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.

Preaching An Offensive Gospel, Without Being Offensive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The question is, who is going to preach it?

The Beauty of the Restoration Principle

I want to pursue a point that I brought out in my review yesterday of Os Guinness’s book, A Free People’s Suicide. At the very end of that  book, Guinness pointed out how the concept of restoration can be progressive in nature. When I read that section I felt a weird sense of both renewal and regret. Renewal, because it gave me courage to stand up for what I believe, and regret because so many of my fellow ministers have utterly rejected the concept of restoration. It was very sad to me that such words celebrating restoration had to come from someone outside of my spiritual family.

I am a child of the American Restoration Movement. Two of my favorite college courses focused on the Restoration Movement (especially the early years), and one of my greatest joys was to serve as the graduate assistant to Dr. Bill Humble, the director for the Center for Restoration Studies at Abilene Christian University. I have read deeply about our movement, and I would like to think broadly as well. I consider myself to be intelligent enough to recognize our faults as well as our strengths, and to a great extent that is what gives me so much grief concerning the current state of the Restoration Movement.

Many preachers today look back and identify a time period or an issue on which we were less than honest or made some mistakes, and based entirely on those years or that issue, dismiss the concept of restoration entirely.

Others want to dismiss the concept of restoration based on the entirely specious argument that the church has never needed to be restored, that there has always been a pristine, immaculate assembly of the saints called the Church of Christ.

Whether you want to bash history, or flat-out deny it, cutting off one of your legs in order to lose weight is pretty stupid, if you ask me. No group of people has ever been perfect, and those who suggest that we can erase our past simply because we stubbed our toe or failed to get some point of doctrine or behavior correct are demonstrating their arrogance and superficiality to the nth degree. Likewise, to magically deny 2000, or even 200, years of history is, well, let’s just say you cannot argue with stupid. We are a historical people, and from the dawn of time until today the wisest peoples have been those who have paid attention to their past in order to improve their future.

This is Guinness’s point exactly. We do not look back on our past, religiously, politically, or philosophically, in order to enshrine it in some kind of air-tight glass trophy case. We examine our past, both positively and critically, in order to learn how we arrived where we have, and what we can do to avoid the mistakes and failures of our forefathers and mothers. This is the progressive view of restoration. We examine the core values and foundational texts (oral or written), and, realizing that no human in the past or present is perfect, seek to maintain or improve upon those values.

There is a reactionary form of restoration, and I do not intend to praise it. Reactionary restoration is to reject any form of progress on the basis that all progress is wrong. There has only been one pristine, perfect, world, and we have to reject everything that separates us from that time period. Granted, there are many reactionary restorationists within the Churches of Christ, but they eventually end up hoisted on their own petard. They meet in buildings, use amplified sound systems, sing out of books, sit in pews arranged in cathedral style, and even read texts that have been translated from the original languages – so much for “pure first century Christianity.”

Progressive restoration recognizes that time marches on, that you cannot step in the same river twice. But, and this is the restoration part of progressive restoration, you can repeatedly step in the river that goes by the same name. No, we cannot worship in the exact same format in which the apostle Paul worshipped (and I would imagine he had one format when he worshipped with Jewish Christians and another when he worshipped with primarily Gentile Christians) simply because we do not have an exact blueprint of what that format was. But we do have the core principles or practices with which he worshipped. We know the apostolic church read the Scriptures, we know they sang songs of praise, we know they celebrated the Lord’s Supper weekly. We know they gave of their prosperity to help the less fortunate. We know they  evangelized and baptized and they expected repentance for sinful behavior.

By identifying these core beliefs and practices (and the number could be expanded), we have a foundation upon which to build our beliefs and practices. We can be apostolic without being slavishly tied to the first, or the fourth, or the twentieth century. This is progressive restoration. We carefully and conscientiously examine the faith of the apostles in order to faithfully represent those core beliefs to our culture.

I will never apologize for being a restorationist. I regret many of the words and some of the behavior of my spiritual forefathers, but I will never reject the principles for which they stood. I do not believe we can be a first century church – simply because we no longer live in the first century!! But we can be an apostolic church – and indeed I am convinced we cannot be a faithful church unless we are an apostolic church.

You may say I am just fiddling with semantics, but at least in my opinion, there is a significant difference between being reactionary and being a  positive, forward thinking restorationist. I am grateful to Os Guinness for giving me the clarity that his brief little discussion gave me. I hope I can be faithful both to the inspired Scriptures and to Barton W. Stone, Alexander Campbell, Raccoon John Smith, David Lipscomb, and to my modern mentors such as Dr. Humble, David Edwin Harrell, Richard Hughes, Leonard Allen – and many, many, others.

As always, thanks for listening in, and should I accidentally say something that is helpful to you, please pass along your thanks to those who made me what I am. I just consider myself lucky to have been given the gifts that I have been given. I am richly, richly, blessed, and I hope through my life and teaching to share what I do not deserve, but have been given anyway.

Yes, Our Thoughts Matter

I have attempted to write this post several times – each time getting close to posting it, but then finally deciding to send it to the trash. What concerns me is that some people will think I am attacking one specific group of people. I am writing to attack a specific belief, and if that belief is common or commonly espoused by a group of people, I cannot separate the two. I mean no ill will to any group of people, but I have to address what I believe is a serious misapplication of Scripture.

The belief I want to challenge is this: it really doesn’t matter what you think about, or the feelings you hold privately, the only thing that matters is how you might act on those feelings. That is Scripturally false. The truth is that our feelings, our beliefs, and our private thoughts really do matter.

Where I am hearing this the most frequently is in regard to homosexual thoughts and behavior, and mostly from those who wish to promote that a person can be a homosexual, just so long as they do not act out on their homosexual thoughts and feelings. The line I hear repeatedly is this, “a person can have homosexual thoughts, can be ‘inclined’ homosexually, but as long as he/she is celibate, that person is not sinning is his or her thoughts.”

Just to put my cards on the table, consider passages such as Matthew 5:27-30; 12:33-37; and 15:10-20. Those who argue that our thoughts, our feelings, are inconsequential so long as we do not act out on them are not arguing against me, they are arguing against Jesus.

Would we make the same kind of argument in favor of one who is a closet racist, who hates people of a different race in the depth of his heart, but who never verbalizes that hatred?

Would we make the same kind of argument in favor of one who has visions of sexually abusing children (a pedophile)? Would we welcome such a one with no misgivings so long as they promised never to satisfy their dreams?

Would we make the same kind of excuse for the wife who has wild and explicit visions of having sex with a co-worker who is also married with a family to support? Would we just smile and nod and tell her that as long as she kept her adultery “in her head” that there was nothing wrong with her fantasies?

You see, I just cannot justify the logic that is so common in our churches today – that a man can have sexual fantasies about other men or a woman can fantasize about other women and it is perfectly acceptable, just so long as it stays in their heads and never moves below the belt. No, it is not. If Jesus said it was a sin to fantasize about another man’s wife even if there was no physical sex, then it cannot be acceptable, normal, or permissible for a man to fantasize about having sex with another man, or a woman with a woman.

I write this fully aware of my own demons. For anyone to stand and say they are guiltless in the matter is to invite the harshest condemnation – either for willful ignorance or blatant falsehood. I have known no one who did not, at some point, wrestle with impure thoughts, whether they are sexual in nature, or racist, or related to anger and hatred. I do not want anyone to think I am coming from a position of pure innocence.

The fact is that we have swallowed the dualism of Plato so fully that we have  created a false reality. We believe that our heart and our bodies are so separated that whatever one does has no impact on the other. We can think or believe anything we wish, and so long as we do not physically act on that thought, all is well. Or, conversely, we can behave with the most sinful of actions, but as long as “we really didn’t mean it” and “that is not the way I really am” all is equally okay.

No, and No.

We are not dualistic creatures, half mind and half body. We are not minds imprisoned in bodies, and we are not physical bodies with a “mind” that floats somewhere separate and apart. We are unities, we are complete selves, we are whole creations. Our hearts do affect our bodies, and as Paul makes so clear in regard to men using prostitutes, what we do with our bodies does affect our hearts.

Let us be done with this heresy that just because we do not act on sinful thoughts, fantasies, and dreams that we are somehow worthy of God’s kingdom. If it is sinful for a heterosexual to have dreams or fantasies about bedding his neighbor’s wife (or daughter), then it cannot be acceptable for a man to have fantasies about having sex with a man, or a woman with a woman.

Let us rid ourselves of this Platonic dualism. We are whole creatures, created in the image of our God and savior. Let us learn to act – and think – like the truly awesome creatures that we are!

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.

The Value of Systematically Marking Your Bible

Last year I started doing something that many, many people already do, and almost immediately I started seeing things in Scripture that had earlier eluded me. The practice is inexpensive, and totally flexible – there are no set rules and each reader can adjust the process to fit his/her needs. What is this magic elixir of Bible reading?

I started marking my text with different colored markers. (Duh.)

I purchased a set of 8 markers, marketed as the “Inductive Bible Study Kit” packaged by G.T. Luscombe, and I bought mine through Christian Book Distributors. This particular set has a .01 fine line black and red markers, and .05 fine line markers in yellow, pink, green, blue, orange and purple. If you so desire they have a rather complicated (and in my opinion, far too busy) system of marking the text, so, being as simple-minded as I am, I came up with my own system.

Not that it matters, but I use the black marker for simple emphasis kind of texts, and for making notes in the margin. The red I use for translation kind of notes, and to underline words where translation issues can affect the meaning of a verse or verses. I use the yellow to highlight words that seem to be central or key themes in a book or chapter (fer instance – the words “believe” “live” and “sent” in the gospel of John, the word “righteousness” in the gospel of Matthew). I use green to underline references to God’s people, the church, or God’s kingdom (more on that later). I use blue to underline references to God’s Spirit or the Holy Spirit. I have not really found a use yet for pink (too close to red), orange, or purple, but their use may come later.

A couple of really interesting things have occurred as I do this (and I try to keep all of my physical texts marked identically, which is taking some time). First, specifically in regard to marking all the texts that refer to God’s people, the church, the kingdom of God, or God’s kingdom, or His kingdom, etc., I came to a rather profound conclusion (at least for me, profundity is measured in small containers). The prevailing attitude among the teachers and preachers of my youth was that the New Testament church is the kingdom of God. Ergo and therefore, good Christians cannot pray for the “kingdom of God to come” as Jesus taught in Matthew 6:10, because it already came on the day of Pentecost, as described in Acts 2. To pray for the kingdom to come (as in some future sense) was to be either a closet premillennialist, or worse, a flaming premillennialist. (A brief historical aside here – in the days of my youth, to be a premillennialist was somewhat to the left of being a Baptist, and being either one endangered your soul. To be a Baptist and a premillennialist was especially dangerous. Times have changed, and I don’t think many members of the Churches of Christ even understand what a “premillennialist” is; and we have even started having conversations with the Baptists, so long as they are not premillennialists, or Dallas Cowboy fans. Well, maybe that last one only applies to me.)

So, as I worked through the New Testament, merrily marking passage after passage in green, something occurred to me. In the overwhelming number of passages where the kingdom is specifically mentioned, there was no way I could substitute the word “church” and have the context remain intelligible. In plain English, in the overwhelming number of passages, the kingdom and the church are not equal, they are not interchangeable, they are not the same. Now, in a few passages it is possible to interchange the words kingdom and church, but they are indeed few.

I am not a closet, and certainly not a flaming, premillennialist, but thems are the facts.

Something else I noticed – there are a LOT more passages that have blue under them in the Old Testament than I ever expected there would be. Now, I am not suggesting that the Holy Spirit as is specifically discussed in the New Testament can be read back into the Old Testament, but there is a much higher number of references to “God’s Spirit” or “my Spirit” when God is the speaker, than I had otherwise caught on to. So, it just got me to thinking . . . a commonly held belief is that the “Holy Spirit” (especially as Luke describes him) is a New Testament being – not really present in the Old Testament. However, the number of references to the Spirit of God or, as I indicated, “my Spirit” would seem to contradict that. If we read the Bible in a “New Testament Centric” model, I think our reading is therefore distorted. Perhaps if we read Luke after considering these texts in the Old Testament, we could arrive at a more well rounded view of the Holy Spirit. Something to think about, anyway.

So, anyway, if your Bible reading and study has  reached a stale plateau, try this very simple and inexpensive experiment. Buy a new copy of the Bible (if you do not want to mark up your “old faithful” copy), and create your own system of marking the text. The markers I have purchased do not bleed through the pages, and I have used them on several different copies. I think creating your own system has a far greater value than using some pre-packaged system, but to each his own, I guess.

Blessings on your study, and may you find a precious nugget in your daily Bible reading!

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.