Church, Are We Asking The Right Questions?

Many people are led to believe that the Bible can provide answers to all of life’s questions. That may or may not be true – but it is absolutely critical in any case to make sure we are asking the right questions. Some questions have no answers, some questions may even have multiple answers, and some questions are so trivial that they do not even deserve an attempt at an answer. I am concerned that too many churches are asking the wrong questions, and therefore no matter how correctly the questions are answered, the church will be be no better for the asking.

  • In today’s world in which the innate God-given uniqueness of male and female is being challenged, many churches are more concerned about males and females being seen together in a public swimming facility.
  • In today’s world in which religious extremism is being flaunted by both left (through the proscription of any religious demonstration) and the right (through Islamic terrorism and the radical racism of the alt-right movement), many churches are more concerned about a physical demonstration of joy such as hand-clapping or raised hands or of penitence such as kneeling.
  • In today’s world in which the presentation of views outside of one’s own micro-narrative demands “trigger warnings” and “safe rooms,” churches are so insulated and xenophobic that any teaching not formally approved by the leadership is forbidden (including the reading of Scripture from an “unapproved” translation).
  • In today’s world in which a perceived threat is responded to with outright violence, many churches have completely abandoned the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount and actively promote a “concealed carry” and “stand your own ground” mentality.

Lest I be caricatured as something that I clearly am not, let me make myself clear: proper modesty is not a suggestion, it is a necessity. Every congregation has the right to set forth what is proper worship decorum. Leaders must be alert to what is being taught, and must prohibit false teaching. Finally, many faithful brothers and sisters have CC permits for legitimate reasons. These issues are all worthy of discussion, and faithful brothers and sisters can disagree about the specifics.

But are they core issues? Do they define the essence of the church? Is the eternal salvation of any person dependent upon a swimsuit, a raised hand, or a concealed carry permit?

You see, I do think that if someone believes that they can change their gender – or that gender is inconsequential – that person’s spiritual destiny is in danger. I do think that if a person believes that killing in the name of their god, or that one race or “religion” is superior to another – that person has denied the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus. I do believe that if a person rejects the way of the cross and preaches the way of the sword, that person is in danger of the hell of fire.

I do not believe any of those things because of my philosophy or my gender or my race or my nationality. I hold those beliefs because Jesus taught those things. The teachings of Jesus transcend gender and race and nationality. The teachings of Jesus transcend anger and hatred and pride. The teachings of Jesus do not simply modify human philosophies, the teachings of Jesus uproot and destroy human philosophies.

In the Kingdom of God the meek inherit the earth, the weak overcome the strong, the least is the greatest, the servant is the master, and the last finish first. In the Kingdom of God everyone submits – to each other! In the Kingdom of God feet are washed so that fists do not need to be clenched. In the Kingdom of God the other cheek is turned and the second mile is walked.

In the Kingdom of God we want to get the right answers, but we are more concerned about making sure we are asking the right questions.

I am convinced the world is asking some critical questions – eternally significant questions. I am also convinced that Jesus provides the answers to those questions. I believe most fervently that a congregation had better be asking, and searching for the answers to, those questions or it will finally be forced to admit what the world already knows – it is a meaningless and irrelevant museum full of old, dusty bones.

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#s 12 and 13)

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection, numbers 12 and 13, probably came from a time when I was really struggling to express how the two biblical concepts of grace and faithful response to that grace relate to each another. This relationship has posed problems for the church from its very earliest days, and I do not consider my feeble attempts at dissecting it to be the last word in the discussion. However, phrasing it the way I have has helped me understand the correlation of the two subjects. Hopefully it will help you . . . and if not maybe it will spur your thinking to create an understanding that is first of all biblical, and applicable as well.

12.  Grace always precedes covenant. This is illustrated by the covenants of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Likewise, covenant always follows grace.
13.  The practical work that flows from theology, then, must follow this pattern. We are drawn to God by his grace, but in order to thrive in a relationship with God we must be bound by God’s covenant.

The theological problem, and therefore the practical problem, that arises from this discussion relates to the elevation of either one of these two concepts above the other. For example, most evangelical theologians emphasize grace over faithful response. In fact, some will even go so far as to say that grace eliminates the need for faithful response. The thinking is thus: if God wills you to be saved, and if God’s will cannot be defeated, and if God’s grace is efficacious (and who would argue otherwise?), then you will be saved and nothing you do or do not do will change that verdict. This is Calvinism in the extreme, and is increasingly being promoted by a young and vociferous cadre of Calvinist theologians.

On the other end of the continuum are the radical Arminians, those who believe that Christians have to put a chair on top of a table, and then put a ladder on top of the chair, and then we have to climb to the top rung of the ladder, and then we have to stretch out our hand to God, and then, and only then, will he condescend to reach down and offer his grace. They do not deny grace, but grace is only extended when man has bathed himself in the sweat of climbing Jacob’s ladder.

I opine that both extremes are equally wrong, and pernicious. I believe that while grace is prior to a faithful response, it in no way precludes the necessity of a faithful response.

Without listing numerous passages (I have listed examples of grace preceding covenant, and covenant following grace above), I believe the consistent message of Scripture is that God always bestows his grace on mankind first, but that grace always contains an element of covenant, whether is it explicitly stated or not. The explicit covenants are numerous enough. God blesses first; but God always expects a faithful response.

Where “the rubber meets the road” for many people is the debate over the importance of baptism. I believe I can say with some measure of confidence that the prevailing attitude among evangelical writers and preachers is that individuals are saved when they “believe” or “accept Jesus in their hearts as their personal savior.” Some would ascribe the repetition of the “sinner’s prayer,” but even that is not a universal stipulation. Baptism, then, might be an appropriate response to one’s salvation, but is by no means necessary, and is believed by many to be a “mere” human work that does nothing other than signify the person’s willingness to become a member of a church.

Biblically speaking, nothing could be further from the truth! Baptism is NOT a human work. Baptism is always (and I repeat always) referred to as a passive act in the New Testament. Baptism is a submission to a command, that is true, but it is far more – it is a submission to a person, it is a submission to God’s act of grace demonstrated by Jesus’s death on the cross. We submit to baptism, we do not baptize (or save!) ourselves!

God’s grace is that Jesus died for our sins. God’s covenant with the believer begins with his or her submission to that death in the waters of baptism.

If you do not enter the covenant, how can you be covered by the grace?

We do not put a chair on the table, and a ladder on the chair, and reach up helplessly hoping God will somehow take notice of us. We are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8, if you are curious), but the same author stressed that the only way we can come into contact with that grace is by participation in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus through the waters of baptism (Romans 6:1-11, if you are curious).

Let us put aside Calvin and Arminius and focus on the Bible. So much rancor and division could be ended if we could all agree to ascend – by bowing 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?

Three Scriptures Christians Hate (III and summary)

So far in this series we have seen how Moses eliminates our ability to boast in our numbers. We cannot be proud to have the most numbers or that we can claim to have popular or “influential” members, nor is boasting that we are the ‘righteous remnant’ any safer. Our only security is in having a loving relationship with God. Moving just a little closer to the heart, Moses attacks our reliance on our self-reliance, our ability to “pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.” If we are able to accomplish anything, it is because God has empowered us to do so. Many times all he asks is that we have faith, and he will do the heavy lifting.

Today Moses cuts to the core; he hits us where it really hurts. Today Moses kills our inflated, and erroneous, view of our own righteousness.

Do not say in your heart, after the LORD your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,’ whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out before you . . . Know, therefore, that the LORD your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people.” (Deuteronomy 9:4, 6, ESV)

Before anyone rises to smite me, yes, I know. Moses is not literally speaking to “us.” He was speaking to the Israelites who had gathered to cross the Jordan and to take possession of the promised land. But I see in these three challenges, or rebukes if you will, a sermon that is as relevant today as it ever was. If there ever was a nation – or a church! – that prided itself on its numbers, its ability to create its own success, and that was overbearingly satisfied with its own righteousness, it is the United States and the populist American church. That is why I titled this series of posts “Three Scriptures Christians Hate.” It is not that genuine disciples of Christ hate these passages (although, to be honest, I am uncomfortable with them, because they cut to my own pride and self-reliance). No, what I am saying is that in the eyes of the populist American “church,” these passages would be anathema.

Moses was confronting the Israelites with three very real human sins. All of God’s people have at one time or another been tempted to rely on “group think,” or the tendency to trust in their numbers and their popularity. God’s people have been tempted to view their own strength as unstoppable. And God’s people have been seduced to think that success is the result of their righteousness. Moses told the Israelites they were wrong on all three counts. I think Moses is still right. I think we look at our numbers, at the size of our buildings, at the popular or “important” people who attend our services, and at our impeccable adherence to arcane doctrines as proof that God is blessing us.

I firmly believe God wants his church to grow. I can find no Scripture that says, “Follow me and become a loser.” The precise plans for the beautiful tabernacle and later the temple lets me know that God does take pleasure when we honor him with our wealth instead of hoarding it for ourselves, or wasting it on frivolous pleasures. And, lest we forget, it was God who said, “Be Holy as I am Holy.” Holiness is a good thing, and much to be sought after.

Its just that we can never boast of our numbers (or lack thereof!). We can never boast of our success. We can never boast of our righteousness. We can, and should, give thanks that God has blessed us, that God has given us the ability to grow and succeed, and that God has purified us and made us holy.

In other words, God wants us to succeed, to be blessed, to climb higher. But we ascend by going lower. We win by losing. We live by dying. It is all up-side-down. And that, I believe, is exactly what Moses was trying to say.

Become Like Children

In light of my focus on “Ascending Lower,” I was struck today by a section of a commentary on the gospel of Matthew I am currently working through. The passage is based on Matthew 18:4, and really needs no further explanation:

The vital difference, however, between the child and what Jesus calls for is that for the child this is a natural state, but what the kingdom of God calls for is a deliberately chosen (‘turn and become’) stance of humility. It is a form of self-denial that has its counterpart in the taking up the cross of 16:24. The challenge is to replace the assertion of one’s own importance with a deliberately chosen posture of subordination. (John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew (New International Greek Testament Commentary), p. 732.)

Cogitate on that for a while.

The Struggle of the Crucified Life

 

“Everyone wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.”

Anyone who has tried to live the Christian life, who has really tried to follow Jesus, knows the truth of that statement. It is just really hard to live a life when you are called to die. The apostles had a hard time getting it, the apostle Paul had to sit blind for three days to get it, the Constantinian church flatly rejected the idea. We just recoil at the thought that we might be called to die in order to live.

And, yet, the great examples of our faith did eventually understand the message. Paul prayed that he might become like Christ in his death, so that he might receive the “upward call” of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:8-14). Peter, too, exhorted his readers to accept a life of suffering for Christ (1 Peter 2:21-25).

The form of Christ on earth is the form of the death [Todesgestalt] of the crucified one. The image of God is the image of Jesus Christ on the cross. It is into this image that the disciples life must be transformed. It is a life in the image and likeness of Christ’s death (Phil. 3:10; Rom. 6:4f). It is a crucified life (Gal. 2:19). (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, English edition, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001, p. 285).

The problem for Christians in the democratic and capitalistic West is that we have no paradigm, no blueprint, for what a crucified life should look like. We know success – boy do we love and honor success! Humility, meekness, turning the other cheek, walking the extra mile, forgiving “70 x 7” – these are all obscure, even opaque, concepts. Why, we might as well even be called on to die.

And, that is exactly what Jesus called on us to do. “Take up your cross, and follow me.” (Matthew 10:38, 39; 16:24).

Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death. (Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, p. 87)

Living the crucified life is a struggle. Anyone who would argue otherwise is either a fool or has never attempted to do it. Everything within our human nature rebels against it. And that is why our fallen human nature must die. We must die so that God can send his Spirit within us and make us new creations (Romans 6:1-14 again).

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. (Psalm 51:10, ESV)

I can’t do it on my own. Only God can make me ascend lower. This I must learn. This I must accept. To this I must surrender myself.

God, be merciful to me, a sinner! (Luke 18:13, ESV)