Poles, and other “undesirables” is largely muted in German culture. Like I said, I have always wondered about this, as it seems to me that (a) the Nazi regime was such a deviation from the norms of German society, and that (b) the present German culture is so different from that time period, that it would be cathartic for Germans to acknowledge the atrocities of that one decade and vow that it would never happen again. I can totally understand the fear that making such acknowledgment would foster copy-cats who want to defend Hitler (and this is exactly what happens!), but I have felt that once the enormity of the evil is squarely admitted, it would simply be unthinkable that any subsequent culture would want to replicate Hitler and his minions. As a whole, I think most Americans would agree. Admit the horror, recognize that Nazism was an abhorrent aberration to German culture, create the appropriate safeguards that would prevent such atrocities from occurring again, and move on.

Now that we are all on the same page, substitute “Jew” with “Black” or “African” or “Native Indian” and see how your expression changes. You see, in America the white majority has no problem admitting to the sin of Germany. But, when confronted with the reprehensible treatment of our ancestors toward ethnic minorities, all such confessionalism flies out the window. We become defensive, belligerent, dismissive, and even delusional in denying the racism that was, and in some quarters remains, systemic in our culture.

This parallel between Nazi Germany from 1933-1945 and our own American “holocaust” (the term is not perfectly identical, but comes close) is what is particularly troubling to me. If the white majority in America cannot admit to the sins of our fathers, we will never be able to admit to our own sins in regard to racism, and therefore the scourge will never be adequately removed. It is not so much that whites deny the reality of slavery, it is that the concept that whites are superior to blacks (and other ethnic minorities) is so enshrined in our legal system and in our public theology. It is, as I said, systemic, not anecdotal. The beast is not a symptom, but it is the root cause, of so much of what afflicts America today.

Consider this: there is a pining today for America to return to the glory days of the  1950s (or there-about) when God was welcome in the schools and the Pledge of Allegiance was recited with passion. Well, God may have been welcome in most white schools, but blacks were forcefully kept out of the classrooms, sometimes at the point of a rifle! We were not “one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.” We were divided legally by race, and justice was only for whites. But it did not stop there. Blacks were not welcome in most white churches, either. It was not just lunch counters and bathrooms that were segregated, but God’s covenant people were clearly divided along lines of color.

I cannot stress this fact enough: this was not just a matter of public opinion. This segregation had the force of law – it was enshrined in the very fabric of our legal system. Blacks could be, and were, lynched for the “crime” of following too closely or inappropriately staring at a white woman. Blacks who were arrested were tried by all white juries. It is not just that the laws were written to protect white privilege, but the implementation of those laws was so skewed to white privilege that a black person (or Indian, for that matter) had no effective recourse. It was this pervasive, systemic inequality that reformers such as Martin Luther King Jr. reacted to so passionately.

And, just as with so many Germans who choose to look past their Nazi past, it is this pervasive, systemic racism that so many white Americans choose to blithely ignore or actively seek to repress.

A common sentiment expressed today is, “Well, that may have been true 100 years ago, but I do not own any slaves, so I cannot be held responsible for my ancestors.” On one level this may be true, but who among us can honestly deny the the effects of this skewed legal system do not continue to affect American culture? Consider the inequality of inner-city schools with the same level of school in the affluent (largely white) suburbs. We excuse our behavior with the suburbs have a higher tax base, so therefore the schools have a deeper revenue source. So, who created the inequality of the tax base? Our tax tables are just another way in which white privilege is enshrined in our legal system. Scoff if you will, but the idea that “all men are created equal” in this culture is just a myth. We may be “created” equal, but the location of one’s birth – even by just a few city blocks – can have enormous consequences for how two babies are housed, educated, and treated in regard to health care and even the legal system.

I was genuinely repulsed as I sat and listened to a dear friend of mine recount how he was pulled over by a white police officer for the crime of “driving while black.” He was in the wrong neighborhood, driving a nice car, so he had to be up to no good. Why is it that black men have to tell their sons (and daughters) how to respond to police officers in ways that I will never have to explain to my daughter? That reality sickens me.

Until this reality is squarely admitted, and permanently and forcefully changed, America will never be a Christian nation. It never has been. And to argue otherwise is plain heresy.

That having been said, we in America have a foundation that will allow us to overcome our past, and to safeguard our future. It is the same safeguard that provided Germany with the strength to overcome the Nazi propaganda, had they chosen to implement it. It is the power of the gospel – the power to fully and totally submit to the grace of our Creator God. It is the power of the crucified and risen Christ. And as far as humans are concerned, it begins with an honest confession that our forefathers have sinned, and we share in that sin to the extent that we perpetuate the systemic sin that they created. The question is, will we have the courage to allow that power to change us?

In part 2, I will examine a corollary issue related to this post. But, I think I have said enough for today.

Definitions – “Church”

The word “church” illustrates what has to be one of the greatest, yet possibly most misunderstood, issues in dealing with translation and interpretation processes – some words can obtain such significant (and unintended) secondary meanings that the primary meaning is often obscured or completely erased. It happens frequently (the word “baptize” is another example) and the results can be profound. There is, however, a simple remedy (I like simple – I specialize in simple – I am simple minded).

The derivation of the word “church” is complex – I will leave it to the reader to search the internet for the history of the word. For this space suffice it to say that the word comes to us from the Greek via the Latin and German and thence to the Old English, and ultimately to the King James Version and thus to virtually every English translation. However, the great-grandparent in Greek is really just a very simple word that means “assembly.” For proof of this consider Acts 19:32, 39, and 41 – where the word is used to describe a near riot, a political/judicial meeting, and an large gathering of people (the same riotous group found in v. 32).

First, a little history. When the Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek, there were two words that could be used for the idea of assembly, and sometimes congregation. One is the word from which we get our synagogue, the other was ekklesia. By the time of the first century, the word synagogue had a secondary meaning attached – the specific meeting place of Jews. The other word, ekklesia, did not acquire this “theological” freight, and therefore was the natural word for the authors of the New Testament to use in order that the New Testament assembly of Christians would not be confused with the Old Covenant meeting of Jews. (Significant note: the word synagogue IS used in James 2:2 in reference to a Christian assembly – the word is actually translated instead of being transliterated – which just goes to prove my point by way of a different direction.) There is no “Holy Spirit” meaning attached to the Greek word ekklesia – the word that ultimately ends up being translated as “church” in our English translations.

The problem is that the English word “church” has become so overloaded with theological, confessional, and even denominational freight as to be almost useless. To a Roman Catholic the word refers to the entire Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church. To many Protestants, the word refers to the “invisible” church which would include believers of every stripe, color, and description (never mind that many of the creeds that define these groups are diametrically opposed to one or more of the others). To a great many others, the word “church” simply refers to a building – “. . . bye mom, I’m going to the church to play some basketball . . . ” (which, sadly calls for another blog post, but that will have to wait).

What is my simple solution? Let’s retire the word “church” to a nice pasture somewhere where it can live out its remaining days in peace and tranquility, and replace it with the idea for which it was originally intended to convey, and that is “assembly,” “gathering,” or perhaps even “congregation” (although, even that last option comes with some extraneous meanings attached).

Notice, just one simple (that word again) example that has some fairly significant hermeneutical implications. In the modern worship wars over the “role” of women, one problematic text is 1 Corinthians 14. As simply (arrrgh) as I can explain it, the argument is that because Paul seemingly allows women to pray in public in 11:1-16, the apparent prohibition against women speaking in chapter 14 must be modified in some form or fashion (either softening it, or by eliminating it altogether). But this interpretation falls apart when it is recognized that Paul makes a significant change in 11:17 – prior to v. 17 there is no mention of a public gathering at all (the reference in v. 16 to churches of God is a rebuttal to the Corinthian view that theirs is the preferred practice!) But at v. 17 Paul starts talking about the public assembly of the Corinthian Christians – in chapter 11 his topic is that of the Lord’s Supper. In chapter 14 he continues with the assembly language, but this time in regard to manifestations of the Spirit – notably the speaking in tongues. Consider the following –

14:4 – the one who speaks to the assembly must do so for the edification of the people assembled.
14:5 – interpretation of tongues is necessary for the edification of the assembly.
14:12 – the gifts of the Spirit are to build up the assembly.
14:19 – Paul would rather speak five intelligible words in the assembly than ten thousand unintelligible words.
14:23 – when the whole assembly comes together . . .
14:26 – when you come together (the word ekklesia is not used here).
14:28 – if there is no interpreter in the assembly, let the tongue speaker be silent.
14:33 – as is the customary practice in every assembly of the saints.
14:34 – the women are to remain silent in the assembly.
14:35 – for it is shameful for a woman to speak in the assembly.

In every verse listed above (except for v. 26) the word ekklesia is used for the idea of assembly or gathering. The argument made by egalitarians (those arguing for complete equality of women in public worship) is that Paul establishes his basic teaching in chapter 11, and only modifies it in chapter 14 to limit obnoxious or unruly women taking over the worship. As I said, this argument cannot be sustained because (a) Paul never mentions the appropriateness of women praying in the public assembly in chapter 11; and (b) he repeatedly and specifically ties his teaching, which includes the limitation of women speaking (and therefore exercising authority over men) in chapter 14 to the assembly of the Christians! This is in perfect agreement with his teaching in 1 Timothy 2:12. The entire discussion changes significantly if we eliminate the heavily freighted (and therefore susceptible to twisting) concept of “church” with the very simple (arrrgh) usage of the word assembly.

There really is nothing wrong with the word, “church,” if we understand it as it was intended. But, the meanings of words change, and what was understood 200 or more years ago is frequently not the meaning of the word today. Try this experiment – every time you read the word “church” in your English Bible, substitute the word “assembly” and see if the meaning is not clarified – or at least a richer meaning is thereby provided (yes, even Matthew 16:18!).