The Gordian Knot of Hermeneutics

I have been pondering something so much lately I have a headache. Mind you, my mental capacity could never be described as excessive, and it is dwindling by the year – but still, I have a couple of synapses that are still firing.

My conundrum is this: how can people who hold to virtually the same concept of the inspiration and trustworthiness of Scripture come to such varied, and sometimes even diametrically opposed, interpretations of some passages of that Scripture? I get it that classic liberals and hard-core fundamentalists should be at each others’ throats. But what disturbs me is that I have acquaintances who, at least on a surface level, agree that the Bible is the inspired and authoritative word of God, and they and I are so far apart on some issues that we cannot even worship together.

As Ricky would say to Lucy, “‘Splain me.”

What I have decided is that the problem is not one’s view of inspiration (although, at one level it might certainly be). It is certainly not one’s love for the Bible, or for Jesus, or for his church. The problem, as I see it, is the issue of hermeneutics.

Hermeneutics is one of those words for which there are probably as many definitions as there are individuals who use it. For me there is a very simple definition, although some might find it lacking: hermeneutics is the process by which we apply, or interpret, Scripture. It is differentiated from exegesis in that exegesis is the process by which we determine what the passage meant in its original, historic context. Therefore, while some disagreements are narrowly focused on matters of exegesis (meanings of words, aspects of grammar, specific details of historical setting), I am growing more convinced that it is actually the process by which we selectively apply Scripture that is the cause of most problems.

As honestly as I can say it, we are all hermeneutical sinners. We all violate certain hermeneutical principles that we demand others obey. None of us are entirely, perfectly consistent. All of us selectively use or dismiss passages that support or challenge our interpretation. All of us come to the Bible with preconceptions (even believing that the Bible is the inspired word of God is a preconception!) None of us are entirely successful in removing, or bracketing out, those preconceptions. Some are certainly better than others, but the minute you declare perfection you have just violated the principle of approaching the Scripture in humility.

In other words, in the immortal  words of Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

I reflect on this as I consider an interview conducted with Ken Ham, he of the Noah’s Ark museum and a staunch believer in “young earth” (approximately 6,000 years old) creationism. He said in so many words that if Christians challenge the “literalness” of Genesis, they have no means of supporting their doctrine.

Well, I hate to burst Ken Ham’s bubble, but I am one of the committed believers in the divine and authoritative inspiration of Scripture, and I cannot now, nor will I in the foreseeable future, ever accept the conclusion that the Bible scientifically proves the earth to be not much older than 6,000 years. It may, in absolute fact, only be that old. That is not my main disagreement with Ham. What I object to, in the most emphatic of ways possible, is the proposition that we can use the Bible as some sort of a chronological textbook to ascertain the age of the earth. This number was first arrived at through the prodigious effort of Church of Ireland Archbishop James Ussher (d. 1656), who determined that the earth was created on October 23, 4004 B.C. (I have seen the book which documents Ussher’s work – it is ponderous!) The problem with this, and many other efforts to date the age of the earth, is that you have to depend on genealogical lists that were compiled, not as literal, physical lines of lineage, but for specific political and/or theological reasons. That, and then you have to work with some incredibly difficult comparisons and computations of ancient calendars (which, if I remember correctly, comprises the bulk of Ussher’s work).

For evidence, I offer two genealogies. One, the lineage of Zadok, found in 1 Chronicles 6:1-15 and in a much abbreviated form in 1 Chronicles 9:11, and in Ezra 7:1-5. The genealogy in Ezra has a six generation gap – which is interesting in and of itself, but is even more interesting if it is true that the author of the books of the Chronicles was Ezra himself, as many scholars believe. Now, if you want to argue that the list in 1 Chronicles 6 is the full and complete list, go ahead. But here is the problem: the list in Ezra 7 is just as inspired, and just as authoritative, and just as theologically important for Ezra’s readers as the list in 1 Chronicles was for those original readers, and the two lists are significantly different! You cannot elevate the Chronicles list as being more historically accurate without denigrating the historical accuracy of the Ezra list. Yet, if you accept that both lists are inspired and accurate for the purpose for which the author’s intended, you have just accepted my premise – you cannot use the biblical genealogies as scientifically perfect specimens of biological lineage. (Critical exegetical note here: the word “father” in ancient Semitic languages can mean anything from one’s own specific human father to a grandfather, or even more remote male relative. Here is where exegesis can, and should, inform hermeneutics).

The second genealogy is far better known – that of Jesus in Matthew 1 and Luke 3. Even a cursory glance reveals significant differences between the two lists. These differences have been summarily dismissed as the result of the Matthean genealogy being that of Joseph, and the Lukan genealogy as being that of Mary. I will wager a year’s salary to anyone who can prove to me from Scripture that Luke intends his genealogy to be through Mary and not Joseph! It cannot be done, and I have tried every which way from Tuesday to do it. The only way you can arrive at that conclusion is to assume it from the beginning – and as I compare the two lists that is just not a valid assumption, for while they have significant differences, they share a remarkable level of agreement.

But, let’s say I am wrong (and that would not be the first, or the last time), so let’s look at Mathew’s genealogy more closely: he has arranged it in three groups of 14. This in itself lends toward a theological, and not purely historical, arrangement. But look even more closely: in the first two sections there are 14 generations, the first beginning with Abraham, the second beginning with Solomon. But the only way you can come up with 14 in the third set is to count Jeconiah twice – once as the last generation in the second section and once as the first generation of the third set. (David is not so counted in the second group). I’m not making this up – you can count for yourself and, besides, it has been documented and discussed thoroughly in critical commentaries. So – are the lists false? Did Matthew not know his history or his theology? NO! and NO! But he did create his “genealogy” with a specific purpose in mind, and if we are going to stand under Scripture instead of standing over Scripture, we must first accept Matthew’s listing as being different from Luke’s, and then proceed to attempt to determine the historical and theological reasons for the discrepancies.

Artificially harmonizing differing accounts in Scripture in order to prove a debatable theory is dishonest. To do so, and then to demand that everyone accept your conclusion, is even more than dishonest. Those who do so to gain a following do great damage to the cause of seeking the truth.

So, how are we going to untie the “Gordian Knot” of hermeneutics? I’m afraid that solution is beyond my limited mental capacity. There is one thing about which I am absolutely convinced, however: no Christian should be afraid of seeking the truth of any matter. God has nothing to fear from human inquiry.

Let us begin with a proper posture before the text, however, and remember we stand under it, not over it!

Book Review: Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus (Reggie L. Williams)

Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance, Reggie L. Williams (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014) 170 pages including extensive endnotes.

Through the years I have developed somewhat of a credo for my reading/education: I cannot learn anything from someone with whom I agree 100%. I may be encouraged, challenged, edified, reminded, or entertained, but very, very, rarely can I be educated. When I want to learn something, I must reach outside my circle of experience and understanding. In terms of fulfilling that credo, Reggie Williams’ Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus dots every “i” and crosses every “t.”

I first came to meet Dr. Williams in a seminar hosted by Wheaton College on the subject of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and culture in April, 2012. I was finishing up my Doctor of Ministry degree at Fuller Theological Seminary and much to my joy and everlasting gratitude, Fuller allowed me to create a guided study of the theology of Bonhoeffer. The professor assigned to guide me in this study was Dr. Glen Stassen who was a professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller, and a devoted Bonhoeffer scholar. Dr. Williams completed his Ph.D. under Dr. Stassen, so in an academic sort of way there were a number of stars that were aligning themselves that would finally come together during this seminar.

Dr. Williams’ topic at the seminar was on the impact of the year Bonhoeffer spent in New York, 1930-31, and in particular, his exposure to the world of Black Christianity in Harlem. If you are interested in Bonhoeffer, you can read all the seminar’s lectures in the book, Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture (Downer’s Grove, IVP Academic, 2013). If you want to be fully educated about Bonhoeffer’s experience with the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, you need to read Williams’ complete exposition in this volume, listed above.

To be perfectly honest, reading this book was difficult for me. I am, to a very large extent, the product of the very protected and dominating white culture that Williams identifies in this book as the evil that Bonhoeffer witnessed in Harlem. Reading what Bonhoeffer witnessed during his year in New York was not pleasant. (Note: I had read Bonhoeffer’s account numerous times, but reading the same words through the eyes of Dr. Williams was enlightening – in a very disturbing sense. I had read Bonhoeffer’s words, but through Dr. Williams I actually felt them. It was, as I said, disturbing.)

To provide an exhaustive review of this book would require much more space than I typically aim for in these blog posts. Suffice it to say that Dr. Williams writes as an insider to the injustice Bonhoeffer identified in his work at Abyssinian. While this is truly an academic product, it is also a labor of love – and a gripping account of Bonhoeffer’s experience in Harlem. Williams provides a lucid explanation of the “Black Christ” to whom Bonhoeffer would have been exposed to in Harlem, the economic and cultural background of the Harlem Renaissance, and draws a clear line of contact between that experience and Bonhoeffer’s work with and for the hated Jewish community in Nazi Germany.

This book would be an extremely valuable purchase if you are interested in: Bonhoeffer and his life; Black theology and its impact not only on Bonhoeffer, but also later 20th century theology; racism, ethics, and/or the role of the gospel of Christ in confronting culture in any age. My only criticism of the book is that it tends to read in somewhat of a stilted manner, and not at all like the wonderful manner in which Dr. Williams speaks.

I actually was able to speak to Dr. Williams following his presentation at Wheaton. I was desperately seeking a topic for my dissertation, and somehow I managed to catch Dr. Williams when he was not the center of a huge group of people (NOT an easy task!) I explained my situation as hurriedly as I could, and to my great surprise and pleasure, Dr. Williams took a number of minutes to question me about what I had studied, what I was attempting to accomplish, and what ideas I already had. In about 15 minutes I felt an inviting warmth and welcome that touched me deeply. I know that experience has influenced my reception of Dr. Williams’ book – and so I want to stress again – this book identifies the racial divide that continues to trouble the Lord’s church. If you are unwilling, or unable, to look in the mirror and examine your own life in light of this reality, do not bother buying or reading this book. If you are willing, and if you can invest in the effort to examine your own ideological weaknesses, then I highly recommend this book.

Luke 22:35-38

In the seemingly never-ending debate over guns and gun ownership and how to curb gun violence, one passage of Scripture keeps showing up. There are some remarkable aspects to this passage, and I have been working for some time on how to properly interpret and apply the passage. I have come to the conclusion that there is one interpretation that I emphatically reject, one interpretation that makes sense on one level, but which I ultimately conclude is not satisfactory, and then I have my own tentative (as much as I can be tentative) interpretation.

To begin, let us put the passage before us:

And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered wit the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment. And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.” (Luke 22:35-38, ESV)

Let me begin with the interpretation that I flatly reject. It has been suggested that this passage provides clear support for the concept of arming oneself to the teeth for the purpose of self-protection. I simply cannot accept that interpretation for this passage. I have a number of reasons for making that statement.

  1. This teaching of Jesus is only found in one gospel, and in only one place. I am exceedingly nervous about single-text theology, and anytime anyone wants to build a huge platform on one single text I get suspicious – even if I am leaning toward accepting the conclusion of what is being discussed.
  2. In regard to the above point, when single-text interpretation is necessary, a person must always ask, “Is there (or are there) any text(s) that teach the opposite of what I believe this text is teaching?” In this case I believe there is not just one, but actually a number, of texts that refute the above interpretation. (1) Matthew 5:39, which the ESV translates as “But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil…” That phrase is better translated, “Do not resist by evil means*.” Jesus clearly resisted evil people! The apostles resisted evil people, and Christians of all generations have resisted evil people in their world. But Jesus never used the evil tactics of the individuals he was resisting – same with the disciples. Using a sword to defeat a sword would be in clear violation of Matthew 5:39. (2)  Matthew 26:52 – “Those who take the sword will perish by the sword.” If Jesus wanted his disciples to be armed, he certainly prohibited the use of those weapons. (3) John 18:36 – “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not of this world.” Swords are weapons to defend worldly kingdoms – either personal or national. Jesus repudiated the idea that his kingdom was this-worldly. So there are actually a number of passages that contradict the interpretation that Jesus was condoning the use of weapons for self-protection.
  3. The book of Acts, the letters of Paul, James, and Peter, and subsequent church history demonstrate the dozens, if not hundreds, of ways in which the disciples of Christ submitted to abuse and even martyrdom rather than defend themselves with offensive weapons.

So, if Jesus was not condoning the use of weapons for self-defense, what was he doing? I now turn to the interpretation that at least on one level makes sense, but on further reflection just does not convince me. That is that Jesus was making sure there was at least one sword among the eleven remaining disciples so that the prophecy of Isaiah 53:12 could be fulfilled. After all, isn’t this the interpretation that Jesus himself provided? Well, yes and no.

First, there is no indication anywhere in any of the gospels – especially Luke – that the disciples were included in the arrest or trial of Jesus. How could he be “numbered with the transgressors” if the disciples were not considered to be “transgressors”? Second, consider the context of the saying – it was well after dark on the night of one of the highest feast days of the Jews. Where in the world would any of them be able to “sell his cloak and buy a sword?” But if the saying was meant to be in fulfillment of Isaiah 53:12 it would have to be fulfilled that night – Jesus could hardly be considered to be “numbered with the transgressors” if his disciples went out and bought a bunch of swords weeks or even days after his death. And, just to carry that thought one step further – where exactly were they supposed to by such swords? The Romans? Jewish zealots? The local pawn shop? Third, the events of the evening flatly contradict the idea that Jesus was arrested for insurrection. No charge of armed rebellion was brought against Jesus – treason yes (before Pilate), but armed rebellion, no. In fact, the attempt to do so strikes me like that of a Monty Python skit:

Accuser – “This man is an anarchist. His slave chopped off the ear of your servant!”
Chief Priest (examining the ear of his servant) – “He did?”
Accuser – “. . . well, yes, . . . but then this terrorist put it back on .”
Chief Priest – “Thanks a lot!”

It just seems to me that Luke is far too precise an author to make these kinds of factual, and even theological, mistakes. So, while I believe wholeheartedly that Jesus was reminding his disciples of the prophecy of Isaiah 53, I just do not think he was using his disciples as the “transgressors” to which the prophecy referred. So, if not option number two, is there a third choice? I believe there is.

I believe that this exchange between Jesus and his disciples was recorded by Luke to demonstrate (1) Jesus’s acceptance of his immediate fate, and (2) the disciples continued misunderstanding of not only Old Covenant prophecy, but Jesus’s own explicit teaching.

I have already said that I do not believe Jesus was somehow surrendering his disciples to use the weapons of the world to defend themselves. In point of fact, in John 15-16 Jesus makes it clear that when the Holy Spirit would be given to the disciples, they would be better armed and protected than even when he, Jesus, was present with them. I reject the idea that the “transgressors” with whom Jesus was to be numbered were the disciples – I believe that the two thieves/robbers with whom Jesus was crucified fulfilled Isaiah 53. If those two options are removed, and if we grant that Luke was a precise and deliberate author (guided by the Holy Spirit, no less) then we have to explore the idea that what Luke recorded in 22:35-38 was an ironic conversation, one that the disciples utterly, completely, misunderstood.

As one last, but I believe significant, bit of evidence, I suggest that Jesus’s response – “It is enough” has enough biblical background to support this interpretation. Consider Genesis 45:28, Deuteronomy 3:26, 1 Kings 19:4, 1 Chronicles 21:15. In these texts the expression is used as a command to stop the conversation – a point of absurdity had been reached and there was no sense in continuing any further. The disciples response, “Looky here, Jesus, we have two swords!” demonstrated their lack of understanding. Jesus just put a stop to the conversation. It was as if saying, “I give up. I’m not even going to try to explain.”

There are many passages of Scripture that we want to turn to as a “proof text” to defend what we already want to believe. When that occurs we must be extraordinarily careful that we slow down, apply all of our tools of exegesis and hermeneutics, and especially consider if there are other passages that suggest an alternate interpretation. I believe Luke 22:35-38 provides such an example. I freely admit my interpretation may be in error, and so in conclusion I would simply suggest that it is far better in the long run to say, “I do not know” what a passage means, and be absolutely correct, than to defend interpretations that are absolutely wrong.

*I am indebted to Glen Stassen for this insight. See Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, p. 137-138, 186.

Definitions – Theology

In my thought world nothing is as important as theology. In my spiritual family, nothing is as ridiculed and dismissed as theology. Which makes for some interesting self-talk. Some might question why I spend so much time doing something that no one believes is important. In providing an answer I return to my mantra for this series – it is all in how you define – and understand – the meaning of a word.

In the history of the Churches of Christ, no word is as abused as the word theology. Virtually every promoter of the American Restoration Movement dismissed it, and it would be very difficult to find any prominent leader who would embrace it. The first college associated with the Disciples of Christ/Churches of Christ (Alexander Campbell’s Bethany College) included a specific clause that prohibited the establishment of a professor of theology. Theology, to many early Restoration leaders, was anathema. Their hatred of the practice, and even of the word, has had lasting influence. In my university training we did not have courses in theology – we took courses in The Religious Teaching of the Old Testament, but nary a word about Old Testament theology.

This dismissal of a perfectly good and useful word is one of the great mistakes of these spiritual giants. I will defend Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, Moses Lard, Walter Scott, David Lipscomb, et. al., even when I disagree with them, but in this instance they just made a horrible mistake. The huge irony with their mistake is that they were all – every bloomin’ one of them – exquisite theologians. They wrote, and preached, some of the best theology this world has read and heard.

The fact is that any time God, Jesus, the Bible, or any topic mentioned therein, is under discussion, there is theology. Everyone who says or thinks about God or the Bible is practicing theology. If you say God created the world, you are making a theological statement. If you say that baptism is necessary for salvation you are practicing theology. If you make a comment in Bible class that you believe the book of Revelation describes what happens after the day of judgement, you are making a theological judgment.  You just cannot be a student of the Bible and avoid being a student of theology.

As with so many other disciplines, there are a number of sub-groups within the larger field of theology, and here is where Campbell (and his co-workers) made their big mistake. They were reacting against one sub-set of theology, but they “threw the baby out with the bathwater” as the old saying goes, when they dismissed the entire discipline because of the abuse of one small part of it. Theology in its largest sense is made up of a bewildering number of smaller subjects – just a few of which are:

  • Christology – the study of Jesus.
  • Pneumatology – the study of the Holy Spirit.
  • Eschatology – the study of the “last days.”
  • Ecclesiology – the study of the church.
  • Soteriology – the study of salvation.

To expand the horizon ever further, there is the formal study of Old Testament theology, New Testament theology, Biblical theology, the study of human sin, of grace, of prayer, and even of ethics. In fact, the study of theology is truly extensive. To continue to expand the horizon, each and every one of these smaller segments of theology can be performed on a number of different levels – from the coffee shop table, to the preacher’s study, all the way to the academician’s ivory tower, and a number of stops along the way.

To return to the early leaders of the Restoration Movement – what they were objecting to can be described as dogmatic theology, as opposed to systematic theology. They were all engaged in systematic theology – Campbell and Lipscomb both wrote volumes that could be called systematic theologies. Campbell even called his book The Christian System! So don’t try to argue with me that these leaders were not theologians.

So, what were these pioneers objecting to? While some use the words dogmatic theology and systematic theology synonymously, there is in the most specific usage a significant difference. Dogmatic theology is written for a specific religious group, it is authoritative, and those who are given the power to promote and defend that group are not allowed to stray from it. It is basically creedal in form – “This is what we believe, and if you do not accept this teaching, you cannot be a part of this church.” Thus you have Catholic dogmatic theologians, Lutheran dogmatic theologians, Anglican dogmatic theologians, etc. What Campbell, et.al., recognized was that dogmatic theology is divisive theology. They believed, correctly, I would agree, that the only authoritative word is the Word of God. We might opine on any number of subjects, but we cannot demand that anyone bow their knee to our understanding – only to the inspired Word of God.

Systematic theology, on the other hand, is more general, and does not purport to be authoritative, although it does attempt to be thorough. Systematic theologians say, in effect, “This is what the Bible says about “X” subject, and while I have attempted to be complete, there may be more to be said on this subject.” Campbell, Stone, Lipscomb and many others were consummate systematic theologians. Every preacher who has ever delivered a sermon is a systematic theologian. Every Christian who has ever had a conversation about God, Jesus, the church, sin, salvation, the Holy Spirit, prayer, or the meaning of the parables is a systematic theologian – just in varying degrees of expertise.

Let us be done with our rejection of the word theology. It is a great word, and an even greater discipline. Let us be wary of being dogmatic, but let us never weary of promoting the proper and necessary study of the Word of God.

**For those who are interested, there is a marvelous little book devoted to this subject entitled, Who Needs Theology: An Invitation to the Study of God by Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson, published by InterVarsity Press, 1996. It is perhaps one of the finest books introducing theology that I have read. I have some other resources that you might be interested in – if you are curious just comment here and I will provide those titles as well.

Definitions – Scripture

I love words – a gift I gratefully acknowledge that came from my father. If a lover of books can be called a bibliophile, then I am a logophile. I love words for the power that they have, for the humor that many contain, and for the manner in which we use them. I also find it both amusing and frustrating that, especially in religious conversations, we cannot come to a common understanding about what words should mean.

I have previously discussed the word baptism. Today I take my pitchfork to the word scripture to see if I can sift out anything concerning that word. Spoiler alert – not much of a chance. Just like baptism, the meaning of the word scripture is totally in the eye of the beholder, but maybe I can cause us to think more deeply about what we mean when we use the word.

I begin by noting that there are a number of ways in which we differ when we use the word scripture. For some it is a matter of ecclesial, of church, dogmatics. For example, in the Roman Catholic church, many books are considered as part of Scripture that are not included in the Bibles used by Protestants. These books are identified by Roman Catholics as deuterocanonical (added second to the canon) or by Protestants as apocryphal (hidden). Thus, which branch of Christianity you claim to follow can have a bearing on what you consider to be scripture.

There is another manner in which a person can identify scripture, and that is purely utilitarian. In this process one sifts the wheat from the chaff by deciding if the book, or passage, in question actually works in real life. Thus, for an increasing number of egalitarians and feminists, much of what Paul wrote is simply not scripture because it is outdated, patriarchal, and sexist. Great swaths of the Old Testament are removed for the same reason, or because God is pictured as being a warrior, or for his seemingly unquenchable desire for ethnic cleansing. Although it would not be defined in quite so bluntly, this method of identifying scripture can be labeled, “It’s not scripture if I disagree with it.”

Then there is the paring down of the totality of scripture through either ignorance or avoidance. In his category I place many “New Testament” Christians, who avoid much or all of the Old Testament because it is unfamiliar, or because it challenges them too severely (very similar to the utilitarian approach discussed above). Genesis is okay, because there are some really cool stories written therein, but the rest of the Pentateuch (Exodus – Deuteronomy) is verboten – too much law and not enough gospel. Heaven forbid any sermon or class come from the prophets – especially those pesky (and incriminating) minor prophets. So, while they are technically included in the canon of scripture, these books are carefully and intentionally excised in order to preserve a level of safety and comfort.

So, how do you determine Scripture? (and I now return to the practice I believe is proper, that of capitalizing the word when used to refer to the entire and normative Word of God.) In my opinion, we can only stand under Scripture when we confess that there are many teachings within that canon with which we are going to disagree, and therefore we are faced with a decision. We can either allow those passages to be normative, or we will use some other point of reference to decide what is Scripture and what is not. If we use some other point of reference, we are no longer standing under Scripture, but we are standing over it – the as-yet-unidentified point of reference then becomes normative, and Scripture becomes its servant. For some that point of reference is their gender, or their understanding of gender. For some it is their idolatrous understanding of who and what God should be (idol in the sense of something created that is less than God). For some it is their wealth, which has displaced God. For some it is their nationalism, their racism, their philosophy of economics, or any one of a dozen more issues which compete with a person’s view of Scripture.

I will admit I am biased in certain directions. I just do not understand how we can appeal to Paul for his powerful exposition of God’s grace and at the same time utterly dismiss his directives for congregational polity. I do not understand how we can fawn over Jesus’s words of love and forgiveness and blithely reject his commands regarding justice. How can we adoringly quote from 1 Corinthians 13 and just completely disregard Amos?

I will also admit to being imperfect in applying my hermeneutic of Scripture – which is why I am all the more adamant that Scripture remain normative. If I get to decide what is Scripture and what is not, I have, in the immortal words of Pogo, become my own enemy. I will further admit that it is not always easy to determine what is normative for all time and across all cultures, and what was recorded because it was normative (or simply descriptive) of one time and in one culture. I think we can have those conversations, but only if we first agree that the words of the Bible must be their own judge, and not any aspect of our temporally limited understanding of such.

So, just as with baptism, the issue remains clear – as mud. I believe with all my being that there is a way forward – but it can only be successful if we first agree to ascend lower in our search for the meaning of Scripture.

That’s Why We Call Them “Elders”

Over the past several months I have come to appreciate certain things more deeply: health, a strong marriage, the love of a child. Our life’s circumstances can change in the blink of an eye, and very rarely for the better. All too often we lose something, or have something taken away from us, and all we have left are some memories and a bunch of questions.

In regard to the church, I have also come to realize, and appreciate, the simple wisdom of something that many take to be a relic of history, just a curiosity of a bygone era that needs to be erased as well. That “relic” is the practice of having churches overseen by a plurality of senior disciples called “elders.” For so many that is a quaint but no longer useful tradition that is more harmful than helpful. For me, it is becoming just one more example of the immeasurable wisdom of our creator God.

I am growing impatient, and even somewhat disgusted, with individuals who heap endless praise on the generation that is just now coming of age, calling them the most spiritual and mature generation to grace the face of the earth. I saw it in a comment just this past week. “This generation is just so much in love with Jesus!” the speaker said. Hidden within the comment was a dagger – no other generation in recent memory has ever loved Jesus like this group!

Oh. Spare. Me.

I was born into a generation that really loved Jesus. My parents’ generation really loved Jesus. My grandparents generation really loved Jesus. I can look back in history and identify generations whose love for Jesus makes this coming generation look like a bunch of wallowing sycophants. Spare me the generational comparisons – at least until this generation has had enough time to prove themselves.

One thing my generation did accomplish – or shall I say destroy – was to separate our “love for Jesus” from a love for his church and those who were tasked with leading it. I was born at the tail end of the “Jesus people” generation, the ones who screamed “Jesus yes, church no” at the top of our voices. We were taught not to trust anyone over 40. What this coming generation has been able to accomplish is to lower that age down to 30. Or, maybe 20. They have taken the Boomer’s disdain for the church and raised it exponentially. I note with a genuine degree of fear that, especially within the church, the disdain for age and seniority has reached Promethean heights. The term “elder” has lost all meaningful significance.

There are just some things that cannot be obtained without the passage of time: the capacity for maturity, depth of wisdom, the skill to raise multiple children through the stormy waters of adolescence, the ability to maintain and to deepen a strong marriage, the tact and strength to deal with aging and declining parents. There is more than just a poetic reason why white hair is the crown of a life well lived.

The thought occurred to me the other day that twenty-somethings know all the answers to all the questions. Persons over the age of 65 have experienced the questions – they have seen it, felt it, heard it, lived it, cried over it, had their hearts broken over it, conquered it, been almost destroyed by it, and somehow have managed to survive it. Twenty-somethings walk with a strut. Seniors walk with a limp – for a good reason.

I am not discounting book smarts. I think I did some of my best work in the first years of my ministry. I also left behind some wrecks. And I am not suggesting that mere age is some guarantor of wisdom. There are a lot of seniors who never matured out of adolescence. The fruit of the poisonous tree of the “Me Generation” will be around for a long time.

But, as simply and as passionately as I can put it, there is a reason for 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.  There is a wisdom and a maturity that those who have reached their sixth decade and beyond own that those who have only lived for two or two-and-a-half just cannot have. The practice of having a congregation overseen by senior disciples is not just a quaint artifact of a bygone era. It is rooted in the deepest wisdom of God. Congregations are hurting themselves – and possibly poisoning their future – by rejecting this divinely mandated practice.

There is a reason we call them elders. If we are wise, we will honor them, respect them, we will pay attention to and learn from their wisdom, and we will submit to their leadership.

The Church and the Idolization of Youth

“We have to do something to save our youth!” “We are losing too many of our youth!” “If we do not change our worship our young people will leave the church!” “We have to listen to our young people or they will not listen to us!”

On and on it goes. From what I hear the church is being strangled to death by a fear of young people leaving its membership. Preachers are hired and fired not on the basis of their wisdom and maturity, but on the basis of their attire and hair style. Churches want a “new voice” that will appeal to the younger generation. By some accounts the church is in a full blown panic over the fate of today’s youth.

It might be a shock to some, then, to discover that back in the early days of 1930-33 a young German theologian set out to address this very issue. More than just about anyone in his generation, he was acutely aware of the crisis of youth – especially in a world that was literally crumbling around their feet. His generation, and especially those younger than him, were clamoring for the church to heed their demands, to change its stodgy ways, to conform to a “new” reality. Rather than approach the problem from the cloistered cell of some ivory tower, this young pastor went to work among the poorest of the poor in his city. The young men who were placed in his care were far more familiar with violence and prostitution than the parables of Jesus. When they threatened to wreck his classroom, he would put records of “Negro spirituals” for them to listen to. When his young charges were ready for the ceremony of confirmation, he realized they had no decent clothes to wear. So he bought enough material for each to have a suit, and paid for a tailor to make them one. He was no ordinary youth minister. He did more than teach. He washed feet.

So his words carry far more weight than some ivory-tower theoretician. I share that because he prepared what have been labeled as eight “Theses on Youth Work in the Church.” It is unknown when he wrote them, but probably before 1933. I share some pertinent excerpts:

  1. Since the days of the youth movement, church youth work has often lacked that element of Christian sobriety that alone might enable it to recognize that the spirit of youth is not the Holy Spirit and that the future of the church is not youth itself but rather the Lord Jesus Christ alone. It is the task of youth not to reshape the church, but rather to listen to the word of God: it is the task of the church not to capture the youth, but to teach and proclaim the word of God.
  2. Our question is not: What is youth and what rights does it have, but rather: What is the church-community and what is the place of youth within it?
  3. . . . It is only within the church-community that one can pass judgement on the church-community.
  4. The church-community suspends the generational problem. Youth enjoy no special privilege in the church-community. . . God’s spirit in the church has nothing to do with youthful criticism of the church, the radical nature of God’s claim on human beings has nothing to do with youthful radicalism, and the commandment for sanctification nothing to do with the youthful impulse to better the world.
  5. The Bible judges youth quite soberly: Gen. 8:21; Isa. 3:5; Jer. 1:6; Eccl. 11:10; 1 Pet. 5:5; 2 Tim. 2:2 et passim.
  6. Church youth work is possible only on the basis of addressing young people concerning their baptism and with the exclusive goal of having them hear God’s word.
  7. It may well be that the youth have the right to protest against their elders. If that be the case, however, the authenticity of such protest will be demonstrated by youth’s willingness to maintain solidarity with the guilt of the church-community and to bear that burden in love, abiding in penitence before God’s word.
  8. There is no real “church association”; there is only the church. . . Every church association as such already discredits the cause of the church.

[Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Theses on Youth Work in the Church” in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 12. Berlin:1932-1933. ed. Larry Rasmussen, trans. Isabel Best and David Higgins (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009) 515-517.]

The language is somewhat stilted, and the ecclesiology (baptism, etc) is Lutheran, but the theology is solid. I am constantly amazed that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9) and that questions that the church is asking today have been asked (and answered!) many times before. We do not have to re-invent the wheel. What we do need to do, however, is to listen to the wisdom of ages past. But before we can do that we have to have the humility to accept that people who lived before us were actually smart enough to answer the questions.

Lord, save us from the sin of idolizing our youth.

** I am indebted to the work of Andrew Root, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker: A Theological Vision for Discipleship and Life Together (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014) for providing an in-depth examination of Bonhoeffer and his ministry to young people. If you are interested in serving young people in an authentic way, or if you are just interested in the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I highly recommend this book. I think it will change your view of how the church is to hear, and to minister, to young people.