Book Review – Paul’s Theology of Preaching (Duane Litfin)

Duane Litfin, Paul’s Theology of Preaching: The Apostle’s Challenge to the Art of Persuasion in Ancient Corinth, (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2015) 359 pages plus 27 pages of bibliography)

I have been struggling with how to create an appropriate introduction for my review of this book. This morning I finally settled on what I think is the best way to communicate how I feel about not only the content of the material, but the manner in which it was presented: this is the book I wish I had available to me when I was a young man considering becoming a preacher.

First, for want of a better term, I will address the “style” of the writing. Many authors are absolutely brilliant in their field of study, but seem to be genetically prohibited from getting that brilliance out of their heads and onto paper so that others can share their illumination. Litfin’s book is the polar opposite of that obtuseness. I love reading this book because it was just such a joy to read. Once again, some authors are so in love with their thesis that they do not take the time to explain why their thesis is important to begin with. Litfin begins (part 1), not with explaining what he thinks Paul is doing in 1 Corinthians 1-4, but rather by explaining the cultural understanding of rhetoric and the power of persuasion (Greco-Roman rhetoric) that Paul would be familiar with in Corinth. Then, in part 2 he turns to 1 Corinthians 1-4 and demonstrates that Paul was specifically rejecting this view of persuasion. Litfin could have cut the length of the book in half by simply arguing his position from 1 Corinthians 1-4. However, the value of the material would have been reduced by far more than 50 percent. Litfin’s knowledge of, and presentation of, the material in part 1 is, hopefully not to be too effusive, magisterial. When he moves to part 2, the reader (student) is thoroughly conversant with the basic understanding of Greco-Roman rhetoric. Here I must also praise Litfin’s use of primary writings. He quotes ancient writers at length, but not so many and so long as to make the material unreadable. I repeat what I said at the beginning, this book is so well crafted, so well written, that whether you want to be a preacher or not, just reading this book is an education in how to present your arguments.

But, let us move on to the content. Litfin’s thesis boiled down to a simple sentence is this: the apostle Paul was well aware of the prevalent culture of Greco-Roman rhetoric, but he (Paul) made the conscious decision to reject the art of that rhetoric in order to present the gospel message as an obedient herald, a simple proclaimer of the cross. On a simple reading, one might be tempted to say, “ho, hum, next . . .” But this message cuts against the grain of so much of what is taught in preacher training courses that it demands to be heard. I could not help but think as I read and digested this material – “wow, if Litfin’s thesis was widely promoted and accepted, hundreds of instructors in preaching trainings situations would suddenly be unemployed.” The reason for such a response is simple – we are training preachers to do exactly the opposite of what the apostle Paul presented as his guiding theology for both ministry and preaching.

Today preachers are taught the art of communication (we do not use the word rhetoric anymore, but that is what it is). Preachers are taught how to evaluate an audience (age, economic background, educational level, etc) and to decide how to “get under the audience’s skin” (my words) so as to manipulate the audience’s feelings in order to generate the greatest amount of positive response. The preacher may be after conversions or a greater commitment to giving, or to motivate people to become a short-term missionaries. But the process is all basically the same – how do I take my message to this audience and what tools do I use in this setting to achieve my greatest goals? That, in a very crude way, is to use the “art” of rhetoric. It is the basic skeleton of the process I was taught in my speech and preaching classes.

Litfin argues persuasively that Paul takes all of that and throws it out the window. Paul was well aware of that theory and all of the tools of rhetoric. However, Paul’s theology, Paul’s foundational motivation, was not to be an accomplished speaker/preacher/rhetorician. Paul’s goal was to be an obedient herald. Paul simply wanted to preach the message of the cross. The result was up to the Holy Spirit. Paul preached, God converted. Paul’s goal was not to be successful, it was to be obedient. Success, in other words, for Paul was not in the number of conversions, but it was to be measured in how faithful he was in presenting the gospel.

Now, to be sure, Paul was aware of his audience, and to Jews he referred to the law of Moses and to cultured Greeks he referred to secular poets. But this was not to use (or abuse) the art of rhetoric – Paul was simply adapting his presentation of the gospel message to the level of understanding of his audience. He was educating his audience, not manipulating them. There is a significant difference, and one that I believe is lost in much of contemporary preaching classes.

I will leave it to the reader to follow Litfin’s argument. I found it to be both profound, and profoundly significant. The author’s style is not elegant in the sense of flowery language, but it is indeed elegant in the sense of its structure and presentation. I think I am being redundant here, but this book provides an education in not only the content of what is being argued, but in the very essence of how it is being argued.

Although Litfin’s main purpose is not to write a commentary on 1 Corinthians 1-4 per se, I must add that his treatment of these four chapters is as fine a commentary as I have read on Paul’s introduction to this critical letter. If I had my druthers, I would have two copies of the book, and I would put one on my library shelf dedicated to 1 Corinthians, and one in the section I have dedicated to preaching and homiletics. I will probably keep the book in my preaching section, but the exegesis of 1 Corinthians 1-4 is an education in its own right.

No book is absolutely perfect, and I do have to share one caveat for a reader who does not know Greek. Litfin’s use of Greek terms is frequent, and in about 95% of the cases he does provide an English translation. However, when he repeats a Greek word he does not always repeat the translation, and there are a number of times in which he assumes that the reader knows how to read Greek (the terms are never transliterated) and even knows the meaning of the words. In terms of editing, I would have liked IVP Academic to have demanded a little “dumbing down” for those who do not have a background in Greek, but this is a relatively small quibble, and if you do not know Greek the overwhelming majority of the book is still valuable. I would suggest that due to the inclusion of the Greek terminology this book is probably written for a 2nd or 3rd year college student, or seminary student, so buyer beware. On the other hand, the language is decidedly written, and the argumentation is so well defended (repeated appropriately, but never to the point of obnoxious redundancy) so that even if you have to “bleep” over the Greek words, the book would still be of inestimable value.

I end with how I started. I so wish I had this material back when I was starting my school work, back when the crust of the earth was first starting to cool. I’m just glad I have read it now, and over the next few weeks and months I am going to re-evaluate all of my preaching and teaching to see if I am being faithful to Paul’s theology of preaching, or if I am falling prey to the less faithful, but much more highly praised, skill of Greco-Roman rhetoric.

Questions Regarding Evangelism

In the congregation where I am serving we have decided to take our mission to have an impact on our community seriously, and we are working on some ways by which we can do that. One of the ways is, to be blatantly obvious, evangelism. My problem is that I am not an “evangelist” either by nature or by nurture. I put the word “evangelist” in quotation marks (not scare quotes, by the way) because the word can have so many different connotations, and I am using it in the specific sense of one who intentionally and effectively is able to confront total strangers with the message of the gospel. I know many who have that gift, and I honor them, but that is just not my personality type. Which, given the direction we as a congregation would like to go, is problematic. I am the “blind” leading the sight impaired. So – for those of you who are gifted in the realm of evangelism, or for those of you who have effective evangelism ministries in your congregation, I have oodles of questions for you. Please feel free to answer as many or as few as you would like as as you have experience. Let me thank you from the heart in advance.

First, (and please forgive if any of these questions appear foolish or elementary, I am beginning at the beginning), what do you consider to be the goal of your evangelism? Do you consider a baptism to be the goal? Or, do you have a more holistic approach whereby the evangelism is not complete until a new Christian is fully integrated into the life and ministry of the congregation? How do you communicate that goal?

Is your evangelism a “one pony trick” (led by a one trick pony) or do you have a congregational view of evangelism? Do you have a small group dedicated to teaching Bible studies, or just one or two “evangelists”? (There is that word again)

Do you use a set curriculum, or program? To be perfectly honest, I have a very dim view of most, if not all, evangelistic programs I have been introduced to (and that is quite a few). Invariably the program or the curriculum was written to fit the personality type of the author (or authors) and, in my opinion, forces every student into one stereotypical mold. This is one reason I have been turned off about developing my evangelistic abilities in the past. I just have not found a curriculum or a program that treats the student with a very high degree of respect. But, this is a new venture for me, and I am willing to consider all thoughts. [By the way, I have recently discovered Tim Archer’s material Church Inside Out, and in my opinion it speaks most clearly to my concerns. It is not a “program” or a “curriculum” as such, although he does offer some guidance about how he teaches an evangelistic type Bible lesson.]

What kind of budget do you have dedicated to evangelism? Do you have money specifically set aside for evangelistic efforts, or is your evangelism budget wrapped up in a larger “education” classification? What, specifically, do you spend your evangelistic budget on? Do you purchase materials for your students, or do you use the text of Scripture alone? Do you provide Bibles for your students, and if so, what translation do you purchase for them? Do you advertise in a newspaper, or do you use materials such as “House to House and Heart to Heart”?

Very closely related to the above questions, how do you generate contacts? Do you use the old standard, door knocking? Do you rely on contacts provided by the congregation? Do you use any kind of direct mail to generate contacts? Do you have a yearly (or twice-yearly) public meeting with a specific audience targeted (i.e., divorce recovery, money management, grief recovery, etc.)?

If you have a group approach to evangelism, how do you train and equip your group members? How do you handle disappointments and rejections? How do you maintain a high degree of morale? How do you encourage members to become a part of your group? And, lest I overlook this issue, how do you combat the idea of the evangelists as the “super-Christians” of the congregation?

I’m not sure how many questions I am up to, and I could probably come up with some more, but literally any advice or wisdom you could provide would be appreciated. Contrary to how these questions might appear, I do have an idea of the general direction I would like to lead the congregation, but I want to have all the advice and wisdom of those who have traveled a little bit further down the road than I have.

Maybe some day I can write a follow-up post to this one in which I provide all the answers that I will obtain as we enter into this venture.

Once again, for those of you who take the time to respond, many thanks in advance.

Follow-Up to ‘A Church Shameful to Christ’ (last post)

Upon reading and re-reading my last post, I feel a few follow-up comments are warranted.

First, I admit my emotions may have come through a little too forcefully in that post. I do not retract anything that I said, but this is an emotional topic for me. Also, the past few weeks of my life have been anything but normal or settled, and perhaps the events of the past couple of weeks made my trigger finger a little too edgy. Sometimes I feel a need to apologize for unkind words or thoughts, and while I do not think I crossed any lines, I do want to offer some additional thoughts that might help explain the rawness of my last post.

I have said repeatedly that I am a child of the American Restoration Movement, and I not only am I deeply moved by the goals of that movement, I am proud of the better angels of that movement. I am aware no group of people throughout history has been perfect, and the members of the Restoration Movement are not exception to that rule. We have had our black sheep, and our closets are more than full of rotting skeletons. What transpired 200 years ago almost to the year, on the Western Reserve of Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Ohio, and south to Tennessee is nothing short of an American miracle. I am grateful to be an heir of that miracle.

The tragedy of the Movement is that we stopped moving. The focus of Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone and their compatriots was virtually entirely focused on the externals of ecclesiology. We focused on how to enter the church (baptism) and what one received in the process (forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit). We focused on church polity and decorum (proper worship and congregational government). In other words, over ninety percent of our efforts were focused on the visible congregation, how it was administered, how one entered it, and how one behaved in its assemblies. What was virtually non-existent was any sustained focus on what might be termed the spiritual nature of the Christian life. Exceptions exist, but, as I said, the vast, overwhelming majority of the foci of the early Restoration leaders was on the visible aspects of the congregation.

The problem with that emphasis is, once it was “restored,” once it was deemed to have been brought back into line with New Testament teaching, what else was there to restore? So, we quit restoring and starting fighting. Having decided that we were going to make our stand over jots and tittles, we started civil wars over who could count the most jots and decide the significance of the tiniest tittles.

For proof of that assertion, I point to how our fellowship has distinguished itself in topics that are generally considered to be of biblical or ecclesial importance. Scholars who are associated with the Churches of Christ have distinguished themselves almost exclusively in the areas of New Testament studies and church history, especially within the first three centuries of the church. There are a much smaller number of scholars or authors who are respected in Old Testament studies. Once you leave the fields of textual studies and early church history, the number of scholars, or even of respected authors, from the Churches of Christ virtually vanishes.

  • I know of no member of the Churches of Christ who is respected and recognized in the field of the spiritual disciplines (prayer, fasting, meditation, contemplation, giving, – some authors provide a dozen or more specific spiritual disciplines).
  • I know of no member of the Churches of Christ who is respected and recognized in the field of spiritual direction.
  • I know of no member of the Churches of Christ who is respected and recognized in the field Christian ethics.
  • I can only think of one peer-recognized author in the field of biblical theology.
  • I know of no member of the Churches of Christ who is respected and recognized in the field of serious, biblical ecumenical work.
  • The last of the great revival preachers among the Churches of Christ, those who could roar like Amos and weep like Jeremiah, are all retired or long dead.

Now, just because I do not know of such authors or scholars does not mean they do not exist. But I do read broadly, and the absence of authors from my own spiritual family in these and other areas is deeply disturbing to me. We have fought for decades to “have a place at the conversation table,” and seemingly at the moment we were granted that place, we just quit trying. Or, those who were invited to the table are just so embarrassed to be associated with the Church of Christ that they just rubber stamp what everyone else is saying. That is not ecumenism. That is cowardice.

What I do see is a widening and deepening chasm among factions within the church. On the left I see an avalanche of writing and teaching that has fully accepted the core tenets of evangelicalism. This is actually the full born fruit of Alexander Campbell’s later years and philosophy – “If you cannot beat ’em, join ’em.” In that sense these liberals are pure Campbellites, and they are utterly clueless about what that term means.

On the reactionary right I see the full grown fruit of the poisonous legalism that was introduced by such journals as The Heretic Detector (yes, that was an actual journal). Self-proclaimed guardians of the faith have made a career out of “outing” such blasphemous practices as raising hands or clapping during the singing of a song, having a functioning coffee pot during a Bible class, or, heaven forbid, singing a song during the participation of the Lord’s Supper (you cannot participate in two acts of worship simultaneously!).

Somehow, after two millennia of church history, we have succeeded in re-establishing both the Sadducees and the Pharisees.

When I first started my Doctor of Ministry degree, I had a private conversation with one of the directors of the program. He asked me what I wanted out of my specific study. After a considerable amount of embarrassed humming and hawing, I managed to weakly blurt out, “I want to help the Church of Christ be the church of Christ again.” He allowed that was a pretty noble quest.

Which brings me to my last post, “A Church Shameful to Christ.” It as an emotional outpouring, I admit. But I am pretty emotional right now. I see a church that is increasingly becoming more political (on both ends of the spectrum) – and simultaneously becoming less influential. I see a church that is doing everything that it can to appear to the world to be acceptable and popular. At the same time I see a retrenchment into attitudes that were divisive the first time around, and are proving to be even more divisive today. I see a church that is increasingly becoming embarrassed to be associated with the Bible (instead of Bible lectureships, we now have such foofy lectureships as “Summit” and “Harbor.”) The presidents of the universities and colleges associated with the Churches of Christ have displayed an unwillingness to stand up to the LGBTQ cabal that is repugnant, quite frankly. We are preparing more men (and women!) to preach in evangelical churches than we are men who are committed to Restoration principles.

As the church universal sinks deeper and deeper into utter irrelevancy, the message of the Restoration Movement is a clear and penetrating beacon in an otherwise wretched night. But, we cannot keep fighting battles that were fought and decided centuries ago and yet still consider ourselves faithful to Jesus. We have to move on past the jots and the tittles. Without surrendering an inch of the gains we have made in our biblical and historical studies (which are prodigious, and worth promoting), we must, we absolutely must, move forward.

We must return to discipleship. We must return to Christ. We must return to the basics of what it means to “put off the old self, and to put on the new creation.” We must lay aside the basic fundamentals and move on to a full humanity in Christ Jesus. I do not begrudge my forefathers one little bit, but in order to honor them I must keep the restoration flame burning. I cannot build a city where they merely pitched a tent.

God will not judge this generation, or any generation, on the basis of the successes or failures of the preceding generation. The church of the 21st century will be judged by how we both live and proclaim the cross of Jesus to a bent and broken and dying world.

Correct me if I am wrong, but I just don’t see us doing that. That makes me emotional – and sometimes when I write I let off more steam than I generate light.

If I offended, please forgive. If I spoke truth – let’s get it right.

In everything, let us ascend lower.

Jesus and the Woman Caught in Adultery (John 8)

Last night in our Bible study we had a wonderful discussion of the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11). To begin, there is the necessary discussion of whether the story actually belongs in the gospel of John. To be scientifically precise, I am not convinced it does. The oldest manuscript that contains the account dates to the fifth century (i.e. 400 years after Jesus lived), and subsequent manuscripts date much, much later. The story interrupts the flow from 7:52 to 8:12, but that in-and-of-itself does not mean much – the gospel writers are more than willing to demonstrate that there really was not a “normal” day of teaching for Jesus. But all of the technical “stuff” aside, the story of the woman caught in adultery has a power that makes it virtually impossible for modern translations to ignore – despite the evidence to the contrary. I know of no modern translation that removes the pericope from the text and either puts it in a footnote or eliminates it altogether. Sometimes tradition is just too powerful for even the hardiest of “change agents.”

In my mind the story generates more questions than it answers: if the woman was “caught” in adultery (as the text states), where is the guilty man? As our teacher pointed out, last time he checked, adultery required two participants. And, everyone’s favorite question, what did Jesus write in the dirt? There are as many answers to that question as there are people who make guesses, but my favorite response is connected to that very first question. Obviously no one knows what Jesus wrote, but my guess is that he pointed out the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees with a simple question, “Where is the man?” I also personally wonder how it came to ┬ábe the the woman was “caught” in the act. Was she set up? Was she followed? Was she known to be an adulteress, and so catching her was not that difficult?

Our teacher asked another question last night that I had never stopped to consider: why did the scribes and Pharisees bring the woman to Jesus in the first place? He had no legal authority, and his opinion would have been utterly meaningless to any tribunal that might have been convened to hear the woman’s case. In that respect, the question before Jesus was a blatant attempt to discredit him, and even worse, to provide a pretext to get him in trouble with the Sanhedrin. Questions, questions, questions.

I have two observations regarding the text, at least in connection to our study last night. The first is kind of technical. In our English translations (especially the ESV), Jesus’s response to the Pharisees appears to be one of qualified, and in the mind of most readers, unattainable, permission to stone the woman. Reading the text in the Greek I was struck by a different tone – Jesus is commanding the stoning to begin (the Greek verb is in the imperative mood), but the sentence must begin with the person(s) who were without sin from among the accusers. Those two emphases are often overlooked. One, Jesus agrees with the interpretation from the Law of Moses – such adulterers must be executed. There appears to be no question of guilt here. But – and this is a huge but – the sentence must be carried out by those who have no complicity in the situation. Here is a point that I think most interpreters either overlook, or willfully ignore. The entire scenario just reeks of injustice. The equally guilty male is nowhere to be seen. This is no trial, it equates to a lynching. The hypocrisy of the Pharisees is not just apparent, it is blatant.

I disagree with the interpretation that Jesus is requiring that in order for the sentence to be executed those who accused the woman must be sinless in every respect. That would be an impossible requirement. It is a common view, I grant, but one that is totally outside of any biblical justification. Those who were commanded to execute guilty criminals under the Law of Moses were not required to be perfectly sinless in every respect. However, they could not be complicit in the crime, and could certainly not be guilty of false accusations and of conducting a sham trial. In my understanding, Jesus is looking the scribes and Pharisees squarely in the eye and saying, “I see what is going on here, and you all are just as guilty as this woman – if not more so. So, go ahead, stone her – but let the innocent cast the first stone, if there is anyone here who is innocent in this matter.”

Second, what I see about this story is the incredible power of Jesus to completely change the dynamics of a situation, and to free a tortured person from their prison. As I mentioned above, there appears to be no question of guilt here. The woman was caught, apparently in the act of sexual adultery. Her sin was obvious. According to the strict interpretation of the law, she had no defense and her life was forfeit. Yet, in spite of that, Jesus completely re-wrote the script and condemned her accusers and set her free. He forgave her, with the emphatic caveat that she not continue in her life of sexual impurity. This is why, I think, that despite the textual evidence to the contrary, this story remains in our English translations. As one of my professors summarized, it may not be genuine John, but the story is clearly genuine Jesus.

This story convicts us on many different levels. How many times do we fall in with the Pharisees? We know the rules. We love the rules. We hate those who violate the rules, and we especially hate those who excuse those who violate the rules. We demand justice be done to those who violate the rules. We are good, Bible believing, rule following Christians. And then we read this story and all of our legalisms are blown up. Jesus sides with the accused, and we end up dropping our rocks and walking away chastised and embarrassed.

On the other hand, I think we all hope, to some degree or another, that Jesus will treat us like he treated the woman. We know we are guilty, we know we have no defense. We have been caught “red handed.” All we can do is hope that this teacher blesses us with those words, “Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.”

What a story! And what better way to illustrate that we all ascend higher if we climb lower.

Preaching An Offensive Gospel, Without Being Offensive

Yesterday I bemoaned the fact that I sometimes get much healthier instruction and encouragement from authors outside of my faith community than I do from authors who share my specific theological convictions. I do not rejoice in that particular experience. I find it distressing, to say the very least. But, it leads to a question: What is it about their writings that I find so encouraging, that I find lacking in authors/preachers from within the Churches of Christ? It is a fair question.

The issue I mentioned yesterday was that they make an unflinching defense of the gospel of Christ to confront not only their culture – but primarily of their own church community. Dietrich Bonhoeffer did not begin his journey by attacking Adolf Hitler – he was initially only interested in purging National Socialism from the German church (although, confronting Hitler directly was close behind). Lesslie Newbigin did not set out to attack the political system of England – he wanted to wake his church up to the idolatry that it had absorbed (although, you cannot attack idolatry without attacking the idol that inspires it). Os Guinness does not want to re-write the Constitution, he writes primarily to Christians in order to get them to follow the gospel of Christ (although, in so doing, we do have to take a serious look at the humanistic nature of the Constitution).

All three of these authors touch on and hover around a central theme – the gospel of Christ is at its core an offensive gospel. Not hateful, mind you, but offensive, yes.

The gospel is offensive to the modern, western, and in particular, American, culture. In our world the center is the self, the individual. Everything we do magnifies the individual. Life is all about ME! If I want it, I get it, no matter what it costs or how it deprives others of what they want. My personal happiness and my personal welfare eclipses every other concern. I can destroy the earth, I can ruin reputations, I can use derogatory and repugnant language, I can kill the unborn child in my womb, I can even change my biological birth gender – all because I am the king of my life and I can do whatever I want to do that makes me happy and self-fulfilled. To deny me that freedom is the worst crime that a person or a society can commit – it is a denial of my personal, individual, reign over my life.

Contrast that with the gospel. In the kingdom of God the community – the church – is the most important organism, and the individual only gains importance through that community. In the kingdom of God the other comes first, not the self. In the kingdom of God we die to ourselves and live for the other, and in particular, we live for Christ. In the kingdom of God the most important right we own is the right to relinquish all of our rights for the benefit and the promotion of the community. In the kingdom of God responsibility is as critical, if not more critical, than any supposed rights. In the kingdom of God no truths are considered “self-evident” – that is a fiction of the enlightenment. The only way we know truth is through the revelation of God himself. In the kingdom of God the most important symbol is not a flag or a gun or a piece of paper – it is a cross, the symbol of hatred on one side and divine love on the other. In the kingdom of God the only way to win is to lose, and the only way to live is to die. We ascend by climbing lower.

Bonhoeffer, Newbigin and Guinness all preach this gospel. They all make the same point, albeit in different ways and even though their message has been intended for vastly different audiences. It is only through this offensive gospel that a human can know his or her value, and it is only through this gospel that a bent and broken world can be healed. It is tough medicine – in a sense it is a medicine that actually kills the patient before it can restore the patient to a new life.

Exactly what the gospel proclaims in the pages of the New Testament.

So how is what I hear from authors/preachers within the Churches of Christ any different? What do I hear from our spiritual leaders?

  • We cannot tell the millennial generation to grow up and value the body of Christ as the preeminent reality because it might hurt their sense of individuality, and they might leave and go elsewhere.
  • We cannot tell the sexually degenerate or confused that there is one, single immutable truth about sexuality because it might scare them away from the church.
  • We cannot confront a hyper left-leaning or right-leaning political constituency with the reality that they have replaced their faith in God with an idolatrous belief in human reason for fear that they consider us crazed lunatics – or even worse, rabid fundamentalists.
  • We cannot confront an aging group of baby-boomers (and I am one) with the thought that the way in which they have used and abused the earth’s resources is in direct contradiction to the mandate in Genesis to husband the earth for fear that they might withdraw their necessary contributions to the church.
  • We cannot confront either Democrat or Republican with the gospel call to forsake all idolatrous nationalism for fear that we might be viewed as being unpatriotic.
  • We cannot preach the exclusive message of the gospel for fear that we will be considered hateful and prejudiced.
  • We cannot preach that there is one way, and one way only, to God and that is through the death of Christ. We cannot preach believer’s baptism because that is simply a dogma and is narrow minded. We cannot preach that there is only one church because that is sectarian.
  • On the other hand, we must preach inclusiveness, praise individuality, and above all, maintain the liturgy of the Church of the American Myth.

In short, what we need to preach is the insipid, watered down, meaningless pablum that we hear from every other religious organization that has swallowed Satan’s bait – hook, line and sinker. Oh, we will be popular, and I can list a number of congregations that are just busting out of their buildings to the point they have to have “multiple campuses” to demonstrate their popularity.

But, if I read the book of Revelation correctly, these are not of the church of Christ, even if they wear the name Church of Christ.

In preaching this gospel we cannot afford to be hateful, mean-spirited, ungracious. It is a command, not a mere suggestion, that we “speak the truth in love.” But is is simply un-loving to change the gospel into something that it is not. The apostle Paul had no hesitancy to know and to teach that the gospel is repugnant to a wide range of audiences – it is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks. The early martyrs, from Stephen on down, were not killed because they told everyone that they were quite all right. To Americans the gospel is “hate speech.” Because it challenges each and every one of us to die to ourselves and our selfishness, the gospel is deeply offensive.

To be sure, I have only painted one side of the picture. The other side is that the gospel is profoundly beautiful and loving. It is the picture of a God who so loved his (rebellious and fallen) creation that he became a part of that creation in order to redeem it. It is a picture of a God who so wants to totally redeem all of that creation that he has entrusted those who believe in him with the blessed task of sharing in that redemptive story. I do not want to ever lose sight of this side of the story. But just as the gospel story recounts, you cannot get to the resurrection without first going through the cross. No one objects to Easter. Gethsemane and Calvary are preposterously offensive, however, and it is exactly Gethsemane and Calvary that we are called to bear.

As our culture falls ever more deeply into a moral abyss, it is absolutely critical that someone, or a bunch of someones, preaches this offensive gospel, so that the cross of Christ will be effective and powerful to draw men and women to God.

The question is, who is going to preach it?

Seminars/Workshops to Grow and Inspire

Growing up in the Churches of Christ, spring and summer meant “gospel meetings.” The meetings were always evangelistic in nature, sometimes lasting a week. Previous generations had “protracted meetings” which could last a couple of weeks or even longer if the field was “white unto harvest.” As I got older the meetings shrank from a week to either Sunday through Wednesday, or sometimes even Friday through Sunday. The emphasis shifted from evangelism to “meeting needs,” primarily marriage enrichment type of meetings.

Now, I find it rare to see or hear of a congregation hosting an evangelistic meeting, although some “felt needs” kind of meetings are still held. I think this is a huge loss for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that congregations are exposed to fewer and fewer preachers and topics. Congregations have fewer opportunities to interact with each other, and the sense of “brotherhood” is suffering.

Where I am currently ministering (the San Luis Valley Church of Christ in Alamosa, Colorado) we recently hosted two amazing seminars/workshops. I want to describe each very briefly to encourage anyone who is looking for options to serve their community or to grow and inspire their congregations.

The Widowhood Workshop with Dean Miller. This is a workshop designed to (a) educate the congregation about the needs and ministry opportunities both for and by the widows and widowers in your community, and (b) empower a congregation to begin a ministry to its widows and widowers. Dean Miller is a widower himself, and is currently preaching in Maury City, Tennessee. This workshop is designed for three days (Sunday through Wednesday night) and is equal parts message to the congregation and outreach to community members. A separate presentation is available during one of the days (Monday, preferably) for Bro. Miller to speak to a community group and to encourage community members to attend the Monday-Wednesday night meetings. As Bro. Miller points out, the odds of both husband and wife dying at the exact same moment are just astronomically small. So, at some point in time virtually every marriage will end with either a wife or husband being widowed. Bro. Miller begins with a survey of biblical material documenting just how critical ministry to the widowed is in God’s revelation. He then explores the needs and feelings of the widowed, the various issues confronting the widowed, and even includes a special session on the question of remarriage and blending families. As a result of this workshop, a young couple has assumed the responsibility of creating a ministry to the widowed in our community, and I am firmly convinced that over time this outreach will have a significant impact on our community. I do highly recommend Bro. Miller and his workshop. More information is available at double-u double-u double-u dot widowhoodworkshop dot org. (spelled out to keep spam bots from attacking!)

Church Inside Out with Tim Archer. Tim is the Spanish ministries director at the Herald of Truth in Abilene, Texas. He has been a missionary in Argentina and has made numerous trips to assist the churches in Cuba. Tim has an incredible heart for evangelism, and through the years has developed a keen eye and a scholar’s pen to share what he has learned. What I love so much about Tim’s approach is that it is (a) thoroughly biblical, and (b) psychologically sound. Much of what I abhor about evangelistic programs, materials, and methodologies is that they hang a target on the back of a “lost soul,” and then force the “evangelist” to follow a prescribed methodology that is inflexible and domineering. A teacher is given a notebook (sometimes hundreds of pages long) and told to follow a rigid set of questions and then hold a Bible study using a set of chain references designed to convince the “lost soul” how to be a Christian in “X” number of sessions. If they have not been converted by the end of session 3 or 5 or whatever, give up and move on. One common aspect of these “follow the bouncing Scripture” methods is that the student is never, never, ever allowed to ask a question. If they do, the proper response is to divert their attention back to the chain reference of Scriptures and move them toward baptism.

Exactly what the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh Day Adventists teach their door-knocking missionaries.

Tim’s approach is much more student oriented. I cannot explain (nor do I want to) the entire process in this little post, but Tim begins with the student and his or her relationship to God, and then works with them to draw them closer to God. With some people that means what we do is pray for them, that God will “plow the field.” With other students that may mean listening to them (and YES, even allowing them to ask questions!!), with others that may mean we sit down and work through the gospel story (focusing on just one passage of Scripture, not a “follow the bouncing chain reference” approach). The goal for Tim is not just baptism (although he makes clear that is critical) – it is the creation of a disciple of Christ.

If your congregation is serious about creating disciples who can then create disciples, I highly recommend Tim’s seminar. You can contact Tim at double-u double-u double-u dot HearaldofTruth dot org.

One Body with Matt Carter. I learned of Matt’s seminar quite serendipitously through Tim Archers blog, the Kitchen of Half Baked Thoughts (a must if you want to be challenged in your thinking). Matt just recently completed a Doctor of Ministry degree from the Harding School of Theology, where he serves as the Director of Admissions. Matt also serves as a worship minister for the Church of Christ at White Station in Memphis, Tennessee. Matt’s doctoral project/dissertation was focused on the so called “gifts of the Spirit,” and he overwhelmingly demonstrates that we have almost universally misunderstood what those gifts are. I know that is a radical statement, but his study and defense of this proposition is conclusive to me. Once again, I do not want to attempt to explain the entire workshop in just a couple of paragraphs, but suffice it to say that the “gift” is not some miraculous manifestation of the Spirit that takes days, if not months or years, to discover. Rather, God prepares each Christian through a number of ways to be a “gift” to the local congregation, using the power of the Spirit. He begins with a thorough examination of the pertinent passages of Scripture, and then concludes with a session of personal reflection and communal affirmation, usually around a meal. This workshop was just unbelievably powerful for me, and I cannot wait to see how his message will transform our congregation. Contact Matt at double-u ┬ádouble-u double-u dot onebodyworkshop dot com.

I was profoundly lucky enough to be able to combine Tim Archer’s and Matt Carter’s workshops into one extended workshop on one Saturday. Matt can conduct his workshop on a Sunday (Bible class, worship, and communal meal), and Tim’s workshop takes anywhere from 4-5 hours, depending on the congregation’s needs and Tim’s schedule. We were also fortunate enough to keep both Tim and Matt over until Sunday when they each presented an additional lesson.

All told, this little congregation received about a million dollars worth of information, encouragement, and blessings over the past two months. I am sitting here just in awe of the material we received – and attempting to process how we are going to put it all into practice.

If your congregation is looking for a message – or messages – that will empower and inspire your family to outreach and growth, I highly encourage you to contact these men to see if they can serve you in the near future. Tim’s and Matt’s schedules are full to overflowing, and Dean’s schedule will fill up quickly after word of his workshop is spread around. I suggest you contact these men quickly to arrange for a meeting with your congregation.

The Church Really Needs to Rediscover the Old Testament

I’m preaching a series of sermons on Christ and Culture. What has been the best source of pertinent material?

The Old Testament.

I kid you not. When it comes to speaking to the contemporary church about the dangers of lapsing into the modern malady of multiple-ideology malaise, the best biblical response is given in the first testament of faith, not the second.

Last week I preached on Deuteronomy 7, 8, and 9 – Moses’s warnings to the Israelites not to think too highly of their numbers, their seeming military strength, or their righteousness. If the contemporary church does not need to hear that sermon then I will eat my diplomas. This week I turn to a fascinating character study in the life of Jeroboam I, who would become the patron saint (demon?) of bad kings in the northern kingdom of Israel.

On the one hand, Jeroboam had everything going for him that you would want in a king. God had a prophet go and specifically give Jeroboam the detailed prophecy of what was going to occur in his near future. God specifically chose Jeroboam for his divinely inspired mission. He gave him a specific sign to accompany the verbal prophecy. God promised Jeroboam a perpetual kingship, just as he had promised David. In short – Jeroboam had it all, and then some.

And then Jeroboam gave it all away. He became fearful. He thought he would lose what God had promised him. So he set about to fix a problem that did not exist. He called his cabinet together to discuss the issue. The problem, they decided, all revolved around the commanded, and therefore necessary, worship in Jerusalem. Eradicate that problem, and you solve the potential problem of losing your kingdom. So, Jeroboam built two temples, one in Dan and one in Bethel, complete with priesthood and ritual “like the one in Judah,” but one of Jeroboam’s own creation.

Well, I’m not going to give away all of my sermon, but what does that story have to teach the church? Funny you should ask.

Today I see the church focused almost exclusively on a problem that does not exist – or I guess I should say only exists in the minds of a few academics that are so focused on picking lint out of their bellybuttons that they have lost sight of reality. The church is worried (fearful!) about losing its young members, about not being “relevant” (whatever in the world that word means) to its surrounding culture, about giving up its “place in the conversation” concerning contemporary issues.

Jesus promised that he be lifted up, he would draw all men unto him. Jesus promised that even the gates of hell would not be able to withstand the onslaught of the gospel as preached by the church. God promised, and then demonstrated, that through Jesus’s life healing and wholeness would come to the entire world. Pretty powerful promises, if you ask me. Kind of like the promises Ahijah gave to Jeroboam, although you could say that Jeroboam’s promises did not even come close to what we have been promised.

And yet we sit around and fret because a young generation demands more and more from the church to meet their needs, that the world views the gospel as irrelevant, that we are not given a chair at the great conversation table. And I cannot help but think that God must be asking his legions of angels, “When are these people going to get my point?”

Read the next paragraph carefully, because what I am going to say is carefully nuanced. I do not care if a generation (or, actually just a portion of a generation) bullies the church and threatens to leave if its demands are not met. I do not care if by “relevancy” the current philosophy demands that I surrender the fundamental nature of God and of human beings. I do not care whether we have a “place at the conversation” if the conversation is all about how irrelevant and meaningless the church is, and what can be done to eliminate it from public discourse altogether. What I do care about, and care passionately, is that the church remains true to her commission, that she lifts up the name and saving work of her Lord, and that she refuses to surrender her very nature all because of an irrational fear of what might happen.

What might happen is not really theoretical at all. All a person has to do is to see what has happened to the Anglican (Episcopal) and Presbyterian churches after they have capitulated to the bullying demands of postmodernism. The number of adherents in those churches has plummeted, even as they make fundamental change after fundamental change in order to staunch the bleeding. And, really, what is the point of belonging to a church that basically believes everything and acts identically to the way its surrounding culture believes and acts? Why belong to a church that has eliminated the concept of sin, and therefore can offer no concept of salvation? If supporting your local sports team offers the same (or even greater) sense of community, and a lot more excitement, why waste time on your day off going to a religious assembly that has basically lost faith in its own mission and importance?

Jeroboam tried to bathe his new temples and ritual in pious, even consecrated, language. “Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” (1 Kings 12:28, see Exodus 32:4!) God was not fooled. In one of the most explicit, and terrifying, rejections of the plans of man against his divine will to be found in the entire Bible, God told Jeroboam, “. . . but you have done evil above all who were before you and have gone and made for yourself other gods and metal images, provoking me to anger, and have cast me behind your back.” (1 Kings 14:9, emphasis mine)

You see, that is what I am afraid of. We can make other gods and create alternate rituals and build imposing edifices (real and philosophical), and we can attempt to bathe those gods and rituals and edifices in pious and even “Christian” language. But we will never fool God. I am personally terrified that in our efforts to save the church, all we are doing is casting God behind our backs.

Folks, that is a horrifying thought. And that is why I believe the church needs to rediscover the Old Testament.