How to Spot a Fake, and a Real, Expert

Okay, a little background here. I have been blessed (?) with a little extra free time recently, so I have been doing some extra cleaning, some gardening, and generally just trying to keep my mind, and fingers, busy. Last week my wife, her mother, and our daughter went for one of my wife’s regular check-ups. I had even more time on my hands. So I started “surfing” You Tube. I watched this and that, and then I came across a firearms professional by the name of Paul Harrell. I watched one show, and then another, and then another.

If you are even remotely interested in firearms (I am by no means a gun nut, but I do hold an appreciation for them) you owe it to yourself to watch a Paul Harrell video. They are mostly around 20 minutes long and packed with a lot of cool demonstrations and advice.

So, anyway, where was I? Oh, yeah –

Paul Harrell has two episodes in which he discusses (1) how to spot a fake expert in the field of firearms, and (2) how to spot a real expert. The first list  (he gives five clues) is really focused on firearms, so it is really not pertinent to theology. However, his discussion on how to spot a real expert is spot-on perfect. The two episodes really struck a nerve with me, and so I decided to see if I could modify his first list to give five ways to spot a fake Bible or theological expert, and I will give his three ways to spot a real Bible or theological expert along with some “expert” comments of my own.

HOW TO SPOT A FAKE BIBLE OR THEOLOGICAL EXPERT:

  1.  They know nothing about the subject at hand, and really do not have any way to have learned about the subject. This is so obvious when someone, even many preachers, attempt to prove a point by referring to the original Greek or Hebrew. They are not an expert in Greek or Hebrew (or archaeology, or Ancient Near Eastern culture, etc) but they really want you to think they are. They are fakes.
  2. They have read a book, or attended a seminar, or maybe they have only heard a sermon, but they are an expert anyway. These are the one trick ponies – how many times have you been regaled by an “expert” who has read exactly one book on the subject, and even that by a non-expert himself. I am so familiar with this through my experience with Dietrich Bonhoeffer “experts.” They might have read Discipleship or maybe Life Together, and all of a sudden they are “experts” on one of the most enigmatic and multi-faceted theologians of the 20th century. No they are not! They are fakes, and need to be called out as such.
  3. They come to a conclusion and then argue backwards. How many of you have heard a sermon or attended a class on John 2, and based solely on the conclusion that Jesus would never corrupt anyone or lead them to sin, prove that the wine he created was nothing more than grape juice (not sure whether it was Welches or Ocean Spray, but never mind). Well, the text clearly indicates that the wine was of such superior quality that it was disturbing to the master of ceremonies that a social miscue had occurred. But, what of the first conclusion? Did Jesus never give anyone the opportunity to sin? He healed on the Sabbath, driving many to seek to kill him! Is murder not a sin? He raised people from the grave – were they exempted thereby from ever sinning again? I will firmly assert that Jesus never tempted anyone to sin, but why would creating wine for a wedding festival be considered a temptation? If that is true, then God himself is the greatest source of temptation in the whole world! (Didn’t he create everything?) You see, if you come to a conclusion first, and then argue backwards to prove your point, you can be an expert (although fake) at anything.
  4. Closely connected, they fall back into the “everyone knows” something argument, therefore never needing to prove their point. “Everyone knows” is the ultimate trump card – so if you disagree you are obviously not part of “everyone,” and who wants to be a nobody! But “everyone knows” is a pathetic appeal to ignorance that proves that the speaker is really a super fake expert, and they need to be told to bring their evidence with them next time.
  5. Finally, fake experts are simply terrified to be imperfect – their entire life and well being are dependent upon their being superior in every detail of every subject. They teach in abject fear that someone, somewhere might know more than them, or be able to prove them wrong, so they surround themselves with sycophants and those who are absolutely bedazzled with their superior intellect. This is why when they are challenged in public, so many of them have a cadre of defenders that shout the challenger down. The grand guru is simply not to be questioned. Fakes never like to have their metal proven, so they rarely speak without their body (and reputation) guards handy.

Okay, let’s move on to Paul Harrell’s three ways to spot a real expert, and I will add some comments of my own (clearly marked with a bold heading).

HOW TO SPOT A REAL EXPERT: (FROM PAUL HARRELL)

  1. How they deal with the unknown. Real experts want to learn, to be corrected if they are mistaken, and are curious about new developments in their field. Comment: This is so true in Bible studies! I had the blessing of studying under some of the finest true experts in their respective specialties, and each one of them demonstrated this trait. They studied, they read, they attended seminars, they wrote for fellow specialists to critique. They never stopped learning. True, honest experts deal with the unknown in humble, seeking, searching ways. And they are quick to respond graciously when they are taught something new.
  2. Real experts avoid using absolute terms like “always” and “never.” Because, connected to point #1, real experts know that there is always (oops) something new to learn, even if they are specialists in a field, especially one as diverse and expanding as firearms. Comment: need anything be said here beyond Paul Harrell’s comment? Using absolute terminology gets a person in dangerous ground very quickly, and biblical experts rarely use such words (although, I don’t want to say never!) So many times in Bible study we want certainty – we want absolutes where there simply are none. An expert will admit this (exposing his lack of omniscience), but a fake will not. A fake will give the audience what they are searching for, often illegitimately.
  3. Real experts look the part without looking like they are in a costume. This one is a little tricky, but there is simply a sense of “genuineness” that an expert portrays, that a fake cannot. A fake may dress up like an expert (and use all the right words), but they just do not fit the part. Comment: Once again, this is so true in church settings. If you cannot be an expert, all you have to do is become a bully by impression and fancy language. Real story – I know of an individual who was hired to perform a function that was, apparently, beneath his view of himself. So, he had everyone refer to him with a title that he had not earned and he was not qualified to wear. He even wore a garment that would verify his fake title, and the very fact that he wore it demonstrated how much of a fake his title was. The thing is, the title he could have worn was respectable, and he had earned the right to wear it. But, it was just not “expert” enough, so he made himself to be more important by claiming something that was utterly fake.

In most of our churches there are real experts, and there are fake experts. We are probably each experts in something – at one time I was almost an expert in issues related to Cessna 402 and 404 aircraft. Today, I doubt I could get one off the ground. I know nothing about farming or cattle ranching, but if you ask me about Dietrich Bonhoeffer I can give you a fairly educated answer. I would starve to death if I had to earn a living repairing cars or welding something, but let me teach a class on the book of Revelation and I can give you your money’s worth. Just because you are not an expert in Greek does not mean that you cannot teach a class on the gospel of Matthew – just don’t try to fool anybody with knowledge you do not have.

So, there you have one of my favorite all time posts about theology, and it came from watching a bunch of You Tube videos about guns.

Who would have thunk it?

Two Hundred Years in a Couple of Minutes

Every once in a while I like to back up a little bit and try to take a “bird’s eye” picture of what is happening. In recent years that process has been defined as taking the “view from 30,000 feet.” Curiously, I’ve never known of a bird flying 5 miles above the surface of the earth, but I suppose anything is possible. When we back up and look at the entire forest, it helps us understand the current condition of each tree that comprises that forest. Now, if I have not completely mixed all my metaphors to the point of obscurity, let me move on.

Consider what was occurring “on or about” the year 1819. The “Second Great Awakening” was gathering wind. It was a heady time. The smoke from the Revolutionary War could still be smelled if one tried hard enough. It seemed as if the United States was quite literally at the vanguard of a new millennium, the blessed arrival of God’s Kingdom on earth. Alexander Campbell had been in the United States barely a decade, and the “movement” that he would become so much a fixture of might have been toddling, but it certainly was not running quite yet. It would still be another decade before Joseph Smith would publish his novel, The Book of Mormon. Religious fervor was, quite literally, in the air. The Holy Spirit was running amok, or so some would say, and the Shakers were not the only ones left shaking in the wind.

Flash forward to 1919. The brilliant hopes of the Divine Millennium, the earthly Kingdom of God, had been crushed first by the Civil War, and most recently by the War to End All Wars. The smoke from that war was clearly still hanging in the air, but only in Europe, not in the blessed United States. Stateside there was a renewed religious fervor, albeit not quite as rambunctious as that seen one hundred years earlier, but still robust. The eighteenth amendment had been passed in 1917, and in 1919 it was ratified. The next year prohibition would be the law of the land, and with “demon rum” removed from Satan’s arsenal, surely God’s Spirit would not have as much opposition in the battle for man’s heart. The “Roaring Twenties” were just about to get going, and the “Great Depression” was simply a bad nickname for the Grand Canyon. Adolf Hitler was just an unemployed former corporal, and a world-wide peace that he would soon obliterate was not just a hope, but for the majority, it was a reality that could not be shaken. It was perhaps not the full-bodied Kingdom of God as envisioned one hundred years earlier, but it was still a peace – or so it was believed.

Flash forward to 2019. Nothing of 1919 is recognizable anymore, and certainly not anything of 1819. Not only is “demon rum” legal again, but so is the most decadent, the most horrific, obscene pornography. Homosexual marriage is not only legal, but glorified. Biologically born men are removing the physical attributes of maleness and are becoming “women.” Same with biologically born women, surgically removing their breasts and ingesting massive doses of testosterone so as to appear “male.” Millions, not just thousands, of babies are aborted under the umbrella of “freedom of reproductive rights” (nothing could be more of an oxymoron!!). The millennial fervor of the early 1800’s is just a footnote in some dusty history book, and not even a whiff of the resurgent spirituality of the early 1900’s remains. All that the world sees of the “Kingdom of God” is an anemic, lethargic, and basically complicit, institutional “church.”

Sorry to be the source of so much joy and happiness – but from where I sit this is the “view from 30,000 feet.” In a scant (speaking geologically) 200 years, the United States has moved from being on the doorstep of a realized and eternal Kingdom of God on earth to being a bastion of narcissism the likes of which this world has never witnessed (and, taking into consideration the narcissism of the Persians, Greeks and Romans, that is saying something!). Barely 75 years ago legions of 20 something year-old men were dying from the beaches of Normandy to the outskirts of Berlin, sacrificing their lives in the cause of freedom. Today those young men are dying on our streets, the result of unrestrained gang violence. Today the greatest existential crisis occurs when a biological male is called a “he” that he is, instead of the “she” that he wants to be. Life is simply unsustainable if the WI FI goes down at the neighborhood Starbucks. We can no longer allow a dissenting voice on our university campuses (something archaically enshrined in the First Amendment of our U.S. Constitution), we have to insure that only one voice – the voice of unrestrained paganism – be spoken to the tender ears of our future leaders.  We are living what Os Guinness has labeled A Free People’s Suicide. (I highly recommend the book by that title). I could go on. The view from 30,000 feet is expansive.

If Dietrich Bonhoeffer could identify his world as a “world come of age,” what would he say of America in 2019? Above I described the church as being “anemic, lethargic, and basically complicit” in what has transpired. Fighting words, I grant you, but does anyone dare dispute me? When, in the last 100, or 75, or 50 or even 25 years has the church stood up and dared to be sent to its crucifixion by proclaiming in Christ and only in Christ is there to be health and wholeness? We have ministers of the gospel defending behavior that the Bible describes as an abomination to God. We accept the most reprehensible behavior in our Presidents (Democrat and Republican) simply because they represent our chosen political party. We depend on scientists to answer all our questions and politicians to solve all our problems. We depend on the government to feed and house the poor, we depend on the government to take care of our elderly, we depend on the government to educate our children, we depend on the government to protect our right to assemble and the right to speak freely and forthrightly. Well, since we have surrendered every other responsibility to a pagan government, it should come as absolutely no shock that that pagan government has no interest in protecting the freedom to protest what we have carelessly ceded to it.

Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you. – Matthew 7:6

The churches and religious organizations in the United States have attempted to domesticate a serpent for the past 200 years, and it has not turned out pretty. You can domesticate just about every animal on earth, but a snake – and here I am thinking about a rattlesnake or a water moccasin or a cobra – cannot be tamed. They are by nature serpents, and it is not by accident that the Bible first speaks of Satan as a snake.

After 200+ years, we are not going to change things by electing more “Christian” politicians. We are not going to change things by appointing more “Conservative” judges. We are not going to change things by getting more strict and “moral” laws passed. We are not going to change things no how, no way, at all.

What we can do is pray that God breathes fire back into his church. We can pray that God revives and restores us, the body of his Son. We can begin by acting like we fully believe what we have been preaching. And, we can pray that God in his power and wisdom will give us the chance to once again be his “ministers of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18) before he decides to permanently purify his creation.

Two hundred years – from literally the threshold of heaven to the basest pit of hell. Maybe, if it went that direction when we turned our backs on God, just maybe it can go the other direction if we return our hearts to him. (See Jeremiah 18:7-10; 26:3, 13)

Two Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me (Or, That I Wish I Had Listened to When They Did)

I has occurred to me in the past few days that there are two things that are immutable – things that you cannot change. (1) is the past. (No need to thank me, brilliance is part of my job). (2) is a person who does not want to change.

I am slowly becoming aware of the reality that a person’s past is far more predictive of their present, and even future, than what I have been willing to admit. If we are all bent and broken people, it is because at some point in our past we have been bent or broken. It seems to me that we basically have two options open to us regarding those injuries. We can accept that bent and brokenness, we can “own” it, and then move forward to attempt to mend and heal those wounds; or we can deny it, repress it, or, barring any ability to shove it out of our psyche, we can blame others for it and attempt to live our lives free of any responsibility.

The past is done, over with. It is gone. It will never come back. Injuries are injuries, wounds are wounds, whether self-inflicted or others-inflicted. To deny them is really a symptom of insanity. But, on the other hand, to accept them, to “own” them, means that we have to consciously deal with pain – sometimes a great deal of pain. Sometimes it is just easier to “forget” or to repress those injuries. The problem is, our minds don’t ever really “forget.” And so a young wife explodes at her bewildered husband and begins divorce proceedings, not because of something that he is guilty of, but because some of his actions remind her of the manner in which her father treated her mother, and the pain is just too much to handle. Or, a young husband initiates a sexual affair with a co-worker, not because his wife is unaffectionate, but because he is desperately seeking the approval that he never received from his parents. Our past injuries really can and do cripple our present lives.

Unfortunately, in seeking to repress or deny those injuries all we do is to inflict further injury on others.

In regard to immutable truth #1 above, what I have learned is that to admit our past injuries, to recognize them for what they are, is neither to condemn the innocent nor to acquit the guilty. It is simply to say, “I am hurt. I am broken.” It is at that point that we can move on. I do not suggest this is easy, and certainly in many situations it will not be painless. But, I do suggest it is the most mature, and healthy, way to address our bent and brokenness.

In regard to immutable truth #2 above I am more at a loss, but never-the-less I think there are two healthy paths forward. The first is obviously the path of restoration, of redemption and renewal. This, just as obviously, involves the possibility that both parties are willing to come together and to work out all differences, either real or imagined. This, clearly, is the best option. But, sadly, in our fallen world it is not always possible.

In dealing with a person who has, by all indications, become unwilling or unable to change, I believe there are, once again, two paths open to us. The first is for us to apologize, sincerely and honestly, for any pain or injury that we may have caused. The apology may or may not be accepted. Most likely, it will not be, as it requires the other person to own and to work through their own pain. It will be easier for them to hold onto their grievance as a buffer to protect them from addressing their culpability, and perhaps even greater injustices in the past.

Second, and at great cost to ourselves, we will have to lay down the burden of carrying our grudges. I have written elsewhere about situations in which it is impossible to practice the true biblical forgiveness. (Seem my three part series beginning here –The Myth of Unconditional Forgiveness (1) [Uncertain Inferences Series]  To summarize in a sentence, if there is no repentance, if there is no request for forgiveness, there can be no genuine forgiveness, no restoration of a broken relationship. However, that does not excuse us from the possibility, and even at times the necessity, of laying down the crushing burden of resentment and anger. That is what Jesus called turning the other cheek, walking the second mile. It is what the apostle Paul called the willingness to be wronged, and not seek retaliation. And, it is brutally painful.

I am, by virtue of my humanity, a bent and broken person. I have likewise hurt others, many of whom I love and cherish very deeply. I have, in times past, been able to restore some of those broken relationships. With others, I have not been so fortunate. Many will never know how much I grieve those injuries and losses.

I would like to end this rather personal reflection with the words of one of my favorite poems. It is both beautiful and raw. It speaks to the very core of the questions I ask myself. It is, in a way, a beautiful prayer. I share it with you:

Who Am I?

Who am I? They often tell me
I step out of my cell
calm and cheerful and poised,
like a squire from his manor.

Who am I? They often tell me
I speak with my guards
freely, friendly, and clear,
as though I were the one in charge.

Who am I? They also tell me
I bear days of calamity
serenely, smiling and proud,
like one accustomed to victory.

Am I really what others say of me?
Or am I only what I know of myself?
Restless, yearning, sick, like a caged bird,
struggling for life breath, as if I were being strangled,
starving for colors, for flowers, for birdsong,
thirsting for kind words, human closeness,
shaking with rage at power lust and pettiest insult,
tossed about, waiting for great things to happen,
helplessly fearing for friends so far away,
too tired and empty to pray, to think, to work,
weary and ready to take my leave of it all?

Who am I? This one or the other?
Am I this one today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? Before others a hypocrite
and in my own eyes a pitiful, whimpering weakling?
Or is what remains in me like a defeated army,
fleeing in disarray from victory already won?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, thou knowest me; O God, I am thine!

(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Who Am I, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (English), vol. 8, Letters and Papers from Prison, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), p. 459-460.

Honoring Heroes – and Respecting Differences

In my last post I shared some reasons why David Lipscomb and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are two of my heroes of theology. I freely admit that my thinking contains more than one paradox. These two are hardly theological twins. Maybe that is one reason they attract me so much. In no way whatsoever do I want to suggest they shared the same theological conclusions in every possible way. And so, in part to clarify some issues, and in part to continue to honor their influence, I share these rather significant differences between my two favorite theologians.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
David Lipscomb
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer was trained in, and always practiced, the classical form of liberal biblical studies that was current in Germany in the early 20th century. David Lipscomb would NEVER have accepted what Bonhoeffer viewed as something that was self-evident – that theologians could, and should, identify the purely human elements involved in the production of Scripture as opposed to the work of the Holy Spirit. Bonhoeffer would have viewed Lipscomb’s literalist approach to Scripture as being reactionary. But it is here that I find a remarkable similarity – when Bonhoeffer preached, he preached the Bible as fervently and “literally” as Lipscomb would have. That is to say, when Bonhoeffer was doing academic theology, he leaned heavily on his liberal training. But when he preached, he preached the text as if he were a conservative’s conservative. He thought the “theology” that was being taught at Union Theological Seminary was laughable – he wrote that the only place he could find the gospel being preached in New York City was in the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. I am not the only one who strives to hold two vastly different viewpoints in tension!
  • Bonhoeffer accepted the view that the universal church was comprised of the various “churches” found primarily in Europe. He was mystified by the proliferation of “denominations” in America – I’m not sure he ever really figured out what Americans did with the concept of the church. Lipscomb was a Restorationist – he was firmly convinced there was only one church, and it could not be comprised of a number of different bodies who held significantly different beliefs. Lipscomb rejected both the European view of the church, as well as the uniquely American experiment in denominationalism.
  • Similarly, Bonhoeffer had no issue with promoting the classic creeds of Christianity, and was active in formulating the Confession of Faith that defined the Confessing Church in Germany. Lipscomb believed that creeds were unnecessary, and that Confessions of Faith were divisive, not unitive. Yet, even here, there is a strange intersection of belief between these two men – both men believed that the church they were a part of was the one true church! Bonhoeffer famously wrote (and was excoriated for it) that if one separated himself from the Confessing Church, he separated himself from salvation. For Bonhoeffer there was one church, and the Confessing Church in Germany was that church (or at the very least, was a part of that church). Lipscomb would have said the same thing (and perhaps did), except that the church to which he would have referred would have been a conservative Church of Christ (certainly not a congregation of the Disciples of Christ!) Coming from two radically different approaches, both men ended up basically in the same place.
  • As Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a devout Lutheran, it goes without much explanation that he and David Lipscomb would have had significant differences in understanding the Lord’s Supper.
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote one of the finest explanations on the topic of baptism that I have ever read – and yet, he concluded that infant baptism was perfectly acceptable. [Note, this is one area where Bonhoeffer just drives me crazy. His justification for the necessity of baptism could have been written by Alexander Campbell or David Lipscomb, but then he concludes that it is this necessity for baptism that mandates, or at the very least, allows for, infant baptism. His logic makes my head spin. The only thing I can suggest is that, like every single one of us, Bonhoeffer was a product of his theology, not just a shaper of that theology. For him to have rejected infant baptism would have meant far more of a radical turn than he was willing to make, and, for the battle in which he was so completely devoted, the specific question of infant vs. believer’s baptism did not occupy a critical position.] Lipscomb rejected the idea of “inherited” or “original” sin, and for him infant baptism was not only unnecessary, it was unbiblical.
  • Related to another point above, Bonhoeffer was deeply involved in the ecumenical movement of the 1930’s. His conception of the church universal not only allowed this, it pretty much demanded it. Lipscomb would have rejected this approach of recognizing the church universal, and would have been emphatic that the only way to unify divided Christianity was to return to a simple and straightforward understanding of the New Testament.
  • Bonhoeffer held firmly to the Lutheran doctrine of the “two kingdoms.” One of the distinctive views of Lipscomb is that there is only one kingdom, that of God, and that any attempt of man to govern within that kingdom was a repudiation of God’s kingship. Therefore, for Lipscomb, a Christian should not participate in any form of government, even down to voting! Bonhoeffer believed that government was established and blessed by God, so long as it reserved its authority for strictly “secular” purposes. The role of the church was to teach the government how to govern appropriately, and to correct the government when it overstepped its boundaries.

As I mentioned in my first post – the differences between Lipscomb and Bonhoeffer are vast and deep. One should in no way confuse the beliefs of these two men! However, the intersection of their thoughts, where they do indeed intersect, is profoundly interesting to me, for the very reason that they approach Scripture and the church from such differently positions. I am captivated by both. I favor Lipscomb in many ways because he is family – we share the same ecclesiastical heritage. I find his political views refreshing, and dare I say it, far more biblical than most of my fellow members of the Churches of Christ. I believe Lipscomb and Bonhoeffer both drank from the same Spirit. I can see, despite their differences, a strange union. Maybe its because I am so strange. Who knows.

Anyway, thanks for sharing a bit of my conservative, and liberal, heritage!

Honoring Heroes – Dietrich Bonhoeffer and David Lipscomb

Okay, maybe I’ve have put the whole “orthodoxy/heresy” question to bed. Time to move on.

I have often ruminated that the two greatest theological minds to have influenced me are (in chronological order) David Lipscomb and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer would get the nod in terms of amount of written material that I have, but Lipscomb would get the nod in terms of theological agreement. I have suggested that if I were to name my favorite theologian, it would be David-Dietrich Bonlipscombhoeffer.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
David Lipscomb

While separated by a generation (Bonhoeffer was nine when Lipscomb died), an ocean (Lipscomb and American, Bonhoeffer a German), a culture, and vast theological differences, the two share some striking similarities; maybe not profound to many, but poignant to me. Here are just a few of the most important:

  • Both were center-right of their respective churches. Bonhoeffer was considered an irritant by many in the German church. He was labeled a trouble maker and extremist. Lipscomb was also viewed as somewhat of an extremist – not so much for his theological positions, but for the radical ethical positions he drew from those theological positions. While Lipscomb could also be attacked by those further to the right on the Restorationist continuum, both of these leaders were marked for their obstinate refusal to surrender core biblical teachings, or to compromise for the purpose of “just getting along” with their opponents.
  • Both were committed to reforming these churches. Lipscomb would use the word “restore” rather than “reform,” but both men dedicated themselves to correcting what they saw were serious errors in the church. Both men were able to see that the error they were facing was not simply the presence of individual “sin” in the church, but rather that there was a systemic bent toward sinfulness in the church. Any preacher can preach against sin, but it takes a true visionary to attack the presence of systemic Sin in the life of the church.
  • As a result, both men were willing to face the inevitable wrath of former friends and colleagues. Neither man was exempt from such wrath.
  • Both men were pacifist. This is truly intriguing. Both men saw the error, the futility, of war. Lipscomb lived through the American Civil War, and preached tirelessly that Christians in the South were not to take up arms against Christians in the North. Bonhoeffer was just a youth during World War I, and as a patriotic German, defended the act of going to war even as a young preacher during his ministry in Spain. However, by the time Hitler ascended to the role of Chancellor in 1933, Bonhoeffer had come to reject his earlier defense of militarism, and was fully aware that his acceptance of pacifism might ultimately cost him his life. It was a risk he was willing to take.
  • Both men were deeply committed to mentoring, teaching, and developing young men for the ministry of the church. Bonhoeffer led an illegal seminary for Lutheran pastors, and Lipscomb created a college for the purpose of educating and training young preachers. Through their tutelage, scores of Christians have been influenced by this interest and love for training the next generation of preachers.
  • Finally, (at least for this post), both men were deeply committed to the power of God to effect the changes necessary to reform or restore the church, but both men were aware that humans were going to have to change if there was to be any lasting transformation. You could say that both had almost a child-like faith in God both to will and to empower the church to change. After all, it was Jesus who said, “Unless you change and become like these little children . . .” Lipscomb and Bonhoeffer both radiated that child-like love and faith in their God.

Perhaps other similarities could be drawn, and perhaps I will do so. Obviously I have not labeled all of the differences – and they are numerous and not insignificant. I have considered it profound how two men who, at least ostensibly have so little in common, have been such influences in my life. If you know me very well at all, you should be able to see David-Dietrich Bonlipscombhoeffer in my words. Alas, I’m afraid I’ve not put much of their courage or their holiness into actual lived experience, but maybe I can change that over the remaining portion of my life on this earth.

Preaching An Offensive Gospel, Without Being Offensive

Yesterday I bemoaned the fact that I sometimes get much healthier instruction and encouragement from authors outside of my faith community than I do from authors who share my specific theological convictions. I do not rejoice in that particular experience. I find it distressing, to say the very least. But, it leads to a question: What is it about their writings that I find so encouraging, that I find lacking in authors/preachers from within the Churches of Christ? It is a fair question.

The issue I mentioned yesterday was that they make an unflinching defense of the gospel of Christ to confront not only their culture – but primarily of their own church community. Dietrich Bonhoeffer did not begin his journey by attacking Adolf Hitler – he was initially only interested in purging National Socialism from the German church (although, confronting Hitler directly was close behind). Lesslie Newbigin did not set out to attack the political system of England – he wanted to wake his church up to the idolatry that it had absorbed (although, you cannot attack idolatry without attacking the idol that inspires it). Os Guinness does not want to re-write the Constitution, he writes primarily to Christians in order to get them to follow the gospel of Christ (although, in so doing, we do have to take a serious look at the humanistic nature of the Constitution).

All three of these authors touch on and hover around a central theme – the gospel of Christ is at its core an offensive gospel. Not hateful, mind you, but offensive, yes.

The gospel is offensive to the modern, western, and in particular, American, culture. In our world the center is the self, the individual. Everything we do magnifies the individual. Life is all about ME! If I want it, I get it, no matter what it costs or how it deprives others of what they want. My personal happiness and my personal welfare eclipses every other concern. I can destroy the earth, I can ruin reputations, I can use derogatory and repugnant language, I can kill the unborn child in my womb, I can even change my biological birth gender – all because I am the king of my life and I can do whatever I want to do that makes me happy and self-fulfilled. To deny me that freedom is the worst crime that a person or a society can commit – it is a denial of my personal, individual, reign over my life.

Contrast that with the gospel. In the kingdom of God the community – the church – is the most important organism, and the individual only gains importance through that community. In the kingdom of God the other comes first, not the self. In the kingdom of God we die to ourselves and live for the other, and in particular, we live for Christ. In the kingdom of God the most important right we own is the right to relinquish all of our rights for the benefit and the promotion of the community. In the kingdom of God responsibility is as critical, if not more critical, than any supposed rights. In the kingdom of God no truths are considered “self-evident” – that is a fiction of the enlightenment. The only way we know truth is through the revelation of God himself. In the kingdom of God the most important symbol is not a flag or a gun or a piece of paper – it is a cross, the symbol of hatred on one side and divine love on the other. In the kingdom of God the only way to win is to lose, and the only way to live is to die. We ascend by climbing lower.

Bonhoeffer, Newbigin and Guinness all preach this gospel. They all make the same point, albeit in different ways and even though their message has been intended for vastly different audiences. It is only through this offensive gospel that a human can know his or her value, and it is only through this gospel that a bent and broken world can be healed. It is tough medicine – in a sense it is a medicine that actually kills the patient before it can restore the patient to a new life.

Exactly what the gospel proclaims in the pages of the New Testament.

So how is what I hear from authors/preachers within the Churches of Christ any different? What do I hear from our spiritual leaders?

  • We cannot tell the millennial generation to grow up and value the body of Christ as the preeminent reality because it might hurt their sense of individuality, and they might leave and go elsewhere.
  • We cannot tell the sexually degenerate or confused that there is one, single immutable truth about sexuality because it might scare them away from the church.
  • We cannot confront a hyper left-leaning or right-leaning political constituency with the reality that they have replaced their faith in God with an idolatrous belief in human reason for fear that they consider us crazed lunatics – or even worse, rabid fundamentalists.
  • We cannot confront an aging group of baby-boomers (and I am one) with the thought that the way in which they have used and abused the earth’s resources is in direct contradiction to the mandate in Genesis to husband the earth for fear that they might withdraw their necessary contributions to the church.
  • We cannot confront either Democrat or Republican with the gospel call to forsake all idolatrous nationalism for fear that we might be viewed as being unpatriotic.
  • We cannot preach the exclusive message of the gospel for fear that we will be considered hateful and prejudiced.
  • We cannot preach that there is one way, and one way only, to God and that is through the death of Christ. We cannot preach believer’s baptism because that is simply a dogma and is narrow minded. We cannot preach that there is only one church because that is sectarian.
  • On the other hand, we must preach inclusiveness, praise individuality, and above all, maintain the liturgy of the Church of the American Myth.

In short, what we need to preach is the insipid, watered down, meaningless pablum that we hear from every other religious organization that has swallowed Satan’s bait – hook, line and sinker. Oh, we will be popular, and I can list a number of congregations that are just busting out of their buildings to the point they have to have “multiple campuses” to demonstrate their popularity.

But, if I read the book of Revelation correctly, these are not of the church of Christ, even if they wear the name Church of Christ.

In preaching this gospel we cannot afford to be hateful, mean-spirited, ungracious. It is a command, not a mere suggestion, that we “speak the truth in love.” But is is simply un-loving to change the gospel into something that it is not. The apostle Paul had no hesitancy to know and to teach that the gospel is repugnant to a wide range of audiences – it is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks. The early martyrs, from Stephen on down, were not killed because they told everyone that they were quite all right. To Americans the gospel is “hate speech.” Because it challenges each and every one of us to die to ourselves and our selfishness, the gospel is deeply offensive.

To be sure, I have only painted one side of the picture. The other side is that the gospel is profoundly beautiful and loving. It is the picture of a God who so loved his (rebellious and fallen) creation that he became a part of that creation in order to redeem it. It is a picture of a God who so wants to totally redeem all of that creation that he has entrusted those who believe in him with the blessed task of sharing in that redemptive story. I do not want to ever lose sight of this side of the story. But just as the gospel story recounts, you cannot get to the resurrection without first going through the cross. No one objects to Easter. Gethsemane and Calvary are preposterously offensive, however, and it is exactly Gethsemane and Calvary that we are called to bear.

As our culture falls ever more deeply into a moral abyss, it is absolutely critical that someone, or a bunch of someones, preaches this offensive gospel, so that the cross of Christ will be effective and powerful to draw men and women to God.

The question is, who is going to preach it?

Some Reflections on Recent Readings

What do Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lesslie Newbigin, and Os Guinness have in common? Hmm. Not nationality. Not ecclesiastical connection. Not profession. Not currently alive. Seemingly, not much. There is, however, one thing that unites these three outwardly disparate characters.

All three make an unflinching, and in their own way, extraordinary defense of the gospel of Christ. How I became interested in each of the authors would require a separate post, but suffice it to say that my reading list takes me in strange, and in some cases, indefinable, directions.

This year my reading list has included a number of works from Guinness and Newbigin. I have read deeply and broadly on Bonhoeffer. That one characteristic that I noted above keeps coming back to me again and again. Bonhoeffer, Newbigin, and Guinness are all driven, in their own unique circumstance, back to the core of the gospel of Christ to confront their respective churches and cultures.

Some people may think it sad that I praise such men so highly. They each represent strains of theological convictions that I ultimately find to be lacking. Why read them? And, if I read them, why not critique them and discuss their flaws instead of praising them? Quite on the contrary, I think it is sad that I have to resort to reading Bonhoeffer, Newbigin, and Guinness to find such a courageous and counter-cultural approach to issues confronting the church today.

I may just be swimming in the wrong pond, but I find it singularly distressing that I just cannot find any author from my faith community, the Churches of Christ, who is taking such an unpopular, and convicting, stance against the idolatry of our western, and primarily, American, culture. There are those who rail against gross distortions of biblical morality, but it does not take too much of a scratch to discover that their Christianity is more related to “churchianty” than the gospel of Christ.

If there are such authors or preachers, please let me know, I would love to read/hear what they are saying. And, please, do not suggest such men as are leading the “mega” churches of our fellowship in Texas or Tennessee. I know the difference between healthy theology and pablum, and believe me, I know it when I see it. As Forrest Gump once said, that is all I’m going to say about that.

I am trying, in my own inept and halting way, to be what I hear Bonhoeffer, Newbigin, and Guinness calling me to be. I know they are imperfect, that each of them has said, or written, things about which I would strongly disagree. I know they are fallen human beings, and I am a fallen human being.

It’s just that I am deeply humbled, troubled even, with the depth of their commitment to, and defense of, the gospel of Christ to challenge all of the principalities and powers of the world that they see (or saw). I find myself too comfortable bowing down to the idols they refused to submit to. I find myself too fearful to preach against the idolatry they fearlessly  attacked.

I hope to do better. I think, in order to be faithful to my calling, I have to be better.