When We Are Called To Fail

Achieving the wrong goals can never be considered a good thing. To win the wrong prize is to lose.

For thousands of years the universal church has been trying to win the war of power. For the past 200 years the overwhelming majority of the American Restoration Movement has been engaged in winning that battle as well. (We have had our cultural non-conformists, but they have always been pushed to the periphery and ignored.) Today the war trumpets are at full blast – lose the presidency and we lose the Supreme Court and if we lose the Supreme Court we lose . . . power.

Power. It’s all about power. Preachers want to increase the church attendance so the budget can go up so a bigger building can be built so that they can receive greater and greater accolades and . . . more power. University presidents want their endowments to increase so they can build more and bigger buildings and fund more competitive athletic teams so they can bring in even more money and . . . more power. If the American system of economics or justice or education or religion any other topic can be summarized in one word it would be the acquisition of power.

How tragic, then, when we use the name and sacrifice of Jesus to gain that power. Jesus was not just the picture of refusing worldly power, he literally incarnated it. It was Jesus’s kenosis, his self-emptying of all heavenly power, that was the force behind the explosive growth of the church in the first 300 years of its existence. In a paradox that defies all human explanation – and in a refutation of every secular growth strategy – the church grew the fastest and had the greatest impact on vastly different cultures precisely when it was the weakest.

For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:10)

If the apostle Paul were preaching today, he would be considered delusional.

If that is considered delusional, then count me in too. I am growing more and more convinced that in order for God to preserve his church he is going to have to drive it into cultural bankruptcy. That is to say the church will have to once again assume its position of secular powerlessness and irrelevancy. Then, having reached the bottom of what the world would consider to be power, we can be open to receive the limitless and irrepressible power of God’s Holy Spirit. Then, maybe we can be to American hubris what the first disciples of Christ were to Caesar.

Label me a heretic if you will, but I am not too terribly concerned that the church grows. I am vitally concerned that church leaders create, and re-create, faithful disciples of Christ. If our numbers decrease, but our faith and commitment deepens, we will have won a great victory. I do not want more and more of the shallow pew sitters we have been satisfied with over the past 50-100 years. I want men and women who are so committed to their Lord that they would gladly forfeit everything to be known as one of Christ’s disciples.

The church must once again reject pursuits of what the world falsely labels as power. There is a biblical power to be sure – a power of service, a power of selflessness, a power that surrenders all power to the Holy Spirit. We need more of that power! But we must no longer submit our goals and aspirations to the vision of power that is nothing more than satanic.

We get blinded when look at the brightness of the characters in the Bible that God raised to secular power. We see Joseph as second-in-command to Pharaoh. We see Esther and David and Hezekiah and Josiah. But, let me ask a question: compared to the millions and millions of faithful, spiritual men and women who walked with God – what are these few but a drop in the vast ocean of faithfulness? If God chooses to place someone in a position of secular power, so be it. His ways are past our understanding. My grasp of biblical history is that we should fear such appointments rather than seek them, however. One of the greatest temptations our Lord had to reject was the satanic gift of power.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. . . Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors. (Isaiah 53:7, 12)

It is a paradox, or an irony, that the more we relinquish our human power, the more we surrender that which we think makes us strong, then God provides us with a true and unquenchable power. It is the power of the wash basin and the towel, of the cross. It is the power of viewing ourselves as nothing more than seed sowers and plant waterers. It is the power that only comes when we have the power to say, “I am nothing.”

God has called us to this “no-thing-ness.” When we submit to that call, when we wear the mantle of God’s disciple, we must surrender our most treasured possession – our will to power. As long as we hold onto the drive for power we remain unable to accept God’s most precious gift: the gift of the blood of his Son which was offered during the scene of the greatest example of weakness overcoming power – the cross.

If our baptism does not change our perception of the world and of its lies, then what good does it do to get wet?

There are ways to achieve goals that are not worth fighting for. We can obtain power by using the tricks and manipulations of Satan’s world. But the question I want to ask is why would we want to? If achieving that goal further’s Satan’s kingdom, wouldn’t it be better to fail?

Let us ascend by climbing lower.

A Church Shameful to Christ

A turning to the world that merely seeks an arbitrary accommodation that will make the Church respected and popular in the world of science is shameful to the Church and to Christ. (Thomas Merton)

Somehow I get the impression that if humankind has not committed mass suicide within the next 100 years, that the last half of the 20th century and the first half of the 21st century will be remembered as one of the most debauched and contemptible eras of the Christian Church. That, I admit, takes some doing given the reality of the Crusades, the Inquisition, the abject silence during the Nazi pogroms. At least following the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Nazis, the Church admitted her failures, and more critically, (at least hopefully) made the necessary confession and repentance to never again traffic in those barbaric atrocities.

I question whether the contemporary Church has the self-awareness to even begin to recognize her complicity in the post-modern world’s headlong rush into oblivion.

On the one side are the libertarians who rejoice in the toothless message of contemporary Christianity – the only problem with society today is the false guilt imposed by a repressive and domineering religious institution.

On the other side are the reactionists who blindly cling to the myth of a golden decade of Church perfection – the decade which, by the way, is responsible for sowing the seeds of dysfunction that we see so ripe for harvest today.

I have a friend who brilliantly assessed the source of today’s ineffective Church: the elders of the ’50s, 60’s and 70’s laid down the mantles of shepherds and dressed themselves in the suits of the corporate boardroom. They “ran” the church like a secular business.

Guess what? The Church is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Secularity.com.

It breaks my heart to hear of stories of congregations that have so completely sold their soul to the secular model of success that they do not even stop to question whether a particular practice or innovation might be or might not be compatible with Scripture. In fact, you might say that Scripture is meaningless to them outside of the emotional high they get from convincing themselves that because they see a text or two on a PowerPoint presentation, that they are a biblical church. They cannot confront a godless society because they have driven God from their own buildings. They are as useful in confronting evil as the German Christians were in confronting Hitler. Which is to say, not useful at all.

But my heart is equally broken by the obtuse refusal by others to even consider that their legalistic approach to conservatism has been a blight on the Bride of Christ for decades, if not centuries. I have been a personal witness to the vitriol expressed to a family who changed membership from one congregation to another. The crime committed by the congregation of choice? The presence of a “fellowship hall” that happened to provide a place for communal meals. Churches have divided over the color of the new carpet to be laid, and the purchase of a hymnal produced by the wrong publishing house. Read from the “wrong” translation in some congregations and you can be disfellowshipped.

You see, both thoughtless Liberals and rabid Fundamentalists have transformed the Church into something that it was never intended to be, and indeed, cannot be. They have both, in radically different ways, attempted to “make the Church respected and popular.” But they have fallen into opposite, yet equal, sides of secularity. Both view the interpretations and conclusions of man as their only solid foundation. The Liberals want to make the Church popular with the dominant, secular viewpoint of the world. The Fundamentalists want to make the Church popular with a minority, yet no less secular, viewpoint of the “righteous remnant.” Where these opposite, and seemingly irreconcilable, viewpoints collide is in the realm of human pride – the ego of a group of people who consider themselves smarter (and in many respects, holier!) than God.

I consider myself to be a staunch opponent of the moral and doctrinal laxity of those on the left. But I am no more of a fan of the hubris and Phariseeism on the right.

Jesus confronted the libertarian Sadducees with an ultimatum: If you love me you will keep my commandments. Discipleship under Christ requires that we accept, and promote, the non-negotiable truths of biblical doctrine, including moral behavior. We do not get to choose what is, or is not, acceptable to God. We follow him or we reject him, there is no middle ground.

On the other hand, Jesus confronted the ultra conservative Pharisees with an equal ultimatum: Go discover what this text means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ Mindless subservience to legal codes does not draw a person closer to God – quite the opposite. Legalism kills, Phariseeism leads to despair.

The contemporary Church has lost her voice. We no longer speak of healing and renewal to a bent and broken world.

I think there is still hope, I think we can still leave the bondage of Egypt – but I have to wonder,

Where is our Moses?

Bad Assumptions Lead to Tainted Conclusions!

I came across an article recently, and as I pondered it a number of strikingly bad assumptions became evident. It might be a good idea for you to read the article in its original context before you read this post so that you can make up your own mind regarding the truthfulness or falsity of the author’s conclusions.

Must women really keep silent in the churches?

The first incorrect assumption the author makes is this, “For starters, it would create a hopeless contradiction with what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:5, which indicates that women were ‘praying and prophesying’ in the church. Paul doesn’t rebuke their praying and prophesying in church.” Some space later he repeats himself, “Again, Paul is not against women speaking altogether. He acknowledges that they are praying out loud and prophesying out loud in the assembly (1 Corinthians 11:5).” The problem with these two statements is that they are simply not true. Nowhere in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 is the assembly in view. Paul is not rebuking the women for praying or prophesying in the assembly (true statement) but he is not defending those practices either. He is simply making an argument from general decorum – when men pray or prophesy they are not to have their heads covered, when women pray or prophesy they are supposed to have their heads covered. The when or where is simply not mentioned because it is not a factor in Paul’s argument. (As an aside here, I think Paul does the same thing in 1 Corinthians 15:29 when he makes reference to those who baptize on behalf of the dead. He does not commend the practice, nor necessarily refute it – he simply mentions it.)

However, beginning in 1 Corinthians 11:17 a significant shift occurs – “But in the following instructions . . .” (emphasis mine). Notice the following emphases on the assembly-

  • “When you come together” – 11:17
  • “When you come together as a church” – 11:18
  • “When you come together” – 11:20
  • “When you come together to eat” – 11:33
  • “If, therefore, the whole church comes together” – 14:23
  • “When you come together” – 14:26

There is a clear literary, and therefore contextual, break between 1 Corinthians 11:16 and 11:17 and following. When Paul finishes his generic argument, and when he moves to specific practices that ought to be done or ought not to be done, he repeatedly uses the definitive, “when you come together” or “when the church comes together.” To overlook or to dismiss this clear rhetorical device is to totally confuse Paul’s arguments, and therefore to destroy them.

The second incorrect assumption the author makes is this, “Paul is commanding the women to keep silent in a certain context – during the judgment of prophecies.” The fact is Paul never connects the judging of prophecies specifically to women speaking. The connection simply is not there. To illustrate his conjecture, he creates a hypothetical situation that is utterly foreign to the context he so pointedly refers to. “But this creates a potential problem. What happens if a husband prophesies, and his wife is a prophet as well? Is the husband supposed to be subject to his wife during the judgment of prophecies?” He answers his own hypothetical, “For that reason, he enjoins women in this context to refrain from the judgment of prophecies.” (emphasis Burk’s)

If it is possible for us to overlook the egregious hypothesizing going on here, let us just stop and consider what he is asking us to believe. In this scenario, a married man, a male prophet, utters a prophetic teaching. His wife, also a prophet (I guess that would make her a prophetess), recognizes that what her husband said is wrong, or at least needs some correction. As far as the audience is concerned, the same Holy Spirit speaks through both of them, but because she is a female she is to refrain from correcting her erroneous husband, even though she is led by the Holy Spirit and is correct in her judgment. This simply staggers the imagination! Not to mention raising the issue of whether a prophet can claim prophetic inspiration if his teaching is erroneous. What is the church to do if there is no other male prophet who can “judge” the first speakers prophecy?

The third false assumption the author makes is this, “Today, reading aloud God’s revelation from scripture (sic) is the functional equivalent of prophesying God’s revelation in Paul’s day. Biblically speaking, it would be totally in keeping with Paul’s instructions for women to be reading scripture (sic) and praying during the gathered assembly of God’s people. Both of those things can be done in a way that honors the headship principle (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:2-16).” Again, by referring to the text that has nothing to do with the assembly, the author invalidates his assumption. But, more to the point, since when does simply reading a text equate to the prophetic gift that caused that text to come into existence? The assumed conclusion is specious. It has no merit.

If the author makes these false assumptions, what then of his conclusions. He makes two. First, “. . . we go beyond the example of scripture (sic) if we foreclose what Paul clearly allows – women praying and sharing God’s revelation during worship services.” Paul does not “clearly allow” such practices, and there is no defense of such an argument from the text. Second, “. . . it would be a violation of headship for women to teach or to exercise authority in corporate worship. Teaching is explaining and applying an already-given revelation. The judgment of prophecies would have included evaluations which are the functional equivalent of teaching. And that is why Paul does not wish for women to judge prophecies in the gathered assembly.” Okay, here is where it really gets confusing for me. A woman can read the text, but she cannot explicate it? She can assume a leadership role in leading in public Scripture reading or prayer, but she cannot assume a leadership role in preaching a sermon or teaching a class? Here is where the author attempts to split a hair, and in my personal opinion, fails so miserably.

The author does not believe women should exercise a leadership role in the public worship, a position that I also hold. The author believes that the miraculous manifestation of prophecy has ceased, another position that I personally hold. So why complain so vehemently with the manner in which the author arrives at his conclusions? (Well, actually, he only refers to his defense of cessationism)? The answer I believe is critical to understand.

Simply stated, when we use faulty logic, or even worse, faulty exegesis, to defend a position that we hold we do two things. One, we ultimately make it more difficult for others to correctly defend any given position because those who see through their errors attach those errors to our apologetic. Stated another way, the fruit of the poisoned tree taints all other fruit, simply by association. Second, we provide for those who disagree with us a ready and solid attack against the conclusions we draw. Personally, if I disagreed with this particular author, I could have a field day attacking his position. Shoot – he basically does it for me, telling me that it is perfectly okay for a woman to prophesy (read God’s inspired Scripture publicly), but she cannot tell me what the text means because she would be violating Paul’s “headship” principle by “judging a prophecy.”

I am enough of a “fundamentalist” (if you want to call me that) that I believe arriving at the correct interpretation of a text is absolutely critical. But, I also am convinced to the marrow in my bones that the manner in which we arrive at those conclusions, and the manner in which we publicly proclaim those conclusions, are both equally critical. We simply cannot use faulty logic and faulty exegesis and theological practices to defend what we believe to be true.

Let us be faithful to the message, but let us also be humble servants of the task of exegesis and hermeneutics.

Enemies of the Cross Defeat Themselves

In response to my last post, “Musings on the Gospel of Christ,” I would venture that more than one atheist or agnostic would say, “But what of the countless wars and violence that have been perpetrated in the name of Christ?” I do not shrink from such questions, for despite the intention to defeat my argument, they actually confirm my point.

Every example of war, violence, manipulation, and disgrace that has been attributed to the church of Christ is actually a demonstration or manifestation of the depth of the abyss of the human nature, unredeemed by the gospel of Christ. The Crusades, the Inquisition, the European Wars of Religion, even the current litany of examples of sexual and physical abuse by clergy in the Roman Catholic and Southern Baptist Convention are examples of human behavior in rebellion to and in direct opposition to the pure gospel of Christ, not as a demonstration of that gospel. (As an example of this pure gospel, I point no further than the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7).

Conversely, where the gospel of Christ has been faithfully and humbly presented hospitals have been built, orphanages created, lives saved, marriages renewed, children fed, homes built, clean water delivered, addictions treated, the environment repaired. Children and adults have been educated, medicine has been delivered, infant mortality has decreased while deaths associated with childbirth have dropped. Works of visual and musical arts that have stood the test of centuries have been created, and are still being created. The pain of natural disasters has been assuaged. The list could go on.

  • Compare that that to Marxism – millions killed and countless others impoverished, not because of a misunderstanding of Marxism, but as a direct result of its most egregious doctrines.
  • Compare that to Islam – where its very founder decreed that a person must convert or die. (The only other option, to live in obscurity, being able to neither promote nor practice one’s faith).
  • Compare that to National Socialism – where over 6 million Jews and other “undesirables” were ruthlessly exterminated in the name of law, order, and cultural purity.
  • Compare that to secular humanism – the very diseased fruit that we see “live and in living color” as it unfolds in front of us: a psychosis that is in the process of of annihilating our culture one murderous step at a time. Reference the rise in drug and alcohol addition, the rise in sexual dysfunctions, the rise in pornography, abortion, racial violence, and the growing sense of futility and meaninglessness.

So, trot out the old canard about Christianity, or I prefer to refer to the gospel of Christ, as being the root of all of mankind’s problems. The evidence is stacked against such an accusation, and a fair reading will leave such a charge smoldering in dust and ashes. I fear no such claim. Truth does not fear attack, and lies will be seen as lies.

I do not hesitate to confess that horrific abuses have been perpetrated in the name of Christ – wars, sexual and physical abuse, torture. But, those behaviors are the result of fallen human nature, and are in direct rebellion to the selfless giving of God and Christ. – as preeminently displayed in the crucifixion. The Bible teaches that such actions are reprehensible, not, as in the case of some of the ideologies listed above, a part of the core teachings of those ideologies.

We, as disciples of Christ, must do a better job of apologetics, and a better job of living the gospel of Christ. The problem is our sinful nature, not the purity of the gospel. I repeat what I have said earlier – the only hope for our culture, and perhaps the entire world, is a return to the gospel of Christ.

We must ascend by climbing lower.

The Lies We Sing

I have often said, and firmly believe, that we as Christians sing a much more faithful and robust faith than we teach. In part, I think that is why singing (and congregational acapella singing at that) is so critical to our worship services. Without the rich history of some of our best songs, our theology would be utterly bereft of any significance. But there is another, much darker, side to our singing. We sing far, far too many lies.

I suppose this post could end up being thousands of entries long, but here are just a few of some of the lies I think we sing – I don’t have a song book in front of me, so these are just off the top of my head –

“All to Jesus I surrender, all to him I freely give . . .” Well, except for my checkbook, my political affiliation, my resentments, my anger, my racism, my hatred.

“It is well with my soul . . .” Well, maybe my soul, but not my IRA, my retirement, my house, my car, my kids, my marriage, my job, even my dog has issues.

“I stand in awe of you . . .” Never mind that the image of standing in awe is unbiblical – peoples in ancient cultures knelt or bowed or fell prostrate to show honor, respect and awe. The point is we don’t stand in awe of God. We have everything all figured out – scientifically, philosophically, sociologically, politically, militarily. It’s just that we are really, really, into that emotional high that standing up while we sing this song gives us.

“Jesus, let us come to know you . . .” Just don’t get to know me all that well, and seriously don’t make any uncomfortable demands on my life.

“Take my life and let it be, consecrated Lord to thee . . .” Wait, what?

“King of my life I crown thee now . . .” You’ve got to be kidding. God, you can be my co-pilot, but just sit over there and don’t you dare touch any of the controls.

“Just as I am, without one plea . . .” Well, I really dig the ‘just as I am’ part, but, God, regarding the request thing – do you have a minute, ’cause I have quite a few issues that you really need to deal with.

Sadly, I could go on. These are just a few of the songs that make me pause when I see the title or read a few of the lyrics. I’m not suggesting that we cannot sing these songs. It’s just that I have to be conscious that when I sing a song of praise or devotion, I am singing both to God and to my fellow Christians.

Am I singing the truth, or a lie? Obviously no man or woman is perfect, and we are not expected to live perfect lives before we come to worship. I don’t want to make too big of a mountain out of this – but still, it is troubling.

Do we really think about the meaning of the words as we sing them? Or do we just put our brain on autopilot and thoughtlessly mouth the words?

Let us ascend 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.