A Declaration of Surrender

I have opined on many occasions how, in terms of following my spiritual forebears, I am far more of a Stoner than I am a Campbellite. For those in the “Stone-Campbell” American Restoration Movement that distinction makes sense, for everyone else it is a real head scratcher. In the most succinct way of summarizing the two view, think of top-down or bottom-up typology. I am going to over-generalize here, so please, don’t anyone challenge me on dotting “i’s” or crossing “t’s.” Volumes have been written on the subject I am going to summarize in a paragraph.

Barton W. Stone was basically an apocalypticist. He had a intense acceptance of, although he would probably admit an incomplete understanding of, the the Holy Spirit. He believed completely in the idea of restoring the church to its New Testament origin, he just believed that the work of doing so was up to God, and whatever role that humans had in the process, the work was totally and completely up to God. Alexander Campbell, on the other hand, was an optimist’s optimist. He drank deeply from the philosophy of John Locke and Francis Bacon, and while he probably had a higher view of the Holy Spirit than would make many of his followers comfortable, he was more firmly convinced in the power of human reason and effort in accomplishing the “current reformation.” He was so convinced that his work would usher in the 1,000 year reign of Christ on the earth that he called his second, and most influential journal, The Millennial Harbinger.

These two viewpoints have profound, and opposed, consequences. If you have a top-down viewpoint (as I have characterized Stone) you realize your worth, your value, is only secondary to that of God. You are the servant, God is the master. This is, in my opinion, far more Pauline and biblical. Paul planted, Apollos watered – but God gave the growth. If you have a bottom-up viewpoint (as I have characterized Campbell) at the very least you see yourself as a co-worker along with God. God needs you as much as you need God. In the words of a particularly miserable little sycophant who led a prayer one day in our college chapel service, God is just so lucky to have us on his side. It may be fair to say that I am over-stating Campbell’s view, but one detail leads me to believe he was bent far more in that direction than Stone – when it became obvious that the United States would end up in a Civil War, Campbell was devastated. You see, if humans can reason and work their way up into the millennial reign of Christ, there is nothing to destroy that utopian viewpoint than the carnage of a civil war. Reality, more than theology, destroys a bottom-up, pragmatic approach to religion.

There is a profound, ironic twist to this dichotomy of “top-down, bottom-up” typology. Those, like Stone, who believe in the absolute power of God and who live in a world view of apocalypticism, have a far greater understanding of servanthood than those who believe in the power of human reason and effort. Stone’s apocalyptic worldview had an impact on Tolbert Fanning, and from Fanning down to David Lipscomb. Lipscomb is famous (or infamous) for his book entitled, Civil Government, an incongruous title seeing as how he excoriated the concept of civil government. Lipscomb’s point was that man simply does not have it within himself to govern himself (by the way, that sounds a LOT like Isaiah to me, but what do I know). The more you realize the impossibility of being your own master, the more willing, and indeed the greater the necessity, of submitting to the total will and power of God. The greater God is in your worldview, the smaller you are, and the greater the realization is that anything that you accomplish is simply the result of God working through you.

And, lest anyone question Lipscomb’s concept of servanthood, it was Lipscomb who demanded that his students go out and work in the fields surrounding Nashville for half a day while they were studying with him to become preachers. Nothing like plowing behind a mule for 4-6 hours to teach a preacher humility. It was Lipscomb who stayed behind in Nashville during a cholera outbreak to drive Roman Catholic nuns around in his horse and buggy so they could tend to the sick and dying. You see, when your eyes are focused on the absoluteness and greatness of God, service and compassion become matters of necessity, not convenience. For confirmation, simply read God’s instructions to the Israelites concerning their acceptance of, and care for, the alien, the poor, the widow, the orphan, the powerless, the oppressed. It is gritty reading.

At the risk of starting a political firestorm, far, far too many current members of the Churches of Christ are Campbellites. Campbell was absolutely convinced of the appropriateness of civil government. He saw nothing wrong with promoting, and even serving in, elected positions – he would actually see that as part of the ushering in of the millennial reign of Christ. It might be worthwhile to note that the only member of the American Restoration Movement to be elected President of the United States was James Garfield, who had previously served as a general in the Union Army. Garfield was a member of the Disciples of Christ – the most “Campbellite” of the three branches of the Restoration Movement (Disciples, Conservative Christian Church, and Churches of Christ).

Once upon a time I was enamored with the power of politics. I am a Reagan baby – I came of age watching the results of Reagan’s first election and drinking deeply of the euphoria that finally a good man was in the office of President. Then came Clinton. And then came Bush II. And then came Obama. And now we have Trump. Our nation is more divided, displays more animosity, more hatred, more vitriol, than at any other time in my half-century of life. During the eight years of Obama and the four years of the current resident of the White House, the role of elected officials has not been to lead the country, but to vilify and objectify the opponent. If public service ever did have a noble purpose, it ended with the last century.

I’m done. I surrender. I have seen the folly of my ways and I repent. Reading the book of Revelation yet again has opened my eyes to see the foul nature of the beast – nothing but lying frogs croaking out poison and death to their loyal minions. I used to think that the role of politics could be saved, could somehow be salvaged from the cess-pool where it was headed. I no longer think that way. If it somehow manages to be redeemed, if it is even redeemable at all, it will only be through the power of God working through the Holy Spirit. In Revelation, God destroys the beast, he does NOT redeem it.

I guess now I am a full-fledged Stoner/Lipscombian. I urge all who love Christ and his Church to join with me in my radical, apocalyptic worldview. Things are just so much more clear here. God is in control, not me. God will work his plan, not the Republicans or the Democrats. God works through his servants the prophets, not the king seated on the throne in Jerusalem nor Washington D.C. Jesus established his church, not a nation nor a political party or system. We are called to be followers of the Great Shepherd, not some bloviating buffoon residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

It really is liberating to ascend by climbing lower, by demonstrating the power of God by picking up a towel. Those who end up finding their lives must first lose them. Those who reign with Christ must first surrender any claim to their life. It is the way of the cross, and there simply is no other way.

“And You Will Know That I Am The LORD Your God”

I have stated verbally, and I think in this space too, how I believe I am experiencing some of the best Bible study this year that I have ever been able to accomplish. That is both reassuring (thankful I am not going backward) but also embarrassing. I feel like I should have been at this point many years ago, but I guess some skulls are just thicker than others. Anyway, what has helped me tremendously this year is that I am using fine line markers to highlight, and in some cases, make notes in my Bible. This has helped me see some powerful messages in books where previously I would just skim over or glide past certain words or phrases. I noticed one such phrase while recently reading through Ezekiel. When one phrase (or even word) keeps reappearing in a chapter or book, it is time to pull out the ol’ thinking cap and ask what the author was trying to communicate. So, I offer the following as both result of my reading and for your continued thoughts.

The phrase that caught my attention is, “And you will know that I am  the LORD your God” and numerous variations. Sometimes it is second person in speaking to the Israelites (“you”) and sometimes it is third person (“they”) in referring to the nations. At least once a specific nation is mentioned – Egypt!

So, here is what I discovered in my non-scientific, non-computerized, and non-original Hebrew language analysis: that phrase (or a variation) shows up 60 times in the book of Ezekiel. What makes this even more profound is that the phrase does not appear in 23 out of the 48 chapters – therefore, if my math is correct, Ezekiel uses the phrase 60 times in 25 chapters. In a couple of chapters (20 and 25, to be specific) the phrase is used 5 times!

There are a number of other phrases that convey basically the same thought, but in different expressions: “They shall be my people, and I will be their God,” “I am (or will be) your God,” “I the LORD sanctify them,” “I the LORD have poured out my wrath.”

So, I ponder – why this emphasis? Why is it so critical for Ezekiel to communicate that YHWH is God, and that the people will finally understand this? Did they not know that YHWH was God? Were they not good, devout, wholesome Jews?

In a word, no. God had to show Ezekiel this, and he did so in a dramatic fashion, taking Ezekiel in visions to the Temple in Jerusalem where Ezekiel saw how corrupt the worship of the priests had become. They had drawn images on the walls of the temple depicting foreign gods, and both the priests and the leading women of the nation were actively involved in idol worship. In a dramatic, and what had to be for the faithful a crushing scene, God is so fed up with the nation that he gets into his chariot and leaves the temple and the city in order to allow it to be destroyed by the Babylonians.

All well and good for those faithless Jews, you might say, those ignorant hooligans who had every blessing in the world yet turned their backs on God.

And I ask, the church in America is different how?

We all, liberal and conservative, wrap our interpretation of the Bible in the American flag, and use patriotism as the primary lens by which we invoke the Word of God. We all, liberal and conservative, refuse to consider or apply the teachings of Scripture that not only challenge, but destroy, our pet ideologies. We all, liberal and conservative alike, have removed God as the sole arbiter of our thoughts and intentions and words, and we have replaced him with pragmatics (what works) or cultural relativity (what is) or shallow emotionalism (what I feel) as the basis of our theology.

Consider this: notice how Republicans (in general) passionately argue that all pre-born life is sacred, that regardless of how a baby was conceived (even through rape or incest) or what might or might not be considered “defects,” that life is precious in the sight of God and must be protected. Democrats (again, generally) reject that thinking, and argue it is up to the whim of the mother to decide who is allowed, or is rejected, entrance at the border of life. In the issue of immigration the roles are reversed 180 degrees. Republicans (I repeat, generally) argue it is the right of a sovereign nation to decide (i.e., “freedom of choice”) who is admitted entrance, and careful examination must be made to decide if a life is “worthy” to be granted visitor or citizen status. Conversely, Democrats (same song 4th verse) argue that all life, regardless of whether we “want” the immigrant or whether he/she exhibits any “defects” should be granted admission.

And, both sides appeal to the Bible for support of their views.

Can there be any more stark of a contrast in how we allow politics and “patriotism” to color our interpretation of Scripture?

Dear Christians, brothers and sisters, can we not see here how critical it is for us to stand under Scripture, and to argue that all life is precious, created in the sight of God – and at the same time remember the repeated and emphatic commands of God to treat the alien, the fatherless, the poor, the destitute, with love and compassion? Why is it either/or? Why can we not, as those who are supposed to understand forgiveness and grace so much more than anyone else, extend that grace to all people – people who look like us and people who don’t look like us (or believe what we believe)?

I will admit to my own fears and shortcomings in this regard – I have to deal with my fallen humanity just as much as the next guy (or girl). But – Christians are called to a higher standard. We are not called to just aspire to the Constitution of the United States of America. We are called to aspire to the Being, the very nature, of God.

The very same God who sent Israel (and Judah) into Assyrian and Babylonian captivity because they forgot God.

God promised Ezekiel that following their punishment, both Israel and the nations would learn that He, the LORD, is God.

Will the church ever learn that?

Mega-Star, Mega-Preachers – A Pox on Your House Too!

The last couple of posts have allowed me to do a little venting. As I wrote some time back, this blog allows me to “talk to myself” a little, while at the same time hopefully causing others to think. I am certainly not sitting here thinking that I am going to change the world. The extent of my range to change things is limited to the cat boxes.

However, in discussing the issue of entertainment in worship, my mind was inexorably drawn to perhaps the greatest single worship issue confronting Churches of Christ today – and I am not referring to “praise teams” or instrumental music in worship. I am talking about the cult of hero worship that we have created, or are in the process of creating, around “professional” preachers.

Years ago it was said that the Roman Catholic Church had the Pope, and Churches of Christ had editors. There was a great deal of truth to this, as preachers, and even entire congregations, could be identified as “Gospel Advocate” men or “Firm Foundation” men or possibly even “Standard” men. That is not so true anymore, as print publications have waned tremendously in popularity and editors have faded in teaching authority. What has seemingly replaced them is a rising cult of mega-star, mega-preachers. It is not that Churches of Christ have never had what we consider to be 5-star, marquee level preachers, you might even say its in our DNA, dating all the way back to Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, Walter Scott, et. al. What differentiates today from yester-year is that along with those luminaries there was a vast, innumerable army of preachers working in virtual obscurity, laboring in congregations large and small, all knowing that their service was just as vital to the health of the church as the “big boys.” And the “big boys” knew the value of the small town preacher because they were, at one time, all small town preachers.

However, what is occurring now is taking place right in lock-step with the greater world of evangelicalism. What I see happening how is that small town churches (and even some large city churches) are dismissing their located preachers (or are not replacing departed preachers) and are moving to the “multi-site” or “multi-campus” paradigm whereby one hero-preacher preaches via satellite link to a number of congregations, some many miles away.

I would suggest that what follows can best be described as a “chicken or the egg” issue, where the cause or effect is impossible to determine. However, we read left to right and top to bottom, so something has to come first. My first might actually be the second, so read the next sections with that in mind.

Beginning at least in the late 20th century (when I was an undergraduate), young men were encouraged to enter into just about any ministry other than preaching to local congregations, especially smaller congregations. It’s not that “located preaching work” was openly denigrated, its just that it was not actively promoted. The older professors, those who had preached for small congregations, still spoke approvingly of such work, but the younger professors rarely mentioned it, and when they did, it was very often in condescending ways. The model that was promoted was stepping straight from graduation into a large, multi-ministry congregation. The “jack-of-all-trades” preacher who did everything from direct VBS to folding the bulletin was viewed as an anachronism, a relic from a by-gone era. Because we loved the young professors so much, and strove to emulate them,  we all just naturally assumed that we were all destined to serve 500+ member congregations. It was our ministerial birthright.

The result has been nothing short of predictable. When I was a young man, our “hero” preachers were men who started out preaching to very small, mostly rural, congregations and either built them up, or transitioned to larger urban congregations where they once again built them up. They never forgot their roots, however, and their preaching demonstrated it – they praised the work of the multitude of “anonymous” preachers, because they knew what small congregation ministry was like (and they had the bruises to show it). Today, our “hero” preachers have never stood behind the pulpit of a congregation of 25 members. They have never known what it is like to work with a “men’s business meeting.” They simply do not understand, and therefore cannot appreciate, small town ministry or small congregation preaching. It is one thing to preach when you have 15-20 elders to support you, and 4-5 other staff members to do everything from plan the worship service to make sure the waste baskets are cleaned. Put some of our “mega-preachers” in a single-minister congregation and they would become whimpering little puppies within six weeks.

Simultaneous to this shift was a shift that was occurring in congregations as well. It wasn’t good enough to just have a man serve as a preacher. He had to come with star status. He had to have a quiver full of baptisms everywhere he went. He had to be well known on the “preaching circuit.” Young men straight out of college or schools of preaching need not apply. Start out as a youth minister or education minister was the advice – ergo, start out with one of those 500+ member congregations, prove your mettle, and then move on to a preaching gig.

Then, the generation shift hit – and congregations everywhere started to age. Simultaneous to this shift was the rural-to-urban shift, and smaller rural congregations lost members (mostly younger adults) to the growing urban congregations. The 250 member congregations suddenly became 500 member congregations, and the 500 member congregations became 1,000 member congregations. The smaller, rural congregations lost their ability (and sometimes even their desire) to support a full-time minister, and even some urban congregations (in decaying parts of cities) were unable to maintain their full-time staff.

All while this was occurring there was a simultaneous shifting paradigm among (mostly) evangelical churches – take a mega-pastor, video his sermons, link them via satellite to any number of remote “campuses,” and bada, bada, bing, his stature and acclaim grows exponentially, as does the status of the “home” congregation. Instead of being a “pastor” (the term grates on me) of a 5,000 member congregation, he can be referred to as the pastor of a 15,000 or 20,000 member “congregation,” even though that “congregation” is made up of 4, 5, or more distant “campuses.”

Apparently, Churches of Christ have swallowed that model hook, line, and sinker.

Part of the shift is pragmatic – smaller congregations, or congregations that are struggling financially, get the benefit of hearing a sermon broadcast in “real” time. Buildings that would have to be shuttered are kept open. Members can stay in locations where they are comfortable, and sometimes in the only congregations of Churches of Christ for miles around.

But, as with my thoughts on “praise teams,” there is something sinister about this pragmatic shift. There is some serious theology that is utterly missing, and some really dangerous thinking taking its place. For one thing, this is but the first step in the death of the autonomous congregation. It is a veiled introduction to the concept of a bishopric, where one man is viewed to be “chief among equals.” Just as we can see in the evangelical world, when a man is followed by 20,000 or more energetic disciples, under whose authority does he place himself? What eldership can discipline a man when his face is being broadcast to 3, 4, 5 or more distant locations (and, by extension, there is a fiduciary relationship among those congregations)?

Before anyone responds with the inevitable – I know, I get it, it “works.” But if you want to see the ultimate in how this “works,” you need not look any further than the Roman Catholic Church, with its elaborate hierarchal structure. I for one do not want to go there. I also know there are very real, and very serious, issues relating to aging congregations in communities that are themselves dying. I know there are very real, and very serious, issues in urban congregations where shifting demographics have created membership issues.

But, brothers and sisters, can we not approach these issues from a theological perspective instead of a pragmatic one? I know that changes are going to have to be made, but can we not make decisions that will promote the health of individual congregations and provide for local ministers instead of raising the names and faces of just a few “mega-preachers” to idolatrous status?

  • Can we not demand that our colleges and universities return to a model of preparing men to preach, and to minister, to small congregations?
  • Can we not develop a pattern where larger, and more affluent, congregations can “send” men to preach for smaller and financially weaker congregations, and to place those men under the leadership of that local congregation?
  • Can we not raise up a generation of men who see the value of serving the church for whom Christ died, whether he preaches to 25, or 50, or 5,000 members?
  • Can we not devise a system where a man can preach for a small congregation without being forced to live on government assistance? We have created a caste system of ministry – we have those who feast sumptuously on caviar and others who cannot even feed their families without taking a second job.

I will freely admit I do not know all the answers – but I just feel in my bones that the road we are traveling down is the wrong road. I see no lasting solution in selling our spiritual birthright for a mess of evangelical porridge. We can do so much better.

But, I think the solution is to begin by learning what it means to take a towel and start washing some feet.

We will climb higher only by descending lower.

Praise Teams (Again)

I was mildly rebuked following my last post. I knew I would be, and I really don’t mind. “Praise Teams” are a touchy subject. Those who have them, or want them, cannot see any harm or fault in having them. Those that do not want to have a “praise team” in their worship are pretty firm in their convictions. There really is not much of a middle ground.

I am going to make a generalization based on my experience, but it is my belief that those who argue for “praise teams” do so for one simple reason: it makes the song service sound better. There is no biblical or theological reason for the addition of “praise teams.” The issue is either that there is a large, but basically empty, auditorium that kills the sound of the congregational singing, or that the congregation is getting old and feeble and therefore cannot sing as vibrantly as they once did, or that the congregation doesn’t know the new songs and therefore cannot sing them very well. Whatever the specific issue, the argument for “praise teams” revolves around aesthetics. It is all about making the song service sound better for human ears. At the risk of offending – it is all about entertainment.

We are a nation of pragmatists, virtually every decision we make is based on one bottom line – does it work, or does it work better, than what I am currently doing? The church is particularly stricken with this disease. Because of our (I speak as a member of the Churches of Christ) aversion to theology, we have surrendered our commitment to deep theological thinking long, long ago. When a church surrenders its theological foundation, the only thing left for it is pragmatism – what works. So, if a congregation is faced with a problem (poor singing) it does not search for a reason that can be found in the realm of the Spirit, but only what will “work” to fix the problem, ergo, “Let’s form a ‘praise team’ of some really good singers, give them all a microphone, and our singing will improve overnight.” The problem is, it doesn’t. Having a “praise team” is putting a band-aid on a cancer. A “praise team” might make the auditorium singing sound better to human ears, but it does nothing toward engendering a more spiritual worship service. It is all a part of the “Seeker Sensitive” movement that caters to the whims and fancies of the world at the expense of theological content. In a sentence, there is no “there” there.

I pointed out in my last post where I think “praise teams” violate the spirit of Scripture, if not the letter. I will not rehearse those reasons – none of those who took the time (and I thank them!) to converse with me attempted to address those issues. However, I want to add another voice to the conversation, one who speaks with the theological understanding of which I find so abysmally lacking in so many conversations about the church today:

The essence of all congregational singing on this earth is the purity of unison singing – untouched by the unrelated motives of musical excess – the clarity unclouded by the dark desire to lend musicality an autonomy of its own apart from the words; it is the simplicity and unpretentiousness, the humanness and warmth, of this style of singing. Of course, this truth is only gradually and by patient practice disclosed to our oversophisticated ears. Whether or not a community  achieves proper unison singing is a question of its spiritual discernment. This is singing from the heart, singing to the Lord, singing the Word; this is singing in unity. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible, vol. 5 of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English, ed. Geffrey B. Kelly, trans. Daniel W. Bloesch and James H. Burtness, [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996], p. 67. Additional note – these words were written in 1938.

This is thinking theologically. This is looking to the Spirit for answers to questions of the Spirit. This is taking a human, temporal problem and seeking to discern the moving of the Word and Spirit. This is the kind of thinking that is virtually non-existent among Churches of Christ today. We use John 4:24 as a textual battering ram and yet when everything comes down to a point we are all about what works; what looks, sounds, and what feels, “better.” We have attained all the spiritual depth of a thimble.

Bonhoeffer goes on to add words that could have been written yesterday:

There are several elements hostile to unison singing, which in the community ought to be very rigorously weeded out. There is no place in the worship service where vanity and bad taste can so assert themselves as in the singing. First, there is the improvised second part that one encounters almost everywhere people are supposed to sing together. It attempts to give the necessary background, the missing richness to the free-floating unison sound and in the process kills both the words and the sound. There are the bass or alto voices that must call everybody’s attention to their astonishing range and therefore sing every hymn an octave lower. There is the solo voice that drowns out everything else, bellowing and quavering at the top of its lungs, reveling in the glory of it own fine organ. There are the less dangerous foes of congregational singing, the ‘unmusical’ who cannot sing, of whom there are far fewer than we are led to believe. Finally, there are often those who not not join in the singing because they are particularly moody or nursing hurt feelings; and thus they disturb the community.

In case you missed it – Bonhoeffer is arguing for pure unison singing – as in no parts – no soprano, alto, tenor, bass. Unison singing, because it is only in unison singing that we sing in the unity of the Spirit. Unison singing, because if God can take Jew and Gentile and make out of two nations one family, then he can certainly take four vocal ranges and make them into one voice. Unison singing, because it is in unison singing that we all, old and young, male and female, soprano, alto, tenor and bass, can submit our voices to each other and join in one ephemeral voice to lift our praise to God. These are radical words – restoration type words – of which the Restoration Movement should be able to hear. But I doubt that we can.

We are too wrapped up into what works.

To my conversation partners: I get it! What I said about “praise teams” can also be said about single song leaders. What I also did not say, but also firmly believe, is that we have created, or are dangerously close to creating, a “professional” class of preachers who are approaching idolatrous standing. (Maybe my next series of posts?) But this is what I don’t get – if someone points out that driving over the speed limit is dangerous and illegal, and then someone else points out that driving too slow is also dangerous, that does not make driving over the speed limit less dangerous or more legal! If a congregation worships a song leader, that does not make “praise teams” more acceptable. Just because a single song leader can be in love with his voice and dominate a song service, that does not absolve “praise teams” from that very same sin. I still maintain the basic premise of my first post: “praise teams” are inherently divisive, they are elitist, they elevate one member’s position to praise above another’s for the simple reason of their natural singing ability.

I happen to believe that the church has a higher calling than just to have a song service that is aesthetically pleasing and entertaining.

I happen to believe that our song service is supposed to be praise to God, and not to human ears.

And, yes – if that means a total and complete return to unison singing, count me in.

I happen to think that is ascending higher by climbing lower.

A Pox on ‘Praise Teams’

If you have read very many of my posts you have no doubt noticed that I am not a fan of “praise teams,” those Hydra-headed creatures that have become synonymous with contemporary worship these days. Some may wonder why I am so irked, so non-plussed, so aggravated.

Well, for one reason, I’m a nut – a knuckle-dragging troglodyte that would rather be using a typewriter than a computer, and would really prefer to be using a fountain pen. I was born shortly after the crust of the earth cooled, so anything after the invention of the wheel is flat out revolutionary.

But, those failings aside, I think I have some pretty good reasons for my position. While I firmly believe there is no “thus saith the Lord” or “book, chapter and verse” that specifically condemns the use of “praise teams,” I believe their creation and use does fray the very fabric of the concept of worship. Let us examine the question.

At the very outset, let me say I am not against special singing groups in the church. I actually think they are wonderful, and fill a special place for those who love to sing (regardless of talent!). I have been greatly edified by the service rendered by quartets, sextets, octets, and larger choruses. My life would be much poorer without them. I feel the same with instrumental music. I absolutely adore music – one of the greatest gifts my father ever gave to me was an appreciation of music. I can’t play it if I had to save my life, but I sure do love it. So, my animosity to “praise teams” does not stem from an irrational hatred of special singing groups, nor even of my disapproval of instrumental music in worship. I pray it is not irrational at all.

In James 2:1-7, James condemns the sin of partiality. In the specifics of the text, he is condemning the elevation of the rich, and the humiliation of the poor. Note, however, that the poor are not excluded from worship, but there is a clear distinction of status based on the wealth of the rich and the poverty of the poor. Now, just replace “rich” with “glorious singing voice” and you have a praise team – those who are elevated, and ironically those who are “praised” for their voice tones above those miserable wretches who can only sing with joy and gladness in their hearts, but have no “America’s Got Superiority Issues” talent.

The two primary texts that mention singing in the New Testament (Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16) both stress the “one another” aspect of singing – we sing with each other, we sing to each other, we sing for each other. But “praise teams” are elevated – they have a special place, or at the very least, they have microphones so their voices are just a little more special, than those of the hoi poloi, the common singer. Here again, there is no clear violation of the text, but the spirit of the text is shredded. It is clear that when a select group of individuals are highlighted and “praised” for their talents, that the “one another” aspect of worship is being minimized, if not eliminated.

This, of course, leads to the basic hypocrisy of the “praise team” movement. On the one hand we are told the “praise team” is no different, is just a part of the congregation, is just leading the congregation in song. But the very formation of such a group utterly destroys that argument. A director, usually known as the “worship leader” must select, or recruit, suitable members. How will he/she choose such members? Through an audition, of course. What are the criteria? Perfect intonation, the ability to read music, and a desire to be “front and center” are obvious items. I would argue there are other, less honorable, measurements – such as age, gender, age, perfectly coifed hair, age, the wealth to purchase cultural appropriate clothing, and age. I’ve seen many, many pictures of “praise teams,” and have experienced a couple in person, and I would suggest that the average age of most “teams” places their birth after the election of Ronald Reagan, some after the election of Bill Clinton.

I’ve often wondered, how does a “worship leader” dismiss a “praise team” member wannabe? “I’m sorry, but you are just not good enough to praise God here at our church.” Regardless of the wording, that is the message. Ouch.

After their selection the team must rehearse, of course. They are allowed to have the songs for that Sunday service days in advance of the rest of the shmucks that sit in the pews (oops, let my snark come through there). They,  therefore, are “in” on the worship – the congregation is on the “out.” One particularly egregious example of this I witnessed personally – the “praise team” was seated at the front of the auditorium, and they were the only ones who had the sheet music for the songs – just the lyrics were projected on an overhead screen. The “team” was mic’d at an ear busting volume, and the result was a total projection of their voices and a few mumbles from the congregation as we struggled to keep up with the melody – which only the “praise team” was privy to.

So, the argument that the “praise team” is just a part of the congregation, is just leading the congregation, is just to educate the congregation, is just specious. It is hypocritical at best, and divisive at its worst.

That leads me to my last point, that of the name of the “praise team” itself. Is not the congregation itself the praise team? Are we not all, as members of the body, called to speak to one another, to lift one another up in song, are we not all, regardless of talent, supposed to lift our voices in gladness? “Praise teams” are inherently divisive – they divide according to (perceived) talent and according to other criteria which clearly separate the “haves” from the “have nots.”

I will admit I struggle with the process of corporate worship. On the one hand I genuinely love the spontaneity of an un-planned, “ad-hoc” type of worship. I had the incredible experience one time of guest speaking at a congregation. The song leader had no idea of my topic – but he formulated the most powerful, the most enriching, the most moving, the most theologically profound, series of songs that I can honestly say that I ever remember in a worship service. I was moved to tears, and introduced my sermon by apologizing to the congregation for interrupting that awesome experience of worship.

On the other hand, I have benefited from a well-planned and carefully thought-out worship where the songs, the Lord’s Supper memorial, and the sermon were all carefully integrated. That takes time, work, and some very close relationships between speaker, song leader, and any other worship leaders. For many congregations, that kind of close working relationship is not likely on a week-to-week basis. It takes some real dedication and communication. It also removes some of the immediacy that inspires so much of worship. It is hard to know on Monday or Tuesday what the mood of the congregation will be on Sunday. It tends to be confining, even as it is designed to create more expressiveness.

All I can say for sure is that for this knuckle-dragging troglodyte, “praise teams” are just a huge burr under my saddle, and I will never be comfortable sitting in an auditorium and being entertained by their glorious voices and perfectly coifed hair.

And I just wonder what James would have to say about our 21st century form of discrimination disguised as super-spirituality.

“Contextualizing,” “Syncretism,” and Whetting Jehoiakim’s Knife

A couple of posts back I opined that one of the church’s modern sins is the process by which the message of the cross is made culturally palatable through the process of “contextualization.” I was mildly chastised for making that suggestion, and for rebuttal purposes the passage in C0lossians 4:5-6 was referred to as evidence that I was wrong. I believe my challenger to be mistaken either about the point of my post, or the context of Col. 4:5-6 (and most likely both), but I suppose the question does give me the opportunity to explain more completely what I mean by “contextualization.” Here goes:

  • “Contextualization” is a code word meaning that we blunt the force of passages relating to male and female, and especially those relating to the sins of homoeroticism, so that the LGBTQ promoters and defenders can feel affirmed and accepted in our churches.
  • “Contextualization” is a code word meaning that we remove any mention of separate roles for male and female in our congregations, so that anyone and everyone can decide on their own what sex they prefer on any given day, and what role they decide they can perform within the Lord’s church.
  • “Contextualization” is a code word meaning that we, especially within the Churches of Christ, should abandon centuries of understanding of what worship is, because the world does not understand what congregational, acapella worship is all about.
  • “Contextualization” is a code word meaning that we strip our meeting places and meeting times of any outward appearance of “religious” symbolism, and that we employ “praise bands,” “praise teams,” “liturgical dance teams” and any other number of entertainment features so that the world can see that the church is really no different than it is. This is the guiding “north star” concept for the Bill Hybels’ (Willow Creek) “Seeker Sensitive” pablum that I was forced to swill during my graduate studies.
  • “Contextualization” is simply a reincarnation of the millennial-years-old concept of syncretism: you take one main philosophy or teaching, and then add to and subtract from that root teaching until what you finally end up with does not resemble either the parent philosophy nor any of the other teachings that were pillaged. Aaron could have claimed contextualization when he created the golden calf in Exodus 32 – ostensibly the calf was made to represent Yahweh to the people, but Moses appropriately identified it as idolatry. Jeroboam could have claimed contextualization when he made the golden calves to worship at Dan and Bethel – both places were shrines to Yahweh, at least in the sense that the shrines were for the worship of the “gods who led you out of Egypt.” (1 Kings 12:25ff) Never-the-less, God called it idolatry. Jehoiakim could have claimed contextualization when he burned Jeremiah’s scroll – it simply had no meaning for his world-view. God proved Jehoiakim wrong.

At one time the word “contextualization” might have had a positive connotation, such as speaking to scientists in language scientists can understand, and to creative minds in ways that creative minds can understand. But at least for me, it no longer can have that meaning. At one time the word might have been used in the sense of Colossians 4:5-6 and 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, but no longer. Now the word is simply a subterfuge – it is used as an excuse to contradict, or to even excise completely, passages of Scripture that make certain elements of our culture feel uncomfortable. Don’t like passages condemning homosexuality? No problem, just make those passages refer to rape or, even more creatively, social injustice. Don’t like passages referring to the differences between male and female (and the fact that God created us to be one or the other, and that there are unmistakable anatomical and psychological differences)? No problem – just excise those passages as being written in a “pre-scientific” historical context. Don’t like those embarrassing stories in the Old Testament? No problem – simply “unhitch” your Christianity from the Old Testament. Don’t like the fact that our worship services have a specific reason for the “liturgy” that is associated with them? No problem – just remove the crosses and the emblems of the Lord’s Supper and add a bunch of rock music, dance teams, and smoke machines, and tell the world that the cross and the Lord’s Supper are really not that important after all.

You might surmise that I am just a little hot under the collar here, and I am. I do not appreciate seeing the church that Jesus died for being diluted into meaninglessness through a process that is being promoted as the best way to save it. The gospel of Jesus is not that everyone is okay, and that we just need to sing our worship songs set to deafening rock music. The gospel of Jesus is not that we can choose our sex – or our sexual partners – in any way that we see fit on any given day. The gospel of Jesus is not that we as humans can think our way out of the pit of hell that we have created for ourselves.

The gospel of Jesus is abhorrent to a culture that rejects the very idea of an all powerful, and all righteous, God. And no amount of “contextualization” is ever going to change that fact. But the gospel of Jesus is also a very beautiful thing to individuals in that culture who have come to accept that the feast the world has set before them is nothing but poison and death. The gospel of Jesus is life, and purity, and holiness – but it can only be preached as such if it is recognized that this world is a horribly bent and broken place.

May God save his church from its friends!

Definitions – Theology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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