A Mind-Bending, Spirit-Shaking 60 Days

The last 60+ days of my life have been anything but normal. Even now, as I sit after pondering for many days what I would write, I still find the words elusive. I once thought I knew many things. Now, I wonder if I will ever even understand the questions.

This journey started on August 14. On that afternoon my wife was diagnosed with cancer. As with so many who hear that diagnosis, our world was shattered. Four days later, on the 18th, while trying to restore some semblance of normalcy, and while ice skating with my daughter, I fell and broke (shattered?) my femur (large bone in my thigh). Surgery the next day. Thirteen days in the hospital. A week in re-hab. Meanwhile my wife had to begin her chemo treatments without me.

It’s funny how quickly, and with such violence, a life of plans and goals can be shattered. Literally.

Now we live from day to day, sometimes from hour to hour, our future punctuated with doctor visits, scans and tests, physical therapy, and the looming appointment of yet another surgery and hospital stay.

There is a personally ironic and even pernicious twist to this story. The sermon text that I had selected for August 20 [selected before the 14th, by the way] was 2 Corinthians 12:10, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” It was a sermon I never got to preach. It was a sermon I don’t know if I will ever be able to preach.

I was going to wax poetic about the paradox in Paul’s language. I was going to revel in the assurance of God’s presence in the time of trouble. I was going to speak as only a fool would, not knowing the depth of the mistakes I was making.

Like I said, I thought I knew a lot about many things. I lost my father due to cancer 27 years ago. My mother is a 27 year survivor of cancer. A close family member was murdered. The father of a very close childhood friend committed suicide. I’ve lived a lot of life and have preached a lot of sermons.

But, somehow I’ve changed. I do not enter the pulpit now like I used to. I don’t read the text now like I used to. I cannot quantify the change, nor adequately describe it. But this world is just – different now.

In many ways I’m the same me as I always was – a snarky, ironic if not sarcastic, self-impressed, knuckle-dragging troglodyte. I guess some things are just too deep to root out. But now I see things a little differently, and hopefully much more clearly.

I still want to ascend by climbing lower – I hope I just know a little bit more about what that means now than I did 60 days ago.

A Bent and Broken World

The phrase comes from a sermon I heard years ago by Jim McGuiggan. I have never forgotten that phrase, although the I may not remember the over-all thrust of his message. We live in a bent and broken world.

Never have I been so aware of that as in the past couple of weeks. Jury duty can do that do a person. If you want to find out how bent and broken our world is – just hang out at a courthouse. Modern courthouses are a cauldron where all sorts of filth festers and boils over. I feel like I need to shower again after just sitting for a couple of hours in a jury selection hearing.

And then there are the headlines: babies left alone in broiling hot cars suffer indescribable pain as their little lives are snuffed out. Two parents in England have the care of their terminally ill child forcibly taken from them by the government – with no recourse. State and federal governments and courts are increasingly forcing perverse beliefs and practices on a populace that either does not care or celebrates the perversity. Free speech is becoming guaranteed to only those who reject biblical standards of behavior.

We live in a bent and broken world.

On the one hand, I am simply speechless at the speed at which our culture has devolved. My childhood – lived largely during a period of moral upheaval  – seems like a million years ago, and the problems I was faced with seem almost quaint by today’s standards.

At least we knew which bathroom we were supposed to use.

On the other hand, on the continuum of moral perversity, I do not believe we have reached the point where a governmental leader can summarily order the execution of small babies within a geographical area simply because of his jealous rage. At least, not yet. And, while they are disappearing at an alarming rate, at least there are SOME sexual mores still in existence. At least, for a while.

I have been asked the question, “What is the greatest threat facing the church over the next 10-20 years?” How can I answer, “Simple existence”? Externally we are living in an era of increasing moral decline, and internally the church is being attacked by those who refuse to accept its exclusive claim. There is only one church, and extra ecclesiam nulla salus. “Outside the church there is no salvation.” That church is Christ’s church, and its members do not get the right to change the stipulations for entry nor the requirements for continued membership.

We live in a bent and broken world. Humans always have; until Christ returns we always will. While we are here our hearts are often shattered, and our eyes full of tears. But of this we can be certain:

The one who created this world will purify and restore it, just as our bodies will be purified and restored. What that looks like we have no earthly idea. But the promise that it will happen is sure.

Until that happens we must live at the foot of the cross, for we are just as guilty as others for the death of the Son of God. Repent. Confess. Live in a state of forgiven humility. Understand that only in weakness can we be made strong, and only in losing can we have any hope of victory.

Lord, come quickly!

Arrogance, Humility, and Institutional Memory

We are living in a time in which the disease of arrogance is approaching pandemic proportions. Humility, never in the history of man something that was found in over-abundance, has disappeared from all but the most remote corners of discourse. Humility is now considered to be the chief deadly sin. It used to be that mud was only thrown after all facts were depleted. Now, the storehouse of facts remains untouched, while the mud has all but been expended.

While far from being alone, the Churches of Christ have long been accused of arrogance – “You people think you’re the only ones going to heaven” is a refrain oft repeated – and not without some justification. Some members do hold such a belief. However, even among those who do not hold such exclusionary beliefs, there is a sense that, if the Bible is inerrant, and if I believe the Bible teaches something, then my understanding of what the Bible teaches must therefore also be inerrant.

Like I said – we are not alone in harboring such members, but it seems to me that we do have more than our fair share.

This is so peculiar to me, for one reason. The early leaders in the Restoration Movement did not hold such exclusionary beliefs, and the exact opposite concept is enshrined in one of the founding documents of the Restoration Movement.

In the Declaration and Address, Thomas Campbell (father of Alexander), wrote this as his sixth proposition explaining the desire to withdraw from the evils of denominationalism:

6.  That, although inferences and deductions from Scripture premises, when fairly inferred, may be truly called the doctrine of God’s holy word, yet are they not formally binding upon the consciences of Christians farther than they see the connection, and evidently see that they are so; for their faith must not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power and veracity of God. Therefore, no such deductions can be made terms of communion, but do properly belong to the after and progressive edification of the Church. Hence, it is evident that no such deductions or inferential truths ought to have any place in the Church’s confession. (Thomas Campbell, Declaration and Address, Mission Messenger, 1978 printing, p. 46)

The target that Campbell had squarely in his sights was the numerous creeds and Confessions of Faith that were used to divide Christians in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. It is significant to me, however, that the very language he used “deductions…inferences…formally binding” are those that are used with a reckless abandon by his 21st century spiritual heirs.

Today you let some preacher or blogger infer something from Scripture, and it automatically becomes enshrined as a binding truth for the confession of the Church.

There is a key phrase in the middle of that paragraph is is, to me, astounding – incredible even. Thomas wrote, “. . . for their faith must not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power and veracity of God.” Here we have a statement that could come from the pen of virtually any “postmodern” theologian, and it was written almost 200 years ago!

If you convert someone to a deduction or an inference of man, all you have done is to create a follower of a denomination. If you convert someone to Jesus Christ, you convert them to the power and veracity of God. Anytime you tell someone (or anytime someone tries to tell you), “you have to believe the Bible plus this book” or “you have to accept the Bible and this confession of faith” or “you have to believe in the Bible and this creed” understand that person is trying to get you to accept the deductions and inferences of men as equal to that of Scripture! I wish I could say that such things do not happen within Churches of Christ, but I am wise enough to know otherwise. Preachers and members of the Churches of Christ may not have a written creed, but far too many of them have just as binding and just as distinct unwritten creeds, and those are probably more dangerous than the written versions. At least you can object to a specific written statement. Trying to pin down the unwritten creeds of some members is virtually impossible.

I will not back down one inch from the truths clearly taught in Scripture. I will not easily back down from my deductions and inferences, because God gave me a brain to use and legitimate tools to help me understand his word. But – and this is critical – I cannot bind my deductions on you as a matter of Christian obedience any further than you can agree to my deductive skill and resulting conclusions.

Humility demands that we approach our deductions, inferences, and conclusions with the greatest of reticence and care. As Campbell said, they may well be rock-solid biblical doctrine. But, just as easily, they can become tainted and be less than pure.

Arrogance will not allow that we be mistaken, in any way, shape, or form, in our “human wisdom.” Arrogance demands that everyone bow their knee to our special insight and judgment. When all the facts are used up, arrogance has no fear to start throwing mud. Arrogance is always self-righteous, but never quiet.

I would so much rather be quietly correct, than loudly wrong.

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?