What Is Our Authority?

Some additional thoughts on my study on Christ and culture . . .

It occurred to me that the contemporary church has an authority problem. Not that this is original with us in the 21st century, but the problem is revealing itself in a manner that is becoming more critical by the moment. Let me work through a little bit of “our” history.

Two examples demonstrate how the sciences have been used to correct, or to make amends for incorrect and, in one case, blasphemous, misunderstandings of Scripture. The first example is that of recognizing, and then accepting, that a geocentric universe is incorrect, and that the earth revolves around the sun, rotating on its axis as it does so. The second example is that of recognizing, and then overcoming, the disgraceful way in  which the Bible was used to defend and support slavery. In the first example, students of the Bible had to realize that the biblical authors could use language that was not scientifically correct, but that was correct by man’s experience none-the-less. In the second example, students of the Bible had to recognize that just because a word is used (i.e., “slavery”), that did not mean that God blessed or even approved of the practice, and certainly would not condone a practice as distorted as was the American practice of slavery.

In the first example, the science of astronomy proved to be authoritative, and in the second example, the science of sociology (perhaps along with physiology, and psychology) were employed along with appropriate Bible study to correct bad Bible interpretation.

I am grateful for the scientific knowledge of Copernicus, Galileo, and many others. I am grateful for the men and women who stood up and demanded that the basic dignity of every human being be recognized, first with the abolition of slavery and then one hundred years later, with the civil rights movement.

Simply stated, there have been times in the two millennia since Christ walked on the earth, that either the hard sciences or the soft (humanities) sciences have been employed to correct faulty exegesis and hermeneutics.

However, a new crisis is facing the Church, and I am afraid that, having been proven wrong on those issues, far too many Christians have surrendered the authority of Scripture for the authority of the sciences. Where the sciences can be of value in some areas, there is one area in which the sciences are utterly incapable of providing any guidance. That area is the area of morality – God’s teaching about holy or sinful behavior.

I hear and read that more and more Christians are looking to science to answer questions of basic biblical morality. Thus, particularly in the area of sexuality, the divinely appointed creation of two sexes and of monogamous, heterosexual marriage is being called into question because of recent supposed scientific discovery. It’s almost like Christians are saying, “Look, we were wrong about the earth thing, and we were wrong about the slavery thing, maybe we need to back off of saying anything for certain about the sexuality thing.”

Well, it’s one thing to be mistaken about the biblical use of experiential language. And it certainly is shameful that Christians abused the biblical text to defend slavery for over two hundred years. But when the inspired authors speak unequivocally and consistently about the basic nature of God and how that nature is manifested in the creation of the sexes, it is the height of hubris to reject that uniform, consistent teaching. There are few, if any, teachings in the Bible that show more consistency than the fact that God created male and female to reflect his creative nature, and that it is only through monogamous, heterosexual marriage that he has approved the utilization of our sexual beings. Forced sexual behavior (rape) and polygamous marriages are described, but in the first case rape is always condemned (with capital punishment for the abuser) and in the second case, polygamous marriages are virtually always portrayed in a negative light, if not outright condemned. In that regard, homosexual behavior is always condemned. There are no examples in the Bible of any male to male or female to female sexual relationships being blessed. The authority of Scripture is diametrically opposed to the perceived authority of science, and it is exactly here that the Christian is going to have to make a choice.

And, as a brief aside, it is exactly here that those who are pushing the authority of the sciences have met their Achilles heel. On the one hand the mantra from the extreme social left is that one is born homosexual and cannot change that orientation. For anyone to suggest that homosexual behavior is therefore a sin is to themselves be guilty of a the sin of intolerance and hatred (homophobia). On the other hand, those same individuals on the extreme social left want to argue that the biological determination of sex as recognized at birth is simply a fluid and inexact marker, and that a person can choose to change that sexual orientation at some later point in his/her life as he/she so recognizes that he/she “feels” like he or she has been born in the wrong body.

Has anyone else caught this hypocritical view of science? On the one hand out DNA is sacrosanct, that we are born one way or the other and cannot even begin to think about changing it; and on the other hand our very DNA that makes us male or female is simply an accident that can be accepted or rejected (and therefore changed) with a simple surgical procedure and a name change, all based on a fleeting human emotion. Like anything else, follow a course as far as it can be reasonably projected and you will see either its folly or its perfection. The social left is caught in an unsustainable contradiction here, and those who are only too willing to sacrifice Scripture for science need to be aware of this inconsistency.

God’s word is utterly consistent: God created mankind – male and female – in his image, and heterosexual monogamous marriage is holy. All sexual behavior outside of that relationship (forcing another against their will, sex acts with one’s same birth sex, sex acts with animals, sex acts outside of the holy bond of marriage) is sinful.

We have reached a point, at least in the United States, where Christians are going to have to take a stand and proclaim whether our authority is God’s inspired word, or whether we are going to turn our spiritual lives over to the authority of the sciences. As for me – I will let the sciences speak where they are qualified to speak – in answering the questions of how things work in our universe and in our world. Where the sciences can inform my understanding of Scripture I will gladly listen to that conversation. I will gladly learn from the “soft” sciences about how the human mind works and how humans work (or don’t work) in societal units.

But, I cannot, and will not, allow either the hard sciences or the soft sciences to dictate my understanding of morality. When it comes to deciding what God has said about the basic nature of human beings, and how that nature reflects His nature, then I must confidently and adamantly say with Peter, John, and the apostles:

Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard. . . We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 4:19-20; 5:29)

We stand under Scripture, we do not stand over it. God speaks, we must either listen and obey, or reject and disobey. We cannot climb higher by rejecting God’s most fundamental truths. We ascend higher by climbing lower.

Ascending Lower and Confronting Blatant Sin

Being a minister, an “amateur” theologian, and a sometimes keen observer of current events, I have come to an incontrovertible conclusion:

Our culture is not getting better, in fact, it is deteriorating by the day.

It was not all that long ago that a group of evangelicals were touting themselves as the “moral majority.” Just by reading the headlines, the “moral” is anything but, and the “majority”? – Pssshaw.

Throughout the life of this blog I have tried to emphasize that Christians win by losing, that we are stronger in our weakness, that the way up is by climbing lower. It is counter-intuitive, but it is the way of the cross. That is what Paul meant when he said the cross was foolishness and a stumbling block. It is just upside-down and inside-out.

But  am vexed with a problem – how then do we confront blatant sin? How are those who empty themselves as Christ emptied himself (Philippians 2) supposed to act when the world hurls so much garbage at our feet? I can think of a couple of ways that ascending lower does not mean.

First, it does not mean that we become so attached to the sinner that we fail to name the sin. I am becoming increasingly put-off by the so-called peacemakers who are so afraid of offending certain people that they refuse to call sin, sin. Particularly in regard to LGBTQ issues, the progressive Left has become so powerful that to even suggest that homosexuals or transgendered individuals might be sinners is to commit an unforgivable sin.

It is even worse outside the church.

Yes, I am suggesting that even, or especially, within the church the progressive mantra of “no offense” has so permeated our language that we cannot label sin as sin. How horrible that Paul could label some of the Corinthian Christians as formerly sexually immoral, homosexuals, idolaters, adulterers, thieves, greedy, drunkards and swindlers. (I Cor. 6:9-11)

You cannot be a former adulterer unless at one time you had been an active adulterer. You cannot have been a former homosexual unless at one time you had been a practicing homosexual. You cannot have been a former drunkard unless at one time you were an active, practicing drunkard.

You see, some people take the idea of “ascending lower” to mean that we cannot pass judgment on anyone, no matter how much in defiance they are living their life before God. That is NOT ascending lower. That is moral cowardice. That is cheap grace, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. That is abdicating our commission to preach the gospel, whether people want to hear it or not.

But, second, ascending lower does not mean that we “lower” ourselves to behave in ways that are actually beneath that of our contemporary culture. The apostle Paul became “all things to all people” (1 Cor. 9:22), but never in the negative sense. Jesus emptied himself – but never to fill himself with negativity. Paul followed in the footsteps of his master to empty himself in order to lift others up. We cannot do that by using the very methods our enemies are using against us.

When I say we are to confront blatant sin and yet to do so by “ascending lower” what I mean is that we label sin and confront the sinner for the purpose of having that sinful person redeemed by the blood of Christ. I will use a simple image, but one that I hope is illuminative.

My best teachers were not the ones who praised my work effusively and who told me that I was perfect and had nothing to improve upon. Well, in fact, none of my teachers said anything of the sort, but my best teachers were the ones who noted what was positive about my work, and then with the skill of a surgeon, reduced the rest to mere shreds. They did not excuse misspellings just because of my intent, they did not pass over poor English grammar because I was a quiet kid, they did not forgive obvious transgressions of logic and argumentation just because of my last name. They labeled each infraction with painful detail. And, then they taught me how to keep from making those mistakes again. And again. And again.

We do not serve the kingdom of God by excusing sin, whether it be closet racism or open homosexuality. We do not further the kingdom of God by tsk, tsking, when open confrontation is called for. We do not glorify God by minimizing the rejection of God’s revealed will. We cannot become more Christian by accepting behavior that directly violates the nature of God. We cannot lead people to the cross by telling them that all is quite well with their lives.

Every day I am confronted with the reality that this world in 2019 is not the world in which I reached my adulthood. In the immortal realization, if not the exact words of Dorothy, “We are not in Kansas, anymore.” That world, that life, that way of comprehending reality disappeared a long time ago.

What has not changed is our commission – our outreach to the world. We have to be smarter than we were 30-40 years ago. We have to lighter on our feet and quicker with our response. We have to be more sincere, more honest, and more confessional. We have to be more humble and more self-aware. That is what I mean by ascending lower.

Let us, then, fearlessly proclaim the truth even as we bend over to wash a pair of dirty feet.

You’re Going to Fail – Preach Anyway

I awoke this morning to a splendid question from an old friend, the crux of which was the latter part of 1 Peter 2:8, “They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.” My friend was having difficulty with the word translated “destined.” Neither he nor I ascribe to the Augustinian/Calvinistic school of predestination, and he was justifiably perplexed. This is a text that, if one so desired, one could make a mountain out of a mole hill and reach for predestination. Anyway, I’m not sure if I answered his question in a helpful way, but it got me to thinking about the subject. Then, almost as if it had been preordained (pun intended), I read John 8:47 in my daily Bible reading schedule, “Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.”

Let me say at this point that I am absolutely convinced of the truth of biblical predestination – one would have to be a ninny to read Romans 5-9 among other passages and not accept the idea of predestination – and my mama did not raise no ninny. But there is a catch – and it is a big one. The Bible nowhere speaks of individual predestination in the manner in which Calvin (in particular) built his theology. The context in Romans 5-9 is always plural – it is a group of people who are predestined – the church! The Bible only speaks of an individual being “predestined” in the rarest of cases – I can think of Pharaoh on the one hand and Cyrus on the other. That God chose or appointed or anointed other prophets and the apostles has no bearing on the Calvinistic concept of predestination at all – that is comparing apples to oranges.

So – how can Peter so blithely speak about persons being destined to disobey? Because Peter stood in a long line of preachers who were told their work was going to be largely (or sometimes completely) in vain – yet they were told to preach anyway.

Isaiah was told that his message would be largely ignored or rejected. He was told to preach anyway. Jeremiah was told that most of his words would either be ignored or ridiculed. He was told to preach anyway. Ezekiel was told that he was preaching to a church of people whose foreheads were like bronze – he was told to preach anyway. Jesus himself picked up on Isaiah’s words and used them against the Pharisees who were devout in rejecting his preaching (Isaiah 6:9-10, see Matt. 13:14-15; also Acts 28:26-27). Why all the rejection? Why did God keep telling his prophets, and even his own Son, to keep preaching when their words were to be of no avail?

Because God does not want anyone to spend eternity outside of his presence, and even if it means some will reject his word, he still wants every man, woman, and child, to hear his gospel! (Ezekiel 18:23, 32; 33:11; 2 Peter 3:9)

Let’s go back to John 8:47. Why did Jesus tell the Pharisees that they could not hear the words of God? Because they did not have God or God’s will in their hearts. It was not that God predestined them to reject his will or his words. They did that on their own. They had rejected God as the King of their lives and in so doing made it impossible for them to hear his word. Who was it that could hear? The poor, the blind, the lame, the prostitutes, the tax collectors – in other words, those who realized that they were spiritually destitute. They could hear. They would listen.

A professor explained it to me simply one time – it is perhaps too simple, but it gets the idea across. He drew three pictures on the black-board (yes, it was that long ago!). One was a slab of butter. One was a lump of clay. One was an ice cube. Then he put a great big sun up in the sky. What would happen to each of the three materials? The butter would melt and become gooey. The clay would harden. The ice would melt and eventually evaporate. The sun was the same source of heat for all three – but it was the inner makeup of the individual materials that dictated the result – not the heat.

Jesus’s parable of the soil is instructive here. The same seed is thrown on multiple types of soil. The eventual result for the farmer does not depend on the seed, his method of broadcasting the seed, whether he prayed for the seed, whether he used the proper technology to apply the seed, or how the crop would later be harvested. The success or failure of the crop depended upon what type of soil the seed landed. Now – don’t push a parable beyond it’s immediate application. Yes, it matters whether we pray and how carefully we speak to our neighbors. But, ultimately, the choice of discipleship depends upon the heart of the hearer, not the voice of the preacher.

So, why preach if the overwhelming majority of your preaching is going to be rejected, ridiculed, or just plain ignored?

Because God said success or failure was not up to us. Yes, we are going to fail. Preach anyway.

The Future of the Church Is . . .

Ever since I was a pre-teenager, back yonder when the crust of the earth had just begun to cool, I have heard that “the future of the church is our young people.” Sometimes it was stated like this, “the youth are not the future of the church, but the youth are the present of the church.” When you are a pre-teen, or a teenager, that is pretty heady stuff. “Hey everybody, listen to me, if not the present, I am certainly the future of the church.”

Well, if my generation was the present of the church back then, or even if we were the not-too-distant future of the church, we have done a pretty good job of mucking the whole thing up.

I have been reminded of my glorified past as I have been thinking about Andrew Root’s two books, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker, and Faith Formation in a Secular Age. Pertinent to both of these books is a very brief work by Dietrich Bonhoeffer entitled, “Theses on Youth Work in the Church,” which is found in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 12, Berlin 1932-1933 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), p. 515-517. I quote the first sentence of these eight theses:

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.

[For a little longer discussion of these theses, see my post here, The Church and the Idolization of Youth ]

Bonhoeffer recognized, probably early in 1933, that the church was fixated on its youth. Spurred by this insight, and bolstered by many decades of sociological and ecclesiological evidence, Root speaks a prophetic voice to a church that remains infatuated with youth and youthfulness. We have not learned much since my youth-hood, and unless we start listening, we may lose another couple of generations to the mythological concept that they, and they alone, hold the key to the future of the church.

Stated as emphatically as I can, the future of the church lies with Jesus Christ – and I would add the working of the Holy Spirit which empowered the church on the day of Pentecost – alone. The church is not bound by generations, by location, by nationality, by political association. The church is not bound, period. As long as Jesus remains Lord and Christ, the church will be free, and will bring freedom to all who surrender to Jesus.

Let us stop drinking the cup of this noxious poison. The church does not have to “listen to the young people” in order to survive. The church needs to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, and follow those teachings to the cross if necessary. The youth do not drive the church – the youth need to bow in submission to the Christ – just as the middle aged and the elderly must do.

We ascend by climbing lower, not by worshipping youthfulness.

The Gospel of the Second Touch – Jesus in Mark 6:31 – 8:30

Over the past few weeks (and ultimately into January) I am preaching a series of lessons on the question, “Who is Jesus?” I am basically following the outline of the gospel of Mark presented by Richard Peace in his book, Conversion in the New Testament: Paul and the Twelve. Dr. Peace was one of my instructors in my Doctor of Ministry program, and is one of the very few individuals in a position of power/authority who ever genuinely complimented any of my work – so, that little bit of personal attachment must be taken into  consideration. The following is a synopsis of my sermon this past Sunday (11/25/18), and is based on the third of what Dr. Peace views as a major section of the gospel of Mark. However much I have gained from Dr. Peace, some of the following is my own observation/deductions, and so don’t blame Dr. Peace for any/all of the mistakes you may discover.

Dr. Peace points out that in the section 6:31-8:30 in Mark’s gospel there are two cycles of stories. This is an illustration of the beauty of Mark’s gospel, and, from my perspective, just another indication that the gospel writers were not the red-neck, hayseed, fishermen that so many preachers want to make them out to be. But I digress.

Both cycles of stories begin with a miraculous feeding of the multitudes (6:30-44 and 8:1-9); those accounts are followed up with a trip on the sea of Galilee, in which a discussion of the miraculous feedings reveals that the disciples do not understand what the miracle was meant to teach (6:45-52 and 8:13-21). Both cycles contain a record of a dispute with the Pharisees (7:1-23 and 8:10-12, which is slightly out of sequence). Significantly, in the first cycle there is another miracle healing that is not duplicated in the second cycle – a point that I suggested in my sermon that screams out for further investigation (7:24-30). Both cycles then end with another healing, the details of which are remarkable similar and, likewise, scream out for further study (7:31-37 and 8:22-26). This major section then concludes with Jesus querying the disciples about his identity, which is then climaxed by Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah (8:29).

So often we are in such a hurry to get to Peter’s confession that we miss the beauty, and therefore the punch, of how Mark has constructed this section of his gospel. I know I have, and until I worked through this section more closely I simply missed what Mark was doing.

In the interest of time, let’s just look at the concluding miracle story in each cycle (equal time needs to be given to the opening miracle in each cycle, but I am not writing a book here). Note that in each of the healing stories Jesus is either in Gentile territory or a border city (yeah, I know that Bethsaida was in Jewish territory, but it bordered the Decapolis, and probably had a strong Gentile presence). Second, the men who would be healed are brought to Jesus by a group of people – a curious fact Mark seems to emphasize. Third, and this is truly something that Mark is intent on his readers seeing, Jesus takes the men away from the crowds. Fourth, Jesus heals both men with a physical touch – and in a manner that would offend most Jewish sensibilities (Matthew would NEVER describe a healing in such unhygienic fashion, and likewise would never suggest that Jesus would have to expend a second effort to heal someone!) Finally, Jesus commands both men not to speak, and in the second case, not even to re-enter his village.

Do you not think that Mark was trying to tell us something here?

Immediately following the second healing, Jesus pulls his disciples away from the curious crowds, elicits from them the profound truth that he is the Messiah, and then immediately and curiously commands that they withhold this information!

The point, convincingly made by Dr. Peace, is that the disciples can only see this truth incompletely, or in the language of the second healing, only in a blurry fashion. It is going to take a second touch by Jesus for their eyes to be fully open, and in the language of the first healing, for their tongues to be fully loosed. That second touch comes in the second half of the book, as Mark beautifully explains what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah.

If you are curious – buy Dr. Peace’s book. I do not accept all of Dr. Peace’s conclusions (especially that the gospel ends at 16:8, but he complimented my work, so I am going to promote his!), but Dr. Peace has opened the gospel of Mark up to me in a way that is deeply touching.

My point in my sermon was this – the gospel of Mark is in many ways the gospel of the second touch, of second chances. Mark illustrates how the disciples were repeatedly given the truth of who Jesus was, but it is not until the very end of Jesus’s life – and only from the Roman centurion – that we hear the confession that Jesus is the Son of God come from the lips of a mortal human being.

Reckon why that was?

Maybe, just maybe, because Mark wanted us to know that however obstinate and hard headed we might be, that Jesus is still calling us to him, still extending his hand out to us, still willing to heal us however uncouth that healing might be.

The gospel of second chances – the gospel of the second touch. I love that. I need to hear that. I need to preach that. I need to live that.

May we all learn to be willing to extend the second touch to those who are too confused, or are unable for whatever reason, to receive it the first time.

Middle Isaiah and the Churches of Christ

This is the third installment in my series on middle Isaiah, so if you have not read the first two, I encourage you to do so. That will provide the necessary background for what I want to convey in this post.

One of the necessary, although frustrating, statements that needs to be made anytime an entire group of people is discussed is that in doing so the author must depend upon generalities. So, in this post I am going to be making some general observations about the Churches of Christ in the United States, and invariably someone is going to be able to say, “That is not my experience at all!” To which I will say, “Great! I am glad that you have not had the experiences that I have had, and that you can see things from an entirely different point of view.” But, I cannot see things from eleventy-billion different sets of eyes, so what you will read below is my observations based on years of study and personal experience. As with every automobile commercial ever made – your mileage may vary. If the shoe fits, wear it, if not, find one that does.

What I can say from my experience and study is that the Churches of Christ, as a whole, are not a liturgical group of people. That is to say that our services are largely extemporaneous (although sometimes highly routine). We do not follow the lectionary readings, we do not follow the “church calendar,” and we most certainly do not have a hierarchical view of the priesthood v. the laity. This very decided “low church” atmosphere is even reflected in our architecture and interior building designs. Most congregations are housed in simple wood frame buildings, or if necessary, other very simple structures that, if the name outside were hidden, could be confused with a mortuary or a nursing home. “Ostentatious” is NOT a word that could frequently be used to criticize any of our buildings. Likewise, the interior of our buildings are almost exclusively utilitarian. We have no majestic arched colonnades, no awe-inspiring auditoriums, no sparkly stained glass windows, no lofty pulpits and certainly no jaw dropping organs or choir lofts. Most buildings in the congregations where I have served or worshipped have simple floor plans, and the auditoriums are sparsely decorated, save for a simple table that provides a place for the Lord’s Supper emblems, and a simple (although sometimes massive) pulpit for the preacher to hide behind (just kidding about that one!).

So what does our decidedly non-liturgical form and functionality have to do with middle Isaiah – and the points of emphasis I have made in the last two posts? I’m glad you asked, even if you didn’t.

I have often said, and even now repeat, that one of the greatest failings of the Churches of Christ – particularly in the late 20th and early 21st centuries – is that we have forgotten who we are. We have no sense of history – of our own and certainly not of the Christian church. It seems like for many decades we have tried to prove that we are so unlike everyone else that we have lost sight of Him who we should be like.

In a short, pithy little sentence, – we have forgotten who God is, and in so doing, we have forgotten who we are supposed to be.

Enter in middle Isaiah. In the middle section of this magisterial prophecy, Isaiah proclaims the word of God to a people who have not only forgotten him, but who have actively rejected him and who are following gods that are not gods – the idols. While making a show of being good Yahwists, those who believe in and worship the true God, these syncretists had created a religion that by all appearances was devoted to Yahweh the true God, but in all reality was simply a veneer to cover their real worship of human imagination, and more to the point, of human strength. They had created God in their own image, and would have nothing to do with prophets who tried, with all their might, to get them to return to the Holy One of Israel.

I really have no objections to being non-liturgical, and there is much to be said for having simple, utilitarian buildings. However, there is an insidious danger that is attached to both of those characteristics that I do not think we have cared to think about. When you minimize the truly awesome experience of coming into the presence of a holy God (by making the worship merely extemporaneous and by minimizing the glory of the meeting structure) you inadvertently and I would say quite unintentionally minimize the God to whom you are offering your worship. There were good reasons why the liturgy developed – and why the churches of the middle ages became such magnificent edifices. The Christians of these ages realized it was simply too dangerous to come into the presence of God without some structure, some careful guidance, about how to do so. They also realized, just as with David and Solomon, that the place where God met with man was to be a magnificent dwelling place – not that God was restricted to that place or that he lived only there. But, I believe they rightly understood that if we were going to invite God to meet with us and to feast with us – might we not want to make the meeting place just a little more important than our own homes? I’m not arguing for the kind of ornateness that makes you afraid to enter lest you get dirt on the floor. But I am suggesting that if all we offer to God is some ramshackle little building, then maybe our view of the awesomeness of God is just, well, ramshackle.

Anyway, I think the teachings that are encapsulated in the middle chapters of Isaiah indict the majority of congregations of the Churches of Christ. I think we are too flippant when it comes to worship, and I think our “low” view of our meeting places communicates something that we do not intend, and would actually actively deny. In a word, I believe we are too humanistic in our approach to worship. We do not have, nor do I think we attempt to create, an Isaiah 6:1-9 kind of experience when we “enter his courts with thanksgiving.”

The natural outgrowth of this lack of “awe” in our worship is seen when we promote humanistic approaches to solving all of our problems (the parallel of Isaiah’s compatriots sending down to Egypt for deliverance from the Assyrian hordes). If our God is simply too small to demand our finest and our best, then why not put our faith in politicians and in the Supreme Court justices? They do demand our allegiance! They do demand that we respect their power. Notice how majestic the House and Senate Chambers are? Notice the pomp and circumstance when the President enters the room? Most male members of many congregations cannot even be bothered to put on a nice dress shirt these days. “Come as you are” has now deteriorated into, “who cares what you look like, just wear whatever ratty old clothes that are in the bottom of your closet.” Try wearing those clothes in a courtroom. I’ve heard of judges throwing people out of their courtrooms because of inappropriate dress.

How can we claim to worship a Holy God if we treat him with less respect than we are called to give to a magistrate judge?

You see, middle Isaiah (along with Amos, and Micah, to say the least) has much to say to the 21st century Churches of Christ. I’m afraid not much of it would be pleasant, either.

We have forgotten who God is. We have forgotten who are are called to be. And we have forgotten who we are.

May we all ascend by climbing lower.

Leadership and Submission

Today a question: If it is almost universally agreed that we should all be submissive to one another (Ephesians 5:21, one would have to be fairly obtuse to object to that directive from the apostle Paul), what happens when a person is placed in a position of authority? How can one submit to those he (or she) is actually given authority over? How can you lead from below?

I hate it when I ask myself these questions. I ask better than I answer. But here goes anyway –

First of all, leadership is not inimical to submission. If it was, Jesus was the worst leader of all time. In fact, you could say that Jesus is the answer to the question how to lead from below and that would be the end of it, but then what would become of the rest of this post?

Leading from below involves certain behaviors that come from certain traits of character. First, leadership from below involves listening – not just hearing but actual active listening that forces one to accept and to process what the other is saying. Active listening itself comes from a trait of compassion and caring. The first thing you learn about someone who cannot listen is that they really do not care very much, either.

Second, leadership from below involves participation in the lives of those being led. In more bucolic terms, the shepherd needs to smell like the sheep. The best managers of an assembly plant are those who understand from the bottom up what it feels like to work on the line. If you are going to lead an elementary school, you had better know what it feels like to get down on your hands and knees with the kindergarteners. The best boss I ever worked for in my secular work life actually climbed in our planes and flew them occasionally. That let me know he trusted our mechanics, and it was kind of nice to see him on the flight line, too.

If you listen carefully and participate fully, then that means that occasionally leadership from below means suffering. No one is perfect, everyone makes mistakes, and that means leaders as well. Perhaps less bucolic, but certainly no less colorful, is the illustration that was impressed upon me a long time ago: the higher you climb up the flag pole, the more people are going to see your rear end. When the water boy makes a mistake, no one in the stadium will know. When the head coach calls a time-out that he does not have, or when the quarterback throws an interception to end the game, everyone knows. Leadership from below means that we accept our frailty, and also accept that our mistakes are going to be more visible, and potentially more critical, than the mistakes of our followers. Leaders have to stand up and absorb the shots – and have the ability to grow from them.

I guess by way of conclusion I should say that leadership from below also involves a great amount of joy. I simply cannot express the joy I felt when I saw a student return from his/her check-ride and realize that there was a new pilot, a new instrument rated pilot, or a new commercial pilot, or a new flight instructor in the world. Of course I was responsible for teaching them (and a failure meant the FAA would be looking at my teaching skills), but the student had to study, to practice, to actually pass the exam. It is nothing but pure joy to see the “light bulb” come on and see a new babe in Christ emerge from the waters of baptism. So, not all is doom and gloom in terms of leading from below.

I guess it goes without saying that the opposite of these traits pretty much describes bullies and autocrats. They don’t listen, they do not help or participate in the lives of those being led, they certainly do not suffer, and I would suggest they are the most joyless individuals in the world. And the church is full of autocratic bullies. Heaven help the congregation that is led by a man (or men, or women) who refuse to listen, who never get their hands dirty doing ministry or teaching the kindergartners, who are too hoity-toity to even expose themselves to suffering, and whose faces would break if they smiled. God has a message to those who lead from the ivory tower, who dictate but never participate, who “bind heavy burdens on those who seek to obey, but do not lift a finger to help:”

He wants His church back.

Listening, participating, suffering, joy – what else would you add to the list in terms of “leadership from below?” I know my list is not exhaustive, probably not even comprehensive. But, I do hope that I have laid a foundation for the concept that leadership and submission are not mutually exclusive; indeed – they have to be inter-related on a very fundamental level.

Let us learn to lead from below!