Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#7)

In my original list of “Undeniable Truths,” number seven was the last one. Funny how lists grow – kind of like fish after you catch them. Nothing ever stays the same size. But, I digress . . .

7.  While some passages of the Bible may be open to more than one application, very few have more than one interpretation. Otherwise, Scripture would be meaningless.

If some others of my “Undeniable Truths” only get nodding agreement, this one probably gets denied quite frequently. But, it would appear to me that this one is also self-evident. Maybe self-evident is not the same as “true” to some people.

Just stop and think about something for a moment: if someone makes a statement, he or she clearly had a meaning attached to that statement. Now, that intent might be to confuse, or to flat out deceive, but those are still undeniable intentions. I find it one of the most incredible ironies of our time, but philosophers and theologians will repeatedly argue that we cannot know the intent of, say, Matthew or Isaiah, but we, their readers, are supposed to understand their (the modern author’s) intent perfectly.

So, we are supposed to accept that certain passages of Scripture can have almost an infinite number of interpretations, depending upon the reader’s culture, gender, economic standing, even historical setting. That is to say, a wealthy, male, aristocrat might legitimately interpret 1 Timothy 2:8 in one way, while a poor, female servant might legitimately interpret the same passage in a diametrically opposite manner a century later.

I might be in the very smallest minority here, but the logical conclusion to this way of thinking makes the Bible utterly meaningless. If two interpretations conflict with each other, then one or the other is false, or perhaps they both contain a measure of error. Two contradictory interpretations cannot both equally be true.

This truth (pardon the uber-modern language) has so many ramifications. Acts 2:38 cannot be both a command and a relative suggestion. 1 Corinthians 12 cannot be referring both to individual church members and to separate denominations. We cannot pick and choose which verse of 1 Corinthians we prefer in terms of women’s roles in the church. Jesus, or Paul, or Peter, or whoever, had only one intent when he spoke or penned his words. Only one interpretation can be correct. All others must be wrong, to a lesser or greater degree.

I am not fool enough to suggest that the process of identifying the intent of these passages is universally easy or clear. I suppose I am fool enough to suggest that the study of Scripture is important enough for us to expend the effort to make sure we come as close as we possibly can to identifying that intent.

I also want to emphasize that, once identified, the interpretation of a particular passage may have more than one application. Example: Jesus clearly intended the rich young ruler to “sell all and follow me.” Does that mean that every Christian must become a mendicant preacher? I do not think so, because Jesus did NOT make the same demand of Zacchaeus (ref. Luke 18 and 19). Likewise, Paul told Timothy to “drink a little wine for your stomach’s sake.” Does that mean that every Christian must have a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon in their pantry? Once again, I do not think so – Paul’s point is that if a region’s water is causing you gastric distress, do something about it, don’t just keep drinking the water!

One of the great sins of modern “Christianity” is the false idea that we can all have our own interpretation of Scripture and all will be well. In other words, it does not matter what you believe, just believe something. This, I believe, is Satan’s first and most effective lie. Did he not deceive Adam and Eve with the question, “Did God really say . . . ”

Ere it be forgotten, please keep Undeniable Truth #1 always in mind.

Undeniable Truth for Theological Reflection – #1

Some may be wondering about my “Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection.” This list is just kind of a “tongue in cheek” but also rather serious reflection on what it means to attempt theological reflection. To better explain myself, I thought I would run through my list. My very first list only had seven truths, and no sub-points, so my list has kind of grown over the years.

My first point:

The number one requirement for reading and interpreting the Bible is humility.
1.a. The primary expression of this humility in theological reflection is a submission to the Scriptures as they stand written. We do not, as interpreters and theologians, stand over the text, we stand under the text.

I think to a certain extent this requirement is self-explanatory, yet I also find it to be one of the least practiced of my requirements, at least among practicing ministers. If you wonder why, I think I have a fairly good reason: it is difficult to maintain, or even begin with, a sense of humility if  at the same time you believe yourself to be “called” to be a minister/preacher.

Just stop and think about it. Either over a long period of time, or just in waking up one morning, you believe that God has called you to be a preacher/minister/teacher/elder. Whoa! That is pretty heavy, and heady, stuff. The creator and redeemer of the world has specifically put his finger on you, all of perhaps 200 pounds of spit and vinegar, and said, “Be my representative to speak my words and lead my church.”

And we are supposed to accept that call and just meekly fade into the woodwork?

In other words, the very nature of our ministry militates against a deep sense of humility. And, when you add to this sense of call all of the praise and glory and back-slapping and offers to join the country club and it gets pretty difficult to repeat the words of Isaiah, “I am a man of unclean lips.”

Yet, that is exactly what is demanded of us!

Every minister needs to wake up in the morning with the question, “Why me?” on our lips. We need to close our eyes at night with the related question, “What have I done to deserve this call?” Answer – nothing. If we did receive that “call” (and that question can be debated), the only thing we can say is that we are extremely blessed, and that blessing places upon us a great responsibility and no right of prestige.

My point in listing this as my first “undeniable” truth of theological reflection is to impress on anyone who attempts theological reflection (and we should all be theologians!) that the ministry of preaching, teaching, and even living the Christian life is a demanding one. We do not accept the mantle of reading, interpreting, and teaching the Bible lightly. As I tried to state succinctly, we stand under the text, not over it.

The number one prerequisite for becoming a preacher, a teacher, an elder, or simply a thoughtful Christian is not to have an opinion in search of a proof-text. The number one prerequisite is exactly what Isaiah felt, and said, when he did receive his special call, “Woe is me, for I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.” (Isaiah 6:5, ESV)

Anything less is simply pure arrogance.

How to Win a Complex Theological Argument Without Really Trying – A Lament

I saw it again today. A complex theological discussion ended abruptly, yet without a legitimate conclusion. One side walked away feeling euphoric, the other feeling cheated and abused. The discussion was over, yet nothing had been settled. Neither side was changed; indeed, because of the nature of the argumentation neither side could be changed. What is sad is that through the specific use of tactics the conversation is likely never to be honestly entered into again. The “victor” obviously sees no need to, and the “vanquished” rejects the inherent dishonesty of the other. Never again shall the twain meet.

How do you win a complex theological argument without ever really trying? It is profoundly simple, actually. All you need to do is appeal to experience. Experience is the “Mother of all Debate Bombs (MOADB).” Drop it once and your enemy is reduced to picking up the splintered shards of whatever evidence they might have produced. Its effect can be devastating – although virtually never appropriate or legitimate.

Consider the two examples where I see this most frequently used. (No names will be provided to protect the guilty). A respectable, although intense, discussion begins over the significance of baptism, both in terms of salvation and the larger issue of ecclesiology (who should be considered a member of the church). At a critical point in the discussion one of the participants asks a rhetorical question: “Are you saying my father, God rest his saintly soul, will not be in heaven?” The MOADB was just dropped. How can there be a response? Say, “no” and all the fiery pit of hell will explode. Say, “yes” and derail the entire discussion into who has the mind of God. Say, “I do not know” and the discussion then becomes moot. Why discuss something with an ignoramus? (Never mind that option three is clearly the best, unless someone DOES have access to God’s infinite wisdom.) The point is that with the introduction of the dearly departed saintly relative, the issue becomes one of experience (the experience of having to deal with relatives/loved ones who disagree with me) and the playing field never will be level again.

Example two: A proponent of gender egalitarianism defends his (and it is almost always “his”) change in understanding the increased leadership role of women in a worship service. “I knew I was wrong when I looked into the eyes of my sweet little 10 year old daughter and realized she would never be considered worthwhile in my church.” Here is a case of the double MOADB. First, who wants to accept the role of arguing with a “sweet little 10 year old girl.” My daughter has had me wrapped around her little finger ever since the day she entered this world. Two dogs and a turtle are ample proof of that, and my fortress of arguments against a rabbit is crumbling by the minute. But I digress.

The second, and more insidious, experiential argument in the above statement is the declaration (accusation, actually) that a female is considered “worthless” in a congregation that places the role of leadership solely upon qualified men. But I hear it all the time! In a recent article in a national magazine, the writer stipulated that one of the factors in deciding whether a congregation was “healthy” or not was whether there were females participating in significant leadership roles in the worship service. Clearly, not having women (plural) on the stage means a congregation hates women (and, I would assume, that means the women in the congregation hate themselves – a rather pernicious loathing, I might add).

However, once dropped, the MOADB cannot be recalled. The discussion is over, regardless of whether the subject is a dearly departed relative or one’s precious little progeny. Move the discussion from reason (logic, exegesis, historical examples, etc) to emotion (experience) and the battle is won. You really do not even have to try very hard. It is so simple it is astounding.

All of this is to illustrate, and to stress, my Undeniable Truth of Theological Reflection #1 all over again. If your goal is to win the argument (or at least prevent your opponent from answering you), then by all means drop the MOADB. But if your goal is to humbly submit to the truth of God’s word, and to lovingly attempt to correct someone else who you feel is in error, then the pretentious use of empty emotionalism is absolutely forbidden.

To paraphrase a teaching of our Lord, it is far better to lose an argument and maintain your virtue, than to win a debate and lose all sense of your honor.

Let us ascend by climbing lower.

The Vibrant, Healthy, Living, Conquering, Transformational Church

Past couple of posts have pointed out what causes congregations to die. Now, time to turn the tables. How can a congregation overcome the problems that are proving to be so fatal to so many? In a word, the congregation that wants to grow, to become vibrant, to conquer and to overcome, must be a transformational church.

A wise man once warned that if you marry the philosophy of the day you will soon be a widow. Church leaders that rush to make their message compatible with the prevailing worldview will soon realize that they have to change their message about as frequently as they change their underwear. Put a little bit more “homey,” a wise old preacher once said, “never try to fiddle folks into the church, because when you quit fiddlin’ they are just going to go find another fiddler.” Oddly enough, this is exactly what happened to many conservative congregations during the 40’s and 50’s of the last century. The country was basically conservative, the world was reeling from two disastrous world wars, and the idea of many churches was to present a message that fit that conservative time.

Today the country has changed. Conservatism has a bad name, the buzzword today is “tolerance,” and the last thing anyone wants to be identified with is a narrow, legalistic, authoritarian, or exclusive message. So, modern “worship” services basically duplicate modern music concerts: the lyrics of the songs might be different, but the atmosphere is the same. Ditto for “egalitarian” worship leaders. To be “hip” with the modern scene you need plenty of women up on the stage. A practicing gay or lesbian worship leader will score you extra points with the “open and affirming” crowd. And whatever you did last week must be exceeded this week or the crowd will find a more exciting venue next week. The pressure of performing for these congregations must be unbelievable.

Well, I hate to rain on the postmodern parade, but God’s message is narrow, it is clearly presented in terms of covenant law, God is the ultimate authoritarian, and the message of the cross is entirely exclusive. You either accept it or you do not. There is no gray, “uncommitted” choice.

So, how does a church speak to such a world without becoming a part of that world? Answer: By transforming both itself and the culture in which is is found.

I spoke of at least three issues that are plaguing the church. Notice how a transformational church addresses these issues:

  1.  Narcissism. A transformational church conquers narcissism by promoting the universal submission that is one of the hallmarks of Christian unity (Eph. 5:21ff). If I submit to you, and you submit to me, what is left of our mutual narcissism? It disappears! I look to what builds you up, you look to what builds me up. We all, as equals in God’s sight, seek the building up of the church. I surrender my rights for you, you surrender your rights for me. “Rights” disappear – mutual submission arises to take its place. Narcissism is transformed into mutual love and edification. The church wins.
  2. Anti-authority. A transformational church does not seek to eliminate authority (which, in no way can be done regardless of the suggestion otherwise). However, in a transformational church authority is recast to be in the image of God’s authority. Notice how both Paul and Peter spoke to the ruling elders of their respective congregations (Acts 20:28ff; 1 Peter 5:1-11). Notice the imagery – shepherd, care, nurture, protect, lead. The New Testament never shrinks from authoritarian language – but it is always an authority that comes from humble service. It is transformational authority. When leaders lead through service, who would not want to be in their flock? The church wins.
  3. Cowardice. I did not previously use that specific word, but it is there. Church leaders have been afflicted with a wretched case of cowardice over the past 3-4 decades. We are afraid to confront anyone (well, a few are willing to confront, but they do so in a most distasteful manner.) A transformational church on the other hand fears nothing except becoming unfaithful to God’s message. A transformational church intentionally seeks to transform both its members and those with whom it comes into contact. A transformational church is by definition a courageous church. It changes lives by confronting both the immediate and the systemic sins which destroy those lives. When people’s lives are changed by the gospel, a culture is transformed. The church wins.

The early church was a transformational church. It did not bend its teachings to fit its culture. The church was born into a world of sexual, economic, militaristic, religious, and philosophical dysfunction. It refused to participate in those dysfunctions, however. In confronting each of those dysfunctions it risked absolute failure. Within the space of just a few centuries, however, those aberrations were largely (although not totally) transformed. No, it was not perfect. The church has never been perfect, nor will it ever be perfect.

However, we have never been asked to be perfect. We have been charged with being faithful to God’s purpose – and that is to be transformational. As we transform ourselves first we begin to witness what can be done in this bent and broken world. One person, one transformation at a time, and God’s kingdom will grow.

A dying church is one that has been conformed to the pressures of this age.

A transformational church conquers the “principalities and powers” of this world and is a victorious church.

So, which church do you want to be a part of?

Why the Church is not Growing (Pt. 2)

Yesterday I wrote about what I think is the number one reason the church is not growing – basically focusing on the role of the preacher/minister, both from a misguided opinion of his role by the church and a misguided (and too often prideful and selfish) opinion of himself. However, the issue of the declining church is far too complex to assign just one cause. I still believe that ministers/preachers carry the majority of the blame, but here are some other issues that must be mentioned:

Narcissism – growing up in the late 20th century I thought my generation was spoiled, but the “Gen X” generation and the  “Millennials” have raised narcissism to a fine art form. I am not the only one to say so – read just about any critique of modern culture and you will read the same thing. Now, before any of you get your dander up and protest that you have a grandson/granddaughter/niece/nephew that is absolutely the salt of the earth, I am not saying every teenager or twenty-something is a narcissist. However, as a class or generation there is no doubt but what those age groups can only be described as narcissistic. We were bad, and we passed on the worst of our selfishness to our children, but we did not need “trigger warnings” in our classrooms before a professor talked about a controversial subject. We did not need, nor did our colleges provide, “safe rooms” where precious little snowflakes could go if they heard something on campus that upset their delicate little psyches. We did not riot for days simply because someone of the opposing political party was elected president.

Narcissism may be bad for education and for the country, but it is simply inconceivable in the church. However, as the world goes, so goes the church, and we can see the results of a narcissistic church all around us. The choice to attend a particular church is no longer based on doctrine or denominational loyalty. Now it is based primarily on worship style, and that has more to do with the style of music than anything. Increasingly another style of worship is gaining popularity, and that is whether or not a woman is highly visible as a speaker/leader. Gender neutrality or blanket acceptance of LGBTQ agendas are co-located with gender egalitarianism. In other words, if I feel it, I want it, and if you are not going to give it to me then I will go where I can find it. Increasingly that means anywhere but the church.

Rejection of Authority – the postmodern philosophy rejects the concept of authority. Authority has inherent within it the concept of power, and to the postmodernist the use of power is the unforgivable sin. There is a deep sense of hypocrisy here, as student bodies and rioting mobs all seek to assert their power over “the establishment,” but consistency of thought went out the door a long time ago. Teachers, professors, police officers, and elected officials in general have all lost the respect they deserve – simply because they represent authority.

It should go without saying that the church is going to suffer here, because the church flows from God, and God is the ultimate power and authority. But, notice how most “church” language has changed. Jesus is no longer “Lord” (meaning Master), he is our “lover” or “friend” or “fellow struggler.” God is a prattling old grandmother who refuses to punish sin (reference The Shack). When was the last time you heard any kind of discussion about “church discipline”? The church is no longer a place of holiness, where right living and right doctrine are pursued and expected, it has become a social club – and a poor one at that. Why go to church when the local sports bar is so much more entertaining?

The inability (or unwillingness) to confront – okay, back to preachers again here. One positive aspect of the younger (Gen. X and Millennial) groups is their willingness to confront evil when they see it (well, except their own corruption, but weren’t we all blind to our own faults?) What they see in the church is an almost universal inability or unwillingness to confront systematic evil. Sure, preachers will rant and rave about drinking, dancing, and rock-and-roll (okay, I’m a little dated here), but they basically ignore systemic issues such as racism, poverty, corporate greed, and an industrial/military complex that has poisoned our environment and threatens to destroy entire cities.

Read Amos some time. Or Micah. Or even Isaiah. Or Jeremiah. You might even want to re-read the words of Jesus. The prophets (and Jesus!) had no problem calling out evil – even if it well all the way to the throne. Twenty-first century preachers have lost their (our, since I am one) voice. We do not preach against a comfortable acceptance of the status quo, if that status quo happens to also be the hand that feeds us.

I could be wrong, but I think that if the younger generations heard a genuinely prophetic voice, one that spoke with clarity and sincerity and honesty, they would respond as the crowds responded to Jesus. Some would reject that voice, some would just be mildly amused – but I think that many would be truly converted.

[By the way, I think this is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer is so popular among people who read him today. How often do you see a man willing to stand up against an entire political regime based entirely upon his understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Christ? They may not understand him, and they may not agree with him entirely, but they are certainly fascinated by him!]

I have to confess – I have not been the prophet I often pictured myself being. I too have feet of clay. But I sense that this world needs some Amoses and Micahs and Isaiahs and Jeremiahs. Every survey shows that the church is shrinking. What “we” are doing is simply not working. That means maybe I need to rethink what I have been doing as well.

Maybe it’s because we have been trying to ascend higher, and God wants us to ascend lower. Maybe we need to do things God’s way again.

The Measure of Greatness

Kinda, sorta, following up on my thoughts yesterday (all of this got all jumbled up in my mind and so if it seems disjointed, it probably is).

When I think of the truly gigantic people in my life, and when I think of what makes them truly gigantic, a number of qualities come to mind. Most are brilliant – although not a few of them have no formal or higher education. “Brilliant” is relative, and some of the most brilliant people in my life have either never attended college, or have little college education. A number of my heroes are acclaimed theologians and church historians, as that is the field where I have spent most of my life, but I could also share the names of a couple of pilots, a book store owner, a couple of preachers, and a number of Bible school teachers.

But the one quality that all of these individuals share (well, almost all) is one that cannot be bought, studied, or manipulated. It is the quality of humility. What strikes me about the list of my “great cloud of witnesses” is the fact that almost to a person, they would be embarrassed to be included on such a list.

I can illustrate this best by highlighting those who would be considered by a majority of people as being at the top of their respective fields. These are men who are scholars among scholars. The list of books and articles in peer-reviewed journals they have published is astounding. They command respect from their peers, and even (if not especially) from those who disagree with them. You can disrespect a pusillanimous little poseur, but when a scholar is singled out by an opponent as having an argument that seriously challenges his view and must then be addressed, you know the aforementioned scholar is worthy of his stripes.

I have studied under a number of these scholar/saints, and beyond the information and training they provided, they demonstrated a grasp of humility that defies description. They chose their words from an infinite vault of silence – the silence that comes from the mastery of a subject and the wisdom to know how much of that mastery to share at any given time. Their measured sentences revealed not only the breadth and depth of their study, but also the realization that what they did not know was just as broad and just as deep. To hear such a scholar admit, “I do not know” was perhaps as provocative as hearing him expound on a subject of which he was well versed. You do not just learn from such individuals, as much as you absorb from them.

Conversely, I have been in the presence of intellectual Lilliputians; small-minded, yappy little urchins whose self-worth was measured entirely by the volume of verbal effluvia he could spew. It is for good reason that it is said “quiet waters run deep” while babbling little brooks are shallow and quickly disappear in the heat of summer.

I would much rather spend 10 minutes in the presence of a scholar who can admit error or ignorance, as to spend a day in the presence of someone who proclaims to know everything about everything. I would much rather sit in the presence of a person who remains silent and yet teaches the wisdom of the ages, as to have to bear the presence of a person who cannot shut up yet says nothing.

Some ask, “How do you want to be remembered.” Perhaps no finer words could be spoken of a preacher than, “He was wise enough to know when to teach through words, and when to remain silent.”

I pray for such wisdom!

Is it Elitist to Challenge a Defective Theology?

A discerning eye will notice that I am writing from a clearly announced position: the life of Christian discipleship is an upside-down life. We win by losing, ascend by going lower. Some will agree energetically in regard to only one facet of the Christian life: evaluating the worth of differing, and in some cases diametrically opposed, theological positions. In this view to challenge a conclusion, or to disagree with someone, is wrong-headed. It is impolite and smacks of elitism. Apparently you can only hold a position to be in error if you are a theological stuff-shirt.

 

I must plead ignorance here, as I simply do not know how this conclusion can be reached if a person reads the Bible with any kind of open mind. From Genesis 3 until the last echoes of the words of Revelation have died down, God is constantly and directly challenging bad theology. No one, from Adam to the apostle Paul (just to name a couple) is immune from adding 2 + 2 and coming up with some form of heterodoxy (if not outright heresy). Often the correction is gentle, sometimes it is severe, occasionally the correction is ironic or sarcastic. But God, and his inspired speakers/authors, never allow bad theology to go unchallenged and uncorrected.

Perhaps one of the most memorable moments in my undergraduate program came at the conclusion of a rather energetic discussion of some fine point of exegesis. A student (not me, I am not that smart) asked the professor “What do we do when someone teaches something that is clearly not true to the text?” After a moment’s pause, the professor said something like this: “We must be very careful in pointing out the mistakes of others. But bad theology must always be confronted and corrected or the text of the Bible becomes meaningless.”

I have always remembered that moment – and not because I have always followed my professors advice. Far too often I have chosen to remain silent and allowed flawed conclusions to be made, mostly with the excuse that I did not want to offend someone’s dignity. But, sad to say, I just did not want to come off as elitist. I did not want the teacher to think I was “putting him in his place” or that I was somehow superior to him.

No, I have always remembered that comment from my professor as a goad pricking my conscience.

There are times when silence IS truly golden. We do not need to correct every jot and tittle of someone’s class or sermon. We do not need to be the pronunciation police to make sure that every shibboleth is pronounced faultlessly. And, certainly, there is a huge argument to be made that any such correction needs to be done gently, and in private if at all possible.

But, theologically speaking, it is no more elitist to correct bad doctrine than it is to promote good doctrine. In fact, it is one of the main duties that Paul assigned to Timothy and Titus.

The only elitist, the only snob when it comes to preaching or teaching, is the one who will not listen to correction or a well-worded challenge. Do not be afraid to challenge when and where it is necessary – but always remember this –

The path to the heights of glory winds down the depths of service. We ascend by going lower!