The Christian Response to Racism (Part 2 of 2)

In my first part, I attempted to point out how pervasive and systemic racism is in our American culture, and how it has been so from the very founding our our nation. In this part I want to address how it might be possible for us as a nation to move on, past our historic past.

In a sentence: the only way we as a culture will move past racism is to full admit that every race and people can be, and are, racist in our thinking and in our actions. Yes, in America that racism is predominately skewed toward the white race – but it is far from limited to the white race.

In my last post I stressed how critical it is for the white majority to admit our systemic, pervasive racist views. In no way am I suggesting that every white person alive today is guilty of being racist – or for personal guilt in our racist past, for that matter. What I am suggesting is that until we admit that racism can be, and often is, systemic, we will never be able to move to a truly “color neutral” society.

The flip side of that coin is that every person who falls into the “minority” category must admit that their race can be, and almost without exception is, equally racist. It does not take a sociologist to recognize the hatred espoused by the Nation of Islam toward Jews, to mention just one example, or the racism that I see and hear regarding one local tribe of Native Americans to their neighboring tribe. The blatant racism preached by many elected officials in Washington is repugnant, to be honest, but the prevailing culture among the “main stream media” is that it cannot be labeled as “racism” because it originates from an ethnic minority.

So, to be brief, racism is chiefly a human condition, and that condition is sin. Racism in the United States will always be a part of our culture so long as it is only addressed from one side. This is the “dirty little secret” that is rarely, if ever, discussed in conversations regarding racism. But I hold no hope for Martin Luther King’s dream of a nation where a person is judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin, as long as every action, every word, every thought, is viewed through the lens of the color of the skin of the actor, speaker, or writer.

It is at this point that I feel we as a people have failed the vision of Dr. King. Instead of attacking the concept of racism itself, we have simply shifted what it means to be racist – and I will probably be called a racist for writing that. As much as I recognize the guilt of white Americans in establishing what can only be described as systemic racism, I simply refuse to accept the accusation – either expressed or implied – that only whites can be racist.

I repeat – racism is a part of the human condition, and that is sin. Racism is a theological problem, not just a political or sociological problem. Until racism is attacked from the point of view of the cross and the gospel, it will never be adequately addressed. And it is exactly at this point that I believe so many religious leaders have failed. We think that if we can write a couple of new laws, or hold some “unity” meetings, or have a couple of marches, all will be well. Well, it is not ever going to be “well” unless and until preachers start preaching on the sin of racism – in every possible way, shape, and form. In predominately white churches those sermons are going to sound different than sermons preached in minority churches (because the visible forms of that racism are different), but it is only at the foot of the cross that we are going to be able to move into a truly color neutral society.

[By the way, I never want to live in a “color blind” society. I do not want African-Americans to give up their African roots, nor do I want to Latin Americans to give up their Latin roots, or Asians to give up their Oriental roots, or Irish Americans to give up their Irish roots. That is not what the American dream is all about – for me it is about maintaining those ethnic and social connections while at the same time blending in with every other culture. When it works, it is a beautiful thing, and I believe it is the highest of aspirations for every American.]

I must also address a phenomenon that repulses me as much as overt racism – and that is the false or pseudo guilt promoted by so many white politicians. They “claim” to be genuinely concerned for the plights of minorities, and yet with every law that is passed and every speech that is uttered, those to whom they claim sympathy are further degraded. Consider the results of programs such as welfare. What was thought to be assistance to mothers with dependent children, has instead created a permanent under-class of families with no father in the picture. Every study ever conducted has proven that children in fatherless homes fare far poorer than families in the same socio-economic class where there is a father present. Yet, to challenge the idea of welfare is considered to be the greatest of racist “sins.” Here again we see how racist whites can be – all in the guise of helping to overcome racism.

A personally vexing related question for me is this: what action, or series of actions, will constitute an adequate confession of our racist past? How many times, and in what ways, will the white majority have to admit to our sinful past? I ask this because I am honestly ignorant as to the answer. It is clear to me that a significant minority – if not a majority – of white Americans still have not come to grips with the enormity of the problem of racism. So, if that is true, what is the goal to which we should be moving? And how will we know when we get there?

I titled these couple of posts a “Christian Response to Racism” and I fear I have not proposed much of a solution. For me, the only answer is to preach Christ and him crucified. When we stand at the foot of the cross and realize the depth of our sin, we in no way will be able to judge another person simply based on the color of their skin or their nation of origin. It is because we refuse to accept the Lordship of Christ that we are racist – and to deny that is to reject the Holy Spirit who makes us all one in Christ. In the words of the Book of Common Prayer, we are all “miserable offenders.” We can all be “blessed forgiven,” but we are all going to have to confess our guilt first.

Lord, save us from our miserable failure!

Definitions – “Church”

The word “church” illustrates what has to be one of the greatest, yet possibly most misunderstood, issues in dealing with translation and interpretation processes – some words can obtain such significant (and unintended) secondary meanings that the primary meaning is often obscured or completely erased. It happens frequently (the word “baptize” is another example) and the results can be profound. There is, however, a simple remedy (I like simple – I specialize in simple – I am simple minded).

The derivation of the word “church” is complex – I will leave it to the reader to search the internet for the history of the word. For this space suffice it to say that the word comes to us from the Greek via the Latin and German and thence to the Old English, and ultimately to the King James Version and thus to virtually every English translation. However, the great-grandparent in Greek is really just a very simple word that means “assembly.” For proof of this consider Acts 19:32, 39, and 41 – where the word is used to describe a near riot, a political/judicial meeting, and an large gathering of people (the same riotous group found in v. 32).

First, a little history. When the Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek, there were two words that could be used for the idea of assembly, and sometimes congregation. One is the word from which we get our synagogue, the other was ekklesia. By the time of the first century, the word synagogue had a secondary meaning attached – the specific meeting place of Jews. The other word, ekklesia, did not acquire this “theological” freight, and therefore was the natural word for the authors of the New Testament to use in order that the New Testament assembly of Christians would not be confused with the Old Covenant meeting of Jews. (Significant note: the word synagogue IS used in James 2:2 in reference to a Christian assembly – the word is actually translated instead of being transliterated – which just goes to prove my point by way of a different direction.) There is no “Holy Spirit” meaning attached to the Greek word ekklesia – the word that ultimately ends up being translated as “church” in our English translations.

The problem is that the English word “church” has become so overloaded with theological, confessional, and even denominational freight as to be almost useless. To a Roman Catholic the word refers to the entire Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church. To many Protestants, the word refers to the “invisible” church which would include believers of every stripe, color, and description (never mind that many of the creeds that define these groups are diametrically opposed to one or more of the others). To a great many others, the word “church” simply refers to a building – “. . . bye mom, I’m going to the church to play some basketball . . . ” (which, sadly calls for another blog post, but that will have to wait).

What is my simple solution? Let’s retire the word “church” to a nice pasture somewhere where it can live out its remaining days in peace and tranquility, and replace it with the idea for which it was originally intended to convey, and that is “assembly,” “gathering,” or perhaps even “congregation” (although, even that last option comes with some extraneous meanings attached).

Notice, just one simple (that word again) example that has some fairly significant hermeneutical implications. In the modern worship wars over the “role” of women, one problematic text is 1 Corinthians 14. As simply (arrrgh) as I can explain it, the argument is that because Paul seemingly allows women to pray in public in 11:1-16, the apparent prohibition against women speaking in chapter 14 must be modified in some form or fashion (either softening it, or by eliminating it altogether). But this interpretation falls apart when it is recognized that Paul makes a significant change in 11:17 – prior to v. 17 there is no mention of a public gathering at all (the reference in v. 16 to churches of God is a rebuttal to the Corinthian view that theirs is the preferred practice!) But at v. 17 Paul starts talking about the public assembly of the Corinthian Christians – in chapter 11 his topic is that of the Lord’s Supper. In chapter 14 he continues with the assembly language, but this time in regard to manifestations of the Spirit – notably the speaking in tongues. Consider the following –

14:4 – the one who speaks to the assembly must do so for the edification of the people assembled.
14:5 – interpretation of tongues is necessary for the edification of the assembly.
14:12 – the gifts of the Spirit are to build up the assembly.
14:19 – Paul would rather speak five intelligible words in the assembly than ten thousand unintelligible words.
14:23 – when the whole assembly comes together . . .
14:26 – when you come together (the word ekklesia is not used here).
14:28 – if there is no interpreter in the assembly, let the tongue speaker be silent.
14:33 – as is the customary practice in every assembly of the saints.
14:34 – the women are to remain silent in the assembly.
14:35 – for it is shameful for a woman to speak in the assembly.

In every verse listed above (except for v. 26) the word ekklesia is used for the idea of assembly or gathering. The argument made by egalitarians (those arguing for complete equality of women in public worship) is that Paul establishes his basic teaching in chapter 11, and only modifies it in chapter 14 to limit obnoxious or unruly women taking over the worship. As I said, this argument cannot be sustained because (a) Paul never mentions the appropriateness of women praying in the public assembly in chapter 11; and (b) he repeatedly and specifically ties his teaching, which includes the limitation of women speaking (and therefore exercising authority over men) in chapter 14 to the assembly of the Christians! This is in perfect agreement with his teaching in 1 Timothy 2:12. The entire discussion changes significantly if we eliminate the heavily freighted (and therefore susceptible to twisting) concept of “church” with the very simple (arrrgh) usage of the word assembly.

There really is nothing wrong with the word, “church,” if we understand it as it was intended. But, the meanings of words change, and what was understood 200 or more years ago is frequently not the meaning of the word today. Try this experiment – every time you read the word “church” in your English Bible, substitute the word “assembly” and see if the meaning is not clarified – or at least a richer meaning is thereby provided (yes, even Matthew 16:18!).

Lord, Deliver Me From Little Prayers

Have you noticed how prayer has been cheapened, belittled, trivialized? And that from those who should be holding it in the highest honor? I mean, in the Bible when people entered into God’s throne room with a request or a challenge, things happened. Mighty things. The dead were raised, nations fell, the waters parted, and enemies died. Prayer was awesome, and changed individual lives as well as the course of history.

Now, we use prayer to start football games. Really? How many of you have heard the language or the epithets being spewed on the field, or from the sidelines? Or we start some meeting in which God’s will doesn’t stand a chance of being heard – let alone of being obeyed. Or really big things like starting and stopping our “worship services.” I remember the first time someone dismissed a service with a song instead of a prayer. It took a full fifteen or more seconds before it dawned on people that he actually said, “we are dismissed.” It felt like we were cheated. Not that a closing prayer changed anything really, its just that if nobody prayed for God to “guide, guard and direct us until we meet again,” would we really be guided, guarded and protected until we met again?

All of this came flooding into my thoughts this week. I am preaching a series on (of all things) prayer. This week’s lesson crystalized into a topic I titled, “When Prayer Seems to Fail.” When everything was all thought out, I realized that the biggest reason why it seems that prayer fails is that we have utterly and totally gutted what it means to pray.

We pray to a god that is really, in the long run, just too small to do anything about what we are praying for – if he even cared. We mouth the words, but our heart is saying, “I know this is futile, but Christians are told to pray, so here goes.” In my work as a hospice chaplain I heard on many, many occasions the wonderfully faithful saying, “well, we’ve done all we can do – all that’s left is prayer.” How many times have you heard it? How many times have you said it? All we can do is pray – as a form of resignation to the inevitable, not as an entry into the palace of the one who created the world from nothing.

Or, we use prayer as a bully stick. We have no intention of changing our thoughts or actions, but our little god sure needs to straighten out our relative, or friend, or spouse, or child. So we whip out the ol’ “put ’em on the straight and narrow” prayer and then if our relative, friend, spouse, or child doesn’t change – well its that little god’s fault, not mine, because I prayed.

Or we put our little god in a Republican or Democrat or American or conservative or liberal box, and every prayer is viewed as a way for that special interest group to achieve power and prestige. I know many may tire of my Dietrich Bonhoeffer stories, but there is one anecdote that always puts a lump in my throat. He was asked, on at least one, but apparently several occasions, what would happen if the world were to fall into another world war. He said that if that event were to happen, he would pray for Germany to be defeated so that Christianity could survive. I don’t know about you, but I do not know many Americans who could, and would, pray for a foreign nation to defeat us in a war so that Christianity could survive. For many of us, Americanism is Christianity, and we cannot see any difference.

I can’t even begin to identify the irony of that concept.

Or, we pray perhaps what has become my default prayer – the complaint. This year I started keeping a record of my prayers, and after a couple of months I went back and reviewed them. It was the pathetic record of a whiny little toddler. “God, this is not right, fix this, stop this, make that happen, give me this, and give it to me now.” It was nothing but pure, unadulterated narcissism. I had completely rewritten Scripture – “Lord, not thy will, but mine be done.”

I’m sick, I’m tired, I want to be done with little prayers.

In no way do I want to suggest we should not take our cares and concerns to God – he tells us to take our cares and concert to him, and to do so relentlessly. But I just want to be done with the whiny little narcissistic, vindictive prayers that has become the staple of so much of our common culture. I want to have the faith of the psalmists who were so utterly and totally convinced of the righteousness of their position that they could honestly demand God to hear them – and to act on His promises. I want to be a part of a church that when it prays, the walls shake and everyone is empowered by the Holy Spirit to go out and speak the word of God – after having been specifically told by the legal authorities not to do so! (Acts 4:23f)

Have you ever stopped to consider that our prayers could be repugnant to God? Three times in the book of Jeremiah, God specifically tells the prophet not to pray for his people. “Just stop – don’t do it, because I won’t listen anyway.” (see Jeremiah 7:16, 11:14, 14:11) Repeatedly in the other prophetic books God tells his people that their worship – specifically commanded by God – is repugnant to him and he has ceased to pay any attention to their sacrifices or prayers.  (Isa. 1:10-17; Hosea 8:11-13; Amos 5:21-24; Micah 6:6-8; Malachi 2:13-17; by no means a complete list)

I have heard the statement that America needs to turn back to God so many times it has become a cliche. While it would be wonderful if America turned to God (the word “back” is problematic, seeing as how for so much of our history we have rejected his basic ethical requirements), I am more concerned that the church turn to God. And maybe the first step in transforming the church into what Christ intended it is for its members to regain the sense of praying big prayers.

I confess – I am so guilty. But I am just tired of praying and hearing little prayers to a little god that are focused on my petty little wants and temper tantrums.

Lord, deliver me from little prayers!

Disciples and the Lord’s Prayer

(Spoiler alert: due to the amount of material to cover, today’s post will be longer than normal)

Can a disciple pray the Lord’s Prayer (model prayer) as given in Matthew 6 and Luke 11? While I do not ever remember specifically being told I could not pray the prayer, I have heard many sermons and discussions where the conclusion is that at least with one phrase it is inappropriate to do so. That phrase is “Your kingdom come.” Because within the Churches of Christ the kingdom has been associated with the church, and because the church was established on the day of Pentecost in A.D. 30 (or thereabouts), it is no longer necessary to pray for God to establish his kingdom.

This discussion came up again recently. It got me to thinking – where in the New Testament is the kingdom of God specifically connected to the church? Because that claim is so frequently made, I felt intuitively that there must be some manner in which the two are related. I decided to research the matter and find out myself. So I pulled out my Greek concordance and looked up the word for “kingdom.”

All 157 references. I put my project down and decided that someone else should do the heavy lifting. But, after a while I came back to the question. So, I put on a pot of coffee, pulled out my tablet full of yellow sheets of paper, and started reading and jotting notes.

To cut to the chase (for those who do not want to wade through the following) – yes, I believe that a disciple not only can pray the Lord’s Prayer, but actually should pray the Lord’s prayer – including the debated phrase. To defend my conclusion I offer the following three arguments:

(1)  After reading each of the 157 uses of the word “kingdom,” I could not find a single passage that definitively linked the concept of kingdom to the church. What I did discover is that there is not one single concept that covers every use of the word. In fact, I discovered at least 8: this is purely my own classification and you might find more or fewer. To summarize as briefly as possible –

(a) The use in Jesus’s parables (26 occurrences*, including parallels). Here Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is like . . . ” I just could not discover where the word “church” could be interchanged without some serious distortion.

(b) The reign, or rule of God (39 occurrences). Included in this group would be passages such as “seek first the kingdom of God” and Jesus’s teaching that his kingdom is not of this world. While it might be argued that the word church could be interchanged in a couple of these references, the use would be strained at best.

(c)  References to a future “inheriting” of the kingdom (38 occurrences). Illustrative here would be the thief’s request, “remember me when you come into your kingdom,” and Paul’s statement that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom.” These statements just do not make sense if you insert the word “church” instead of kingdom.

(d)  Of special note are the references to the kingdom being “near” or “at hand” or “among you” (31 occurrences). This is how John the Baptist, Jesus, and the apostles all started their preaching. Jesus taught on several occasions that children already constitute part of the kingdom, and in the beatitudes he used the present tense, “theirs is the kingdom of heaven/God.”**

(e) and (f)  Two very closely related groups are references to the “gospel” or “good news” of the kingdom (7 occurrences), and the proclamation of the kingdom (11 occurrences). To be honest, I had never really noticed the idea of the “gospel” of the kingdom – but by combining these two groups you get a significant number of references to the kingdom as being the subject of the early church’s preaching and teaching. Once again, it strains the meaning of the word if you insert the word “church” here – Jesus did not preach the good news of the church, nor did Paul preach the church. He specifically told the Corinthians he preached only Christ and him crucified.

(g)  There are a number of references (19 by my count) where the word simply refers to a human, or in a couple of references, Satan’s kingdom. These clearly cannot refer to the church.

(h) And, finally, I discovered 8 occurrences in which the word “church” could be interchanged with “kingdom” and the meaning would not be too seriously changed. Significant here would be Jesus teaching that unless one be born of water and Spirit he/she cannot enter the kingdom of God (John 3:3-5), and Paul telling the Colossian disciples that God has called them from darkness into the kingdom of his beloved Son (1:13). I did not find any passage that demanded the equivalency, but these at the very least allowed for it.

(2)  Very closely related to the above argument, the fact is the church is just one very small aspect of the kingdom of God. The church is the body of Christ – of that there can be no argument. But, here again, can the body of Christ on earth be described as the entirety of the kingdom of God? And, is every church (congregation) purely under the reign of God? It could be argued that the congregation in Laodicea was outside of the rule of God – they had nothing of which Christ was pleased. He was outside of the church, seeking admission. If you want to argue that the “kingdom” is the invisible, ethereal concept of the “church” then you are changing the limits of the discussion, and I could just as well argue that the entire universe has always been, is now, and will always be the “kingdom” of God. It does no good to argue speculative concepts when we only have flesh and blood congregations by which to measure the fullness of the “kingdom,” if indeed the words are interchangeable.

(3)  While Jesus gave his “model” prayer while he was still alive (and thus before the establishment of the church), the gospel accounts were not written down for three or so decades after the day of Pentecost, therefore the gospel writers were writing to teach their churches what Jesus wanted them to know. Because prayer is such a significant part of the disciples’ life, they recorded Jesus’s words regarding how to pray. And a major part of that prayer was the request that God’s kingdom be established on earth as well as in heaven. If Matthew and Luke deemed it necessary for the Christians in the first century to pray for the coming of God’s kingdom (long after the day of Pentecost) then I see no compelling reason that disciples today cannot pray the same prayer.

So, if it is perfectly acceptable (and in my opinion, expected) for the disciple to pray for the kingdom of God to come, why was it ever suggested that we cannot pray the model prayer? The best answer that I can come up with is the early Restoration Movement leaders’ utter contempt for the Roman Catholic Church. If there was a practice supported by the Roman Church, and that practice did not have a specific “book, chapter, and verse” to support it, then it was attacked ruthlessly by the early Restoration leaders. One practice that was, and still is, central to the worship of the Catholic Church is the recitation of the Lord’s prayer. By casting aspersion against the phrase invoking the coming of the kingdom of God, the early Restoration leaders could eliminate the recitation of the entire prayer (that, and the claim that doing so was using “vain and repetitious words”). I cannot guarantee that is the reason – but it is the only one that makes sense to me. This is especially significant in light of the fact that there is no passage in the New Testament which clearly equates the church and the kingdom.

Can we, and should we, pray the Lord’s model prayer? Absolutely! There is no scriptural reason against it, and every reason to do so. The church has come – to be sure. But, let us pray, and pray fervently, that God’s reign will be manifest throughout this bent and broken world.

*If you add up all these occurrences you will have a number that exceeds 157. That is because many occurrences can fit into more than one category. This is not a scientific study – it is just me trying to get a grasp on a very large and complex subject.

**In Matthew the phrase is almost always “kingdom of heaven.” Matthew accounts for one-third of the references to the kingdom (54 out of 157), and there are only 5 times where he uses the phrase “kingdom of God.” This is usually explained as his Jewish reluctance to use the word “God” for fear of using God’s name inappropriately. For whatever reason, it is obvious that he prefers the word “heaven” to speak of God’s reign and dominion.

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.

Esau and the Church

The character of Esau fits much of what we would consider the main figure in a Greek tragedy. He came into the world with every blessing, and through character flaws and chicanery by this brother, managed to lose virtually everything. I think there are some profound lessons to be learned about this minor/major character in the Old Testament story.

Esau comes on the scene along with his brother Jacob in Genesis 25. He is the older of the twins, and by that right should have been granted a double share of his father’s inheritance, as well as his father’s primary blessing. Through his brother’s deception (aided, interestingly, by his mother) he lost the second. Through his own lack of moral fortitude he lost the first. He gave away his birthright for a bowl of food – his appetite for the immediate caused him to lose sight of what was of far greater value in the future.

The author of the book of Hebrews refers to the entire church as the “church of the firstborn (ones).” (Hebrews 12:23). The word “firstborn” is plural – the author is not referring to Jesus as the Firstborn, he is referring to each and every member of the church (the ESV uses the word “assembly” here – a wonderful choice!) as being “firstborn.” We are all, in a metaphorical sense, Esaus. We have the right to receive our Father’s inheritance, and we have the right to receive our Father’s primary blessing. Hebrews 12:23 is a profound passage!

The question is, have we frittered that birthright away? Have we sold our eternal inheritance for a few fleeting days of “relevance” on this earth? Every day I am flooded with suggestions that the church needs to do this or buy that or change some other thing in order to attract the “nones” or the “millennials” or now the “generation Z” (or iGeneration). Esau thought that he absolutely had to eat or he would die. Never mind that he could have cooked his own meal (as he would do for Isaac some time later) or that he could have approached his mother, or that he could have punched his little brother in the nose and taken the bowl of stew. But, as the text clearly states, he “despised” his birthright, and sold it to Jacob for the most paltry of prices (Gen. 25:34)

There is no question but what the church is facing a crisis – has there been a time since Acts 2 when the church was not facing a crisis? The question is not if, but how; not a matter of deciding if we are in the valley of decision, but how we are to ascend out of it. We have two choices – we can sell our birthright and buy into what the world considers “relevant” (more technology, flashier graphics, hipper preachers, dashing programs). Or, we can look past the immediate (what the world considers “eat or die”) and view the situation from the end.

I’ve been studying the book of Revelation a lot lately. Within the book of Revelation there are many exhortations to be faithful, to overcome, to conquer, and even to repent of ungodly behavior. But I cannot find one single exhortation to be successful. In fact, in the book of Revelation, success in God’s eyes is very frequently described in terms of death. That which is success in the eyes of the world is failure in the kingdom of God.

If we as the firstborn ones are to claim our inheritance, if we are to receive our blessing, we are going to have to make a major change in tactics. We are going to have to forgo the bowl of worldly stew and keep our eyes focused on the Messianic banquet to which God has called his children.

The church of Esau may look attractive, but it has no future, or rather, its future is one of being cursed because of its failure to claim that which is its own. Let us strive to be the church, the assembly, of the firstborn ones – the children of promise who persevere and are faithful even to the point of death.