On the Inherent (and Therefore Necessary) Weaknesses of Education

Don’t know why this post popped into my head this morning – but I rarely understand anything that goes on inside my head.

On the one hand, there is an inherent weakness to education. That weakness was succinctly identified by our Lord, “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a ┬áservant above his master.” (Matthew 10:24, RSV) In the Paul Smith paraphrase, that means no matter how hard you try, you will never be smarter than your teacher – in any subject, whether it be theology, farming, or flying airplanes.

But, we cannot live without education. A father teaches his son how to drive a tractor, cultivate the soil, plant the seeds, administer pesticides and fertilizer, and then when and how to harvest. Certified flight instructors are necessary to teach the next generation of pilots, otherwise there would be an awful lot of empty airplanes parked at airports. And, love ’em or hate ’em, there are professors of theology that continue the art and skill of interpreting and teaching the Bible.

Now, if I understand Jesus right, what he is saying is that a student will never rise above the skill and knowledge of a single teacher. Having been both a student and a teacher, I can see this on so many different levels. I will never be able to achieve the heights of my instructors – either in aviation or theology. I could never teach everything that I know – not because I have such a vast repertoire of knowledge, its just that there are things that a person cannot teach.

So, how does mankind continue to grow in knowledge? How is it that we can fly spaceships now when Orville and Wilbur only flew a few feet?

We multiply our teachers! We build, layer upon layer, on the accumulated knowledge of the ages.

When I was in flight school I had several different instructors. At first this bothered me, because I really, really liked my instructor for my basic flight certificate. When I became an instructor, we never allowed one student to stay with one instructor for two successive certificates or ratings. Why? Because an instructor can never teach everything he/she knows, and a student can never rise above his/her instructor. But, if you multiply instructors, the learning curve never really flattens out. There is always something a different instructor knows, or a different trick, or a different way of approaching a problem. Multiple instructors provide a solid foundation for future learning.

A truism that is becoming a mantra for my life is this: If you only read what you have always read, and if you only hear what you have always heard, you will never learn. You may be reminded, you may be edified, you may be encouraged, you may be blessed in a number of ways. But you will never learn. If you want to learn, you have to be challenged by thoughts and ideas that you have never considered before.

Buy a book from an author you probably disagree with. Listen to a lecture by a teacher from a background different from yours. Challenge yourself with a concept that grates against your sensibilities. One possible result is that you learn why you disagree with that author or concept (I am only too familiar with that result).

On the other hand, you might just learn something!

No! The Church Does Not!

If you are even remotely connected to any religious media (Facebook, Twitter, books, magazines, etc.) you are bombarded with messages such as, “If the church is going to survive, it must . . .” or “If the church is going to keep (or attract) millennials, it must . . .” or “If the church is going to be seen as relevant, it must . . .” followed by some brilliant insight observed by some church growth guru. I’m sure I have even been guilty of using those words myself. If I have, (or I guess I should say, when I did) I was wrong. Mea culpa. I am now here to say, “No.” The church does not have to do (a) or (b) or (c). In fact, all the talk about what the church is going to have to “do” is part of the problem. Understanding why this is such a critical issue takes some serious thinking, so let me explain my position.

First, the church was not created by Jesus to be some crutch, some plaything for those who comprise its membership. The church IS Christ on this earth. The church is his body, as Paul makes explicitly clear – 1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 1:23, 5:30; Colossians 1:18, 2:19 to name a few passages. Therefore, and this is the nub of the issue, to say that the church “must” do something or the other in order to keep or to attract any sub-group of people is to say that JESUS must do that something or the other.

Are you really willing to tell Jesus what he has to do? Does Jesus really have to bend to every whim and fancy of every coming generation? Is there a set of rules for the builder generation, the boomer generation, the “X” generation and now the millennial generation? Or, is there one body, the church, to which every generation must submit its personal preferences and demands for the good of the whole?

If there is any one single “must” that the church is bound to obey, it is that the church must be the body of Christ. That’s it – there is no other “must.” We learn about that body by studying the gospels, and we learn about how the church either successfully, or unsuccessfully, fulfilled that commission by studying the books of Acts-Revelation.

The body of Christ obeys what the head of the body commands it to obey. The body of Christ is the physical extension of the exalted and reigning Lord now ascended to the heavens. The body of Christ does not get to vote, does not get to add to or subtract from, the commands that its owner and head gave to it.

It strikes me as ignorance bordering on absurdity for someone not even out of his third decade of life to lecture the church – which has existed for almost 2,000 years – about what it “must” do to survive. But, that is just part and parcel of our narcissistic world. Everything revolves around “me,” so obviously the church must revolve around my wants, my wishes, my demands, my understanding of what “ought” to be. When the church has succumbed to that siren song it has floundered. When the church has resisted that temptation it has flourished. The church is the body of Christ on the earth – and the only imperative that body has is to remain faithful to its head – Jesus the Messiah.

There is a word for what I am describing – it is “discipleship.” It is described beautifully in those aforementioned gospels, and it is taught in the aforementioned subsequent books of the New Testament. There is another book that talks about this topic, and interestingly enough, it has that simple title, Discipleship*. When it was published it stood the prevailing cultural church on its head. If it was read, I mean really read, today it would have the same result. I believe its author would be aghast at how so many people claim to follow its principles when those very same people are so busy telling the church what it must do.

If, and more likely when, I have been guilty of that sin I repent. I never want to be guilty of telling Jesus what HE has to do in order to attract some selfish little pedant to attend some church assembly. Members of the church of Christ are disciples of Christ, and to that end we either transform our will to become what is the will of Christ, or we cease to be members of the body of Christ (ref. Revelation 1-3).

The church is the body of Christ – let us never lose sight of that reality!

*Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (also published as The Cost of Discipleship).

My “Perfect” Worship Experience

On another forum a good friend (that I have never met) suggested I provide what would be my “perfect” worship service (I forget his exact words). I thought, “what a splendiferous idea!” (And I had no idea that such a word as ‘splendiferous’ even existed, but my computer even spell checked it for me!) So, here goes, with a few comments here and there:

  • It would be called a gathering, and not a “service.” The word we translate into “church” simply means an assembly, a gathering, a community. Let’s stick with Bible names.
  • It would begin approximately around 9:00 am – early enough for us to be fresh, but not so late as to make everyone lazy. I say “approximately” as there would be plenty of time for early gatherers to meet and possibly share a breakfast meal without feeling like they were “early.”
  • There would be no end time. People could stay as long as they wished, or leave when they felt they had to. Communal meals would be the rule, not the exception. Everyone would be well nourished, physically and spiritually. Last one out turn out the lights.
  • Except for a few remarks, most of the service would not be scripted or planned. I make exceptions for a lesson from the Bible, and a well thought-out comment immediately preceding the Lord’s Supper. Beyond that – let’s let the Spirit move and encourage us. The experience would be charismatic, but not chaotic.
  • There would be lots of time for just silence – showing a little of my Quaker leanings here. Words can only be heard if there are moments of silence in between them. Consider the average worship service. When is there silence? In most situations, only during the Lord’s Supper, and even in some congregations that is changing. We need silence to hear the Word of God. Lots of silence for me.
  • There would be many prayers, and songs – lots of songs. Songs dating back to the earliest English hymnals and songs that were written by church members throughout the week.
  • There would be equal amounts of praise and confession. One thing I learned in my D.Min. studies is that Churches of Christ do not confess much. Oh, we confess that we have “sinned,” but we do a really poor job of confessing sins. I think in an ideal situation there would be group confession, and individual confession, and lots of forgiveness, and lots of silence as we ponder our sinfulness.
  • There would be a lot of shepherding. The shepherds, or elders, would run their stubby little legs off moving from person to person, group to group, taking care of shepherding issues. No smoke-filled, back-room decision making CEOs here – just pure shepherds of the flock.
  • Sermons, or Biblical lessons, would be brief, and might be given by more than one individual – and would be directed to helping the flock follow in the steps of the Good Shepherd. The lessons would be followed by periods of discussion, and would then be followed by periods of silence as the sheep considered the words that were presented.
  • There would be a time for the meeting of physical needs as well as spiritual needs. No one would go away hungry, or in need of shelter. Discipline, when needed, would be administered “on the spot.” Ditto with forgiveness and absolution.
  • Finally, people would arrive haggard and worn out from fighting the battles against the “powers and principalities,” and would leave equipped, renewed and rejuvenated, ready to go forth and conquer the beast.

I just realized, in re-reading what I would characterize as the “perfect” worship experience, that I have described the actual worship gathering in many of what we would call “third-world” countries. Maybe in terms of spiritual worship, we as Americans are third-world.

Okay – perhaps its a pipe dream, and might could be added onto. Thanks, Ted, for the splendiferous idea!

Political – or Biblical?

As a preaching minister I have long made it a goal to avoid overt political posturing in the pulpit. One of the most egregious violations of this principle occurred while I was actually not preaching, but the offending preacher did everything in his power except name names in attempting to get the congregation to vote for one particular candidate. I do my best to avoid overt political issues for one very important reason: I believe doing so cheapens the message of the gospel. Our political system cannot be placed on a par with the message and mission of the church. In my opinion, there should be a very clear boundary separating preaching the gospel from advocating for a political party or candidate.

The question arises, however – just what constitutes political posturing and what constitutes biblical preaching? Let me explain with a simple scenario:

Let’s say one Sunday I stand and preach a sermon condemning homosexual behavior, and along with that the behavior all of the associated gender-bending issues that our culture is being inundated with today. If I were to assemble a cross section of all of the congregations of which I have been a member, I would hazard a guess that the overwhelming majority of them would compliment my lesson, tell me I was very brave, and generally not even consider whether the sermon was political or not. So, the very next Sunday I get in the pulpit and preach a “hell fire and brimstone” sermon condemning greed, covetousness, and the racial/economic discrimination that our free-market capitalism has produced in America. Without any firm numbers, I can say almost without hesitation that those very same people who were so supportive of my condemnation of sexual perversions would have a very negative reaction to my sermon on economic perversions. Whether they would actually confront me or not (and a few would), my guess is that the overwhelming majority of them would categorize a sermon condemning racial and economic discrimination as being “political,” while a sermon condemning sexual sins as being “biblical.”

Yet, from cover to cover, does the Bible have more to say about racial, social, and economic injustice, or sexual sins? Consider the teachings of Jesus – which subject occupies more of Jesus’s time and attention? This is not to say that sexual sins are never addressed – the New Testament is replete with exhortations toward sexual purity and condemnations of sexual misbehavior. I am only illustrating a point – which subject receives the majority of discussion? In my understanding the results are not even close. While either or both subjects could be addressed as political topics, it is perfectly possible, and I would say necessary, to address both as matters of biblical doctrine

Speaking only for myself here, but I think the answer to this problem lies not with our desire to re-write the Bible. Its just that, in the words that I saw on Twitter the other day, it is so much easier to confess other’s people’s sins than it is to confess our own. It is easy to condemn sexual sins because, at least for the majority of Christians, that condemnation has been a part of our vocabulary since we were little children. Greed, covetousness, avarice, racial discrimination – all of these things have been singled out as being sinful, but how does one identify a greedy person when everyone in the community is bent on buying the latest model car, the newest cell phone, the most popular makes of clothing, etc.? It is easy for “conservative” Christians to wag our finger in the face of an adulterer or practicing homosexual, but who wants to condemn covetousness while we are standing in line for the newest and greatest smart phone?

So, I will continue to maintain my aversion to preaching overtly political sermons. I refuse to preach “get out and vote” sermons just before elections, because I do not want the cross of Christ to be seen as some platform for our American political system. But – and read me careful here – faithful preachers should reserve the right to preach on every issue discussed in the pages of Scripture that has a direct bearing on the manner in which a disciple of Christ lives his or her life. That means when the text demands we preach against sexual sins, we will preach against sexual sins. And when the text demands that we preach against issues related to racial discrimination, legal justice, and economic fairness, we will preach on those issues as well.

I just pray that when I do preach on any subject, I do so with the humility of Christ (and his apostles), knowing that the first person that hears any of my sermons is the man in the mirror. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it “theology from below,” and its a pretty good description. Let us all realize we are called to live under Scripture, not above it as its master.

Let us ascend by climbing lower.

The Church and the Idolization of Youth

“We have to do something to save our youth!” “We are losing too many of our youth!” “If we do not change our worship our young people will leave the church!” “We have to listen to our young people or they will not listen to us!”

On and on it goes. From what I hear the church is being strangled to death by a fear of young people leaving its membership. Preachers are hired and fired not on the basis of their wisdom and maturity, but on the basis of their attire and hair style. Churches want a “new voice” that will appeal to the younger generation. By some accounts the church is in a full blown panic over the fate of today’s youth.

It might be a shock to some, then, to discover that back in the early days of 1930-33 a young German theologian set out to address this very issue. More than just about anyone in his generation, he was acutely aware of the crisis of youth – especially in a world that was literally crumbling around their feet. His generation, and especially those younger than him, were clamoring for the church to heed their demands, to change its stodgy ways, to conform to a “new” reality. Rather than approach the problem from the cloistered cell of some ivory tower, this young pastor went to work among the poorest of the poor in his city. The young men who were placed in his care were far more familiar with violence and prostitution than the parables of Jesus. When they threatened to wreck his classroom, he would put records of “Negro spirituals” for them to listen to. When his young charges were ready for the ceremony of confirmation, he realized they had no decent clothes to wear. So he bought enough material for each to have a suit, and paid for a tailor to make them one. He was no ordinary youth minister. He did more than teach. He washed feet.

So his words carry far more weight than some ivory-tower theoretician. I share that because he prepared what have been labeled as eight “Theses on Youth Work in the Church.” It is unknown when he wrote them, but probably before 1933. I share some pertinent excerpts:

  1. Since the days of the youth movement, church youth work has often lacked that element of Christian sobriety that alone might enable it to recognize that the spirit of youth is not the Holy Spirit and that the future of the church is not youth itself but rather the Lord Jesus Christ alone. It is the task of youth not to reshape the church, but rather to listen to the word of God: it is the task of the church not to capture the youth, but to teach and proclaim the word of God.
  2. Our question is not: What is youth and what rights does it have, but rather: What is the church-community and what is the place of youth within it?
  3. . . . It is only within the church-community that one can pass judgement on the church-community.
  4. The church-community suspends the generational problem. Youth enjoy no special privilege in the church-community. . . God’s spirit in the church has nothing to do with youthful criticism of the church, the radical nature of God’s claim on human beings has nothing to do with youthful radicalism, and the commandment for sanctification nothing to do with the youthful impulse to better the world.
  5. The Bible judges youth quite soberly: Gen. 8:21; Isa. 3:5; Jer. 1:6; Eccl. 11:10; 1 Pet. 5:5; 2 Tim. 2:2 et passim.
  6. Church youth work is possible only on the basis of addressing young people concerning their baptism and with the exclusive goal of having them hear God’s word.
  7. It may well be that the youth have the right to protest against their elders. If that be the case, however, the authenticity of such protest will be demonstrated by youth’s willingness to maintain solidarity with the guilt of the church-community and to bear that burden in love, abiding in penitence before God’s word.
  8. There is no real “church association”; there is only the church. . . Every church association as such already discredits the cause of the church.

[Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Theses on Youth Work in the Church” in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 12. Berlin:1932-1933. ed. Larry Rasmussen, trans. Isabel Best and David Higgins (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009) 515-517.]

The language is somewhat stilted, and the ecclesiology (baptism, etc) is Lutheran, but the theology is solid. I am constantly amazed that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9) and that questions that the church is asking today have been asked (and answered!) many times before. We do not have to re-invent the wheel. What we do need to do, however, is to listen to the wisdom of ages past. But before we can do that we have to have the humility to accept that people who lived before us were actually smart enough to answer the questions.

Lord, save us from the sin of idolizing our youth.

** I am indebted to the work of Andrew Root, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker: A Theological Vision for Discipleship and Life Together (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014) for providing an in-depth examination of Bonhoeffer and his ministry to young people. If you are interested in serving young people in an authentic way, or if you are just interested in the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I highly recommend this book. I think it will change your view of how the church is to hear, and to minister, to young people.

What Are We Left With?

I got to thinking the other day. What started it was the ever-present demand by those who want to re-construct our understanding of biology (and especially of the roles of male and female) to eliminate from Scripture any reference to gender differences and the roles attached to the separate genders. So, if they cannot explain away certain passages, they just eliminate them as being the uninformed opinions of bigoted males – the apostle Paul being the chief culprit. It the author of a particular passage was a male chauvinist homophobe, then we do not have to listen to anything that he said, or wrote.

So, in the spirit of this line of thinking, I got to thinking – why stop there? Let’s continue and remove any language that can be deemed to have roots in a patriarchal society. Let’s purify the Bible of any semblance of male superiority. That would mean excising all references to God as “Father” and Jesus as a male. In fact, let us be done with all the male/female binary language in the Bible. Eve should not be singled out as the “mother of all living,” as that reduces her to a mere object for male dominance. In fact, the language extolling any kind of human attraction and love needs to be cut out – think of the horrid descriptions of the female body in the Song of Solomon!

While we are at it, let us not forget to eliminate any references to a hierarchal/dictatorial culture. The chief offender here is any idea that God or Jesus could be “Lord,” as that is the pinnacle of a repressive society. The warrior language is especially galling – who wants to worship a God who wields swords and who commands his people to utterly destroy their enemies? Gone also will be any views “from below,” – words like obey, or submit, as they merely work to institutionalize systems of dominance and power.

Let us not forget that the people who first received the Bible were highly superstitious, and so to purify the Scriptures it is also incumbent upon us to remove any references or suggestions regarding the supernatural. This would include cutting out all the references to spirits, (including the Holy Spirit), demons, miracles – and even prayer itself. Closely related, since these people are considered to be “pre-scientific,” let us be done with all the incorrect and misleading language – all that talk about the sun rising and setting, the four corners of the earth, etc. Think of all those silly metaphors in the Psalms that compare thunder to the voice of God, and the majestic human to a smelly sheep. Surely we can do better than that.

The only question I have after we do all of that is this – what are we left with?

You see, when we (our 21st century culture) start editing the Bible to fit the world in which we live, where do we stop? If we want to eliminate certain verses from the pastoral letters or the Corinthian letters, why limit ourselves to just one segment of our society? When we proclaim that “Jesus is Lord” we are making a politically subversive statement: we are bound to obey Jesus as our supreme leader, not some elected official. In reality that is far more offensive than stating that males and females have been given different gifts and ministries in the church! Yet, because we have so neutered the word “Lord” in our language, we can sing about Jesus being our lord with sublime expressions on our faces and utterly miss the significance of what we are saying.

I have to be careful here because I too have wrestled with the question of what are timeless truths and commands within Scripture and what is culturally limited. There are many questions for which there are no easy answers. But my anxiety and my questions cannot overturn what basically amounts to 4,000 years of accepted teaching and interpretation.

Standing under Scripture is difficult, because it cuts against every fiber of my rebellious nature. I don’t want to submit to certain texts because it means that I am no longer the master of my life. It means I have to uproot the idols in my life and return Jesus to the center. Idols are idols precisely because we love them and are comfortable with them. Removing them is painful for those very reasons.

But if we no longer have God at the center of our life, what are we left with?

An Apocalyptic Vision for the Church

In my essay yesterday I pointed out that Barton Stone, and just a generation later David Lipscomb, grasped something about New Testament Christianity that Alexander Campbell either could not see, or rejected. Campbell was an ardent post-millennialist: he believed the movement of which he was a part would usher in the “millennium” and at the end of a long period of human perfection, Christ would come and establish his reign in heaven. He even named his second journal the Millennial Harbinger to emphasize that point. In a semi-related footnote, the Civil War destroyed that belief for Campbell, and he died as so many prophets of human exceptionalism die, disappointed.

Stone, and later Lipscomb, saw things differently. They were just as committed to the restoration principle (just return to the pages of the New Testament in order to restore the church to New Testament simplicity), but they recognized something else. The New Testament has an undeniable forward looking dimension, but it is not created by the wisdom or strength of mankind. For Stone and Lipscomb, if the world is to become a better place, it will only happen by the power of God, and that will only occur through the working of the body of Christ on earth, the church! Lipscomb was especially adamant on this point, writing clearly and passionately that Christians are to avoid every form of contamination with politics, even to the point of refusing to vote. Christians could not participate in the army (Lipscomb was horrified at the thought of Christians killing Christians in the Civil War), nor were they to serve in any civil positions. Christians are to live as kingdom citizens, and it is the reign of God in heaven that draws disciples of Christ into living in and promoting the reign of God on earth.

This is the polar opposite of “pie in the sky by and by” theology whereby Christians simply try to be “good people” until they die so that they can float around on little clouds playing their golden harps. This apocalyptic worldview almost got Lipscomb killed, and it was his adamant refusal to participate in politics that has resulted in his influence basically being expunged from the history of the Churches of Christ. On the first point, during a severe outbreak of a deadly epidemic (cholera, if I remember correctly) in Nashville, while Christians fled the city in droves, Lipscomb stayed and used his horse and buggy to drive Roman Catholic nuns around the city so they could minister to the sick and dying. Regarding the second point, it was during World War I, and ultimately World War II that the pacifistic view of Lipscomb was violently rejected (pun intended) so that the members of the Churches of Christ could be viewed as “good patriotic Americans.” Today, among the overwhelming majority of members of the Churches of Christ, patriotism is virtually identical to Christianity. Lipscomb, and I believe Stone, would be aghast.

As any reader can probably guess, I am deeply indebted to Stone (what I can read of him, although he did have some weird ideas). I am even more indebted to Lipscomb. I have read Lipscomb’s Civil Government and I am impressed with two things: Lipscomb’s profound biblical knowledge, and his theological insights. Those who disagree with Lipscomb very rarely ever actually engage Lipscomb, they simply defend their love of country and their political commitments more loudly. Which, in an ironic manner, simply proves Lipscomb’s point: you cannot promote God’s kingdom and the kingdom of Satan at the same time. Jesus said it this way, you cannot serve God and man.

A truly apocalyptic worldview has profound implications for the church. I’m not even sure I understand all of them – no, I am certain that I do not understand all of them. I have lived my entire life in an ethos where Christianity and Americanism were considered identical. America was God’s chosen land, and he blessed it with prosperity and peace. I do not think I have ever seen, and I have certainly not worshipped in, a church that is so fully immersed in the kingdom of God that it seeks to literally overturn the rule of Satan in its community. A congregation that exists so that its members can float around on little clouds when they die is inherently crippled – it has no eyes to see, no ears to hear, and certainly no arms or hands to help. Conversely, a church that lives each and every day empowered by God’s indwelling kingdom not only sees, not only hears, but intentionally and actively works to alleviate human misery and to promote that indwelling kingdom.

As America sinks deeper and deeper into moral depravity and violence, I am growing more and more convinced that only this apocalyptic worldview will save the church. We must, we absolutely must, accept the reality that those who deny the lordship of Christ will never be able to think or legislate themselves out of the quagmire that those who deny the lordship of Christ have thought and legislated themselves into. Only when we learn to live, to utterly and totally exist fully immersed in God’s kingdom of love and justice, will the church be able to be the light set on a hill, to be the salt that purifies and preserves this generation.