Arrogance, Humility, and Institutional Memory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jury Duty?

I suppose of all modern problems, serving on a jury rates pretty low on the list. Never-the-less, the envelope that carries my jury duty summons has to rate at the very top of my least favorite to receive. The entire process of jury duty selection and service is among the most distasteful, and in my humble opinion, spiritually vexed problems that I face.

Many Christians view serving on a jury as a sacred honor – a privilege second only to active service in the military or law enforcement. I am thoroughly ambivalent. I understand all the flowery defense of the need for juries and the responsibility we have to serve. I just cannot get away from a nagging question – can a Christian participate in a flawed system and not thereby share in its guilt? To what extent is the cog just as guilty as the entire machine?

The jury summons that recently crossed my desk contains the following paragraph:

The right to trial by jury is guaranteed to all persons by both the United States and ********* Constitutions. The success of the jury system depends upon citizens performing their solemn duty to serve as jurors, while acting with integrity in discharging this responsibility.

Pretty high commendation. Just two questions – Is it true? and Is it Christian?

Let’s start phrase by phrase. A trial by jury is guaranteed to all persons. Check. No doubt, and no problem with that at all. Second, the success of the jury system depends on citizens (note the distinct lack of any qualifying adjectives) performing their solemn duty. Okay, well that one is a little more slippery. The trial of a racial minority by a racist jury is no success at all – it is a travesty and a crime itself. A trial involving a complicated legal question by an uninformed and basically ignorant jury is an equal travesty. So – the success of the jury trial system depends upon an educated and completely dispassionate jury. Such are rare, if not completely extinct. Third, the jurors must act with integrity. Here is where you lose me completely. Judges are not compelled to act with integrity – only to correctly apply the law. The suppression of critical evidence, the permission to allow certain witnesses – all may be legally correct, but integrity goes far and above legality. Defense attorneys are especially exempt from acting with integrity – it matters not at all to a defense attorney if his or her client is actually guilty, only that he or she be defended to the fullest extent of the law. And what about the state – can anyone say with a straight face that the state is required to act with integrity? It seems like every month, if not every week, a prisoner has been released after serving years, if not decades, in prison for crimes they did not commit. How many innocent individuals have been executed? All of these variables are somehow mitigated by a jury that acts with integrity? In many trials the only way a jury could act with integrity is to throw the entire court into jail for 30 days.

You see, the entire purpose of a legal system is to adjudicate truth and responsibility. If judges only have to dot “i”s and cross “t”s from a legal standpoint, if defense attorneys have to aggressively defend a client regardless of their guilt or innocence, and if the state’s attorneys can massage and/or withhold exculpatory evidence – how in the world can a jury be said to “act in integrity”?

Of course the rejoinder is that the jury is not responsible for the judge and his or her decisions, the jury is to weigh the merits of the case and not pay attention to the defense or prosecution attorneys. But, if the jury is misled, if the jury does not get to hear all of the pertinent evidence, if the jury is manipulated by high-sounding but vacuous rhetoric – how can the end result be said to have integrity? If the jury acquits the guilty, or if they convict the innocent – is it not thereby guilty of a gross crime, regardless of whether they acted “in integrity” according to some vague regulation?

The justice system must be based on a search for the truth, and as a protection for the immediate victim and for society at large. Our system is upside down. The entire system is designed to protect the rights of the accused; and the victim and society be . . . well, you get the picture.

As I said – I am utterly ambivalent. I know the importance of our legal system. As someone once said, it may not be perfect, but it is the best we have. But because of my experience both as a participant in the system and as a more than casual observer I see how bent and broken the system is. I also know that I am utterly powerless to effect any kind of change.

So – by law I am required to show up for jury duty, and to obey the law of the land I will comply. And if forced to serve, I will serve as dispassionately and with as much integrity as I can muster.

And, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer so eloquently argued, I will pray with all my heart and soul that God’s mercies can forgive the sins of those forced to do what their conscience objects to.

A Meditation on the Fourth of July: How To Set Yourself Free

A thought about setting oneself free on this day of remembering a day of national freedom . . .

You do not have to dig deep to discover the most significant problem in a majority of congregations today. It goes something like this:

Major premise – “I am always right”
Minor premise – “My interpretation of a passage of Scripture is _____”
Conclusion – “My interpretation of this passage must be right.”

Obviously, the problem with this syllogism is that the major premise is demonstrably false. No person is always right – about just about anything. The minor premise is equally problematic. Since when does anyone’s opinion about the interpretation of a passage have anything to do with its truthfulness? A hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, or a million people can all hold the same opinion about a passage of Scripture and it still be an invalid interpretation. So, if both the major and minor premise are wrong or problematic, then the conclusion cannot be true. The interpretation may be correct, it may be incorrect, or it may be partially incorrect and partially correct.

Just don’t tell some people that they are wrong. Oh, they may say that they might be wrong about something. But just try to pin them down to what they might be wrong about. Pretty soon you discover that what they call a risk of error is well nigh an impossibility.

Entire congregations can be held hostage by one or two belligerent individuals who refuse to consider, even for a moment, that they might be mistaken. Entire lives can be ruined by the fallacious belief that a person is always correct, and therefore anything he or she believes must be correct.

How can a congregation, or a person, declare their independence? With the simple phrase, “I was wrong, and I admit it.”

Confession – what a thought! Just try it. Repeat the following until you come to honestly believe the truth behind them –

  • “It is okay if I am wrong.” With very few exceptions (loaded guns, drinking poison, and thinking a rattlesnake is a stick) errors of belief are rarely fatal.
  • “I am not perfect, and I do not have to be.” Only one life has been perfect, and you are NOT him.
  • “A person can be absolutely convinced, and still be wrong – and still be loved and appreciated.” The eleven apostles come to mind.
  • “I cannot be, and do not have to be, 100% correct on 100% of the questions 100% of the time. I can be wrong and still be forgiven.” Ditto.

There – that was easy, wasn’t it? Feel the weight of perfection fall off of your shoulders? Do you feel the rejuvenation to actually have the freedom to re-think, and to re-study, questions that honest people have disagreed about for centuries?

The need, and especially the demand, to be immaculately perfect about every question of the Bible and the Christian life is a cancer that kills the spirit without remorse.

Declare your independence from this wretched disease. Admit your imperfection. Concede your frailty. Proclaim that you no longer need to be perfect.

Ascend through the humility of accepting your humanity.

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.

6/28/17 – Random Musings

Just curious –

Darkness is not in-and-of-itself a create-able entity. You cannot “create” darkness. The only way it can be said that you create darkness is if you remove light. The instant light is created, in any form, darkness is removed.

Likewise, cold is not in-and-of itself a create-able entity. The only way you can “create” cold is if you remove the source of heat. That is why refrigeration units are so much more complicated and expensive than heating units. The moment you activate a heating unit, even the smallest flame, cold is removed.

You can make water toxic with the addition of the smallest amounts of poison. But you cannot “purify” poison simply by adding water. You can dilute it – but the poison remains. The only way to make water completely pure is to filter the contaminate out completely. (I suppose you could so dilute the volume as to make the poison inconsequential, but the poison is still present.)

Does all of this have a theological point? I think it does. I do not think there can be any argument but that the church is becoming stagnant, losing its influence in western culture. Why is this so? Entire forests have been turned into paper to analyze the problem and to propose solutions.

I think on a very basic level the answer is profoundly simple: the church has ceased to be light, the church has ceased to dispel the coldness of Satan’s lies, and the church has allowed itself to be thoroughly contaminated with the poison of contemporary culture. The whys and wherefores are obviously more detailed, but at least in my mind the result is inescapable. If you turn off the light source, if you disconnect the heat source, and you eliminate any filtration system, you are going to get a dark, cold, poisoned environment.

I do not doubt that in certain locations, perhaps even in larger regions, individual congregations of the Lord’s church are growing and flourishing. However, in my (admittedly limited and unscientific) recent experience, every congregation that I have come into contact with has experienced a decline in membership – sometimes an extreme decline! Other congregations have avoided this decline by “swelling” with the transfers from the declining congregations, but they are not growing in the biblical sense. If my experience is anything close to average, then the Lord’s church is in a numerical crisis. It’s spiritual health may or may not be in a similar free-fall, as spiritual health cannot be measured by numbers on an attendance chart.

I often alternate between doomsday feelings of hopelessness, and a grim realization that the Lord is winnowing his church to purify it and to reveal those who are true disciples. I believe that the Lord’s church can, and will, withstand any of Satan’s attacks. I must admit, however, that watching the current decline in congregational membership is painful. Maybe it is needed and will ultimately be healthy, but it is painful none-the-less.

It is hard sometimes to pray the model prayer (aka the Lord’s Prayer) knowing that “Thy will be done” might involve the trimming of some dead and diseased branches. But, pray that prayer we must! If you love the church, you have to believe in God’s sovereign power, and that God can, and often does, use Satan’s own designs to further God’s kingdom.

Let us pray for courage to shine God’s light, to fan the flame of the Spirit, and to rid ourselves of the poison of our wretched humanism. Let us not give in to fatalism or pessimism. God has given us a light to shine, a flame to preserve, and pure water to drink. Let us, dear Christian, refuse to surrender any of these precious gifts!

 

Quit Crying – It’s Our Fault!

Yesterday’s daily Bible reading made me a little queasy:

For the day of the LORD is near upon all the nations.
As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head. (Obadiah 15)

Our God is a crafty one, he is. He figures out the absolute worst punishment for every infraction: he lets the criminal decide his punishment by virtue of the crime.

In the United States the two most vocal groups are (1) those who believe that all is lost, that our culture is minutes, if not seconds, away from annihilation, and (2) those who believe that we have not moved far enough, that we need to keep pushing to free it from any semblance of a Christian heritage.

I think God has listened to both, and taking both into consideration, has allowed our culture to become exactly what it is – and is becoming. Just consider:

  • We have pushed the idea of individualism to the point that there can be no collective, no “union” at all. We are radical individualists, and that is just a grenade toss away from anarchy.
  • We have obliterated the distinction between the genders, or sexes, depending on which word you prefer. No longer is there “male” and “female” but only one’s chosen preference, how one “identifies” at the moment.
  • We have spent billions, that’s billions with a “b,” on the “war on poverty” and all we have to show for it is a permanent underclass that depends entirely upon the government for its existence. When you can make more money (in cash and benefits) from doing nothing than in working an entry level job, why work? We now have multiple generations mired in this web of laziness and entitlement.
  • We have spent even more on the “war on terrorism.” How’s that “hopey, changey” thing working for you? I kind of miss getting on an airplane without getting undressed in front of hundreds of my fellow would-be terrorists.
  • In the church we have focused almost entirely upon generic evangelism to the virtual elimination of the concept of discipleship. Oh, we are baptizing large numbers of people – people who have no issue with abortion, with gambling, with greed, with a government that starts wars with reckless abandon, with a malignant form of capitalism that is destroying our environment as well as our family structures, and with a doctrine that begins with the phrase, “I think . . .”

So – what do we have to show for all these achievements? We have athletes, teachers, and other public figures who are censured, and sometimes lose their jobs, because they say something that “offends” another person. We have a permanent underclass that increasingly makes demands that will soon be impossible to meet. We have a culture that is so confused about gender that we are even arguing about the definition of “mother” and “father.” And, we have a weak, beggarly church membership that views the church as a social club and not a collection of individuals following a crucified messiah in absolute discipleship.

In other words, God looked down on us and said, “Okie fine, if that’s the way you want it – that is the way it will be. I’ll be here when you figure out that your nest is too foul to live in, but until then, don’t come crying to me.”

Do you realize that God told Jeremiah 3 times to stop praying for the Israelites! God told a prophet 3 times to just stop it, DON’T PRAY FOR THESE PEOPLE. (7:16, 11:14, 14:11)

I wonder what he would say today?

I, for one, do not believe our culture is so far gone as to be unredeemable. However, I also stand firmly in the footsteps of Barton W. Stone, David Lipscomb, and dare I mention his name, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who all preached without fear or favor that the only way this generation will be saved is through the mighty power of a holy God, and through the working of his Holy Spirit.

We are not going to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We’ve drank from that poison long enough. It’s time to pray for a revival – a holy revival – where we all start by getting down on our knees and confessing:

“Woe is me, for I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips.” (Isaiah 6:5)

Maybe then God can start to clean up the mess we have made of ourselves.

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#15)

And so we come to the end of my mostly tongue-in-cheek list of “Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection.”

15. The practice of doing theology requires the honest appropriation of lessons learned from history. We cannot handle the text of Scripture honestly today if we ignore, or even worse, disparage the work of theologians in our near or ancient past. This is true both of those theologians with whom we agree, and with whom we disagree. To borrow a phrase, “Those who do not learn from history (or past theology) are doomed to repeat it.” History is a beautiful thing.
15.a.  However, the above truth does not mean that we slavishly follow every conclusion reached by earlier theologians. We must read theology with a discerning eye, knowing that all humans are capable of great spiritual insight, and all humans are capable of great sin. We are to respect our forefathers and foremothers, not worship them.

This “truth” reveals a long-simmering pet peeve of mine, which I find within congregations of the Churches of Christ, but also within virtually every nook and cranny of Christianity (real or imagined). That peeve is that this generation believes that this generation is the ONLY generation to have everything all figured out, that earlier generations were populated with ignorant boobs, and that future generations will only screw up what this generation has perfected.

I am so tired of a cabal of cultural observers who have anointed the coming generation of “millennials” as the smartest, the brightest, the most observant and intellectually astute generation to have ever walked the face of the earth. I remember reading a report by someone who had interviewed a group of graduating theology students that was so gushing it was nauseating. According to that observer, the group of 22-25 year olds that he was visiting with was so theologically radiant as to overcome the light of the sun.

Really? A generation that has not, or has barely, reached their 30th birthday, and they have already “understood all mysteries and have obtained all knowledge”?

A little confession here, but I am half-way through my fifth decade, and I am only now starting to understand the questions, let alone have any idea about the answers.

Which brings me to my point in Undeniable Truth #15 and 15a. Theology is second only to the field of History that is bound to a study of the past. The old maxim that we are gnats standing on the shoulders of giants is hyperbole, but a warranted hyperbole. We cannot understand our present, let alone make any projections about the future, unless we have a deep and broad understanding about our past.

Where this particular truth disturbs me the most is within my fellowship of the Churches of Christ. To be blunt: the average member of a Church of Christ is pathetically ignorant of his or her spiritual heritage. I don’t just mean historically foggy – I mean historically blind. I hear it in comments both from the pulpit and from the pew. It is embarrassing to hear it from the pew – it is revolting to hear it from the pulpit. For far too many people, the past 2,000 years of Christian theology simply do not exist. It is not that this history is minimized – it is excised! But what that leaves is a person who is struggling to live the life of discipleship with no memory. Imagine waking up each morning with absolutely no memory. How could you function? Yet, we attempt the same impossible task each and every time we disparage or remove any attempt to learn from Christian history.

[A mea culpa here – how can people learn what they have not been taught? Church leaders who do not insist on a basic understanding of church history (including Restoration History) are impoverishing their congregations. A course covering some aspect of church history must be a part of any healthy Christian education curriculum, preferably beginning in the high school years, but continuing on a rotating basis throughout an adult education program. Sermon over.]

The opposite extreme is by no means any improvement. An ignorance of our spiritual heritage has caused some to idolize certain figures who have obtained some measure of notoriety. It is a curious truth: those who are the most historically ignorant tend to idolize historical figures the most. The only problem is, it is not the real person (or the person’s teaching) that they turn into an idol. Being ignorant of the real historical person (or teaching) the modern sycophant creates a straw man (or ideology) and then reads that gilded idol back onto the pages of history.

I have just one teensy, tiny little example. How many members of the Churches of Christ revere some understanding of Thomas and Alexander Campbell? Now, how many of those same members also hold very firmly (even obstinately) to the hermeneutic of “Command, Example, and Necessary Inference” to discover how the Christian is to live his or her life today? Okay, now, how many of those who revere Thomas and Alexander Campbell, and who hold unswervingly to the hermeneutic of “Command, Example, and Necessary Inference” are aware that Thomas Campbell was firmly convinced of the command part, was reticent about the example part, and was emphatically against using any kind of human inference in determining Christian doctrine! You read that last part right – Thomas Campbell flatly rejected “necessary inference” in his hermeneutic – at least as it related to binding one’s conclusions on others. Yet, if you challenge “CENI” today you better be wearing a bullet-proof vest.

Sigh.

I do not want to worship any human being – and believe me I have my theological heroes! Every human that ever lived has lived in some measure of error – except, of course, our Lord. However – from the second century church fathers all the way through history down to and including such modern writers as N.T. Wright – great minds have wrestled with the teachings of Scripture and the questions of human life. Not all of their answers have been right, and a good many have been wrong. We can no more erase their contributions from our understanding of the Christian life than we can erase our memory of what happened yesterday or last year.

We are who we are because of those who have walked before us. If we see greater truths in the Scriptures (and, let’s hope that we do!) it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants. Let’s just remember that they too, were gnats standing on the shoulders of their giants.