The Study of History – Facts are Stubborn Things

(Second in a series of three)

In addition to being a minister by vocation, I consider myself an amateur history buff. One thing I learned recently was the role of the United States and her allies in starting WWII. “Wait!” you said. “Adolf Hitler started WWII and the United States did not enter the war until 1941.”

Well, that is mostly true. Hitler did strike the match that started the fire. But the US, England, and France poured out all the gunpowder that Hitler used to burn Europe to the ground when they forged the Treaty of Versailles. That document blamed Germany for WWI, and made Germany pay reparations that it could never pay; it ultimately drove Germany into a depression the likes of which have never been equaled. All that was necessary was for a master manipulator like Hitler to come along and strike that match. Had the Allies reframed the treaty that ended WWI, Hitler would never have had the leverage he needed to turn the population of Germany against the world a second time. We smugly blame Hitler, and self-righteously overlook our own nation’s role in starting the war. Facts are stubborn, and often inconvenient, things.

What in the world does this have to do with theology, and the Restoration Movement in particular? Only this – very often we only focus on the end result of a very long and complicated process. When we get back to the beginning, and ask the question “why,” we tend to get very different, and sometimes surprising, answers.

Barton W. Stone, and Thomas and Alexander Campbell, were disaffected Presbyterians. This means that their religious thought world was primarily influenced by the teachings of John Calvin. In their day that Calvinism was  further refined by the Westminster Confession of Faith. Much as only the tip of an iceberg is visible on the surface, Stone and the Campbells were only partially aware of this influence. They wrote clearly and passionately against creedalism and the dangers of denominationalism, but a significant amount of their invective was focused against the legacy of Calvin.

One such teaching of Calvin is that a person can never really be sure of his or her salvation, as feelings can ultimately be misleading (this point is even endlessly debated by Calvinists). If God elects certain people to heaven, and others to hell, there is nothing that you can do to join the first group and avoid the second. More to the point: When exactly could a person be assured of their salvation? If the doctrine of original sin was true, there had to be a point at which God revealed to a person that sin was removed – but what was that point?

The solution (at least in the late 1700s and early 1800s America) was the “mourners bench.” This was where penitents could attend church, listen to sermons, and await the filling of the Holy Spirit that would reveal the gift of salvation. Many would sit on the mourners bench for months, some no doubt for years, before this warming was felt.

As they sought to unify the Christian church, and as they worked to restore that church to the purity of New Testament teachings, Alexander Campbell and his disciple Walter Scott hit upon a masterful observation. Stated most simply and elegantly, sinners could respond to the gospel with three observable steps – they could believe the gospel message, repent of their sins, and receive the washing of baptism. In turn, God made three great promises – the forgiveness of sins, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the gift of eternal life.

It was a stroke of theological genius! First, it was sound biblical teaching. Anyone could open their Bibles and verify such was true. But, more to the point, it answered an existential question in a profound and dramatic fashion. I cannot emphasize this enough. It was brilliant theology, although Campbell himself would have vehemently denied the use of the term. Gone was the mourners bench! How could you know if you were a Christian, that your sins were forgiven, that you had the gift of the Holy Spirit and that heaven awaited? By the observable steps of making a confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and by submitting to baptism. Thousands responded to this “new” teaching and the Restoration plea spread “like fire in dry stubble.”

Not one to leave well enough alone, Scott further tweaked this plan into his “five finger exercise.” He would ride into a town, gather some children together, and teach them the “five steps of salvation” on the fingers of their hand. They  were taught the importance of faith, repentance, baptism, the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit, and then sent home to repeat the message and to invite their parents to attend a protracted “gospel meeting” (an event that sometimes lasted weeks). Once again the results were astounding. Thousands were converted using this simple method of evangelism. But, notice – everything post baptism was excluded.

Through the decades that followed another subtle but critically important change occurred in this “gospel plan.” It was further reduced to the five steps to be accomplished by humans. From the original six steps which balanced human responses to God’s promises, the “plan” was now “hear, believe, repent, confess, and be baptized.” Gone was any reference to God’s promises, or God’s grace. Notice also the total silence regarding an obedient, faithful life. The focus was on baptism alone, a point that was not missed by the multitudes of opponents of these “Campbellites”.

Now we can step back and see how the process where a brilliant theological move has been co-opted into an idol. Stone, Campbell and Scott were responding to a crisis – a crisis that was keenly felt in the churches to which they were speaking. They took the gospel message and formulated an answer that was both biblical and culturally relevant. Over time, however, that answer has become a mantra that is largely devoid of its original context. Worse, by failing to see why the early Restoration leaders formulated this teaching method, we have elevated the method to the status of Scripture itself.

I write this not to disavow the Scriptural necessity to hear the gospel of Christ, to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that one must repent of a sinful past and that one must be baptized into Christ. Such is taught from Matthew through the New Testament. My point in writing this essay is to illustrate out how we as humans can turn a process into a goal, a method into an idol. Just as Calvinists had turned the “mourners bench” into an institutionalized exercise, so many in the Restoration Movement have “creedalized” the “gospel plan of salvation” and have turned it into something it was never intended to become.

The result, I fear, is now becoming painfully obvious. The Christian Chronicle is producing a series of articles detailing how the Churches of Christ are shrinking at an alarming rate. True, all “Christian” churches are experiencing losses, but this is particularly troubling to me because we, who proclaim that we are not a denomination and that we are only baptizing to create disciples of Christ, should not be experiencing losses in the numbers  that are being reported. It is one thing to leave a church. But, if we discipled people to be followers of Jesus, and then they leave, they are rejecting Jesus.

Our response to this crisis needs to be as theologically astute and culturally relevant as was Campbell’s and Scott’s in their day. But we are not living in post-Revolutionary America. We are living in post-Modern America, with a whole host of new and different questions. We must be true first to Scripture, and we must also be educated enough about our own history to learn not to turn human methods into church creeds.

I believe that it is very sad that in many ways we have become what Stone, Campbell, and Scott were fighting against. We have become as creedal and divided as the Christian world in general. We have turned the momentary successes of a generation into a permanent temple of worship. More on that in the next installment.

A Bent and Broken World

The phrase comes from a sermon I heard years ago by Jim McGuiggan. I have never forgotten that phrase, although the I may not remember the over-all thrust of his message. We live in a bent and broken world.

Never have I been so aware of that as in the past couple of weeks. Jury duty can do that do a person. If you want to find out how bent and broken our world is – just hang out at a courthouse. Modern courthouses are a cauldron where all sorts of filth festers and boils over. I feel like I need to shower again after just sitting for a couple of hours in a jury selection hearing.

And then there are the headlines: babies left alone in broiling hot cars suffer indescribable pain as their little lives are snuffed out. Two parents in England have the care of their terminally ill child forcibly taken from them by the government – with no recourse. State and federal governments and courts are increasingly forcing perverse beliefs and practices on a populace that either does not care or celebrates the perversity. Free speech is becoming guaranteed to only those who reject biblical standards of behavior.

We live in a bent and broken world.

On the one hand, I am simply speechless at the speed at which our culture has devolved. My childhood – lived largely during a period of moral upheaval  – seems like a million years ago, and the problems I was faced with seem almost quaint by today’s standards.

At least we knew which bathroom we were supposed to use.

On the other hand, on the continuum of moral perversity, I do not believe we have reached the point where a governmental leader can summarily order the execution of small babies within a geographical area simply because of his jealous rage. At least, not yet. And, while they are disappearing at an alarming rate, at least there are SOME sexual mores still in existence. At least, for a while.

I have been asked the question, “What is the greatest threat facing the church over the next 10-20 years?” How can I answer, “Simple existence”? Externally we are living in an era of increasing moral decline, and internally the church is being attacked by those who refuse to accept its exclusive claim. There is only one church, and extra ecclesiam nulla salus. “Outside the church there is no salvation.” That church is Christ’s church, and its members do not get the right to change the stipulations for entry nor the requirements for continued membership.

We live in a bent and broken world. Humans always have; until Christ returns we always will. While we are here our hearts are often shattered, and our eyes full of tears. But of this we can be certain:

The one who created this world will purify and restore it, just as our bodies will be purified and restored. What that looks like we have no earthly idea. But the promise that it will happen is sure.

Until that happens we must live at the foot of the cross, for we are just as guilty as others for the death of the Son of God. Repent. Confess. Live in a state of forgiven humility. Understand that only in weakness can we be made strong, and only in losing can we have any hope of victory.

Lord, come quickly!

Why is the Church No Longer Different? (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

I found this gem in my reading today. It is just another example of why I find Dietrich Bonhoeffer so challenging – and so contemporary, even though he was murdered 72 years ago. The paragraph is kind of long, but a powerful statement:

The church was different once. It used to be that the questions of life and death were resolved and decided here. Why is this no longer so? It is because we ourselves have made the church, and keep on making it, into something which it is not. It is because we talk too much about false, trivial human things and ideas in the church and too little about God. It is because we make the church into a playground for all sorts of feelings of ours, instead of a place where God’s word is obediently received and believed. It is because we prefer quiet and edification to the holy restlessness of the powerful Lord God, because we keep thinking we have God in our power instead of allowing God to have power over us, instead of recognizing that God is truth and that over against God the whole world is in the wrong. It is because we like too much talk and think about a cozy, comfortable God instead of letting ourselves be disturbed and disquieted by the presence of God – because in the end we ourselves do not want to believe that God is really here among us, right now, demanding that we hand ourselves over, in life and death, in heart and soul and body. And, finally, it is because we pastors keep talking too much about passing things, perhaps about whatever we ourselves have thought out or experienced, instead of knowing that we are no more than messengers of the great truth of the eternal Christ.

(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, London: 1933-1935, vol. 13 in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works English ed., trans. Isabel Best, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 2007) p. 323-324.)

Anyone see their church, or their preacher in those words? Any preacher see yourself in those words?

Shame on us! Shame on me!

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.

Study IS Ministry

I wrote a much longer version of this topic over the weekend, and just decided the post was too long and complicated. So, here is the abridged version. Still might be too long . . . but, oh well.

As a result of a questionnaire I completed recently I had somewhat of an epiphany – a light bulb over my head kind of moment. Although I was aware of the truth of this thought for some time, I don’t think I had ever really put it into words, or as few words, as I was able to do. To cut to the chase, here is my epiphany:

Study is ministry.

I have found that many congregations have a dualistic view of the role of a minister. Either he is a vitally involved, active minister, tending to every aspect of congregational life, or he barricades himself in his office, only poking his head out of his shell long enough to teach a class or preach a sermon. Either a minister or a bookworm. Either a do-er or a be-er. Either an extrovert or an introvert.

Such a dualistic view is not only wrong – it is actually dangerous – dangerous for the church that thinks it, and dangerous for the minister who is forced into accepting one extreme or the other. Congregations must learn that study (serious, quiet, involved, and undisturbed study) is critical to any healthy ministry. In fact, study is in itself, a minister’s ministry.

I offer three arguments, although others could be suggested as well:

  1.  Quality classes and sermons do not just happen. A man with 25-30 years of study and experience may be able to open his Bible and preach a full sermon extemporaneously. I would suggest that most who try, however, end up offering a collection of opinions, worn out cliches, and more than a few sentimental remembrances. Just as you can go to any McDonalds or Burger King and eat a meal in 10 or 15 minutes, you can pull an outline from a file or glance at a book and whip up something to occupy 35-40 minutes of dead time. But a quality, challenging, and most important, biblically sound class or sermon takes time – lots of time. The time a minister spends in study is critical, solid ministry. It is ministry in the word.
  2. Bad theology will eventually destroy a congregation. How do strong, seemingly invincible congregations come to wither away and die? Many reasons can be given, but high on the list has to be anemic preaching. Anemic preaching is the result of anemic study. Either a preacher thinks it is beneath his dignity to have to study for a sermon, or the congregation he serves thinks it is more important for him to be seen at every civic and social event of the community. There are only so many hours of useful work in a day. Every hour spent glad-handing and being “visible” to the community is an hour that cannot be recovered in the study. I am not arguing that having a visible presence in the community is not important – it clearly is! What I am arguing, however, is that there has to be a priority assigned to either being a minister of the Word or a public relations specialist. Being popular in the community does not translate into being faithful to God’s word. Know this for sure – when a crisis hits, a family will much prefer a minister who has solid, concrete words of comfort as opposed to a “busy” but otherwise empty-headed populist.
  3. Theology really does matter. Why gather together to listen to a speech that really has no meaning? Why spend the time in assembly if that assembly has no purpose? The very reason that a minister is hired should point to the priority of his time and effort. And, yet, strangely it does not! We do not gather on Sunday mornings to hear a report on the monthly Kiwanis club meeting, or to learn what is happening with the Rotary club. We do not assemble to listen to a re-play of the last football game, or to hear a critique of the community dinner theatre.  We gather to worship, and a major component of that worship is to be taught, to be strengthened, to be edified, and occasionally to be disciplined by the reading and explication of Scripture. The time that a minister devotes to his study is healthy ministry for the congregation. It is his ministry to the congregation. And, most important, it is his ministry to his God who has blessed him and equipped him for the role he must fulfill.

Please do not read this post to be a defense of a minister who never visits, who cannot be bothered to call on the members of the congregation as needed, who feels it is beneath is exalted station to get out and pull weeds or mow the lawn of a needy member. I am not excusing laziness or an irrational withdrawal from the community or the activities of the congregation. The office-turtle is no more sound and healthy than is the community gad-about. The point of this post is simple: the study that is demanded of a minister IS his ministry, and if he fails in that over-arching ministry it simply does not matter how personable or popular he becomes.

Success is not demanded of any member of the church, but faithfulness most certainly is. And if that is true of each member, it is exponentially more important for the minister.

Blessed is the minister whose congregation honors and protects his study!