On the Inherent (and Therefore Necessary) Weaknesses of Education

Don’t know why this post popped into my head this morning – but I rarely understand anything that goes on inside my head.

On the one hand, there is an inherent weakness to education. That weakness was succinctly identified by our Lord, “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a  servant above his master.” (Matthew 10:24, RSV) In the Paul Smith paraphrase, that means no matter how hard you try, you will never be smarter than your teacher – in any subject, whether it be theology, farming, or flying airplanes.

But, we cannot live without education. A father teaches his son how to drive a tractor, cultivate the soil, plant the seeds, administer pesticides and fertilizer, and then when and how to harvest. Certified flight instructors are necessary to teach the next generation of pilots, otherwise there would be an awful lot of empty airplanes parked at airports. And, love ’em or hate ’em, there are professors of theology that continue the art and skill of interpreting and teaching the Bible.

Now, if I understand Jesus right, what he is saying is that a student will never rise above the skill and knowledge of a single teacher. Having been both a student and a teacher, I can see this on so many different levels. I will never be able to achieve the heights of my instructors – either in aviation or theology. I could never teach everything that I know – not because I have such a vast repertoire of knowledge, its just that there are things that a person cannot teach.

So, how does mankind continue to grow in knowledge? How is it that we can fly spaceships now when Orville and Wilbur only flew a few feet?

We multiply our teachers! We build, layer upon layer, on the accumulated knowledge of the ages.

When I was in flight school I had several different instructors. At first this bothered me, because I really, really liked my instructor for my basic flight certificate. When I became an instructor, we never allowed one student to stay with one instructor for two successive certificates or ratings. Why? Because an instructor can never teach everything he/she knows, and a student can never rise above his/her instructor. But, if you multiply instructors, the learning curve never really flattens out. There is always something a different instructor knows, or a different trick, or a different way of approaching a problem. Multiple instructors provide a solid foundation for future learning.

A truism that is becoming a mantra for my life is this: If you only read what you have always read, and if you only hear what you have always heard, you will never learn. You may be reminded, you may be edified, you may be encouraged, you may be blessed in a number of ways. But you will never learn. If you want to learn, you have to be challenged by thoughts and ideas that you have never considered before.

Buy a book from an author you probably disagree with. Listen to a lecture by a teacher from a background different from yours. Challenge yourself with a concept that grates against your sensibilities. One possible result is that you learn why you disagree with that author or concept (I am only too familiar with that result).

On the other hand, you might just learn something!

Jesus Contradicted Jesus

I love that title. And, no, it is not necessarily created  as “click-bait,” although, if it got you here, so much the better. But, my title is absolutely correct. Jesus did contradict Jesus, and in the most emphatic way. Confused? Irritated? Wondering if I’ve lost the only two working synapses in my noggin? Let me explain.

Many Christians wonder what Jesus (son of Mary) was talking about in Matthew 5:43 when he said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'” Up to v. 43 it appears that Jesus has been quoting mostly from the Torah, the book of the Jewish law. I have often heard this verse explained away (and have probably explained it away) by saying that Jesus is quoting oral teaching here – that nowhere is it specifically written that a Jew was to love a fellow Jew, but hate an enemy.

Except, it was written that Jews were to love their neighbor and hate their enemy. It was not written thus in the Torah, but it was written down. In case you were wondering, here is the passage:

Give to the devout, but do not help the sinner. Do good to the humble, but do not give to the ungodly; hold back their bread, and do not give it to them, for by means of it they might subdue you; then you will receive twice as much evil for all the good you have done to them. For the Most High also hates sinners and will inflict punishment on the ungodly. Give to the one who is good, but do not help the sinner. Sirach 12:4-7

Those words were written approximately 200 years before Jesus, son of Mary, was born in Bethlehem. They were written by a Jew by the name of Jesus ben Sirah. His book is entitled variously as Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirah, or simply as Sirach.

Now, the words of Jesus our Lord do not perfectly match the words of Jesus ben Sirah, but that is not the point. The point is that for approximately two centuries there had been a strain of Judaism that was promoting the very teaching that Jesus our Lord was seeking to destroy. There was a written document that promoted the active hatred of one’s enemies. Jesus our Lord was not making this up on the fly. His teaching had a specific audience – those Jews who were so distorting the Torah that they were actually teaching the opposite of what Moses taught. [For confirmation, see Leviticus 19:18, 33-34]

What is simultaneously fascinating, and deeply troubling, about this passage is not so much that it exists (although, that is troubling in itself), but, if the comments in the New Revised Standard Version of the Apocrypha are correct, the Jews came to reject the book from their canon, and it was certain Christians who accepted it into their canon of Scripture! This explains the title Ecclesiasticus, or “church book.” [See the introduction to Ecclesiasticus, in the Oxford edition of the NRSV, page AP 86.] That really bothers me – here we have a book that, on the whole, teaches some marvelous things about God and human nature – but that in this one instance alone is so clearly and unambiguously refuted by Jesus of Nazareth.

So, there you have it folks, I was not making this up, and I did not create a title in order to deceitfully bring you into this blog. Jesus did refute Jesus – Jesus of Nazareth our Lord clearly and with great power refuted the writings of Jesus ben Sirah. I would suggest that today we are all followers of Jesus – the question to answer is, which Jesus are we following?

Let’s ascend by climbing lower.

Book Review – Spiritual Disciplines Handbook (Adele Ahlberg Calhoun)

Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us,  revised and expanded, (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2015), 332 pages.

It seems that there is a renewed interest in learning about and practicing “spiritual disciplines” today. That is a good thing – as a people we can never draw too close to God or have too strong of a spiritual appetite. How one goes about learning about the spiritual disciplines can possibly be problematic, however, and that is where a certain amount of discernment is critical in measuring this expanding field of Christian literature.

To be brief to the point of possible obscurity: spiritual disciplines are simply those practices which draw us closer to God. That’s it – there is no magic, no smoke and mirrors, no incantations or potions. Christians have been practicing these disciplines for millennia, most times probably not even thinking that what they were doing was a “spiritual discipline.” Practices such as prayer, fasting, Bible reading, meditation – all of these (and many, many more) are all spiritual disciplines. This is not rocket science, and no special amount of knowledge is required.

However, as with any discipline (music, painting, playing a sport, etc) it is always beneficial to learn from others who have progressed further in that discipline than we have. So, purchasing and reading books about the spiritual disciplines is not a bad thing – with one very important caveat: in evaluating books on the spiritual disciplines, it is critical to keep in mind whether the goal is to draw closer to God, or to have a better feeling about the attempt to draw closer to God!

I will illustrate that last sentence with a quote from my father. When I was a little boy I read just about everything I could about fishing for trout – especially fly fishing. Somewhat amused by my earnest endeavor, my father (who was an artist in the skill of understatement) wryly said to me one time, “Paul, I don’t think I have ever seen one trout that has read that book on how to catch trout.” His point was that there are a staggering number of books written about how to catch fish – most of which are written to catch the eye of the fisherman and to create income for the author.

Which brings me to this book on the spiritual disciplines by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun. Actually, this edition is a revised and updated edition, and I had previously owned her first edition, and enjoyed it quite a bit. I was curious how she could revise and expand it. To her credit the earlier work is largely unchanged, to her discredit she added some sections that, in my most humble opinion, have moved her book from “moving closer to God” to “feeling really good about acting super spiritual.”

Calhoun arranges her book (this one as well as the last) to follow the acronym W.O.R.S.H.I.P. That is she begins with a section on “Worship” proper, then moves on to “Open Myself to God,” “Relinquish the False Self,” “Share My Life With Others,” “Hear God’s Word,” “Incarnate the Love of Christ,” and finally “Pray.” Within each of these sections there are some instructions, observations, and practices that are real gems. And, within a number of the sections there are some practices that I believe are designed more to “catch the fisherman” than to catch the fish.

Whether she is self-conscious about the accusation of being “new agey” and that her practices might be considered more far-eastern than Christian, she repeats in a number of locations that what she is describing goes back to the earliest centuries of the church. This might be true – but just because a practice is old does not make it true or correct or a path to draw closer to God. Living in caves and sitting on poles are also ancient practices – but thankfully we have learned that sitting on poles was not necessarily a healthy practice for spiritual development. So, I genuinely question her emphasis on iconography for example, and her section of “labyrinth” prayer, which has the smell of manufacturing emotions rather than deepening the well of spirituality.

That is simply my reaction, however, and in this field of Christian literature there is a broad, almost indescribably broad, measure of what is healthy and what is not. I tend to be very conservative, and so as I read this literature my mind goes to the question, “is this practice taught or illustrated in Scripture” far more than “does this practice make me feel good.”

I do not want to cast too negative a pall on the book – her section on “Relinquishing the Self” is very good – and there are far more good sections and practices than questionable ones all throughout the book. From my own perspective, the original Handbook was much better, but that opinion and a couple of dollars will buy you a cup of coffee just about anywhere you go.

Bottom line, one qualified thumb up – but let the reader beware. I don’t think God has read many books on how to draw close to him either. After all, he wrote the best one on the market.

A Declaration of Surrender

I have opined on many occasions how, in terms of following my spiritual forebears, I am far more of a Stoner than I am a Campbellite. For those in the “Stone-Campbell” American Restoration Movement that distinction makes sense, for everyone else it is a real head scratcher. In the most succinct way of summarizing the two view, think of top-down or bottom-up typology. I am going to over-generalize here, so please, don’t anyone challenge me on dotting “i’s” or crossing “t’s.” Volumes have been written on the subject I am going to summarize in a paragraph.

Barton W. Stone was basically an apocalypticist. He had a intense acceptance of, although he would probably admit an incomplete understanding of, the the Holy Spirit. He believed completely in the idea of restoring the church to its New Testament origin, he just believed that the work of doing so was up to God, and whatever role that humans had in the process, the work was totally and completely up to God. Alexander Campbell, on the other hand, was an optimist’s optimist. He drank deeply from the philosophy of John Locke and Francis Bacon, and while he probably had a higher view of the Holy Spirit than would make many of his followers comfortable, he was more firmly convinced in the power of human reason and effort in accomplishing the “current reformation.” He was so convinced that his work would usher in the 1,000 year reign of Christ on the earth that he called his second, and most influential journal, The Millennial Harbinger.

These two viewpoints have profound, and opposed, consequences. If you have a top-down viewpoint (as I have characterized Stone) you realize your worth, your value, is only secondary to that of God. You are the servant, God is the master. This is, in my opinion, far more Pauline and biblical. Paul planted, Apollos watered – but God gave the growth. If you have a bottom-up viewpoint (as I have characterized Campbell) at the very least you see yourself as a co-worker along with God. God needs you as much as you need God. In the words of a particularly miserable little sycophant who led a prayer one day in our college chapel service, God is just so lucky to have us on his side. It may be fair to say that I am over-stating Campbell’s view, but one detail leads me to believe he was bent far more in that direction than Stone – when it became obvious that the United States would end up in a Civil War, Campbell was devastated. You see, if humans can reason and work their way up into the millennial reign of Christ, there is nothing to destroy that utopian viewpoint than the carnage of a civil war. Reality, more than theology, destroys a bottom-up, pragmatic approach to religion.

There is a profound, ironic twist to this dichotomy of “top-down, bottom-up” typology. Those, like Stone, who believe in the absolute power of God and who live in a world view of apocalypticism, have a far greater understanding of servanthood than those who believe in the power of human reason and effort. Stone’s apocalyptic worldview had an impact on Tolbert Fanning, and from Fanning down to David Lipscomb. Lipscomb is famous (or infamous) for his book entitled, Civil Government, an incongruous title seeing as how he excoriated the concept of civil government. Lipscomb’s point was that man simply does not have it within himself to govern himself (by the way, that sounds a LOT like Isaiah to me, but what do I know). The more you realize the impossibility of being your own master, the more willing, and indeed the greater the necessity, of submitting to the total will and power of God. The greater God is in your worldview, the smaller you are, and the greater the realization is that anything that you accomplish is simply the result of God working through you.

And, lest anyone question Lipscomb’s concept of servanthood, it was Lipscomb who demanded that his students go out and work in the fields surrounding Nashville for half a day while they were studying with him to become preachers. Nothing like plowing behind a mule for 4-6 hours to teach a preacher humility. It was Lipscomb who stayed behind in Nashville during a cholera outbreak to drive Roman Catholic nuns around in his horse and buggy so they could tend to the sick and dying. You see, when your eyes are focused on the absoluteness and greatness of God, service and compassion become matters of necessity, not convenience. For confirmation, simply read God’s instructions to the Israelites concerning their acceptance of, and care for, the alien, the poor, the widow, the orphan, the powerless, the oppressed. It is gritty reading.

At the risk of starting a political firestorm, far, far too many current members of the Churches of Christ are Campbellites. Campbell was absolutely convinced of the appropriateness of civil government. He saw nothing wrong with promoting, and even serving in, elected positions – he would actually see that as part of the ushering in of the millennial reign of Christ. It might be worthwhile to note that the only member of the American Restoration Movement to be elected President of the United States was James Garfield, who had previously served as a general in the Union Army. Garfield was a member of the Disciples of Christ – the most “Campbellite” of the three branches of the Restoration Movement (Disciples, Conservative Christian Church, and Churches of Christ).

Once upon a time I was enamored with the power of politics. I am a Reagan baby – I came of age watching the results of Reagan’s first election and drinking deeply of the euphoria that finally a good man was in the office of President. Then came Clinton. And then came Bush II. And then came Obama. And now we have Trump. Our nation is more divided, displays more animosity, more hatred, more vitriol, than at any other time in my half-century of life. During the eight years of Obama and the four years of the current resident of the White House, the role of elected officials has not been to lead the country, but to vilify and objectify the opponent. If public service ever did have a noble purpose, it ended with the last century.

I’m done. I surrender. I have seen the folly of my ways and I repent. Reading the book of Revelation yet again has opened my eyes to see the foul nature of the beast – nothing but lying frogs croaking out poison and death to their loyal minions. I used to think that the role of politics could be saved, could somehow be salvaged from the cess-pool where it was headed. I no longer think that way. If it somehow manages to be redeemed, if it is even redeemable at all, it will only be through the power of God working through the Holy Spirit. In Revelation, God destroys the beast, he does NOT redeem it.

I guess now I am a full-fledged Stoner/Lipscombian. I urge all who love Christ and his Church to join with me in my radical, apocalyptic worldview. Things are just so much more clear here. God is in control, not me. God will work his plan, not the Republicans or the Democrats. God works through his servants the prophets, not the king seated on the throne in Jerusalem nor Washington D.C. Jesus established his church, not a nation nor a political party or system. We are called to be followers of the Great Shepherd, not some bloviating buffoon residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

It really is liberating to ascend by climbing lower, by demonstrating the power of God by picking up a towel. Those who end up finding their lives must first lose them. Those who reign with Christ must first surrender any claim to their life. It is the way of the cross, and there simply is no other way.

“And You Will Know That I Am The LORD Your God”

I have stated verbally, and I think in this space too, how I believe I am experiencing some of the best Bible study this year that I have ever been able to accomplish. That is both reassuring (thankful I am not going backward) but also embarrassing. I feel like I should have been at this point many years ago, but I guess some skulls are just thicker than others. Anyway, what has helped me tremendously this year is that I am using fine line markers to highlight, and in some cases, make notes in my Bible. This has helped me see some powerful messages in books where previously I would just skim over or glide past certain words or phrases. I noticed one such phrase while recently reading through Ezekiel. When one phrase (or even word) keeps reappearing in a chapter or book, it is time to pull out the ol’ thinking cap and ask what the author was trying to communicate. So, I offer the following as both result of my reading and for your continued thoughts.

The phrase that caught my attention is, “And you will know that I am  the LORD your God” and numerous variations. Sometimes it is second person in speaking to the Israelites (“you”) and sometimes it is third person (“they”) in referring to the nations. At least once a specific nation is mentioned – Egypt!

So, here is what I discovered in my non-scientific, non-computerized, and non-original Hebrew language analysis: that phrase (or a variation) shows up 60 times in the book of Ezekiel. What makes this even more profound is that the phrase does not appear in 23 out of the 48 chapters – therefore, if my math is correct, Ezekiel uses the phrase 60 times in 25 chapters. In a couple of chapters (20 and 25, to be specific) the phrase is used 5 times!

There are a number of other phrases that convey basically the same thought, but in different expressions: “They shall be my people, and I will be their God,” “I am (or will be) your God,” “I the LORD sanctify them,” “I the LORD have poured out my wrath.”

So, I ponder – why this emphasis? Why is it so critical for Ezekiel to communicate that YHWH is God, and that the people will finally understand this? Did they not know that YHWH was God? Were they not good, devout, wholesome Jews?

In a word, no. God had to show Ezekiel this, and he did so in a dramatic fashion, taking Ezekiel in visions to the Temple in Jerusalem where Ezekiel saw how corrupt the worship of the priests had become. They had drawn images on the walls of the temple depicting foreign gods, and both the priests and the leading women of the nation were actively involved in idol worship. In a dramatic, and what had to be for the faithful a crushing scene, God is so fed up with the nation that he gets into his chariot and leaves the temple and the city in order to allow it to be destroyed by the Babylonians.

All well and good for those faithless Jews, you might say, those ignorant hooligans who had every blessing in the world yet turned their backs on God.

And I ask, the church in America is different how?

We all, liberal and conservative, wrap our interpretation of the Bible in the American flag, and use patriotism as the primary lens by which we invoke the Word of God. We all, liberal and conservative, refuse to consider or apply the teachings of Scripture that not only challenge, but destroy, our pet ideologies. We all, liberal and conservative alike, have removed God as the sole arbiter of our thoughts and intentions and words, and we have replaced him with pragmatics (what works) or cultural relativity (what is) or shallow emotionalism (what I feel) as the basis of our theology.

Consider this: notice how Republicans (in general) passionately argue that all pre-born life is sacred, that regardless of how a baby was conceived (even through rape or incest) or what might or might not be considered “defects,” that life is precious in the sight of God and must be protected. Democrats (again, generally) reject that thinking, and argue it is up to the whim of the mother to decide who is allowed, or is rejected, entrance at the border of life. In the issue of immigration the roles are reversed 180 degrees. Republicans (I repeat, generally) argue it is the right of a sovereign nation to decide (i.e., “freedom of choice”) who is admitted entrance, and careful examination must be made to decide if a life is “worthy” to be granted visitor or citizen status. Conversely, Democrats (same song 4th verse) argue that all life, regardless of whether we “want” the immigrant or whether he/she exhibits any “defects” should be granted admission.

And, both sides appeal to the Bible for support of their views.

Can there be any more stark of a contrast in how we allow politics and “patriotism” to color our interpretation of Scripture?

Dear Christians, brothers and sisters, can we not see here how critical it is for us to stand under Scripture, and to argue that all life is precious, created in the sight of God – and at the same time remember the repeated and emphatic commands of God to treat the alien, the fatherless, the poor, the destitute, with love and compassion? Why is it either/or? Why can we not, as those who are supposed to understand forgiveness and grace so much more than anyone else, extend that grace to all people – people who look like us and people who don’t look like us (or believe what we believe)?

I will admit to my own fears and shortcomings in this regard – I have to deal with my fallen humanity just as much as the next guy (or girl). But – Christians are called to a higher standard. We are not called to just aspire to the Constitution of the United States of America. We are called to aspire to the Being, the very nature, of God.

The very same God who sent Israel (and Judah) into Assyrian and Babylonian captivity because they forgot God.

God promised Ezekiel that following their punishment, both Israel and the nations would learn that He, the LORD, is God.

Will the church ever learn that?

God Made Her Good, and Holy, and Beautiful

I get inspiration to write from some of the weirdest places. Yesterday at the gym the owner replaced the usual vile, obnoxious, heavy-metal acid rock with a country track. Eeesh. I knew the obnoxious, heavy-metal, acid rock would not be worth listening to (the lyrics, when you can understand them, are vile!), but I guess I have not listened to obnoxious, heavy-metal, acid country in a while. If it were not for red-neck cowboys trying to get into the pants of red-neck cowgirls, there would be no country music today. Which, got me thinking . . .

I am the father of a daughter. I love my daughter more than I can describe. I would sacrifice anything to know that she was safe. When we first got married, I told my wife I wanted a little girl. She wanted several children, and I told her that was okay, as long as she made sure at least one was a little girl (I was not an “A” student in biology). Well, the “several” part did not work out, but we have the sweetest, the most awesome, young lady I could ever hope for.

As she grows, I grow more terrified for her. I cannot even begin to imagine how difficult it is for a young woman to grow up with a healthy, Christian self-image today. Virtually everything is working against her.

On the right hand is the pure, unadulterated misogyny from men – the idea that women are only here for their pleasure, mere objects of sex. This is what bothered me about the country trash music I was forced to deal with while lifting weights. It is bad enough for men to have to hear that garbage – but what is the message for young women? “She thinks my tractor’s sexy!” Really?? Are you kidding me? All she wants to do is crawl up in your pickup with a case of beer? Then you must have a really low view of what “she” wants. The bad thing about country music is you CAN hear and understand the lyrics. Even when you don’t want to. And, seriously, I don’t want my daughter to understand those lyrics.

On the left we have the spewing forth of the radical feminists, those women who hate being women. They despise their gender, they see only weakness and frailty. They are just as misogynistic as the men, but in an entirely different way. They want to be everything that a man is, and they utterly despise the fact that biology has made that impossible. The funny thing is, these radical feminists hate men too. They hate men because they want everything that a man has, and their envy has turned into self-loathing.

This is true even in the church today! We have women telling little girls that they can be everything that a man is, that they can do everything that a man can do – they can be a man! What is a little girl to think? That being a woman is bad? Why do they have to focus on wanting to be like a man, or even worse, to be a man? Is biblical womanhood a disease?

I am obviously a male, so in one sense I am the wrong gender to be writing this. This really needs to come from a woman, and thankfully there are women who are standing up and pushing back against this anti-female tirade. We need many, many, more. We need women who recognize the awesomeness of being female – of the power to conceive, the power to nurture and then to bear new life, the power to nurse that little life, and the power to see, feel, remember and to comprehend all of life in ways that a man cannot even begin to experience. God created females with the most incredible psychological, mental, and physical powers and abilities. God created females with gifts that so far transcend their male counterparts that it defies description. When God created a woman, he created her good, and holy, and beautiful – in the Genesis account she was the last, the pinnacle of God’s creation. Why are we so intent on destroying that image?

I was a flight instructor for approximately 4 years, give or take a couple of months. I witnessed the male/female dichotomy up close and personal in a unique circumstance. I can tell you with no hesitation whatsoever that men and women are gifted in entirely different ways – even in the identical position of flying airplanes. There is an adage in aviation that speaks far more wisdom than is apparent on the surface: men are better at getting themselves out of a bad situation; women are far better at never getting themselves into that situation to begin with. Ponder that for a while.

As I said, I am a male. God has gifted me to do some things that I can do fairly well simply because of my biological “construction.” But, he also tasked me to do some things that I do not do very well at all because of the sin that afflicts every human being. God created my wife, and my daughter, to accomplish some tasks that they do very well because of their biological “construction.” As I mentioned above, women are just light years ahead of men in terms of intuition, feelings, and processing complex issues as a whole. I focus like a laser on one issue – my wife sees the whole picture. I would be so lost without her. But, women were tasked to do some things that they do not accomplish very well because of the sin that afflicts all human beings. That which makes females strong can also be their “Achilles heel.”

I find it interesting, and profoundly instructive, that the apostle Paul speaks of the sin of Eve in contexts where he is discussing the differences between male and female, but when he is speaking theologically – in terms of the nature of sin itself – he puts the fall of mankind squarely on the shoulders of Adam (and, this is clear because he compares the male Adam with the male Jesus). Eve tempted her husband to sin, and Adam’s sin caused the fall of mankind. Cogitate on that for a spell.

One of the ways that our culture, and even our churches, are rebelling against God today is with the rejection of the gifts of being male or female. One way we stand over Scripture, and over against God, is when we place a higher level of authority on science or psychology to define what it means to be a Christian man or woman. When we tell our daughters that she can “do anything a man can do” or that “she can be just like a man” we are giving her the most insidious message – that being a woman is not good enough, that she was created as some lower life being. I cannot think of a more devastating message to give a daughter of God.

I do not want my daughter to be just like me. I do not want my daughter to think that she can do everything a man can do – why would she want to take that step down? God created her as the most precious of all his creations.

Despite what this world is telling her, I want my daughter to know that God made her good, and holy, and beautiful, and no one can ever take that away from her.

A Pox on ‘Praise Teams’

If you have read very many of my posts you have no doubt noticed that I am not a fan of “praise teams,” those Hydra-headed creatures that have become synonymous with contemporary worship these days. Some may wonder why I am so irked, so non-plussed, so aggravated.

Well, for one reason, I’m a nut – a knuckle-dragging troglodyte that would rather be using a typewriter than a computer, and would really prefer to be using a fountain pen. I was born shortly after the crust of the earth cooled, so anything after the invention of the wheel is flat out revolutionary.

But, those failings aside, I think I have some pretty good reasons for my position. While I firmly believe there is no “thus saith the Lord” or “book, chapter and verse” that specifically condemns the use of “praise teams,” I believe their creation and use does fray the very fabric of the concept of worship. Let us examine the question.

At the very outset, let me say I am not against special singing groups in the church. I actually think they are wonderful, and fill a special place for those who love to sing (regardless of talent!). I have been greatly edified by the service rendered by quartets, sextets, octets, and larger choruses. My life would be much poorer without them. I feel the same with instrumental music. I absolutely adore music – one of the greatest gifts my father ever gave to me was an appreciation of music. I can’t play it if I had to save my life, but I sure do love it. So, my animosity to “praise teams” does not stem from an irrational hatred of special singing groups, nor even of my disapproval of instrumental music in worship. I pray it is not irrational at all.

In James 2:1-7, James condemns the sin of partiality. In the specifics of the text, he is condemning the elevation of the rich, and the humiliation of the poor. Note, however, that the poor are not excluded from worship, but there is a clear distinction of status based on the wealth of the rich and the poverty of the poor. Now, just replace “rich” with “glorious singing voice” and you have a praise team – those who are elevated, and ironically those who are “praised” for their voice tones above those miserable wretches who can only sing with joy and gladness in their hearts, but have no “America’s Got Superiority Issues” talent.

The two primary texts that mention singing in the New Testament (Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16) both stress the “one another” aspect of singing – we sing with each other, we sing to each other, we sing for each other. But “praise teams” are elevated – they have a special place, or at the very least, they have microphones so their voices are just a little more special, than those of the hoi poloi, the common singer. Here again, there is no clear violation of the text, but the spirit of the text is shredded. It is clear that when a select group of individuals are highlighted and “praised” for their talents, that the “one another” aspect of worship is being minimized, if not eliminated.

This, of course, leads to the basic hypocrisy of the “praise team” movement. On the one hand we are told the “praise team” is no different, is just a part of the congregation, is just leading the congregation in song. But the very formation of such a group utterly destroys that argument. A director, usually known as the “worship leader” must select, or recruit, suitable members. How will he/she choose such members? Through an audition, of course. What are the criteria? Perfect intonation, the ability to read music, and a desire to be “front and center” are obvious items. I would argue there are other, less honorable, measurements – such as age, gender, age, perfectly coifed hair, age, the wealth to purchase cultural appropriate clothing, and age. I’ve seen many, many pictures of “praise teams,” and have experienced a couple in person, and I would suggest that the average age of most “teams” places their birth after the election of Ronald Reagan, some after the election of Bill Clinton.

I’ve often wondered, how does a “worship leader” dismiss a “praise team” member wannabe? “I’m sorry, but you are just not good enough to praise God here at our church.” Regardless of the wording, that is the message. Ouch.

After their selection the team must rehearse, of course. They are allowed to have the songs for that Sunday service days in advance of the rest of the shmucks that sit in the pews (oops, let my snark come through there). They,  therefore, are “in” on the worship – the congregation is on the “out.” One particularly egregious example of this I witnessed personally – the “praise team” was seated at the front of the auditorium, and they were the only ones who had the sheet music for the songs – just the lyrics were projected on an overhead screen. The “team” was mic’d at an ear busting volume, and the result was a total projection of their voices and a few mumbles from the congregation as we struggled to keep up with the melody – which only the “praise team” was privy to.

So, the argument that the “praise team” is just a part of the congregation, is just leading the congregation, is just to educate the congregation, is just specious. It is hypocritical at best, and divisive at its worst.

That leads me to my last point, that of the name of the “praise team” itself. Is not the congregation itself the praise team? Are we not all, as members of the body, called to speak to one another, to lift one another up in song, are we not all, regardless of talent, supposed to lift our voices in gladness? “Praise teams” are inherently divisive – they divide according to (perceived) talent and according to other criteria which clearly separate the “haves” from the “have nots.”

I will admit I struggle with the process of corporate worship. On the one hand I genuinely love the spontaneity of an un-planned, “ad-hoc” type of worship. I had the incredible experience one time of guest speaking at a congregation. The song leader had no idea of my topic – but he formulated the most powerful, the most enriching, the most moving, the most theologically profound, series of songs that I can honestly say that I ever remember in a worship service. I was moved to tears, and introduced my sermon by apologizing to the congregation for interrupting that awesome experience of worship.

On the other hand, I have benefited from a well-planned and carefully thought-out worship where the songs, the Lord’s Supper memorial, and the sermon were all carefully integrated. That takes time, work, and some very close relationships between speaker, song leader, and any other worship leaders. For many congregations, that kind of close working relationship is not likely on a week-to-week basis. It takes some real dedication and communication. It also removes some of the immediacy that inspires so much of worship. It is hard to know on Monday or Tuesday what the mood of the congregation will be on Sunday. It tends to be confining, even as it is designed to create more expressiveness.

All I can say for sure is that for this knuckle-dragging troglodyte, “praise teams” are just a huge burr under my saddle, and I will never be comfortable sitting in an auditorium and being entertained by their glorious voices and perfectly coifed hair.

And I just wonder what James would have to say about our 21st century form of discrimination disguised as super-spirituality.