Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#7)

In my original list of “Undeniable Truths,” number seven was the last one. Funny how lists grow – kind of like fish after you catch them. Nothing ever stays the same size. But, I digress . . .

7.  While some passages of the Bible may be open to more than one application, very few have more than one interpretation. Otherwise, Scripture would be meaningless.

If some others of my “Undeniable Truths” only get nodding agreement, this one probably gets denied quite frequently. But, it would appear to me that this one is also self-evident. Maybe self-evident is not the same as “true” to some people.

Just stop and think about something for a moment: if someone makes a statement, he or she clearly had a meaning attached to that statement. Now, that intent might be to confuse, or to flat out deceive, but those are still undeniable intentions. I find it one of the most incredible ironies of our time, but philosophers and theologians will repeatedly argue that we cannot know the intent of, say, Matthew or Isaiah, but we, their readers, are supposed to understand their (the modern author’s) intent perfectly.

So, we are supposed to accept that certain passages of Scripture can have almost an infinite number of interpretations, depending upon the reader’s culture, gender, economic standing, even historical setting. That is to say, a wealthy, male, aristocrat might legitimately interpret 1 Timothy 2:8 in one way, while a poor, female servant might legitimately interpret the same passage in a diametrically opposite manner a century later.

I might be in the very smallest minority here, but the logical conclusion to this way of thinking makes the Bible utterly meaningless. If two interpretations conflict with each other, then one or the other is false, or perhaps they both contain a measure of error. Two contradictory interpretations cannot both equally be true.

This truth (pardon the uber-modern language) has so many ramifications. Acts 2:38 cannot be both a command and a relative suggestion. 1 Corinthians 12 cannot be referring both to individual church members and to separate denominations. We cannot pick and choose which verse of 1 Corinthians we prefer in terms of women’s roles in the church. Jesus, or Paul, or Peter, or whoever, had only one intent when he spoke or penned his words. Only one interpretation can be correct. All others must be wrong, to a lesser or greater degree.

I am not fool enough to suggest that the process of identifying the intent of these passages is universally easy or clear. I suppose I am fool enough to suggest that the study of Scripture is important enough for us to expend the effort to make sure we come as close as we possibly can to identifying that intent.

I also want to emphasize that, once identified, the interpretation of a particular passage may have more than one application. Example: Jesus clearly intended the rich young ruler to “sell all and follow me.” Does that mean that every Christian must become a mendicant preacher? I do not think so, because Jesus did NOT make the same demand of Zacchaeus (ref. Luke 18 and 19). Likewise, Paul told Timothy to “drink a little wine for your stomach’s sake.” Does that mean that every Christian must have a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon in their pantry? Once again, I do not think so – Paul’s point is that if a region’s water is causing you gastric distress, do something about it, don’t just keep drinking the water!

One of the great sins of modern “Christianity” is the false idea that we can all have our own interpretation of Scripture and all will be well. In other words, it does not matter what you believe, just believe something. This, I believe, is Satan’s first and most effective lie. Did he not deceive Adam and Eve with the question, “Did God really say . . . ”

Ere it be forgotten, please keep Undeniable Truth #1 always in mind.

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection, #2

Continuing my explanation of my “Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection” –

2.  The books of the Bible, even the most difficult sections, were written for the purpose of being understood.

Um, this should be painfully obvious. I guess for some, pain just does not work. I was tempted to add, “. . . by the original audience” but I decided not to, for the very real reason that if the Scriptures are inspired (and I believe wholeheartedly that they are), then the authors of the Bible intended that their words could be understood years, even hundreds of years, after they were completed.

I find this truth being violated most frequently in terms of the prophetic and apocalyptic writings in the Bible. There seems to be among many theologians an unwritten rule of interpretation: “If you can point to an obvious fulfillment of a prophecy, the prophecy has been fulfilled; if not, then it relates to the second coming of Jesus.” Just a curious question, but don’t you think Isaiah was writing to his fellow countrymen in the “. . . days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah”? If so, don’t you think that his hearers, or readers, could understand what he preached and wrote? Now, I have no doubt that Matthew (and other N.T. authors), writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, could not see a “fuller” and “more complete” fulfillment of many of his prophecies. Matthew’s vision does not erase Isaiah’s original intended purpose, however, and it is especially dangerous to read the Old Testament ONLY through the glasses of a New Testament perspective.

My biggest issue with this “misinterpretation” of Scripture relates to the book of Revelation. The piecemeal manner in which passages are used as proof-texts for virtually every bizarre and sometimes incomprehensible theory of the end-times is just infuriating. It is almost as if people think that John muttered to himself, “I have no idea what all this means, but I’m going to write it down and somebody living in the 21st century will be able to figure it all out.” Hogwash and balderdash, I say. John intended his readers to know EXACTLY what he was writing, or he never would have put pen to paper.

All of this relates specifically to Undeniable Truth #1. If we do not approach Scripture with humility – if we just treat the Bible as some ancient book of folklore and whimsy – then we will completely miss its intended purpose. In other words, we must first come to Scripture with the question, “What did it mean?” before we can ask the question, “What does it mean?” How did Isaiah’s hearers (and readers) hear and read his prophecies? How would a church reading the gospel of Matthew understand his use of Isaiah? And, how would one of the seven churches in Asia have interpreted John’s majestic apocalypse? Only after we come to the Bible with those questions answered can we sit down and say, “Okay, what does this have to say to me today?”

If the meaning of a passage of Scripture we derive is completely foreign to the meaning that it’s original audience would have derived, then I would suggest that our interpretation is completely wrong. Jeremiah was not prophesying that God has mapped out every single detail of our human existence (Jer. 29:11). Jesus was not prophesying about the rise of Muslim terrorism in Mark 13. And the anti-Christ has absolutely nothing to do with Adolph Hitler or Ronald Reagan. (1 John clearly states who the anti-Christ is, to the chagrin of many Christians).

As the old sergeant on Hill Street Blues used to advise his officers at roll-call, “Let’s be careful out there.” Let us be extremely careful with the words of Scripture, because they are God’s words, not ours. Let us ascend higher, by first descending lower, that we might know as fully as possible what God intended for us to know.

Undeniable Truth for Theological Reflection – #1

Some may be wondering about my “Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection.” This list is just kind of a “tongue in cheek” but also rather serious reflection on what it means to attempt theological reflection. To better explain myself, I thought I would run through my list. My very first list only had seven truths, and no sub-points, so my list has kind of grown over the years.

My first point:

The number one requirement for reading and interpreting the Bible is humility.
1.a. The primary expression of this humility in theological reflection is a submission to the Scriptures as they stand written. We do not, as interpreters and theologians, stand over the text, we stand under the text.

I think to a certain extent this requirement is self-explanatory, yet I also find it to be one of the least practiced of my requirements, at least among practicing ministers. If you wonder why, I think I have a fairly good reason: it is difficult to maintain, or even begin with, a sense of humility if  at the same time you believe yourself to be “called” to be a minister/preacher.

Just stop and think about it. Either over a long period of time, or just in waking up one morning, you believe that God has called you to be a preacher/minister/teacher/elder. Whoa! That is pretty heavy, and heady, stuff. The creator and redeemer of the world has specifically put his finger on you, all of perhaps 200 pounds of spit and vinegar, and said, “Be my representative to speak my words and lead my church.”

And we are supposed to accept that call and just meekly fade into the woodwork?

In other words, the very nature of our ministry militates against a deep sense of humility. And, when you add to this sense of call all of the praise and glory and back-slapping and offers to join the country club and it gets pretty difficult to repeat the words of Isaiah, “I am a man of unclean lips.”

Yet, that is exactly what is demanded of us!

Every minister needs to wake up in the morning with the question, “Why me?” on our lips. We need to close our eyes at night with the related question, “What have I done to deserve this call?” Answer – nothing. If we did receive that “call” (and that question can be debated), the only thing we can say is that we are extremely blessed, and that blessing places upon us a great responsibility and no right of prestige.

My point in listing this as my first “undeniable” truth of theological reflection is to impress on anyone who attempts theological reflection (and we should all be theologians!) that the ministry of preaching, teaching, and even living the Christian life is a demanding one. We do not accept the mantle of reading, interpreting, and teaching the Bible lightly. As I tried to state succinctly, we stand under the text, not over it.

The number one prerequisite for becoming a preacher, a teacher, an elder, or simply a thoughtful Christian is not to have an opinion in search of a proof-text. The number one prerequisite is exactly what Isaiah felt, and said, when he did receive his special call, “Woe is me, for I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.” (Isaiah 6:5, ESV)

Anything less is simply pure arrogance.

How to be Remembered

Once upon a time I was asked how I wanted to be remembered. I was flummoxed. It was not the first, nor the last, time I was speechless, but the experience was unnerving. I still remember how uncomfortable I was, and that feeling still remains today. How do you want to be remembered?

So, I was reading in Eberhard Bethge’s magisterial biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer the other day, and I found it. I found the sentence that describes perfectly how I want to be remembered. It was penned by Bishop George K.A. Bell, Bonhoeffer’s friend and confidant during the stressful years of the church struggle, and later during Bonhoeffer’s dangerous work with the German intelligence agency and his connection with those who were conspiring to get rid of Adolph Hitler. Bell wrote in a 1948 forward to Bonhoeffer’s book, Discipleship:

He was crystal clear in his convictions; and young as he was, and humble-minded as he was, he saw the truth, and spoke it with a complete absence of fear.

(Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: a Biography, rev. ed. p. 362)

Now, that is how to be remembered.

How to Win a Complex Theological Argument Without Really Trying – A Lament

I saw it again today. A complex theological discussion ended abruptly, yet without a legitimate conclusion. One side walked away feeling euphoric, the other feeling cheated and abused. The discussion was over, yet nothing had been settled. Neither side was changed; indeed, because of the nature of the argumentation neither side could be changed. What is sad is that through the specific use of tactics the conversation is likely never to be honestly entered into again. The “victor” obviously sees no need to, and the “vanquished” rejects the inherent dishonesty of the other. Never again shall the twain meet.

How do you win a complex theological argument without ever really trying? It is profoundly simple, actually. All you need to do is appeal to experience. Experience is the “Mother of all Debate Bombs (MOADB).” Drop it once and your enemy is reduced to picking up the splintered shards of whatever evidence they might have produced. Its effect can be devastating – although virtually never appropriate or legitimate.

Consider the two examples where I see this most frequently used. (No names will be provided to protect the guilty). A respectable, although intense, discussion begins over the significance of baptism, both in terms of salvation and the larger issue of ecclesiology (who should be considered a member of the church). At a critical point in the discussion one of the participants asks a rhetorical question: “Are you saying my father, God rest his saintly soul, will not be in heaven?” The MOADB was just dropped. How can there be a response? Say, “no” and all the fiery pit of hell will explode. Say, “yes” and derail the entire discussion into who has the mind of God. Say, “I do not know” and the discussion then becomes moot. Why discuss something with an ignoramus? (Never mind that option three is clearly the best, unless someone DOES have access to God’s infinite wisdom.) The point is that with the introduction of the dearly departed saintly relative, the issue becomes one of experience (the experience of having to deal with relatives/loved ones who disagree with me) and the playing field never will be level again.

Example two: A proponent of gender egalitarianism defends his (and it is almost always “his”) change in understanding the increased leadership role of women in a worship service. “I knew I was wrong when I looked into the eyes of my sweet little 10 year old daughter and realized she would never be considered worthwhile in my church.” Here is a case of the double MOADB. First, who wants to accept the role of arguing with a “sweet little 10 year old girl.” My daughter has had me wrapped around her little finger ever since the day she entered this world. Two dogs and a turtle are ample proof of that, and my fortress of arguments against a rabbit is crumbling by the minute. But I digress.

The second, and more insidious, experiential argument in the above statement is the declaration (accusation, actually) that a female is considered “worthless” in a congregation that places the role of leadership solely upon qualified men. But I hear it all the time! In a recent article in a national magazine, the writer stipulated that one of the factors in deciding whether a congregation was “healthy” or not was whether there were females participating in significant leadership roles in the worship service. Clearly, not having women (plural) on the stage means a congregation hates women (and, I would assume, that means the women in the congregation hate themselves – a rather pernicious loathing, I might add).

However, once dropped, the MOADB cannot be recalled. The discussion is over, regardless of whether the subject is a dearly departed relative or one’s precious little progeny. Move the discussion from reason (logic, exegesis, historical examples, etc) to emotion (experience) and the battle is won. You really do not even have to try very hard. It is so simple it is astounding.

All of this is to illustrate, and to stress, my Undeniable Truth of Theological Reflection #1 all over again. If your goal is to win the argument (or at least prevent your opponent from answering you), then by all means drop the MOADB. But if your goal is to humbly submit to the truth of God’s word, and to lovingly attempt to correct someone else who you feel is in error, then the pretentious use of empty emotionalism is absolutely forbidden.

To paraphrase a teaching of our Lord, it is far better to lose an argument and maintain your virtue, than to win a debate and lose all sense of your honor.

Let us ascend by climbing lower.

The Vibrant, Healthy, Living, Conquering, Transformational Church

Past couple of posts have pointed out what causes congregations to die. Now, time to turn the tables. How can a congregation overcome the problems that are proving to be so fatal to so many? In a word, the congregation that wants to grow, to become vibrant, to conquer and to overcome, must be a transformational church.

A wise man once warned that if you marry the philosophy of the day you will soon be a widow. Church leaders that rush to make their message compatible with the prevailing worldview will soon realize that they have to change their message about as frequently as they change their underwear. Put a little bit more “homey,” a wise old preacher once said, “never try to fiddle folks into the church, because when you quit fiddlin’ they are just going to go find another fiddler.” Oddly enough, this is exactly what happened to many conservative congregations during the 40’s and 50’s of the last century. The country was basically conservative, the world was reeling from two disastrous world wars, and the idea of many churches was to present a message that fit that conservative time.

Today the country has changed. Conservatism has a bad name, the buzzword today is “tolerance,” and the last thing anyone wants to be identified with is a narrow, legalistic, authoritarian, or exclusive message. So, modern “worship” services basically duplicate modern music concerts: the lyrics of the songs might be different, but the atmosphere is the same. Ditto for “egalitarian” worship leaders. To be “hip” with the modern scene you need plenty of women up on the stage. A practicing gay or lesbian worship leader will score you extra points with the “open and affirming” crowd. And whatever you did last week must be exceeded this week or the crowd will find a more exciting venue next week. The pressure of performing for these congregations must be unbelievable.

Well, I hate to rain on the postmodern parade, but God’s message is narrow, it is clearly presented in terms of covenant law, God is the ultimate authoritarian, and the message of the cross is entirely exclusive. You either accept it or you do not. There is no gray, “uncommitted” choice.

So, how does a church speak to such a world without becoming a part of that world? Answer: By transforming both itself and the culture in which is is found.

I spoke of at least three issues that are plaguing the church. Notice how a transformational church addresses these issues:

  1.  Narcissism. A transformational church conquers narcissism by promoting the universal submission that is one of the hallmarks of Christian unity (Eph. 5:21ff). If I submit to you, and you submit to me, what is left of our mutual narcissism? It disappears! I look to what builds you up, you look to what builds me up. We all, as equals in God’s sight, seek the building up of the church. I surrender my rights for you, you surrender your rights for me. “Rights” disappear – mutual submission arises to take its place. Narcissism is transformed into mutual love and edification. The church wins.
  2. Anti-authority. A transformational church does not seek to eliminate authority (which, in no way can be done regardless of the suggestion otherwise). However, in a transformational church authority is recast to be in the image of God’s authority. Notice how both Paul and Peter spoke to the ruling elders of their respective congregations (Acts 20:28ff; 1 Peter 5:1-11). Notice the imagery – shepherd, care, nurture, protect, lead. The New Testament never shrinks from authoritarian language – but it is always an authority that comes from humble service. It is transformational authority. When leaders lead through service, who would not want to be in their flock? The church wins.
  3. Cowardice. I did not previously use that specific word, but it is there. Church leaders have been afflicted with a wretched case of cowardice over the past 3-4 decades. We are afraid to confront anyone (well, a few are willing to confront, but they do so in a most distasteful manner.) A transformational church on the other hand fears nothing except becoming unfaithful to God’s message. A transformational church intentionally seeks to transform both its members and those with whom it comes into contact. A transformational church is by definition a courageous church. It changes lives by confronting both the immediate and the systemic sins which destroy those lives. When people’s lives are changed by the gospel, a culture is transformed. The church wins.

The early church was a transformational church. It did not bend its teachings to fit its culture. The church was born into a world of sexual, economic, militaristic, religious, and philosophical dysfunction. It refused to participate in those dysfunctions, however. In confronting each of those dysfunctions it risked absolute failure. Within the space of just a few centuries, however, those aberrations were largely (although not totally) transformed. No, it was not perfect. The church has never been perfect, nor will it ever be perfect.

However, we have never been asked to be perfect. We have been charged with being faithful to God’s purpose – and that is to be transformational. As we transform ourselves first we begin to witness what can be done in this bent and broken world. One person, one transformation at a time, and God’s kingdom will grow.

A dying church is one that has been conformed to the pressures of this age.

A transformational church conquers the “principalities and powers” of this world and is a victorious church.

So, which church do you want to be a part of?

Why the Church is not Growing

Okay, I hope the above title is not just click bait. I really do have an idea. It may not be the most pleasant of ideas, but until someone else has a better one, I’m sticking with it.

My proposed answer as to why the church is not growing: the preachers. There are two halves to that indictment – the pressure put on preachers, and the self-inflicted wounds made by preachers.

First, a little back story. Every church wants an evangelistic preacher. Just check out the “preacher wanted” lists on any college, university, or associated web site. Way up at the top of the list you will see evangelism or “proven evangelistic success” as a major requirement.

I only have one question: where are these evangelistic success stories?

Read any survey, take note of church growth reports in virtually any report and the answer is the same: the church is shrinking. In my own experience the only congregations I know of that are growing are the recipients of members who are leaving other congregations for a variety of reasons. I am aware of congregations who list a number of baptisms, but these are all too frequently just “family” baptisms in which children or relatives of members are being baptized. These are wonderful events, and should not be downplayed – but they do not speak of the kingdom growing.

So – once again – where are the congregations growing that would produce the “proven evangelistic success” that every congregation is searching for?

Which leads me to point number one of my answer. Congregations do not want to participate in evangelism, they want to watch it. Hire the right man and sit back and watch the converts come streaming in. “We pay the preacher to evangelize, so get out and evangelize.” I think I have tipped my hand, but I just do not see this happening much, so I wonder where these blossoming evangelists really are. But, regardless, this is an illegitimate model. It puts (a) too much pressure on the preacher/minister and (b) it puts him in a position to pat himself on the back with far more enthusiasm should he be successful. What was it that the apostle Paul said regarding this very question? Oh, yea, “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel…” (1 Cor. 1:17)

But, second, in perhaps a more nefarious situation, preachers promote this “I’m the professional evangelist, so get out of my way” mentality much more to the detriment of the church. The goal of ministry is not to make people think like the preacher, or even to act like the preacher. The goal of ministry is to draw people to Christ, and therefore to believe and to act as Christ has empowered them to believe and to act.

I do not want people to follow in my footsteps. They are too small and too frequently fall off of the path. I want people to follow in the footsteps of Christ. If the goal of preaching (and therefore evangelism in every sense) is to lead people to Christ, then the proof of that preaching (and therefore evangelism) is that those who are converted then become participants in the congregation’s further evangelistic efforts. They may not become personal evangelists, but each member supports those efforts to the extent they are gifted/empowered. (See Ephesians 4:11-13, 1 Cor. 12:4-11, Romans 12:3-8)

So, why is the church not growing? Because individual congregations have placed an unbiblical and impossible burden upon a “paid professional evangelist;” and because all too frequently the “paid professionals” are too condescending to expect, and believe in, the members to whom they preach to actually want and be capable of sharing their faith.

I believe there are congregations that are healthy and growing – even though I may not know where they are located. But it is NOT because of some evangelistic “wunderkind.” It is because the congregation has accepted, and promotes, the New Testament pattern of congregational responsibility in evangelism and overall congregational health.

Congregations will grow when they ascend lower – when they seek to serve and count others better than themselves, and to lift up Jesus so he can draw people to himself. That should be our goal in evangelism.