Changing Strategies for a Changeless Church

Read no further unless you consider the following texts: Isaiah 1:11, 16-17; Hosea 6:6 (and therefore Matthew 9:13, 12:7); Amos 5:14-15, 21-24; Micah 6:6-8; Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 4:18-19; James 1:27.

As is so often the case, I write one post thinking it will be a stand-alone, one-off post, and then all of a sudden I think (or am reminded by someone) of a tangential point, and then a rabbit pops up that needs to be chased, and all of a sudden I’m up to my armpits in blog posts. So, here is the third in an un-planned series that started with me stating unequivocally that the church does not have to change. I am adamant about that point. The core doctrines and practices of the church do not have to change, and in fact, if we do change them, we cease to be the church. I will not give an inch on that belief.

But that got me to thinking about all the ways in which individual congregations are dying, and what little changes they could make in order to reverse some of the decline. So, yesterday I started with the easiest, and most visible, changes that a congregation can consider – those of the physical building in which they meet. I am just astounded by the the fact that so many people are oblivious to the state of their building, and how much that disrepair communicates an unwillingness to change, or an outright statement of indifference.

In all honesty, I have to say that in today’s culture the building probably accounts for only 10-20% of a guest’s opinion of the church – although it is a critical 10 – 20%. That figure varies depending on region of the country and size of the community. In some locations the physical state of the building may rate higher, in some places it might barely matter. Regardless, there is no excuse for a shoddy building. If you are going to meet in one, make it a priority to have that building as visitor friendly as you can possibly make it.

Today I venture into the 80 – 90% of what our culture views as important, and that is the philosophy or philosophies that drive the work of the congregation. It is popular today to say that the “attraction” model of the church is dead – that the only churches that are growing have moved past an “attraction” model to one of involvement or of being “missional” (whatever that means – all I’ve learned is that it is “insider” lingo that if you use it you are cool, and if you don’t use it you are just so 20th century gauche). I have come to believe that thinking is wrong. Every model of church growth is attraction – the difference is how you are doing the attracting. Are you attracting by saying, “Come to our building and join our little band of Christians because we have everything right” or are you saying, “Come join our assembly; we are trying to change both ourselves and our world and we invite you to join us by changing your life and by helping us in our journey.” Both are attractions models, it is just the methodology that has changed.

So, what drives your congregation? If you cannot say off the top of your head, I have one simple test: how big is your bank account, and by looking at the line items of expenditures, where does most of your money go? That, my friends, will identify whether you are tied to your building, or whether you are actually attempting to move outside the walls and impact your community.

I have a couple of “fer real” stories to illustrate my point. In one congregation where my wife and I attended, the elders had a simple strategy regarding their bank account. Every December they looked at how much money was in the congregational bank account, and they looked at their various ministries. Then, based on the nature of the ministry, they divided that money up and sent it off – to preachers, missionaries, community charities – whatever they supported. They started every January with a $0.00 balance in their account. Silly, you say? Irrational, you argue? Reckless, you harrumph? But what about emergencies, what about crises?

The elders were brilliant men, of that I have no doubt. But beyond that they were men of great faith. They did not trust in the church bank account. If there was an emergency – a flood, a tornado, a fire – they knew that the Smith family had a bank account, and the Joneses had a bank account, and widow Brown had a bank account, and so did every other family in the congregation. They knew that on a moments notice those bank accounts would fly open and every need and every crisis would be overcome. They did not worry about what was in the “church” bank account, because (1) they trusted in the power and love of God and (2) they knew and trusted the hearts of their members. There was no question about the vision of the church. It was present each and every Sunday for everyone to witness and to share.

Second, one of our neighbor families could be described as one of the “nones” that everyone is so worried about. They would attend a church, but they were not really looking for correct doctrine or whether the service was done “decently and in order.” They looked at the bulletin to see what the members were up to. They were especially concerned to note whether the church was open about its finances. They wanted to know if the church was active in the community – feeding the hungry, clothing the cold, housing the homeless. Once those questions were met, then they would consider what most of us would consider the more important issues of doctrine and practice.

You see, many congregations are going to have to change their model of attraction. I still believe in the theory of being an attractional church. Jesus said in John 12:32 that, when he was raised up, he would draw all people unto him. I believe that was both prediction and promise. If we raise Christ, HE will draw people to his church. The question is, are we going to attempt to raise Christ up with philosophies that died decades ago – or are we going to get out into the community, roll up our sleeves, and get our fingers dirty?

Years ago many Churches of Christ shied away from community outreach because they believed (erroneously, I might add) that to do so was to participate in the “social gospel.” I believe that fear has to be firmly and finally eradicated from the mindset of many congregations if they are to stem the exodus of young families, and if they are to ever attract non-Christians to their worship services. Stated bluntly, but to borrow an old adage, people today do not care what you believe, unless and until they see you living what you believe. If we believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ, we are going to have to learn how to live that gospel. I am not saying we have to change our view of the roles of men and women, that we have to turn our worship services into three-ring (or three screen!) circuses, that we have to become “open and affirming” of sinful practices, that we have to change our view of salvation, church leadership, or our worship practices such as the Lord’s Supper. I repeat, the church cannot change certain immutable truths and practices.

But, returning to those texts I listed at the start of this post – can anyone seriously question that community outreach and care for those who cannot care for themselves is not a part of the gospel? That justice and mercy are any less important than baptism and the sanctity of marriage? That false (vain) worship is any less of a sin than homosexuality?

After one of my earlier posts, a good friend suggested that churches need to learn how to church. I know “church” is not a verb, but I like that thought. It’s brilliant, actually, even allowing for the grammatical imprecision. We need to learn how to church – beginning with personal discipleship (blog post #1) and moving through congregational re-alignment and re-dedication to serving their communities with the flesh and blood of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Let us never surrender an inch of what the church is, and should be. But let us always be alert to ways in which the church can be the body of Christ in the community of which it is a part.

Change – or Die!

Yesterday I was emphatic – apoplectic almost – in denying that the church had to change. What must occur, I said then and I say now, is that individual members must learn what true discipleship means. When the concept of individual discipleship is fully grasped, differences between generations (that is fueling so much of the demands that the church must change) will disappear. There will not be a “builder church” or a “boomer church” or a “Gen X church” or a “millennial church.” There is only one church – Christ’s church, and we don’t get to make the rules. That was yesterday’s post.

Today I want to argue that some congregations must change, or they will die. I am drawing a fine line between a congregation and the one church. What was true for Ephesus might, or might not, have been true for Jerusalem or Rome. What was true for Corinth might or might not have been true for Antioch. Each congregation of the Lord’s people is unique and different, and so each has a life span, and in that life span there are changes and adjustments that need to be made.

What needs to be fully understood is that I am not talking about doctrine – God’s word stands firm and I don’t need to or want to repeat yesterday’s post. We cannot add to or subtract from teaching that is as old as the apostles. Some things never change – and the church does not have permission to re-write holy Scripture.

What I am talking about is the aspects of a congregation that have nothing to do with God’s word. I am talking about meeting places and philosophies that drive a congregation. I am talking about things that might have been true one or even two generations ago, but are simply no longer valid (or, be as important as they once were). Congregations that meet in homes do not share as many of these issues. Congregations that rent space to meet have a few, but not as many. Congregations that own their meeting spaces have most, if not all, of these issues.

Just as a starter – walk around your building (if you rent or own) as if it was the first time you entered the building. Block out all previous experiences. Walk in with the wild eyed wonder of a child. Look with eyes that have not seen before. Get as many member as you can to join you.

How bright is the building? How many unlit or burned out light bulbs are there? How welcoming is the general entrance? Are there signs pointing to rest rooms? Are there signs pointing to the main auditorium? Are there signs pointing to classrooms? Is there someone posted near the front who can answer general questions (maybe not accosting people as they enter, but conveniently close enough to be helpful)? Is the carpet clean? When was the last time it was vacuumed, or deep cleaned? Is it worn or does it need to be re-stretched?

Walk into the auditorium. Does it have pews or chairs? Are the pews so long that no one (and I repeat, not even a long time member) will sit in the middle of the pew? Are the pews so close together that there is no room for diaper bags or walkers or walking canes? Are the pews upholstered or bare? If upholstered, are they clean or do they show the results of far too many communion service boo-boos? Do you still use song books? If so, in what state are they? Are they new and fresh, or “rode hard and put up wet”? Do you have a pulpit? If so, how “separate” and apart from the people does it present the preacher? Is the preacher glued to one microphone or do you have a wireless microphone system? How well does the sound system project? Are there dead spots in the auditorium? If you use an over-head projector, is the screen blocked at any point? Do members sitting on the extreme edges have a clear view of the screen, or is it distorted? How fresh is the projector bulb, or lighting arrangement? Do you have the ability to dim the lights in the auditorium, or is it “all on or all off”?

Walk down a hallway. Are the bulletin boards bright and cheerful, updated frequently? Are class rooms bright and inviting? Are teachers present EARLY enough to greet every student? Is the furniture in each room age appropriate? Do you have available technology for each classroom (TV or video monitors, overhead projectors, etc.) In classrooms for small children, is there enough staff so that a child (or children) are not left with one single adult at any time? Do you have a system so that only a parent (or designated other) can claim a child after class? If doors close and lock, do you have a glass window so parents (and others) can view the room?

Visit the restrooms for both males and females. Are they clean, bright, and fresh? Are there appropriate supplies (toilet paper, soap, paper towels or hand dryers, hand lotion, tissues)? Do you have adequate space for the handicapped? Do you have adequate accommodations for the little ones – step stools or smaller facilities? And, sad to even ask the question, are the facilities clearly marked and do you have a policy clearly stating that the restrooms are for the  gender of biological birth and not some whimsical choice?

What about the outside? Is the parking lot clearly striped? Are there spaces reserved for handicapped? Are there spaces reserved specifically for guests and visitors? Do you have members outside to meet and greet visitors? If you have a lawn and landscaping, is it cared for weekly? Is there signage directing guests to the main entrance? Is there adequate assistance for those in wheelchairs, walkers, or with small children? If there is a playground for children, is it monitored? Is there a place for the littlest ones to play free from harassment from the older ones? Do you have a video surveillance system? If so, is that fact clearly identified? If your meeting space is in an area that is prone to theft, do you have regular patrols protecting the vehicles of your members and guests?

I could probably go on, but I think you get the idea. Every single one of these questions will be answered by your guests. Your members may not even notice, and that’s the rub. When most members of a congregation walk into the building they don’t even see those things. They see weddings, and funerals, and special VBS days, and they see the faces of the saints that used to sit on the left hand side five pews back. A visiter will notice if he or she has to ask for directions to the restroom, if there is no toilet paper in the stall they use, if the carpet is dirty, ripped, or worn, if they have to sit on a cramped, bare pew, if it is so dark they cannot read their Bible, if they cannot hear the preacher, if they have to wait past the start of class time for their child’s teacher to show up, if their song book does not have the page the song leader calls out. Visitors will notice – and judge. And, rightfully so! Nothing says “We do not care about growing, in fact, we would rather die” more than a building that is a poster child for neglect and carelessness.

Most buildings were built during the age, or at the very least, with the philosophy of “build it and they will come.” That theory no longer holds true. The outreach of a congregation now is more important than the building (next blog post!), but at some point a guest is going to want to visit the worship assembly of the congregation. What I wanted to point out in this post is that, except in very rare cases where there is a member (or a group of members) who are really sharp about these issues, a congregation can actually communicate that it is NOT interested in outsiders and visitors by the condition of its building. If that is the case, no preacher, no teacher, no new program, no latest and greatest church growth model, will change the guest’s opinion of the congregation.

And, if said congregation is unwilling to change, it will die. It will take time, obviously, but the last one out the door will turn off the lights and they won’t come on again.

For some congregations all that is needed is a wake-up call and a general work day. For others it may mean spending several thousands of dollars refurbishing and re-newing their worship and education space.

The church of Christ cannot change – but look at your meeting place carefully. Your congregation might have to!

No! The Church Does Not!

If you are even remotely connected to any religious media (Facebook, Twitter, books, magazines, etc.) you are bombarded with messages such as, “If the church is going to survive, it must . . .” or “If the church is going to keep (or attract) millennials, it must . . .” or “If the church is going to be seen as relevant, it must . . .” followed by some brilliant insight observed by some church growth guru. I’m sure I have even been guilty of using those words myself. If I have, (or I guess I should say, when I did) I was wrong. Mea culpa. I am now here to say, “No.” The church does not have to do (a) or (b) or (c). In fact, all the talk about what the church is going to have to “do” is part of the problem. Understanding why this is such a critical issue takes some serious thinking, so let me explain my position.

First, the church was not created by Jesus to be some crutch, some plaything for those who comprise its membership. The church IS Christ on this earth. The church is his body, as Paul makes explicitly clear – 1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 1:23, 5:30; Colossians 1:18, 2:19 to name a few passages. Therefore, and this is the nub of the issue, to say that the church “must” do something or the other in order to keep or to attract any sub-group of people is to say that JESUS must do that something or the other.

Are you really willing to tell Jesus what he has to do? Does Jesus really have to bend to every whim and fancy of every coming generation? Is there a set of rules for the builder generation, the boomer generation, the “X” generation and now the millennial generation? Or, is there one body, the church, to which every generation must submit its personal preferences and demands for the good of the whole?

If there is any one single “must” that the church is bound to obey, it is that the church must be the body of Christ. That’s it – there is no other “must.” We learn about that body by studying the gospels, and we learn about how the church either successfully, or unsuccessfully, fulfilled that commission by studying the books of Acts-Revelation.

The body of Christ obeys what the head of the body commands it to obey. The body of Christ is the physical extension of the exalted and reigning Lord now ascended to the heavens. The body of Christ does not get to vote, does not get to add to or subtract from, the commands that its owner and head gave to it.

It strikes me as ignorance bordering on absurdity for someone not even out of his third decade of life to lecture the church – which has existed for almost 2,000 years – about what it “must” do to survive. But, that is just part and parcel of our narcissistic world. Everything revolves around “me,” so obviously the church must revolve around my wants, my wishes, my demands, my understanding of what “ought” to be. When the church has succumbed to that siren song it has floundered. When the church has resisted that temptation it has flourished. The church is the body of Christ on the earth – and the only imperative that body has is to remain faithful to its head – Jesus the Messiah.

There is a word for what I am describing – it is “discipleship.” It is described beautifully in those aforementioned gospels, and it is taught in the aforementioned subsequent books of the New Testament. There is another book that talks about this topic, and interestingly enough, it has that simple title, Discipleship*. When it was published it stood the prevailing cultural church on its head. If it was read, I mean really read, today it would have the same result. I believe its author would be aghast at how so many people claim to follow its principles when those very same people are so busy telling the church what it must do.

If, and more likely when, I have been guilty of that sin I repent. I never want to be guilty of telling Jesus what HE has to do in order to attract some selfish little pedant to attend some church assembly. Members of the church of Christ are disciples of Christ, and to that end we either transform our will to become what is the will of Christ, or we cease to be members of the body of Christ (ref. Revelation 1-3).

The church is the body of Christ – let us never lose sight of that reality!

*Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (also published as The Cost of Discipleship).

A House With No Foundation

I am simultaneously amazed and saddened as I observe what seems to be an inexorable decline in civility and in productivity in both the American political system and in the American church. Although I am not a specialist in either field, I do have my own observations, and for the most part what I see happening in the secular world is being duplicated in the church. I’ve tried to put words to my thoughts, and although the following is preliminary, I sincerely believe my observations to be valid.

In summary, what I see happening is that in both our secular world and in the church we have ceased to be thoughtful and creative, and instead have become perpetually reactive. We do not respond to any issue with reason and deliberation. We view every movement as a threat to our existence and react in both fear and anger. Our response then prompts an equal, or perhaps even exaggerated response from our opponents, and the cycle not only continues, but descends into further chaos.

Part of this condition revolves around our technology. Not only do we have the ability to see and hear everything that occurs the instant it happens, but we also have the ability to comment just as quickly. There was a blessing in only being able to see the nightly news at 6 and 10, and having to wait for the morning paper. There is no buffer time now. It is instant see, instant hear, instant react. We have ceased to be a rational people – reason is quickly becoming extinct.

This development has deeply infected the church as well. A sermon or quote is posted on-line, and within minutes, not even hours, the reaction becomes “viral.” We do not pause to digest lessons or messages – we simply regurgitate what we agree with (or more likely, the musings of the one with whom we agree) or we counter-attack with vitriol. In one of the greatest, and most damning, ironies of our time, we quote Acts 17:11 with the zeal of an evangelist and at the same time we crucify anyone who dares to make us think.

During what had to be one of his most emotionally draining times, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, and preached, and argued with both the German church and the world-wide ecumenical movement that before anything could be done about the deteriorating political situation in Germany, a firm theological foundation had to be built that could withstand what he knew would be a furious Nazi response. In his usual clear and precise thought, he knew the church had to make up its mind whether it was going to be the church or the handmaid of any and every political regime. He resisted making meaningless declarations and mere postulations. He knew that if a conference only resulted in some formal resolution, the conscience of the attendees would be salved but the underlying issues would not be solved, or sometimes barely even addressed.

I fear that so much activity that I see in the church today can only be described as “a blind man searching in a dark room for a black cat that does not exist.” We are wasting valuable time and energy, tilting at every windmill that we see, imagining that they are fire-breathing dragons. What was gallant for Don Quixote is a fools errand for the church. We must do better.

A house with no foundation cannot stand. It will eventually crumble, no matter how impressive it might appear from the outside. If we are to continue to exist as a church we are going to have to stop chasing phantoms and start laying a solid, biblical and theological foundation on which to build a house that cannot be shaken.

Our ultimate foundation, of course, is Jesus the Messiah. I am not suggesting we can lay another, or a better, foundation than that which is already given to us. I am saying, as clearly as I can, that Jesus speaks to this world, this culture, as clearly as he spoke to Jerusalem in the first century. If we do not firmly establish his life and teaching as both the primary and the ultimate meaning for our generation, then the house that we call the “church” will crumble.

Brothers and sisters, let us cease and desist from this mindless and meaningless habit of reacting with knee-jerk responses and shallow epithets. The world has enough of that. What the world does not see are people who are deeply rooted, firmly anchored in both thoughts and actions that are healthy and restorative. We must be that people, or we have no right to tell the world that it is sick.

For my part, I am trying to identify and root out this reactionary tendency in my own life. Looking back I see it only too clearly – and I also see where that tendency has left so much of my work inconsequential. You must know that I am attempting to confront the man in the mirror first before addressing anyone else. I make no claim to perfection here, only what I believe to be an increasing clarity of vision. I pray I am right, and surrender these words to him who judges righteously.

Let us ascend by climbing lower.

Why Lipscomb Had It Right

In my last post I talked about how Barton W. Stone’s apocalyptic worldview was transmitted to David Lipscomb (1831-1917), and how Lipscomb articulated that worldview not only in word (his book Civil Government) but also in his daily life. His views were to be utterly discredited during the heated debates over premillennialism, and today his teaching would be considered odd at the very least, most likely unscriptural, and probably even treasonous and heretical. I think Lipscomb had it right.

To summarize his views would be too much for the time I have allotted, so I will just jump to the conclusion – there has never been a civil government that has been blessed by and chosen by God. None. Never. Nada. I can see the arched eyebrows and hear the snickering – you think you have me with the selection of Saul. But re-read that story. God told Samuel that he was indeed capitulating to the whims of the Israelites, but he also made it very clear that the request for a king was a rejection of the reign of God. Saul was an abject failure. David, the “man after God’s own heart” lead a government that eventually involved adultery, murder, rape, fratricide, and would eventually disintegrate under the weight of misgovernment, violence, and outright idolatry.

Yes, God used the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians for his purposes. Yes he chose Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus. But in every situation he punished those leaders for the abuses of the instructions and the limitations he gave them. He destroyed Jerusalem and the Jewish temple at least twice. I repeat – there has never been a civil  government that God has blessed or chosen for more than a very limited period of time, and history (if not Scripture itself) records that God eventually punished that regime/nation. God is not in the business of establishing civil governments.

The reason, I believe, is clear. It is not within the power of man to govern himself – this is Scripture. Even in the kingship of David, the word that is most often used of David’s rule (and often of that of his successors) is not melech, (king) but nagid, (prince). God demands that he remains king. The human ruler is just a figure-head. The government resides with God. When man demands the kingship, disaster follows.

Taking the longest length of an Israelite king (approximately 50 years) and the shortest (just a few months), the United States has been in existence for anywhere from 5 – 15 Israelite kings – not a lot of time. And look at what has happened: the “separation of powers” among executive, legislative, and judicial powers is all but non-existent. Especially over the past several presidents the power of the presidency has been significantly increased. Likewise we see the judicial branch not even coming close to just measuring if laws are constitutional, but the Supreme Court is actually writing legislation. The legislative branch is just a bunch of empty suits and dresses – they have no more power today than a high school debate team. That basically leaves the entire government of the United States in the hands of 10 people – one President and 9 Supreme Court justices. When the President and the majority of the SCOTUS all share the same political affiliation (as happened under President Obama) there is no recourse, there is no justice, there is no rule of law in the land. Harsh words you say? Well, it happened. President Obama and his Attorney General decided that a law that had been in place for a number of years was unconstitutional – a power they did not have – and the Supreme Court, emboldened by his directive, promptly ruled in favor of his administration’s decision. Our “representative democracy” is  quickly crumbling into a marginal oligarchy.

David Lipscomb saw this. He lived through the Civil War. He saw the reality of the dictum, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” He, perhaps more than anyone in his time, realized that Christians are just exiles and aliens in a foreign land, and while we are to obey the laws of that land, we cannot foul our hands by participating in a bloody and godless civil government.

It has been argued that Christians have to participate in civil government or Satan will win. I have one question (well, actually, two): where in Scripture does it say that Christians have to participate, have to vote, have to hold political power? And, two, what part of losing your life for the kingdom of God do you not understand?

The essence of politics (of civil government) is power. Individuals run for office in order to gain power, and once in office, their goal is to maintain that power and to try by all means necessary to increase that power. In a closely related issue, the grease that makes a democracy run (if the powers are relatively equally divided) is compromise. That means person A has to give up something he or she wants in order to get person B to vote with his or her proposal. The problem is that you cannot give up Christian morals. You cannot give up Kingdom ethics. You cannot trade a vote on abortion for a vote on war subsidies. Dance with the devil and see how far you get.

On the other hand, the essence of Kingdom ethics is self-surrender and submission. Those who lose their lives will find them. We have to die to Christ in order to be raised with him. We have put off the old self in order to be clothed with Christ. Do not be like the Gentiles, Jesus said, who love power and love to lord it over their subjects. Instead, become servants. Chose the lowest place. Put down your crown and pick up a towel. What part of this is difficult to understand? Where is the concept of grasping power found in the cross – check out Philippians 2 if you need to.

I get that these words are radical. But you want to read an interesting story? Read Jeremiah 35. Jeremiah was told to invite a group of people over for some wine. The folks were known as the Rechabites. He did – he invited them over and set a lot of bowls of wine and cups and said, “party hearty!” They would not touch the wine, because their ancestor gave them two instructions – never live in a walled city and never drink wine. They had obeyed their ancestor for generations – always living in tents and never drinking wine. God used them as a powerful parable against the Israelites who had rejected his teachings repeatedly and in grotesque fashion.

I just wonder if someday God is not going to use the Amish and the Mennonites to judge, and condemn, sinful America. We ridicule those folks with their backward ways, their rejection of everything modern, and of their simple faith. Ah, yes, their simple faith. They believe God told them to eschew extravagance and to live simple, faithful lives. And, for the most part, they have – for generations. To our lasting shame, I might add.

I can live in the United States and pay my taxes and obey the laws of the land and be completely detached from the filth of the government. I do not have to vote – in fact I actually  believe it to be more faithful to my God not to vote. I can respect my leaders, and even pray for them, without becoming complicit in their ungodly and unchristian decisions. In fact, I believe that my God calls me to do exactly that. I am to pray for the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God and all that means, not the continued dominance of one political party or the other.

It all boils down to where is my allegiance – to the Christ of calvary or the American flag?

Listen, I know I am not going to convince everyone – I probably will not even convince some of my closest friends. They, among all who read this blog, know I am a nut, and kind of untethered in certain respects. But I have come to a devout conclusion: if anything nice can be said over my dead, stinking body, I want it to be that I was consistent in my beliefs. If I say, if I preach, if I write, that “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from God” then I had better act like I believe those words. I just do not see any passage of Scripture that tells me I have to be active in a civil government. I see many that tell me I should not. I see many principles that teach me I should stay away from governmental powers. I see many truths that lead me to believe that compromise with politics is death for spirituality.

I want to know Christ, and the power of his rising, share in his suffering, conform to his death – when I pour out my life, to be filled with his Spirit, joy follows suffering and life follows death.

That, my friends, is why Lipscomb had it right.

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?