Additional Thoughts on “I’m a Card Carrying Member…”

I have received some wonderful feedback regarding yesterday’s rant on people who want to be a member of something, but can’t stand what they want to be a member of. I really don’t understand why people would want to do that, but after sleeping on the question, I have some additional thoughts . . .

One, I want to reiterate the point that within the Churches of Christ we own a heritage of dissent. We are seemingly not happy until someone is unhappy. Our DNA is to challenge – to hold traditions up to the light of Scripture and to change what needs to be changed and to accept that which is truly inconsequential. That is one of the things I love the most about my fellowship. I can honestly preach what I feel the Scripture calls on me to preach – and I know I will have my feet held to the fire if I go beyond what is written. It has happened before, and will happen again.

So, don’t misunderstand me. I am not seeking to silence those who are raising honest questions. I am not demanding unquestioning allegiance to unwritten creeds that are equal to Scripture. Even in the year 2020 there are questions that must be asked, if for the only reason to make sure we are standing under the text, and not over it.

What I don’t get, and what piqued my rant yesterday, is that honest search and humble questioning have turned into mockery and outright rejection, but those who mock and reject do not have the courage to honestly state their position and their intentions. Just as one ‘fer example,’ it is a legitimate question to ask in what situation and for what purpose Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 14 that a woman is to “remain silent” in the churches. There are honest textual and linguistic issues to raise and answer. However, it is another kettle of fish altogether to say because we live in 2020 and not AD 55 that it is perfectly acceptable for women to have equal leadership roles within the congregation, and that men can marry men and that some men can even become women. I have no problems with a searching question as to why we do not use mechanical instruments of music in our worship service. It is another issue entirely to suggest that if we just had a “praise team” or a “praise band” that our young people would quit leaving our churches. It is one thing to say, “I do not understand.” To mock and to belittle positions that have been honestly held and defended for over 200 years is to cross a line that I simply will not allow to be crossed without a response.

To return to the illustration with which I started the whole discussion yesterday – when is a Glock not a Glock? If all you do is change the sights on your Glock because they are dreadful to begin with, then I would say you still have a Glock. But when you change the sights, drop in a new barrel, replace the trigger and the trigger spring, when you switch out the grips and the recoil spring, and when you add lasers, RMRs and a suppressor, then it gets to the point that I would argue you no longer have a Glock, but instead you have a Glockenstein. You have exchanged an Austrian thoroughbred for an Americanized mongrel that may have the name engraved on the slide – but no longer bears any resemblance to its heritage. (And, to all my Glock lover friends, I am not dissing the actual gun. I do think they are hideously ugly, but there is a reason there are millions and millions of happy Glock owners out there!)

I could say more, but I really probably need to shut up for a while. I’m a dinosaur, to be sure, and I’ve just never figured out how to use the roller blades I’ve been given. But, the older I get the more obstinate I get, I guess. I’m just really, really tired of the hypocrisy, the slight of hand, the veiled sincerity, the feigned allegiance that I see and hear from so many pulpiteers today. When you can walk into a “Church of Christ” today and see a full band, hear a woman preach, and see pre-schoolers praised for “accepting Jesus into their hearts,” then I am going to call “enough.”

Amos 5:21-23.

Follow-Up to My Last Post

I received some comments on my last post, and a very good question, so I feel it important to extend my thoughts just a little more here. For the background, see my thoughts here – 1 Corinthians 11, 14, 1 Timothy 2, and Paul Contradicting Himself (Again)

First, a little history. Whatever a preacher (or author, or teacher) says or writes is largely autobiographical, and it is almost impossible to untangle what is original and what is borrowed. So, my thoughts on this topic are hugely influenced by my classes with Dr. Everett Ferguson, an article on the practice of male priests covering their heads written by Dr. Richard Oster, and more generically by my understanding on how to do exegesis and thus hermeneutics.

Regarding the last point, I think it is absolutely critical that when we approach the text of Scripture that we remove ourselves as much as possible from the text. I emphasize “as much as possible” because it is impossible to completely do so (as much as Alexander Campbell would disagree.) So, in regard to the topic at hand, one profound issue I have with those who argue for no, or very little, limitations on women exercising leadership roles in the worship assembly is that invariably they insert 21st century worship wars into Paul’s letters. That is a HUGE exegetical, and ultimately, hermeneutical mistake. For us, Paul’s letters are all about me, myself, us, our, and we. We read Paul’s letters as if we are looking in a mirror, and, lo and behold, all we can see is ourselves!

Paul was addressing first century religious (and in the case of the Corinthian letters, Roman and Greek religious) practices as they impacted the first century church. That is where we have to start, and where Paul’s instructions (inspired by the Holy Spirit, no less) intersect with today’s culture, we can draw appropriate conclusions. Where that culture diverges from our culture we have to be very careful that we do not impose our culture on Paul (or Peter or James or even Jesus!) – questions and answers that they never intended.

So, with that said, let us return to 1 Corinthians 11, 14, and 1 Timothy 2 (and, just for giggles and grins, let’s add 1 Peter 3:1-6). If you read 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 and remove from your interpretation any apostolic reference to 21st century worship wars, what do you see? Paul wants the Corinthians to maintain a certain set of “traditions” he handed down to them – seemingly related to authority and submission. His first (and I would argue, primary) subject is the proper decorum for men who go before God in prayer. A reader pointed out that Paul does, in fact, spend more time addressing women in these verses, and I agree. But mere volume does not equal significance. Let me illustrate with another text.

In Luke 15:11-32 Jesus tells the parable of the “prodigal son.” The overwhelming majority of the parable revolves around a younger son and the relationship with his father. The older son only gets a few verses at the end of the parable, but I would argue that the real “point” of the parable was aimed at the Pharisees, who clearly stood in the position of the unforgiving and self-righteous older son. The repentance of the younger son, and the forgiveness of the father dominate, but the unanswered question of the parable is, “are you ‘older sons’ going to welcome the repentant younger son back into fellowship?” No-one could argue with genuine repentance or parental grace – but forgiveness from one who has been faithful? Ouch.

So, if I am correct (and that is a big “if”), Paul has his sights set squarely on the men who, accustomed to praying with their heads covered with a shawl or cowl, continued to do so following their conversion to Christ. Paul nowhere addresses the where or the when of the prayer, he simply reminds them that, in the new kingdom, men do not pray with their heads covered! To Paul, that was a sign of disrespect to their authority – Christ and God. Women, on the other hand, did pray with their heads covered – not the least of which was their long hair. Once again, the when or the where was not in Paul’s mind. Paul knew women prayed – by themselves, with their children, with other women – that was proper and good. Paul may use more words in relation to the females, but he never takes his eyes off of the men. [As I mentioned above, I borrow this point from Drs. Ferguson and Oster. I wish I could direct you to the article by Dr. Oster, but my books and files are buried in a storage unit, and I simply do not have access to them.]

Now, here is where my training and experience influences my interpretation. Beginning in v. 17 (and repeated a number of times), Paul shifts his attention to the public gathering of the assembled church. There is a shift, a change of emphasis, a new focus in Paul’s eyes. Paul addresses a number of Corinthian problems – the abuse of the Lord’s supper, the confusion of multiple prophets speaking, and the use (or abuse, the question is still open in my mind) of the miraculous gift of “speaking in tongues.” At the very end of that topic, Paul gives his instruction that “the women should keep silent in the churches.” Unfortunately for us, he leaves that instruction rather bare, but it clearly is in relation to the confusion and improper decorum of the Corinthian assembly.

If 1 Corinthians 11 and 14 provided us with the only comments on the question under discussion, we might be safe to say that the question remains open, and perhaps Paul’s accommodating position in Romans 14 might be important here. But, Paul does give additional instruction regarding male and female “authority” roles in 1 Timothy 2:11-15. Once again, Paul is not addressing 21st century “worship wars,” so let’s be careful lest we look into that theological mirror again. Paul’s emphasis (once again beginning with the male) is that prayers be genuine, without anger or malice. The women are to dress with proper decorum. Then, Paul specifically mentions that women are not to exercise authority over men, either in teaching or, as I said in my last post, through prayer (Paul’s immediate context). This is where I see that prayer is an authoritative speech according to the apostle. I could be wrong here – have been in the past and will be in the future, but lest I sound like a broken record, I can only do exegesis as I have been taught, not as I have not been taught.

If you have followed me so far, thank you. Now for my main issue with the so called “egalitarians,” those who argue for full (or perhaps expanded) roles of leadership for females in the worship service. If you hold the egalitarian position, Paul has utterly contradicted himself in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 compared to 1 Corinthians 11. At this point you have to decide which is controlling – Paul’s so called “universal” teaching in 1 Cor. 11, or the “limited” or “correcting the one-off, aberrant behavior” of 1 Cor. 14 and 1 Timothy 2. Those who hold that 1 Cor. 11 is the true, proper, and Spirit-inspired teaching have to diminish 1 Cor. 14 and 1 Tim. 2 by either removing 1 Cor. 14 completely (i.e., Gordon Fee), or by so minimizing those texts that they ultimately become meaningless to any situation beyond Corinth (or Ephesus) in the first century. I simply cannot go there. Once we  start eliminating Paul’s instructions because they do not “fit” our paradigm, where do we stop? Are Paul’s instructions regarding sexual perversity in chapter 5 also simply a rejection of a cultural taboo that is no longer valid? Are Paul’s instructions regarding division in the church (chapters 1-4) simply to be ignored because they are directed to Apollos, Peter (Cephas) and Paul? What of Paul’s instructions regarding the Lord’s Supper, or even his teaching regarding the resurrection?

And, just one final piece of evidence. Many argue that Paul reveals his chauvinism here – that he took Jesus’s egalitarianism and stood it on its ear. Okay, well, then what of Peter’s words in 1 Peter 3:1-6? Peter nowhere mentions the assembly, so his words touch this issue only tangentially – but it is this tangential connection that I find so compelling. Peter’s focus is on the submission of the wife to the husband (also mentioned by Paul), and ties this Christian behavior to the behavior of Godly women throughout history. For Peter, apparently, a woman usurping the authority of her husband would be a violation of Christian behavior. My point is that Peter confirms my understanding of Paul’s overall consistency, and therefore that 1 Cor. 11:1-16 must be seen in a generic sense, and not in the specific situation of the assembled congregation.

Once again, I could be wrong here in any – or all – of my conclusions. I can only work with my understanding of how to do exegesis. I have been wrong before, and will undoubtedly be wrong in the future. But, as Martin Luther so famously said, here I stand until I am proven wrong. I sincerely believe that many hold to an erroneous position because of a number of false assumptions. There is the assumption that 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 pertains to the assembled worship assembly. According to how I was taught to read Scripture, that assumption cannot be defended. Once again, I can only read, and therefore teach, as I have been taught. Then, there is the subsequent, but necessary, assumption that 1 Cor. 14 and 1 Tim. 2 are therefore only speaking to one-off, aberrant situations that no longer have any validity for the church of Christ. There is further an assumption that the apostolic teaching regarding authority and submission was bound only to the first century, and that any subsequent culture is free to define (or re-define) roles regarding gender any way that is predominant in that culture.

I don’t want to open another can of worms (okay, maybe I do), but just a question – if we are free to define roles of authority regarding sex and gender if we can discover, and eliminate, Paul’s first century cultural biases, then how can we argue against any of the issues of homosexuality, bi-sexuality, poly-amorous relationships, and gender fluidity so prevalent in our culture today? If there are no inherent significant differences between male and female, and if there are no spiritually significant connections to those differences, then who is to argue that there is any limitations as to sexual behavior, or even sexual identity?

What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and if our culture’s headlong rush into sexual dysphoria has taught me anything, it’s that our understanding of God’s original plan for mankind is found in Genesis 1:27, and if we rupture that relationship we have nothing of any value to stand on.

Thanks for reading, thanks for the comments, and let us all ascend by climbing lower.

I May Disagree With the Decision, But I Must Defend the Right to Make It

I just read a horrifying story out of the state of Oregon. A judge has forced a 13 year old girl to undergo surgery for a rare form of liver cancer, over the objections of her mother and the 13 year-old herself. (Here is a link, as long as it is good. story here

I have no idea about the intention of the mother, or the accuracy of the story, or if the girl has been adequately informed of the options and possible outcomes. My issue in discussing this story is the terrifying reality that a state can step in between a parent and a child and compel the child to undergo something as traumatic as liver surgery against the wishes of the parent.

I would imagine that most of us are aware of the reality that a young girl can obtain an abortion without the informed consent of her parents, but this decision launches the debate into entirely new – and dangerous – territory.

There has been ample news coverage of late regarding the parental decision not to immunize their child(ren) against various diseases. In these cases I believe the state has a compelling interest to require those immunizations if the child is going to take advantage of such state funded institutions as schools, daycares, and some sporting events. In these situations I still side with the rights of the parents if they decide against immunization (although I think it is dangerous, and founded on bizarre conspiracy theories). But, the parents must also be held accountable and be told that if they refuse the immunizations, their child will not be allowed to participate in federal or state funded programs. I believe they must also be formally educated about the need for such immunizations, and the cost to the community as a whole if they refuse the immunity, and what can happen in cases of outbreaks of diseases that have almost been eradicated through such immunizations. There is a community component in these cases that is not present in the case of the solitary girl who has liver cancer.

However, taking a child away from the custody of a parent and forcing her to undergo radical surgery is just Orwellian in the extreme, and, if I understand the story correctly, nothing but pure evil. If this decision is allowed to stand, what will be the next step? Will a state decide it has the moral and legal right to remove children from a home and forced to undergo LGBTQ indoctrination if (and when) Christianity is effectively labeled a “disease?” You scoff. You label this a non-sensical “slippery slope” argument. I counter – since when has it been deemed appropriate or legal for the state to physically force a 13 year old child to undergo a radical, and potentially dangerous, surgery when the outcome has, by their own admission, at least a 30 percent chance of failure?

I have written repeatedly in this space about how we are no longer living in the same cultural context that described this nation even 30 years ago. Dear brothers and sisters – it appears that the time for disciples of Christ to stand up and resist these abhorrent decisions is coming far sooner than later. Martin Luther King, Jr. demonstrated the power of non-violent resistance – the power of thousands, and even hundreds of thousands, of like-minded individuals who simply refuse to comply with unjust laws and lawmakers. Will we have to employ those methods in the effort to protect our constitutional right to the free exercise of our religious beliefs? And what should happen if that freedom is somehow abridged? Will we still have the courage of our convictions to stand and protect our children?

This case may be a tempest in a teapot – or it may be the canary in the coal mine that lets us know that the death of religious freedom is surely coming.

I may not agree with this mother’s decision, but for the sake of the freedom of every parent to raise their children as God has given them the authority to do so, I must defend her right to make it.

A Solid Hit and a Whiff

As I used this space to address President Trump yesterday, I feel it is only appropriate that I return today and give him the credit he deserves for his comments regarding the shootings in El Paso, TX, and Dayton OH.

First, I appreciate his denunciation of racism, bigotry, and white supremacy. I felt like those were strong statements, and much needed. He also earned my applause by calling for stricter laws regarding the sale of certain weapons (although, background checks are notoriously weak in preventing the kind of attacks we saw over the weekend). He also called for the passage of so-called “red flag” laws, which I also support, that allows for family members to notify law enforcement officers of erratic and potentially dangerous behavior, and if found to be credible, allows those officers to remove firearms from someone. Here in Colorado the state government has passed those laws, and completely inexplicably to me, all the rural law enforcement agencies immediately rebelled and said they would not comply. Holy insurrection, Batman! Here is a tool to keep a lunatic from possessing enough firepower to kill dozens, if not hundreds, of people, and the law enforcement agencies say they will not enforce it? Talk about nuts. But I digress.

Where I feel President Trump failed, and failed miserably, is to acknowledge that his words have fostered a great deal of racist behavior, bigotry, and, yes, actions of white supremacy. I did not expect a confession, though. Trump does not apologize, it is not in his personality, and certainly not in his vocabulary. So, I give him respect for his denunciations, and credit him with a total whiff in regard to taking any kind of personal responsibility.

Before I hit “publish,” I must also comment on the utter hypocrisy of the left regarding these shootings. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the shooter in Dayton was a radical leftist, and had strong leanings toward leftist anarchists rather than the alt-right, looney-toon white supremacists that attracted the shooter in El Paso. So, where is the outrage from the Democratic contestants for the White House? Where are the calls for the radical left to be shunned and censored? You won’t hear that kind of language from the Democrats, because those radical leftists are the very base of the party of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and a whole host of others. Former President Barack Obama came out with a blistering attack on those who promote fear and hatred, and not once did he acknowledge that these extreme leftists depend on stoking fear and hatred of those with conservative, mostly Christian values. If I gave President Trump one thumb up and one thumb down, I have to give former President Obama two thumbs down. Not only did he not acknowledge the militancy of the far left, but along with President Trump, he utterly refused to confess his own responsibility in fostering a climate of racism and bigotry in this country.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, we must rise above this political morass. We must demonstrate the self-sacrifice and “love of one’s enemies” demonstrated by our Lord. We can not accomplish this by promoting, or even countenancing the kind of hatred that is being spewed by both the far left and far right in this debate. There is only one way for Christians to respond –

We ascend by climbing lower.

Words Have Consequences!

From my “Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection” (#10)

Attitudes and beliefs have consequences. Words, used to express those attitudes and beliefs, have equal consequences. Words chosen to convey spiritual concepts have eternal consequences.

Since long before the election in 2016 we have been regaled with Donald Trump’s mean spirited and very often blatantly racist words, primarily through his “Tweets,” short pithy little statements uploaded to the social media platform Twitter. Mostly these have just been food for his ultra-right wing base, and fodder for his enemies. Christians who understand the seriousness of even any careless word have recoiled from such statements, but, up until Saturday, these outbursts have been viewed as the rantings of a demagogue, someone who is more bluster and bloviating than substantial.

That all changed on Saturday, August 3. That was the day someone took some racist words and transformed them into racial terrorism.

While it is still far too early in the investigation to know everything for certain, there are some facts that I believe are incontrovertible: Trump has said/tweeted some unconscionable statements regarding immigration and the racial makeup of many of those immigrants, the shooter in El Paso targeted persons of a specific race and nationality, and (this point is still being confirmed) the shooter has written a “manifesto” in which he speaks approvingly of Trump and his racially twinged statements.

It’s not impossible to connect these dots.

Do I think Trump intended his words to have this effect? Absolutely not! Do I think Trump is a racist? Probably, just like 99% of the current House of Representatives and Senators. But, mostly, I think Trump sees people in terms of green, red, and black. That is, if you can further Trump’s personal agenda (raising money, erasing debt or furthering his narcissistic agenda) he likes you, regardless of your race or gender. If you cannot do any of those three things, you are useless to him, regardless of your race or gender. Also, mostly I think Trump is just a fool – in the biblical sense. He does not believe in God (at least, the God of the Bible) and he thinks he can solve all of his problems with his own intellect. That is the biblical definition of a fool.

Do I think racist statements, regardless of how innocuous they are made, can have the kind of result that we saw on Saturday? Absolutely. Our nation is becoming more hateful, more racially divided, more prone to racial violence with each passing year. In one sense, what happened on Saturday, August 3 was inevitable. And, let us be clear about something else – the long road that ended in El Paso was promoted by the election of Barack Obama. Obama saw every event during his two terms of office in relation to race. Trump was NOT the first racist to be elected to the office of president. I’m pretty sure every one of the presidents has been racist to some degree or another – some quite blatant. To suggest that Trump is the first to be afflicted with this sin, or that Republican presidents are racist and Democrat presidents are not, is beyond preposterous.

Trump and his political minions are trying effusively to distance Trump from the shooting in El Paso. I’m sorry, but that ship sailed from the harbor a long time ago. In my mind there is just one thing Trump should, even can, do to extricate himself from this tragedy – confess that his language has been horribly offensive and exploitive, and apologize to the races and nationalities that he has targeted. He will not do that, of course, and it would just be a beginning, but it would be a good start.

Every individual who has spoken in a public setting has said things he/she did not mean or later regretted. I am certainly in that list of offensive speakers. It is not that we intentionally set out to offend – but our mouths are not always connected to our brains, and even when they are, sometimes our brains are not connected to our consciences. We sin with our mouths, let us be honest and confess that proclivity. But, I stand by my Undeniable Truth for Theological Reflection number 10 with all of my being. Words have consequences. Words that relate to theological truths have eternal consequences.

Let us be so diligent, so careful, so painstaking in the choice of our words, that we never have to apologize for denigrating the value of another human being simply based on the color of their skin, the nation of their origin, or the language that they speak.

By our words we will be justified, and by our words we will be condemned. (Mt. 12:37)

The Loss of Transcendence and the Death of Humanity

Pardon me as I continue (sort of) my lament from yesterday . . .

We are experiencing, in increasing measure, the slow death of humanity. I don’t mean humans as such (although that might be coming), what I mean is the loss of what makes us human, what separates us from lower animal life. It seems to me that the more technologically progressed we have become, the deeper into nihilism we have fallen. We know more and can do more with greater ease than ever before, and we are far sicker than we have ever been.

What got me to thinking about this was a recent camping trip. Not that long ago it was natural to assume that a family went up into the wilderness (or, at the very least, away from the confusion of the city) to get away from the noise, the hustle, the frantic pace. You left all of that “behind” so you could unwind, relax, shed some of the stress of the “dog eat dog” world. I noticed this past weekend how all of that has changed – and not just a little bit. I was stunned to see that off-road vehicles (we used to call them ATVs) are now almost obligatory for the modern camping family. That, along with mammoth fifth-wheel campers makes most camp sites look like the infield of the Indianapolis 500 auto race. As I stood knee deep in a gorgeous little stream I had to strain to hear the birds and squirrels fuss at each other because the almost constant barrage of four-wheelers on the nearby road made it impossible to hear God’s awesome creation.

It got worse. From time to time I could look up and see the passengers in these noise making contraptions. From what I could tell they were not happy. They were in a hurry to get somewhere, anywhere but where they were. Many had scowls on their faces, but virtually all were expressionless. Here they were in quite honestly the closest thing to the Garden of Eden, and they were either bored, or actually pained. They had to get somewhere else fast, so they could not enjoy where they were or what they were doing. Every so often they would come ripping back down the road they had just zoomed up. In a hurry, oblivious to the world of creation around them. Making noise, and utterly, completely unable to here the birds and squirrels chatter and talk to them.

It was so unbelievably sad.

We, as humans, have created a world where we can control virtually everything. If it’s too hot we turn on the air-conditioner. If it’s too cold we turn on the heater. If we are bored we turn on the TV or the tablet or our cell phone. If it is too quiet we blast our stereos or plug our ear-buds into our tablets and tune out the world. I just saw an article pointing out how there are signs of increasing mental struggles of pre-schoolers because of the increasing use of “screen time,” the fact that children do not interact with their physical world, but are increasingly tied to computers, tablets, or cell phones. It has now become the norm that even when we try to “get away from it all” we pack everything up and bring “it all” with us. We haul around our stress, our anxiety, our utter inability to deal with life if we are not stimulated to the ends of our hair follicles.

We have, or at the very least, will soon lose every concept of transcendence, of the “awesome.” When we do we will have lost the very last vestige of what it means to be human. To me that is not theoretical – I have actually witnessed it. People, human beings, created in the image of the Divine God himself, so completely engrossed in technology that they cannot even recognize, let alone appreciate, the awesomeness and transcendence of God’s most holy creation.

I do not have a Ph.D in psychology, but it really does not take a psychologist to recognize that we are a sick culture. Anger, depression, anxiety – all symptoms of a decaying society are rising at an exponential rate. Children are displaying acts of greater and greater violence at younger and younger ages. Prescriptions for anti-depressants are skyrocketing. Young people are identifying feelings of rootlessness and meaninglessness like never before. And, yet, the demand for the next upgrade for a cell phone or the next greatest app is unending.

I am not naive enough to believe that all of this can be reversed if we only clicked our heels together three times and repeated with Dorothy, “I wish I was home.” But, I am equally opposed to the idea that I should just shrug my shoulders and say none of this matters. It matters, and for future generations it should matter very much.

Somehow, someway, in calm and reasoned thought or in pure desperation, we are going to have to learn how to unplug, unwind, and “deconstruct” our over-stimulated lives. Maybe when we run out of fossil fuels and we can no longer drive massive trucks that pull 40 foot fifth-wheel camp trailers we will learn how to live life patiently again. I think learning how to hitch up a horse to a wagon might be valuable for a great many of us. It would, at the very least, teach us that we need to respect and nurture God’s awesome creation.

And, it would be a lot quieter. Maybe we could learn to listen to the birds and squirrels again.

That Terrible, Exclusivist, Divisive Apostle Paul

Getting ready to preach on Ephesians 4:1-6. For those not familiar, this text reveals just how exclusive and divisive the apostle Paul was. I mean, really, how mean and provincial can you get? In today’s world where I get to make my own rules, decide on my own truth, even get to decide whether I am a male or a female – how can we even read these words, let alone use them as some kind of standard for how the church is to behave itself? Just consider how “unchristian” the apostle Paul is:

  • There is only one body – one and only one church.
  • There is only one Spirit – not a Spirit for each worldly religion.
  • There is only one hope.
  • There is only one Lord – Jesus, not Mohamed nor Buddha nor some angel that claims to have a latter-day revelation from God.
  • There is only one faith – only one road leads to God, all others lead to destruction.
  • There is only one baptism – the death that is focused on Jesus and begins the new life.
  • And, finally, there is only one God and Father.

Wow, you would think that the apostle Paul was some kind of radical or something. And you would be right.

The apostle Paul lived in a time – much like ours – where there were literally hundreds of gods and dozens of competing philosophies and religions. Even within his “home” faith of Judaism there were a number of sects that all claimed to be primary. He lived his early adult life as one of the most strict – the Pharisees. But, on that road to Damascus Paul had his entire worldview torn down. God let him think about things for three days (I just wonder if there was not a subliminal message here – Paul had to spend three days in the darkness of blindness just as Jesus had to spend three days in the darkness of the tomb. God is really good at making these little “coincidences” occur at the most opportune times!) Anyway, Ananias comes and preaches the gospel to Paul, and from that point on Saul the Pharisee becomes Saul/Paul the Christian evangelist, apologist, and author.

The book of Ephesians, I am coming to learn, is really a manifesto for Paul’s new life. Where the world in which he lived had dozens of societal divisions – Roman/barbarian, Jew/Gentile, slave/free – Paul only saw two – those in Christ and those outside of Christ (the “world”). Those in Christ constitute one body, the church of God through Christ. It is not that Paul now views all mankind as saved (the inclusivity or universalist view), but that all mankind can be one through the blood of Christ.

Today we live in a world where individualism and individuality reign supreme. The defining term for our culture is tolerance, but in reality it is a mis-definition of the word tolerance to which we must submit. To be precise, tolerance means that one must identify and actually disagree with the viewpoint of another, yet allow that person to hold that viewpoint however mistaken or ignorant that viewpoint may be. Today, tolerance means that we must validate and even agree with the viewpoints of others, which basically means that we cannot even disagree with the other person. To disagree, and especially to label another’s viewpoint as “wrong,” “ignorant,” or (heaven forbid) “sinful” is to commit the most grievous of societal prohibitions.

Which takes me right back to Ephesians 4. The apostle Paul is utterly, completely, and totally exclusivist. There is only one road to God. One Lord means just that – any person who claims equality with Jesus or to be Jesus’s latter-day prophet is simply a charlatan and deceiver. There is just one body, one church, and all the claims that the divisions we see in Christianity are somehow blessed by God are just ludicrous. There is just one faith, not dozens or hundreds of equal “roads to heaven.” There is just one baptism, not one for the forgiveness of sins, and one for admission to a church, and one for the bestowing of the Holy Spirit, and one for the gifting of special talents and abilities. And, just to top everything off, there is just one God.

Even for many in the church today, the claim of exclusiveness is a troubling and divisive one. Our culture has so absorbed the doctrine of individualism and “equality” that to suggest a differing viewpoint is wrong, and especially worthy of being condemned by God, is just, well, so unchristian. But it is exactly that fear, that uncomfortableness, that reticence, that we must overcome if we are going to fairly and truthfully present the gospel of Christ.

I am in no way suggesting we do so in a rude, hateful, or condescending manner. Within the Churches of Christ I am reminded almost daily of our history of shameful rhetoric. But the pendulum can swing too far the other way, and never to challenge an incorrect or dangerous belief is no more loving than it is to ridicule that belief. I am reminded of Alexander Campbell’s practice (which infuriated some of his supporters) of spending time, and even eating several meals, with his debate opponents during his long, and lest we forget, vigorous debates. Campbell never surrendered an inch to those he disagreed with (and, sadly, his prodigious verbal broadsides became the model for far less charitable disciples), but it appears to me that he viewed those he debated as erring opponents and not enemies. There is a huge difference.

Ephesians 4 is a great passage of Scripture, to be sure. But it has a sharp edge – and Paul will go on to say some very harsh, and condemning, words about those who are outside of Christ (walking in futility, darkened in their understanding, alienated from God, ignorant, hard of heart). We must learn to handle that edge carefully and wisely. But, let us never be fearful of that edge to the point that we bury it.