A Well Meaning Absurdity (Welcome to My World)

I have to get a few things out-front and up-top. I’m going to share a quote from a very well meaning gentleman. I have never met this individual, and I truly believe he intends only good, no harm. I have no animosity toward him, and absolutely no offense is intended toward his intentions. But the quote is so absurd, so ludicrous, so off-the-wall ridiculous that I almost lost my mouthful of coffee as I read it. It is just the final nail in the coffin of well-intentioned attitudes that are utterly bereft of any cognitive value. Okay, so I guess I’ve tipped my hand here, so here is the quote-

Being a preacher in a small church can be hard – very hard. Maybe 2-3 elders. Little if any staff – MAYBE a youth minister. So much of this preacher’s work is never seen by the majority of the church. Yet, so many of these people serve for years! May God bless them.

Did you catch it – “Small church” – yet there are two or three elders, a small staff and, catch this, possibly a youth minister on board! Yee haw – such a “small church” would be a huge growth spurt for me!

I hear this kind of rhetoric from a lot of people – mostly those east of the Mississippi, but quite often even from the gilded masses in Arkansas, Texas, and Oklahoma. Maybe “small” churches in those states have elders, a secretary or two, and a youth minister. However, from where I sit, the secretary, the youth minister, the education minister, the evangelism minister, the elder/shepherd/pastor, and even the janitor are often the same guy that teaches class every Sunday morning, preaches once or twice on Sunday and teaches a class on Wednesday night. Oh, yeah, there is also planning the VBS every summer, scheduling a guest speaker or two each year, providing 24/7 on call benevolence assistance, preaching for the occasional funeral and wedding, and being available for the local prayer breakfast and sports teams blessing.

I get the sentiment – let’s be thoughtful for the “little guy” who has to muddle through with such a small entourage to carry the train of his robe. But, it is exactly this kind of absurdity that drives me crazy. I have been in full time ministry over 25 years – in five congregations as “the” located preacher, and I have never served in that capacity with an eldership. I have served with two elderships – blessings to be sure – but one was as a youth minister and the other as a campus minister. I really loved having a secretarial team – but I had become so used to doing everything myself I really did not know how to effective use their expertise (and they were GREAT ministers in their own right – ministers as servants of the congregation).

What the above statement reveals to me are two things. First, as mentioned above, I think the intent is genuine and positive – the one who wrote the thought wanted to convey a need to consider those who work in smaller congregations. But, honestly, the quote reveals such a profound ignorance of what “smaller congregations” really means. Ministers who serve small congregations outside of the “Bible Belt” rarely serve with elders, have NO staff, and the only “youth minister” is someone who is willing to take the kids to McDonalds after church services. Where I serve now the nearest fellow full time minster is a 45 minute drive away. I’m lucky. In my last position the nearest fellow minister was over an hour’s drive away – over some nasty mountain passes that become treacherous during the winter.

So, please, do not hurl any invective against me for hating on the person who wrote the above quote. I get, and I appreciate, his concern. But – please do not take the quote with any degree of literalness. I would LOVE to have two or three elders to share my burdens, a staff to help with some of the mundane paperwork, and a youth minister to plan the VBS and bring me my morning coffee.

But, I have the blessing of serving a small congregation, and to be perfectly honest, with the exception of the elders, (which I would genuinely love to have!) I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Additional Thoughts on “I’m a Card Carrying Member…”

I have received some wonderful feedback regarding yesterday’s rant on people who want to be a member of something, but can’t stand what they want to be a member of. I really don’t understand why people would want to do that, but after sleeping on the question, I have some additional thoughts . . .

One, I want to reiterate the point that within the Churches of Christ we own a heritage of dissent. We are seemingly not happy until someone is unhappy. Our DNA is to challenge – to hold traditions up to the light of Scripture and to change what needs to be changed and to accept that which is truly inconsequential. That is one of the things I love the most about my fellowship. I can honestly preach what I feel the Scripture calls on me to preach – and I know I will have my feet held to the fire if I go beyond what is written. It has happened before, and will happen again.

So, don’t misunderstand me. I am not seeking to silence those who are raising honest questions. I am not demanding unquestioning allegiance to unwritten creeds that are equal to Scripture. Even in the year 2020 there are questions that must be asked, if for the only reason to make sure we are standing under the text, and not over it.

What I don’t get, and what piqued my rant yesterday, is that honest search and humble questioning have turned into mockery and outright rejection, but those who mock and reject do not have the courage to honestly state their position and their intentions. Just as one ‘fer example,’ it is a legitimate question to ask in what situation and for what purpose Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 14 that a woman is to “remain silent” in the churches. There are honest textual and linguistic issues to raise and answer. However, it is another kettle of fish altogether to say because we live in 2020 and not AD 55 that it is perfectly acceptable for women to have equal leadership roles within the congregation, and that men can marry men and that some men can even become women. I have no problems with a searching question as to why we do not use mechanical instruments of music in our worship service. It is another issue entirely to suggest that if we just had a “praise team” or a “praise band” that our young people would quit leaving our churches. It is one thing to say, “I do not understand.” To mock and to belittle positions that have been honestly held and defended for over 200 years is to cross a line that I simply will not allow to be crossed without a response.

To return to the illustration with which I started the whole discussion yesterday – when is a Glock not a Glock? If all you do is change the sights on your Glock because they are dreadful to begin with, then I would say you still have a Glock. But when you change the sights, drop in a new barrel, replace the trigger and the trigger spring, when you switch out the grips and the recoil spring, and when you add lasers, RMRs and a suppressor, then it gets to the point that I would argue you no longer have a Glock, but instead you have a Glockenstein. You have exchanged an Austrian thoroughbred for an Americanized mongrel that may have the name engraved on the slide – but no longer bears any resemblance to its heritage. (And, to all my Glock lover friends, I am not dissing the actual gun. I do think they are hideously ugly, but there is a reason there are millions and millions of happy Glock owners out there!)

I could say more, but I really probably need to shut up for a while. I’m a dinosaur, to be sure, and I’ve just never figured out how to use the roller blades I’ve been given. But, the older I get the more obstinate I get, I guess. I’m just really, really tired of the hypocrisy, the slight of hand, the veiled sincerity, the feigned allegiance that I see and hear from so many pulpiteers today. When you can walk into a “Church of Christ” today and see a full band, hear a woman preach, and see pre-schoolers praised for “accepting Jesus into their hearts,” then I am going to call “enough.”

Amos 5:21-23.

I’m a Card-Carrying Member – Except For ….

[Trigger warning – if you are susceptible to major denial or anger issues, maybe you should skip today’s rant. And, yes, the pun in intended.]

I write today of a conundrum, a curiosity, a perplexity. I write in the hopes that someone might be able to enlighten me, to remove the opaqueness of my vision.

I have recently been able to renew a long lost passion – well, maybe not a full-blown passion, but certainly a serious interest. That interest is with shooting guns. When I lived in Colorado previously I had the privilege of knowing a number of shooters, and at least one reloader, and they helped me immensely with my shooting skills and my knowledge of everything firearm. In the intervening years I lacked both the opportunity and a driving desire to shoot, and the world of guns, especially handguns, has changed dramatically in the past 25+ years.

So, I have been pushing myself to catch up on my firearm education and my opportunities to shoot. As I have learned, I have also come across something I find humorous, strange, baffling, confusing. One of the huge changes that occurred while I was “away” from shooting is the explosion of polymer constructed, striker-fired, semi-automatic pistols. Back in the day pretty much all you had was a revolver (commonly nicknamed a “wheel-gun” although I think a “rotating cylindrical shaped magazine gun” might be more accurate. What do I know?) Today one of the leading names in this area of gun manufacturers is Glock. Glocks are Austrian made, are reliable, easy to maintain, relatively inexpensive – basically a very solid product. They have a huge, devoted, and almost maniacally committed following. (I happen to think they are hideously ugly, but, again, what do I know? And please, if you own one of those hideously ugly things, don’t shoot me with it. It would hurt.)

That is what I get. Here is what I don’t get. As I read about Glock lovers, they never really own a stock, out-of-the-box Glock. The first thing most of them do is to replace the sights – the sights on a Glock are one of the most universally disliked items on the Glock. But, refusing to stop there, Glock “fan boys” will replace the trigger mechanism, the trigger springs, drop in a customized barrel, swap out the grips and maybe add an after-market laser or optic sight. Then, “properly” outfitted, the ecstatic Glock owner will boast that his (or her, but mostly his) $500.00 Glock looks, feels, and shoots “just as good” as an expensive Beretta or Sig Sauer. The irony is that after they paid for their $500.00 Glock, they spent almost as much (or more) “improving” their wonder gun, and they could have just as easily purchased the said Beretta or Sig Sauer and had a better firearm straight out of the box. (Actually, they could have purchased a Smith and Wesson for the same price as their Glock and had a better gun, but as I keep repeating, what do I know?)

Like I said, I don’t get it. I guess it is something us Smith and Wesson (or Beretta, or Sig Sauer) owners will never comprehend.

But, lest you think I have taken leave of my senses and have forgotten that this is a blog concerning all things theological and ecclesiastical, I have the same dumbfounded reaction to various and sundry church members who are “card carrying members” of their favorite denomination, yet refuse to accept (or flatly reject) basic, fundamental doctrines of said denomination.

Take, just as an example, a Roman Catholic who would not even consider attending a different church, but who considers the idea of Papal Infallibility or the concept of the Magisterium to be silly notions, steadfastly to be ignored. Consider the Methodist who rejects one of the hallmarks of classical Methodism – a commitment to exacting norms of biblical morality – particularly in regard to sexual purity. Pity the poor Presbyterian or Episcopalian (Anglican) who wonders where his or her church disappeared to following the headlong plunge of both denominations into complete gender dysphoria.

Okay, I am neither Roman Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian or Episcopalian (Anglican), so maybe I should not pick on them. But I am seriously galled by individuals who consider themselves to be members of the Churches of Christ who reject basic, fundamental doctrines that have been hallmarks of our heritage for over two centuries. There are the bedrock issues such as the inspiration and infallibility (reliability and truthfulness) of the received texts of the Old and New Testaments, the basic historical/critical method of interpretation of the text, and our oft-repeated if not always observed intention to speak where the Bible speaks, and to allow silence to be silence. That leads to other issues such as male spiritual leadership, the practice of baptism for the remission of sins, the weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper, and congregational, acapella singing in worship.

If you don’t believe that what we read in our printed editions of the Bible is true and reliable, if you think that the text should be interpreted in light of modern “feel first, think second” hermeneutics, if you think that biblical silence is more important than biblical content, if you believe there are no differences between male and female, if you have bought into contemporary evangelicalism’s “just invite Jesus into your heart” soteriology, if you have to have a “praise team” or “worship band” in order to get your emotional fix for the week – then good on ‘ya, but for all things high and holy do not call yourself a member of the Church of Christ (and, I might cautiously add, church of Christ universal, either).

The heritage of the Churches of Christ in the United States is a heritage of dissent – Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone (and their predecessors in New England) did not come to the church out of a spiritual vacuum – they were committed Presbyterians (or, in the case of the New Englanders, Congregationalists). But – and this is what I credit them with far and above today’s “change agents” within the church – they had the courage of their convictions and when they could no longer abide by the teachings of the Presbyterians (or, later, Baptists) they consciously and unambiguously left those fellowships. They made it clear to friend and foe alike that they were embarking on a different path.

Those who want to “change” the church today are moral and religious cowards. They don’t really like what they see in the Church of Christ, but they want to be seen as brave, heroic even, in their attempts to “save” or “redeem” the church. Well, the church of Christ only has one savior, one redeemer, and he died on a cross. I don’t see any of these modern day Moseses or Joshuas quite willing to make that step. They don’t even have the courage of Campbell or Stone and say, “I can no longer accept the teaching of my parents and my heritage. I have a new understanding of truth, and I must follow that call of truth.” No, what they say is, “The Church of Christ is too patriarchal, too fundamentalist, too tradition bound, but if we would just act and teach like those fun-filled community churches, we could turn everything around, and I’ll show the way with my skinny jeans and my ripped t-shirt and my totally hip and relevant sermons!”

If you don’t like what you see or hear in the nearest Church of Christ, at least have the courage of your convictions and leave and either find a better nest or build your own. Many, many “Evangelical” churches do not believe in the inspiration of the Scriptures, they observe no boundaries between male and female, they have praise bands and praise teams and fog machines and strobe lights and all kinds of emotion generating accouterments. I’m sure you would feel very welcome in such an environment – far more so than in the confining, stifling, oppressive settings as you find in so many congregations of the Churches of Christ. Stop being miserable, and stop trying to change what you obviously neither love nor respect.

Seriously, if the only thing on your pistol that says Glock is the slide and the frame, don’t brag about your Glock. All you’re doing is confusing the non-gun speaking world, and irritating those of us who see through the charade.

Church Security Teams – Get It Right

The shooting at the West Freeway Church of Christ in White Settlement, TX, has – obviously – received tons of coverage, some good, mostly bad, some indifferent. Most of the bad that I read boils down to one common theme – “See, we need more armed people in our church buildings!”

Um, no we don’t.

What we need to seriously consider is having well trained and fully qualified individuals who know exactly what they are doing and why they are doing it to serve as a security team, if it is decided that having armed individuals is necessary.

I viewed the video that recorded the shooting. It must be said that the member of the security team that actually killed the assailant was the owner of a shooting range, and is a highly trained and skilled marksman. It must also be pointed out that there were multiple egregious errors committed by others who drew their weapons on that morning, and if just a couple of events had played out differently, the scene could have evolved into a bloody disaster.

What was done right: it cannot be repeated enough that the member of the security team that killed the assailant acted heroically. He fired until the threat was gone and no more. His marksmanship was perfect. In short, he acted far and above what the average person could be expected to perform – he was trained and practiced to a level of “unconscious competence.” Also, because of the erratic dress and behavior of the assailant, the security team had a surveillance camera directed in his direction, and more than one member of the security team was monitoring his actions. Still, he was able to confront a member, draw his weapon, and fire three shots before he could be stopped. This points to the incredible surprise and speed with which these events occur. Finally, a number of members immediately started getting people away from the shooting. I cannot imagine the terror those members were feeling, and the quick response by a number of members was admirable.

What was bad, but thankfully not ultimately critical: In the seconds following the shooting a small army of security team members approached the perpetrator (who, at that point, was not visible to many of them) with their handguns drawn. Some used excellent muzzle control, others just swept their guns out and “muzzled” large numbers of panicked church members. Within mere seconds the team actually formed a semi-circle around the downed assailant – exposing a number of them to cross fire had the perpetrator been able to continue shooting. The potential for “friendly fire” injuries was terrifying. True, the assailant was dead (or dying), but within those first few seconds there was no way of knowing how badly, or even if, he was injured. Handgun wounds are typically not immediately fatal (in this particular case the shot that felled him must have been a central nervous system wound or directly in the heart) and people have lived for many minutes even after receiving an ultimately fatal handgun wound.

I guess what concerned me the most was that everyone had their attention focused on this one individual. I have to be careful here – the camera did not reveal everyone in the auditorium and there may have been others who had their backs to the first shooting and were focused on the other half of the auditorium. But one thing that was drilled into me as an instructor in a university setting – if there is one assailant you always, always, assume there is an accomplice or trailing assailant. I realize you can play “shoulda, woulda, coulda” all day long, but had there been a second shooter the results could have been disastrous. I truly hope that there were members of the security team (off camera) that were serving as guards and had their attention fully focused on the part of the auditorium that was not on screen.

The bottom line for what I want to say is this: this event demonstrated the need for congregations to consider employing a well educated and well trained and thoroughly practiced security team to protect their members. It was not, in and of itself, a demonstration for the willy-nilly, wild-west, “everybody needs a six-shooter” kind of knee-jerk reaction to the potential of an armed assailant. This event – from the first shot to the last – took six seconds. Think of it – six seconds and the assailant killed two church members and fired a third shot before he was killed. The speed at which the defender recognized the situation, drew his weapon and fired an incredibly difficult shot is simply beyond what most people could accomplish. This event is not an excuse for John or Jane Doe who takes his or her gun to the shooting range maybe once every six months to suddenly transition into Barney Fife and start carrying a lethal weapon that has the potential for destroying large numbers of innocent victims, all in the name of self-defense. This congregation did a lot of things right, I cannot stress that enough – and there were still a number of very serious and potentially fatal mistakes that were made. That should serve as a very stark warning – even with the best of plans and best of intentions bad things can happen. Even in this event the results were tragic – two saints lost their lives due to the pure evil of a deranged individual. If it were not for the plans, and training, and incredible skill of one individual, the carnage could have been unspeakable.

If you are a member of any congregation, do not think that this could never happen to you. The hatred for any form of religion is growing, and the need for notoriety and the depth of human depravity means that these events will continue. We must be vigilant to protect the most vulnerable in our congregations, and if that means we must train certain members to the level of “unconscious competence” demonstrated by this armed protector, then we must at least consider the option. Having such a team may not be the proper response for every congregation – some may prefer to face any such event with no armed members. That is a legitimate choice for a congregation to make, and there are reasons to make such a choice that I would not condemn. However, if your congregation does decide to use an armed security team, please, please, for everyone’s safety and for the sake of intelligent, moral, behavior – make sure that each team member is properly educated, trained, and practiced to avoid the injury to innocent bystanders.

No Fudges Allowed

Schoolyard justice can be harsh. Take for example the game of marbles. When shooting your marble, the rule was you keep your hand on the ground, and you only use your thumb to launch your marble. If you lift your hand, or if even if you keep your hand on the ground but use your arm to push your hand as you flick your thumb, you are “fudging” and that simply was not allowed. Justice might not be corporal, but it was certainly swift. Your opponent would call you out, and as there were always at least some spectators standing nearby, your crime would not go unnoticed. Punishment might simply be losing your turn, but in cases of repeat offenders, the possibility of excommunication from future contests was  very real.

In my last couple of posts I have challenged what is generally referred to as the “egalitarian” position regarding expanding the role of females in leadership positions in the assembled worship of the church. Some may think that I whole heartedly and unreservedly defend the “complementarian” view. They would be wrong. I wholeheartedly defend what I believe is the scriptural concept of male spiritual leadership, but what I see in many examples of “complementarianism” are nothing more than pure theological fudging. So, at the great risk of offending whatever few friends I have left, let me explain.

Let me begin by saying that much of what we have created in the form of our 21st century worship is wholly non-scriptural – not unscriptural in the sense that it rejects scriptural teaching – but it is simply not considered by Scripture. For example, there is no scriptural mandate for a single “song leader.” Not that a single song leader countermands Scripture, but you can search “book, chapter, and verse” for a long, long, time before you find one that mandates a single song leader. The manner in which we serve the emblems of the Lord’s Supper fits this category exactly, and is among the chief examples of “fudging” that I see in congregations of the Churches of Christ.

Over the course of our history we have come to view serving the Lord’s Supper as a form of male spiritual leadership. I really don’t know where that started, unless it is a faint memory of the necessity of having a priest preside over the Catholic Mass. In fact, early in the Restoration Movement it was common to have only an elder preside over the table – a clear echo of the liturgical necessity of having an ordained clergyman to administer the emblems. Never-the-less, we have traditionally considered “serving at the table” to be a male-only privilege. And this is where we have evolved ourselves into a huge problem.

Throughout my lifetime at least it has become a prima facie truth that no one is allowed to serve at the table unless that one is anatomically a male. But, not just any male, but a baptized male. That is where the requirements stopped. Be a male, be baptized, and you are good to go. The way this has played itself out in many situations is comical. I have seen 8 or 10 year olds “assume the mantle of leadership” as they struggle to carry a tray of little cups of grape juice without tripping over their oversized pants. It would be utterly facetious if we gave that same 8-10 year old any form of decision making power in the congregation, but as long as they are officially baptized, we can stick him up front to serve at the table, or say a prayer (memorized no doubt from all the stock prayers he has heard all his short life) or to “lead” singing (waiting to have someone from row 5 start the song while he stands there sweating profusely).

Same thing happens in regard to Bible classes. A woman is allowed to teach a mixed class of fourth graders, but let one little boy get baptized and “poof,” her ability to teach a “baptized male” evaporates and we have to call some hapless deacon in to finish teaching the class.

I call “fudging” in the most egregious sense!

Stated simply and without apology, those of us who proclaim to follow the text in regard to male spiritual leadership had better up our game, or else take our marbles and go home. This hypocritical practice of allowing some pre-teen child to exercise “male spiritual leadership” is just that – hypocrisy in the extreme. In this case I am in complete sympathy with young girls (and some women) who cry “fudgies” and wonder what in the world is so special about carrying a tray of grape juice.

Either participating in a visible form and function in a worship service is an aspect of male spiritual leadership, or it is not – there is no gray area or “sometimes it is, and sometimes it is not.” I happen to think it is, and I have my reasons, but my main issue here is where we would NEVER give any form of actual leadership roles to a pre-teen male, and yet loudly squeal that serving at the Lord’s Table or leading a prayer or reading a Scripture is a form of “male spiritual leadership.”

If such public forms of service also qualify as “leadership,” then let us reserve those roles for genuine, adult, male leaders!

I can hear the counter argument already – “but we are training these young men to be leaders when they grow up.” No, we are not. When we say that serving at the table, or leading a song, are actual forms of leadership, there is no “training” involved. They are in fact serving as leaders. The hypocrisy comes in when we acknowledge that they are not, in reality, in any way, shape, or form, a spiritual leader. They are (even teenagers) just little boys or young men who need spiritual leadership themselves, and sometimes in copious measure.

If, as you say, serving at the table or leading a song, or saying a prayer, is only “training,” then why not allow young girls to participate as soon as they are baptized? Do girls not need to learn to pray, to lead singing, to read Scripture, to serve? If the purpose is only to “train,” then the entire argument of “male spiritual leadership” goes out the window.

There is a passage of Scripture (remember Scripture?) that is profound to me in this regard. In Luke 2:41-52 we read the story of adolescent Jesus at the temple. We all know the story, Joseph and Mary head off back home thinking that Jesus is tucked in with the cousins somewhere, but at evening roll call he is nowhere to be found. So, they return to Jerusalem, and after what must have been an increasingly anxious and exhaustive search, they find Jesus holding court at the Temple. A brief (but, I am assuming an intense) conversation ensues, and once again the entourage heads back to Nazareth. This is all so familiar to those of us who read this story frequently. But it is v. 51 that stands out as singularly important to me in respect to my thoughts above. I quote from the ESV –

And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them.

Jesus, the Son of God, God incarnate, Emmanuel, “God with Us” as a 12 year old boy, capable of teaching the temple leaders, was submissive to both Joseph and Mary.

Is there a place for training young men to become leaders? Absolutely. And this holds true for older men who become disciples of Christ later in life. But we do not consider males (or females, for that matter) be be mature in any sense until they demonstrate some form of ability to handle responsibilities without significant assistance – such as serving in the military, getting married, or maybe stepping out of the house and starting their own business or providing for their own upkeep and schooling. I am in no way suggesting that we do not train, or properly equip, young men and women to serve Christ as responsible adults.

Lest I be completely misunderstood, I am not saying we throw out the idea of male spiritual leadership in such aspects as serving at the table, leading singing, wording public prayers and reading Scripture. As I said above, I do believe these to be leadership roles, and I believe there is ample scriptural and theological arguments to defend such a position. In regard to serving the emblems of the Lord’s supper, I also believe there is a completely better and more scriptural manner to do so that would remove this issue entirely, but that is the topic of another long and tedious post.

What I am saying, and believe emphatically, is that male spiritual leadership should be exercised by males who are old enough, and mature enough, and who are recognized as exhibiting sound, mature, spiritual leadership. In my opinion this includes, but would not be limited to, serving at the table (which, if we limit to males we obviously view as a leadership role), leading in the song service, reading Scripture in a public assembly, or going to God in public prayer.

In the quest to ascend by climbing lower,  there is no fudging allowed.

How to Spot a Fake, and a Real, Expert

Okay, a little background here. I have been blessed (?) with a little extra free time recently, so I have been doing some extra cleaning, some gardening, and generally just trying to keep my mind, and fingers, busy. Last week my wife, her mother, and our daughter went for one of my wife’s regular check-ups. I had even more time on my hands. So I started “surfing” You Tube. I watched this and that, and then I came across a firearms professional by the name of Paul Harrell. I watched one show, and then another, and then another.

If you are even remotely interested in firearms (I am by no means a gun nut, but I do hold an appreciation for them) you owe it to yourself to watch a Paul Harrell video. They are mostly around 20 minutes long and packed with a lot of cool demonstrations and advice.

So, anyway, where was I? Oh, yeah –

Paul Harrell has two episodes in which he discusses (1) how to spot a fake expert in the field of firearms, and (2) how to spot a real expert. The first list  (he gives five clues) is really focused on firearms, so it is really not pertinent to theology. However, his discussion on how to spot a real expert is spot-on perfect. The two episodes really struck a nerve with me, and so I decided to see if I could modify his first list to give five ways to spot a fake Bible or theological expert, and I will give his three ways to spot a real Bible or theological expert along with some “expert” comments of my own.

HOW TO SPOT A FAKE BIBLE OR THEOLOGICAL EXPERT:

  1.  They know nothing about the subject at hand, and really do not have any way to have learned about the subject. This is so obvious when someone, even many preachers, attempt to prove a point by referring to the original Greek or Hebrew. They are not an expert in Greek or Hebrew (or archaeology, or Ancient Near Eastern culture, etc) but they really want you to think they are. They are fakes.
  2. They have read a book, or attended a seminar, or maybe they have only heard a sermon, but they are an expert anyway. These are the one trick ponies – how many times have you been regaled by an “expert” who has read exactly one book on the subject, and even that by a non-expert himself. I am so familiar with this through my experience with Dietrich Bonhoeffer “experts.” They might have read Discipleship or maybe Life Together, and all of a sudden they are “experts” on one of the most enigmatic and multi-faceted theologians of the 20th century. No they are not! They are fakes, and need to be called out as such.
  3. They come to a conclusion and then argue backwards. How many of you have heard a sermon or attended a class on John 2, and based solely on the conclusion that Jesus would never corrupt anyone or lead them to sin, prove that the wine he created was nothing more than grape juice (not sure whether it was Welches or Ocean Spray, but never mind). Well, the text clearly indicates that the wine was of such superior quality that it was disturbing to the master of ceremonies that a social miscue had occurred. But, what of the first conclusion? Did Jesus never give anyone the opportunity to sin? He healed on the Sabbath, driving many to seek to kill him! Is murder not a sin? He raised people from the grave – were they exempted thereby from ever sinning again? I will firmly assert that Jesus never tempted anyone to sin, but why would creating wine for a wedding festival be considered a temptation? If that is true, then God himself is the greatest source of temptation in the whole world! (Didn’t he create everything?) You see, if you come to a conclusion first, and then argue backwards to prove your point, you can be an expert (although fake) at anything.
  4. Closely connected, they fall back into the “everyone knows” something argument, therefore never needing to prove their point. “Everyone knows” is the ultimate trump card – so if you disagree you are obviously not part of “everyone,” and who wants to be a nobody! But “everyone knows” is a pathetic appeal to ignorance that proves that the speaker is really a super fake expert, and they need to be told to bring their evidence with them next time.
  5. Finally, fake experts are simply terrified to be imperfect – their entire life and well being are dependent upon their being superior in every detail of every subject. They teach in abject fear that someone, somewhere might know more than them, or be able to prove them wrong, so they surround themselves with sycophants and those who are absolutely bedazzled with their superior intellect. This is why when they are challenged in public, so many of them have a cadre of defenders that shout the challenger down. The grand guru is simply not to be questioned. Fakes never like to have their metal proven, so they rarely speak without their body (and reputation) guards handy.

Okay, let’s move on to Paul Harrell’s three ways to spot a real expert, and I will add some comments of my own (clearly marked with a bold heading).

HOW TO SPOT A REAL EXPERT: (FROM PAUL HARRELL)

  1. How they deal with the unknown. Real experts want to learn, to be corrected if they are mistaken, and are curious about new developments in their field. Comment: This is so true in Bible studies! I had the blessing of studying under some of the finest true experts in their respective specialties, and each one of them demonstrated this trait. They studied, they read, they attended seminars, they wrote for fellow specialists to critique. They never stopped learning. True, honest experts deal with the unknown in humble, seeking, searching ways. And they are quick to respond graciously when they are taught something new.
  2. Real experts avoid using absolute terms like “always” and “never.” Because, connected to point #1, real experts know that there is always (oops) something new to learn, even if they are specialists in a field, especially one as diverse and expanding as firearms. Comment: need anything be said here beyond Paul Harrell’s comment? Using absolute terminology gets a person in dangerous ground very quickly, and biblical experts rarely use such words (although, I don’t want to say never!) So many times in Bible study we want certainty – we want absolutes where there simply are none. An expert will admit this (exposing his lack of omniscience), but a fake will not. A fake will give the audience what they are searching for, often illegitimately.
  3. Real experts look the part without looking like they are in a costume. This one is a little tricky, but there is simply a sense of “genuineness” that an expert portrays, that a fake cannot. A fake may dress up like an expert (and use all the right words), but they just do not fit the part. Comment: Once again, this is so true in church settings. If you cannot be an expert, all you have to do is become a bully by impression and fancy language. Real story – I know of an individual who was hired to perform a function that was, apparently, beneath his view of himself. So, he had everyone refer to him with a title that he had not earned and he was not qualified to wear. He even wore a garment that would verify his fake title, and the very fact that he wore it demonstrated how much of a fake his title was. The thing is, the title he could have worn was respectable, and he had earned the right to wear it. But, it was just not “expert” enough, so he made himself to be more important by claiming something that was utterly fake.

In most of our churches there are real experts, and there are fake experts. We are probably each experts in something – at one time I was almost an expert in issues related to Cessna 402 and 404 aircraft. Today, I doubt I could get one off the ground. I know nothing about farming or cattle ranching, but if you ask me about Dietrich Bonhoeffer I can give you a fairly educated answer. I would starve to death if I had to earn a living repairing cars or welding something, but let me teach a class on the book of Revelation and I can give you your money’s worth. Just because you are not an expert in Greek does not mean that you cannot teach a class on the gospel of Matthew – just don’t try to fool anybody with knowledge you do not have.

So, there you have one of my favorite all time posts about theology, and it came from watching a bunch of You Tube videos about guns.

Who would have thunk it?

Just Wondering – A Relationship Question

Before I ask the question, I have to set the context. This question applies to total strangers, or perhaps distant interactions, not those we know intimately or those whose behavior patterns are well known, not only to us, but to virtually all who know them. Okay, now that is settled, let’s move on to the question –

Do people respond to us the way we have treated them, or do we treat people as we anticipate that they will respond to us, thereby encouraging them to respond as we have treated them? In other words, in our initial reactions to people, are our interactions the result of honest responses, or are they more the result of projected feelings (prejudices)?

If I see someone, and based solely on skin color, hair style, clothing style, tattoos, facial hair, or some other external identifier, decide that person is a threat to me, how will they respond? Do we not guarantee their response by our defensive behavior? Or, if we see someone whom we define as being attractive, intelligent, wealthy (or at least as wealthy as we are), do we not encourage a friendly response by our body language, our eye contact, and especially our language?

I’m going out on a limb here, but I feel that most of those who read this blog would agree that to judge someone solely by initial impressions is ethically wrong. “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is perhaps simplistic, but it holds a great truth. We are not to judge a person’s character by mere transitory externals.

But, what changes when we treat someone we know with contempt, with loathing, with slander?

I have just recently become intensely aware of how vicious former friends and colleagues can become to one another. This is not a recent development – hear the words of the psalmist,

For it is not an enemy who taunts me – then I could bear it; it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me – then I could hide from him. But it is you, a man, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend. We used to take sweet counsel together; within God’s house we walked with the throng. (Psalm 55:12-14)

The pain of which the psalmist wrote speaks deeply to me right now.

There is something profoundly offensive – sinful – when a person turns against a former friend, colleague, confidant. If we are to treat those with whom we have no prior interactions with respect and dignity, why is it suddenly acceptable to treat our friends, our brothers and sisters in Christ, with utter disregard? How can it be pleasing to God that we turn our backs and shun those with whom we have broken the bread and sipped the wine at the Lord’s table?

Did Jesus not say that the world would recognize his disciples by the way they love and respect one another?

I’m stepping on my own toes here, so please no one think I am setting myself on an ivory pedestal. If I am speaking biblically here, it is as a prophet, and to be perfectly honest, prophetic words are often as difficult to hear for the prophet as for the audience.

So, let us make a covenant with our God to never treat a brother or sister in Christ with less regard, with less respect, with less love and concern, than we would  treat a total stranger.

Let us ascend by climbing lower!

Questions (?)

My last post introduced a question about a text in the gospel of Mark (no, not 16:9-20, but that’s a good one too). It is a question for which I have no solid, concrete, irrefutable answer. Many people don’t like that. Their entire faith is built on the existence of solid, concrete, irrefutable answers to every question. In fact, they don’t even like the existence of questions, period. For them, the Christian life is one big, solid, irrefutable truth.

Does your preacher/pastor/priest allow you to ask questions? Are questions allowed in your Bible classes? I don’t mean the childish or self-promoting questions that are intended to trip up the teacher or to promote the superior intellect of the questioner. While we are at it, I do think there are stupid questions – only because the intent is deceptive and mean-spirited. I do not believe any question that has as its focus the desire to learn should be considered “stupid.”

Returning to the topic at hand – what is the official, or even maybe more important the unofficial, policy regarding questions where you worship? Without knowing anything at all about your church, I can fairly confidently make one declaration – if your preacher/pastor/priest or church leadership does not allow, and even encourage, honest, seeking questions then you are a part of a sick church.

I am blessed, richly blessed, to have been able to ask questions in my youth and young adulthood. Like most twenty-somethings, at the ripe old age of, say, 22, I was pretty confident I knew all there was to know, or at least all that was needed to know. That came to a pretty emphatic end. Then, I entered a second phase of my education – my masters degrees – in which I came to realize that maybe I did not even know the right questions to ask. Flash forward some 20+ years and in my doctoral studies I came to yet a third realization about questions: sometimes the question is far more valuable than any answer that is purported to solve it.

Pause for a moment and consider Jesus’s parables. How many of the parables are really open ended questions? Oh, we try to tidy them up and make them self-contained little stories complete with moral and application. I think this just illustrates our ambivalence, or actual irritation with questions. “Just get to the point and move on, preacher!” “Don’t leave the sermon hanging on a question, give me something I can apply in my life!” As a good friend once pointed out in a class on the parables, we want to sanitize the parables and derive and answer that implicates the Pharisees or the Sadducees so that we do not have to deal with the messy, and very problematic, possibility that Jesus is telling the parable to implicate OUR behavior.

I cannot help but believe that one reason so many young people are leaving the church (well, young and middle aged and old) is because the decades that we have spent denying or limiting the honest and seeking question have finally come home to roost. Yes, I am well aware of the research into why people are abandoning the church, and I think each of them has validity. But, thinking back to my teen years, I really do not remember a time in which my Sunday school teacher welcomed us asking questions. My parents allowed me to question, to be sure, and I think maybe that is just one of the reasons why I am so confident in my faith today. I do not believe because I have all the answers, I believe in spite of my questions and my inability to answer them, because I believe there is a God in whom I can trust.

In re-reading this post something occurred to me – I have been “trained” in two different evangelistic methods, and both of them emphatically reject the value of the student asking any questions. The “evangelist” is to deflect every question, to refuse to answer any curiosity the student may have, and is taught to stay “on subject” throughout the entire lesson. Wow. How  completely un-Christ like. What these methods teach, unconsciously for sure, is that the teacher has all the answers, all the truth, and that questions are not and will not be allowed in this church. Just believe what I am telling you and keep your questions locked away.

How utterly pathetic. Not every question has equal value, to be sure. Some questions are “red herrings” meant to deflect attention from a particularly troublesome aspect of the lesson. I get that. But to reject every question? To suggest that no question is worthy of discussion? To imply that the teacher turn a deaf ear to the honest and searching aspect of a seemingly benign question – these are just repugnant concepts to me. Thank goodness Jesus was never trained in these evangelistic methods.

I hope that if you are in a situation where you cannot honestly and faithfully ask a question, that you will be able to find a place where that is allowed. Just remember, Jesus never rejected an honest question – in fact he almost went out of his way to create them. Do not ever settle for a spiritual home in which questions are forbidden.

How to Kill a Church

Working on my sermon for this week and it occurred to me how many ways there are to kill a church. Here are just a few that I have identified:

  • Attack the leadership – the congregation’s problems are all their fault.
  • Make every issue about you and them, not us.
  • Never, ever, under any circumstance, volunteer to help.
  • Criticize everyone who does volunteer to help.
  • Compare your congregation to one that is bigger, wealthier, in a larger community that has far more resources.
  • Be sure to be offended by every effort to grow – both spiritually and numerically, and be sure to let everyone else know just how offended you are.

Any others?

But, What Can We Do?

Kind of been in a funk lately. Everywhere I turn all I see are opportunities for me to throw my hands up in despair and to ask, “What use is it? What can I do?” I look around and in every aspect of our lives we are confronted with a nauseating concoction of racial animosity, open hostility, sexual dysfunction, and a paralyzing narcissism that threatens to destroy our nation. I cite just one example, although many more could be given: as I survey the political landscape two things are beyond debate. One, the Republican party has no answer for Donald Trump. I was desperately hoping that someone with a modicum of composure and decency would step up and challenge him for the nomination for the 2020 presidential election. Nope – be it from a lack of courage or just political calculus, no one wants to challenge his Donaldness. Too bad. Our nation deserves better. But, second, the crop of Democratic challengers is simply beyond stupefying. They are so beholden to the abortion/LGBTQ/socialism cabal that there is not ten cents worth of difference between any of them. Seriously – is it even possible to be a Democratic leader and to think independently or with originality? From what I hear and read, I doubt it.

So, once again, I ask – what can I do? Is there not something that a mere mortal can do while swimming in this vacuum of moral and ethical standards?

On the one hand, I would say unequivocally, “NO.” Just to be realistic, there are some situations that are just too big and complex for individual humans to change. Serious, lasting, and meaningful change can only be effected by large groups of people who are united, not only in purpose, but in courage and resolve. I know there are many who see the same things I see, but are just not disturbed by them (or, certainly not to the degree with which I am disturbed). Others are far more disturbed than even I am, and propose solutions that not even I am willing to consider.

But, beyond those basic realities, there is a greater reason why I tend to be more reserved in looking at global (or, at the very least, national) problems: I have what can be described as an “apocalyptic” outlook, and I believe that God remains in control of this world, and that if there is to be any kind of meaningful and lasting change, it will only come about by the working of His Spirit and under His control. Stated another way, God gives humans whatever kind of world they ask for, and right now we are receiving exactly what we have wanted for the past 75 years, if not longer. We have demanded a country that is focused entirely on the individual, so God has said, “Okay, you’re not going to like it, and it is not going to end pretty, but here ya go!” I believe that if we humbly and sincerely asked for a country that truly reflected God’s kingdom ethics, he would give it to us in such volume we could not measure it.

So, in that regard, certain passages from Scripture come to mind:

Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth! (Psalm 46:10)

Thus says the LORD to you, ‘Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours but God’s . . . You will not need to fight in this battle. Stand firm, hold your position, and see the salvation of the LORD on your behalf . . . Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed. (2 Chronicles 20:15, 17)

Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus. (Revelation 14:12; see also 1:9; 2:2, 3, 19; 3:10; 13:10)

On the other hand, there is not only something that I can do, there is something that I have to do. I have to get, or keep, my own house in order. It does absolutely no good to preach to the world about its failures if the church of which I am a part promotes the same sinful behaviors in which the world indulges.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, I’ll preach it straight and plain: the church needs to be restored and purified if we even have the slightest inclination to reach out to a bent and broken world.

We bemoan the sexual depravity of our western culture, and yet we allow – if not actively protect – divorces and illicit affairs within our congregations. We protect sexual abusers and predators under the guise that they are respected members of the community and even elders/deacons/Bible teachers of the church. We prohibit the man who does not have a tie or sport coat from leading worship in a public capacity, yet we turn a blind eye and glorify the man who beats his wife or physically abuses his children. And we think that God does not see?

We preach against the greed of the pagan world, and yet we violate the clear teaching of James 2:1-17 on a weekly basis. Elders and deacons are chosen, not on the basis of their spiritual maturity and godly natures, but on the basis of their success in business and their social club memberships. We cannot stock a decent food pantry or maintain a decent benevolent fund, yet we drive to our multi-million dollar church buildings in the most opulent vehicles that we can drive (note, not necessarily afford, but that we can drive).

We hire our preachers not based on their ability to challenge and confront us, but on their ability to soothe our itchy ears. Where is the voice of the prophet among Churches of Christ today? Where is the voice of John the Baptist saying, “Who told you to come to church, you bunch of snakes?” Where is the voice of Amos crying out, “Listen to me, you filthy rich heifers, you fat and lazy bums!” We have the best educated, most theologically astute core of preachers that we have ever had, and, at least from what I can see and hear from national publications, we are probably more biblically illiterate today than we have ever been in our entire history. Our preachers and elders “lead” by holding a finger up to discover which way the wind of culture is blowing so they can jump out in front of us lemmings.

Read the second and third chapters of the book of Revelation again. Underline every time the Spirit of Christ tells a congregation to repent. Underline the references to sexual impurity. Underline the references to greed and idolatry. Stop and ask yourself, “What is John’s message to these churches – are they not God’s people, are they not the saved, are they not the ransomed?” But, then read the last two chapters of the same book. Notice who John says will be excluded from the new heaven and new earth. He is not writing to pagans. He is writing to members of seven congregations of the Lord’s church in Asia. Christians. Just like you and me. Just like our congregations. And he is telling them they stand under judgment for their immoral behavior.

In a very real sense, it bothers me that I am more upset, and more indignant, with the behavior of a world that does not know any better than I am with people who – at least on the surface – should know better and act better. It is really sad that there are people whom we would consider “lost” who behave more in line with God’s kingdom than many who wear the name “Christian.”

I cannot change the world. I cannot overcome forces that the apostle Paul clearly identifies as “demonic” and supernatural. But I can, I must, make sure that those who bear the name of Christ are walking “worthy” of the calling they have received. (Ephesians 4:1; 4:17, 22, 24; 5:1, 9)

Lord, restore your church again!!