When Translators Let Us Down

As a result of a recent request, I have been researching the nature of the church. As a beginning point I have been studying the use of the word ekklesia in the New Testament. That Greek word is the word virtually always translated “church” in our English translations. How we arrived from ekklesia to church is fascinating, but too complicated to really unpack here. Suffice it to say that our English word “church” derives more from the Greek kuriakon than the Greek word ekklesia. This, then, has some fascinating and ultimately negative repercussions.

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To begin with, the word ekklesia is best translated “assembly” “gathering” “meeting” or perhaps “congregation” although the last word continues to have a religious connotation that was not inherent in the Greek. You can see how ekklesia has a secular, and even legal, meaning through passages such as Acts 7:38 and 19:32, 39, and 41. Here translators do not want to confuse the reader with any “loaded” terminology, so that actually translate ekklesia to be either “congregation” (as in 7:38) or “assembly” in the passages in chapter 19, which is more like a mob or a riot.

The problem is, that in using the word “church” in every other instance in the New Testament, unintended interpretations creep in and the more simple meaning of many passages is obscured. Let me illustrate.

Let’s say we have a member of the Church of Christ, a Roman Catholic, and a totally dispassionate non-believer in the same room. We ask a simple question – “What do you mean when you say the word ‘church'”? I am going to guess (as I am not Roman Catholic), that the Catholic is going to think of the church universal, with all the imperial accoutrements – the Pope as the vicar of Christ, and the attendant Cardinals, Bishops, and Priests, and the formal liturgy of the Mass. On the other hand, my response would be to imagine each individual congregation of which I have been a part – Galisteo and Cordova in Santa Fe, Montgomery Blvd. in Albuquerque, Barrow Rd. in Little Rock, etc. That is, I think of individual congregations, and more than likely I picture specific buildings. For the Roman Catholic this would be what he or she pictures when he or she hears the word parish. The non-believer will probably have any one of a dozen different images depending on his or her experience with the church – maybe a Christmas or Easter pageant, a wedding or a funeral, a Bible-thumping preacher that condemned everyone to hell, or an ornate but basically useless building.

However, change the word to “assembly” and those differences are most likely to disappear. Assemblies can only refer to one thing – groups of people. To say, “the assembly of Christ” or “the assembly of God” (note lower case “a”) means a group of people connected in some form or fashion to Christ or to God. “Assembly” does leave room for some theological fine-tuning, but it does get away from buildings and hierarchical leadership structures and open caskets and Easter egg hunts.

I firmly believe that is why, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the word ekklesia was chosen by the New Testament authors to describe the people of God. It was already in use through the Greek translation of the Old Testament, (therefore it did have a link with the first covenant people) and it could be differentiated from its closest synonym, synagogue. Synagogue had already acquired a formal, and rigid, meaning in the first century A.D. Ekklesia was essentially a secular term, and therefore the early Christians could use it to communicate what it meant to be the people of God without having to “un-teach” the heavily laden Jewish connotations of the word synagogue.

If we would simply translate the word as “assembly” a host of problems disappear (although perhaps not all, and perhaps others would creep in). Try it. When you see the word “church” read “assembly.” Is the meaning enhanced for you? Are some passages now more clear in meaning? Are some possible misunderstandings removed?

It is for me – but, then, I am kind of weird.

Blessings on your Bible study.

Reinterpreting Scripture – An Interesting Parallel

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While meditating on a totally unrelated subject recently, a fascinating line of thought occurred to me. There is an obvious (if one takes the time to think about it) process that is followed if and when Scripture needs to be “reinterpreted” or “reimagined” to fit a particular need. My example includes the process of introducing, and then accepting, the practice of infant baptism; and the current process of introducing, and therefore accepting, women into larger and more influential roles of leadership within the church. Notice how this plays out in innocuous, and seemingly innocent ways.

First, there is an existential crisis – a challenge to the “status quo” of accepted orthodoxy. In regard to infant baptism, it was the death of infants and children first considered too young to be candidates for baptism. What of their eternal destiny? If the door to eternal life hinged on baptism, and they died unbaptized, how could anyone be certain of their eternal rest with God? With the current question of women’s role in the church, the issue has been joined with the role that women have in secular society. Women serve with distinction in every level of life, from governmental to financial to education to public service. Why, then, deny them leadership roles in the church?

Second, the Scriptures are scoured to find and answer that permits a “reinterpretation” or a “re-imagining” of the previously held standard. Ergo, stories of entire “households” being converted and baptized are viewed as evidence that quite possibly, and even probably, children and infants were baptized because virtually every “household” includes children. Similarly, passages such as 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 and Galatians 3:27-28 are suddenly transformed not only to allow, but to mandate, a role of leadership for women in the church. These passages then become proof-texts (passages lifted from their context to prove a point that is tangential to their original meaning, at best), and passages that conflict with the “new” interpretation are dismissed if not entirely excised from the discussion.

Third, a new theology then develops from the first two steps. History is revised to emphasize aberrations from the norm, and the greater part of church history is repudiated with emotionally or theologically laden terms which amount to ad hominem attacks or straw-man arguments. This is not to argue that there were not groups in the first few centuries that baptized infants, nor that there were no groups that had women in influential roles. It is simply to argue that these fringe groups are re-cast as models of orthodoxy, and the larger practice of the church is re-cast as aberrant.

The final step is then not only logical, but inescapable. Those sympathetic to the “new orthodoxy” are described in the most glowing terms, and those who object to the “re-interpretation” or “re-imagining” are vilified. The only true Christians are those who accept infant baptism (because, who would want to send thousands of deceased infants and children to hell?) and those who accept women, or even demand that women serve, in leadership roles (woe to those barbaric, knuckle-dragging troglodytes who revel in their macho, male chauvinism!).

Christians of every age must live in tension with their cultural standards. Some of those standards may be closer to biblical teaching than others. Some may be virtually indistinguishable from biblical standards, while some may be at the opposite end of the spectrum from God’s intent. Ascending to faith through a descent through submission to God’s word demands that we examine each question and each crisis with our eyes (and intellects) wide open, and that we exercise a willingness to reject what the world dictates as something that must be accepted. Christians do not receive our worldview from the pages of the morning paper, but rather from both a broad and deep reading of the inspired Scriptures.

Be careful whose voice you listen to . . . Satan did not stop with his deceptions in the Garden of Eden. His most powerful question is still, “Did God really say . . . ?”

Admit It – We ALL Have Presuppositions!

One of the most difficult, if not THE most difficult, obstacles to overcome when we approach Scripture is the acceptance of the fact that we come to Scripture with a preconceived bias. HORRORS! “That may be true of you, bub, but my intentions and purposes are as pure as the driven snow!” may be your immediate response. With all due respect to your meteorological observations, that self-proclaimed innocence is just flat out wrong. We ALL, every single one of us, come to Scripture with preconceptions. Only by admitting that fact can we weed out the possible mistakes those preconceptions are prone to create.

 

An oft-used illustration is appropriate here. It is as if when we peer into the pages of the Bible that we look into a deep well to see what is at the bottom. The image that we see, reflected as if we look into a mirror, looks remarkably like our own face! We see our country when we examine the ancient Israelites. We see our cities when we read of Corinth or Rome. We see our happy little church when we pick up a copy of Ephesians or Colossians. Even the aroma of the flesh pots of Egypt share the same comforting smell of our kitchens.

As I said before, so now I say again – this is only how it can be! We never stood toe-to-toe with Pharaoh. We cannot understand what it must have sounded like as the Passover lambs were slaughtered in Jerusalem. We have no way of experiencing a mob riot at the Ephesian amphitheater.

But we CAN, and I dare say that we MUST account for the fact that when we read the Bible we admit our preconceptions. Then, by bringing them out into the open, we can ask whether they augment, or distort, our conclusions.

Here, for example, are just a few of the preconceptions I bring to my study:

  1.  The Bible is the inspired word of God. I do not hold to the concept of “verbal dictation,” but I am constantly amazed at how the accounts related in the Bible can only cohere if there was a single, divine, overseeing presence that both created and preserved this book.
  2. Although written for a specific time period, the Bible was preserved as a record of how God expected his people to believe and act throughout all of history. The Pentateuch (Genesis – Deuteronomy) was written not just for the ancient Israelites – but for us as well. Corinthians was certainly addressed to a congregation in the Mediterranean, but for Christians in the 21st century as well. Note the sequence: to the Corinthians, but for all time.
  3. God never changes, Jesus never changes, and the lessons provided through the stories and codes recorded in Scripture do not change. Murder is still a sin, and elders are still supposed to be husbands of one wife.
  4. God in in heaven, and I am on earth, therefore my words about His word should be few, and those few words should be carefully thought-out and prayerfully delivered.

I could probably come up with many more. The point is, we, as humans, are bounded by time and culture. Some of that culture is positive, some of it is neutral, and some of it is positively perverse. Our culture, however, causes us to view the Bible with a certain lens – a lens of bias. I am a male, American by nationality, relatively well educated (how much of that education has actually stuck is a matter of debate!), and a young baby-boomer by generation. Each of those characteristics flavors how I read the Bible. If I do not take those characteristics into consideration, I can end up with a horrid misinterpretation of the Word of God.

So, let’s face it. We all come to Scripture with a preconceived bias. The critical question, then, becomes whether I can honestly let the Bible correct that bias (or destroy it completely), or whether my bias distorts the meaning of the text.

Eating at the Garbage Dump

Even after all these years, my professor’s words still ring in my ears. “You can tell how hungry someone is,” he said, “by paying attention to the garbage they are willing to eat.”

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I think of those words often, but especially when I see and hear how popular some forms of diluted Christianity have become. I speak specifically of the numerous examples of the “I died and went to heaven and saw Jesus” books and movies and the inexplicable (and to me, disturbing) popularity of books like The Shack, which promote a heterodox, if not blatantly blasphemous, view of God and Christ.

The latter has now been made into a movie, and social media sites are all abuzz discussing whether a person should, or should not, see the movie. I have not read the book, and I steadfastly refuse to support the production of such works with my money – but I will make a few observations based on my review of those who have read the book and who discuss the movie.

First, serious theologians from all branches of Christianity denounce the movie. When you have bow-tie Baptists and rockin’ Pentecostals agreeing that this is bad stuff, well – I suggest you consider their words carefully. A number of reviews spare no words in describing the message of the book -pure heresy. Even those who suggest the book is worth exploring do so very cautiously, and stress that the content is a parable, and a bad one at that.

Second, most of the reviews that are unequivocally positive come from individuals that, in my estimation, are quacks who either produce or promote an equally shallow form of Christianity (Eugene Peterson comes to mind). I can tell a lot about a book by reading the names of those who endorse it. I was shocked, and to be quite honest, dismayed, to read someone who I have come to trust and admire who endorsed both the book and the movie. There is a back-story to his endorsement of the book, however, and I will give him a pass, at least on this one.

The book purports to be a parable, but the author clearly crosses a line between “parable” and “distorting Scripture.” If you want to read a quality parable, or better, allegory, read C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis famously refused to go where the author of The Shack boldly went, because he was not willing to put words into the mouth of God. The Shack not only puts words into the mouth of God, those words directly contradict the words God revealed in his inspired book, the Bible.

The Shack was supposedly written to present a different view of God for those who are suffering and cannot understand the biblical God. I suggest rather that it is an all-too-common view of an entirely different god – the god of the author, an idol that is purely the creation of a human mind. As one reviewer put it, “If you find yourself being drawn closer to God by this book, I have to ask: what god are you being drawn closer to?”

I find it very interesting many authors who produce the “died and saw Jesus” books and books like “The Shack” have major issues with the images of God found in Scripture (read their histories and back-stories). These purported true stories and especially the fictional stories are designed to correct what the authors believe are mistaken understandings of God. That to me is a critical point. God revealed Himself in the pages of Scripture. God ultimately revealed Himself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The God who many of these authors disparage and blaspheme became human so they could have a vision of the divine. Man has turned God’s greatest blessing into a curse – and all for a nice, tidy profit to boot.

I have to admit I just do not understand the process, and to be honest I do not want to. I do not want to understand that way of thinking. It just bothers me deeply when so many are feeding at the garbage dump when we have the messianic feast set before us.

Why is Error Taught (and Believed)

In my last post I argued that it is not wrong to confront error. That statement presupposes that there is, indeed, error that needs to be confronted. That statement presupposes that there are those who teach erroneous doctrines, and that there are those who believe those erroneous doctrines. That statement raises the question, “Why do false teachers, and false doctrines exist?” I write today not to cast aspersions on any particular group, with the possible exception that I want to examine my own thoughts and actions first, and then let the chips fall where they may.

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I will begin with what I believe to be the most malevolent and culpable motivations, and work toward the least intentional, though perhaps not significantly less culpable.

  1.  Those who know they are promoting falsehood. This might be for financial or emotional gain, but these individuals know they are wrong, but do not care – or rather, they care more for what they are getting out of the process, not for what they are fostering.
  2. Closely related – those who refuse to stand under Scripture, but rather insist that they are somehow above Scripture. They adhere to the “assured results of modern scholarship” school of thought. The biblical authors were misogynistic, homophobic, racist, superstitious, uneducated – all of which we have been able to put behind us.
  3. Those who are blind to their own cultural influences and those who are more interested in following the crowd/garnering praise from the crowd. These may not know they are teaching/believing error, they simply assume that there is “strength in numbers,” or more correctly, that there is truth in numbers, and they do not want to risk embarrassment by asking critical questions.
  4. The fourth group are closely related – they are simply lazy scholars or learners. They just do not do their homework. They do not intentionally promote error, they just do not want to look to hard to find it, for the real reason that they would have to struggle with why is is in error, and what to do to correct it.
  5. And finally, the “innocent” promoters of error. They are simply following what they have been taught, in the honest belief that those who taught them would not, and indeed could not, deceive them. Their teachers are not only paragons of knowledge, they are paragons of virtue. Therefore, to accept what they taught is not only wise, to question these teacher would be the height of arrogance, and impertinence.

I believe that I have been in each of these positions, with the possible exception of number 1! I pray I have never intentionally taught error. I know I have taught error, for who can say with a straight face and honest heart that everything they have ever said or taught is perfectly true?? So, I would have to say that my error stems from arrogance in light of the clear meaning of Scripture (#2) to an honest and deeply felt admiration for my teachers (#5). Have I ever stood “above” Scripture? Probably – I would be a fool to deny the accusation entirely. I know I have been guilty of numbers 3-5.

So, what to do about it? False teachers – and false doctrines – exist. We all, whether we want to admit it or not, fall prey to promoting them or believing them. We cannot solve the problem by pretending it does not exist.

I have presented somewhat of an answer to this question with my “15 Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection” (see the related page above). Without rehearsing each of those here, I will simply say that Christians must be alert to their own propensity to believe error, and recognize that all humans have that propensity. The only sure and safe response to any teaching – new or ancient – is to compare it to the text of Scripture.

We must stop being so naive. God did not intend his word to confuse or mislead. Contradictory doctrines cannot both be true. There is truth, and if there is truth, then anything that contradicts that truth must be error, no matter how fine sounding the argument or how popular its reception.

My question today is – are we going to be as ruthless with our own conclusions as we are with those with whom we disagree?

Is it Elitist to Challenge a Defective Theology?

A discerning eye will notice that I am writing from a clearly announced position: the life of Christian discipleship is an upside-down life. We win by losing, ascend by going lower. Some will agree energetically in regard to only one facet of the Christian life: evaluating the worth of differing, and in some cases diametrically opposed, theological positions. In this view to challenge a conclusion, or to disagree with someone, is wrong-headed. It is impolite and smacks of elitism. Apparently you can only hold a position to be in error if you are a theological stuff-shirt.

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I must plead ignorance here, as I simply do not know how this conclusion can be reached if a person reads the Bible with any kind of open mind. From Genesis 3 until the last echoes of the words of Revelation have died down, God is constantly and directly challenging bad theology. No one, from Adam to the apostle Paul (just to name a couple) is immune from adding 2 + 2 and coming up with some form of heterodoxy (if not outright heresy). Often the correction is gentle, sometimes it is severe, occasionally the correction is ironic or sarcastic. But God, and his inspired speakers/authors, never allow bad theology to go unchallenged and uncorrected.

Perhaps one of the most memorable moments in my undergraduate program came at the conclusion of a rather energetic discussion of some fine point of exegesis. A student (not me, I am not that smart) asked the professor “What do we do when someone teaches something that is clearly not true to the text?” After a moment’s pause, the professor said something like this: “We must be very careful in pointing out the mistakes of others. But bad theology must always be confronted and corrected or the text of the Bible becomes meaningless.”

I have always remembered that moment – and not because I have always followed my professors advice. Far too often I have chosen to remain silent and allowed flawed conclusions to be made, mostly with the excuse that I did not want to offend someone’s dignity. But, sad to say, I just did not want to come off as elitist. I did not want the teacher to think I was “putting him in his place” or that I was somehow superior to him.

No, I have always remembered that comment from my professor as a goad pricking my conscience.

There are times when silence IS truly golden. We do not need to correct every jot and tittle of someone’s class or sermon. We do not need to be the pronunciation police to make sure that every shibboleth is pronounced faultlessly. And, certainly, there is a huge argument to be made that any such correction needs to be done gently, and in private if at all possible.

But, theologically speaking, it is no more elitist to correct bad doctrine than it is to promote good doctrine. In fact, it is one of the main duties that Paul assigned to Timothy and Titus.

The only elitist, the only snob when it comes to preaching or teaching, is the one who will not listen to correction or a well-worded challenge. Do not be afraid to challenge when and where it is necessary – but always remember this –

The path to the heights of glory winds down the depths of service. We ascend by going lower!

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.