No King but Caesar

In my daily Bible reading today I came across this phrase (John 19:15). In their zeal to protect their position and have Jesus executed, the chief priests uttered one of the most, if not the most, blasphemous statements recorded in Scripture. I believe John wanted his readers to hear the irony. They were trying to force Pilate’s hand by making him choose between Jesus and Caesar. They wanted Pilate to know they stood firmly with Caesar, and if he chose Jesus, then he would be committing treason. And in so doing, they denied the God they claimed to worship.

As I read and and listen and ponder the discussions involving our national politics I fear the church is sinking to the level of the chief priests. Just consider – the Chief Priests were the visible connection between the faith of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and later Moses and David and all the prophets toward God. They maintained the daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly worship in the Temple. They were the mediators between the nation of Israel and God. And yet, when their position was challenged, when they feared losing their power, they did not defer to God for their protection, but to a Roman emperor. The death of the Son of God did not matter so long as they maintained their grip on power – and undoubtedly the physical benefits that were attached to their position.

And so today, when challenged by economic problems, or political problems, or ethical problems, the church is not responding with the message of the gospel – it is responding by clinging to the Constitution or the Bill of Rights or some undefinable right or freedom. When we do that we are simply and plainly repeating the cry of the Chief Priests. Jesus is on trial each and every time we are faced with a choice between the way of the cross or the way of the world, and by appealing to some form of human government or secular philosophy we betray our Lord and savior.

When Jesus confronted the disciples with a particularly hard teaching, whether it was stated or not, a question was attached – do you want to follow the world, or do you want to follow me? On one such occasion Peter answered, “Lord, to whom shall we go -you have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:67) Even though his faith was imperfect, Peter got the point. Once you commit to following Jesus, everything else pales in significance.

When we confess that Jesus is the Lord of our life, when we confess that Jesus is the Son of God and that he died to set us free, we are making a profound political statement. That statement is somewhat hidden in our language, but in the first century the word Lord was attached to only one person – the Roman emperor. To call Jesus Lord was to make a politically subversive – read treasonous – statement. It could, and sometimes did, result in the death of the one making the statement. A person did not make that confession lightly. It had radical implications for the way one lived his or her subsequent life.

Today, when a person says they can be a Christian if their constitutional rights are protected, if certain laws are passed or are not passed, if a certain political party is in the seat of power, if the tax code is changed to their benefit, if they are allowed to write or say or protest, if they can benefit from the system of supply-side economics, or any one of a dozen other ifs, then what they are saying is that there is something that stands between them and Christ. They are saying they have no king but Caesar.

On the other hand, the apostles had no right to bear arms, they had no right to free speech, they had no right of a fair trial, they had no right of free assembly, they faced confiscatory tax laws, they faced summary execution on the accusation of treason, they enjoyed neither the protection nor the blessing of their national government. And they not only survived – they flourished. They had no Lord but Jesus Christ.

“We have no king but Caesar.” Those are chilling words. The cold harshness cuts like a knife. John intended it. He wanted his readers to hear that blasphemy.

Are we willing to hear it today?

An Apocalyptic Vision for the Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Essay

“On the Moral Condition of the United States, and the Social and Political Pressures which Prevent it from Improving.”

After yet another example of mass-murder I believe it would be safe to say that there is no one in the United States who would deny there is a serious, and perhaps even systemic, moral problem in the United States. Yet, in spite of this virtually universal acceptance of the reality of the problem, there is an equally universal lack of understanding of the cause of the problem, let alone how to repair the problem. Solutions are usually presented along the lines of liberal / conservative; Democrat / Republican, but even within these disparate and hostile camps there is not much agreement. What follows is obviously just one person’s opinion, but I also believe it to be based on solid theological and sociological foundations.

The root source of our moral collapse in the late 20th and early 21st centuries is the Constitution of the United States, and the closely related document, the Bill of Rights. Designed to be a hedge against the totalitarian regimes of the dictatorships of Europe, these documents enshrined the basic tenets of secular humanism and rationalism, both held in check by the veneer of a “Christian” worldview. That is to say, in both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the individual human is the ultimate reality; but the documents are so infused with deistic, and intentionally latent Christian, language that the conservative nature of the primarily Christian culture managed to subdue what we can now see is the inevitable outcome of these documents.

When the Constitution and related founding documents are read through the lens of at least a formally “Christian” understanding, the pervasive individualism and rationalism are muted. The deistic “creator” of the Bill of Rights is naturally assumed to be the Creating and Redeeming God of the Old and New Testament. “All men are created equal” easily becomes “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.” What is so quickly overlooked is that in 1776, slaves of any race were not considered to be fully human, therefore not “men.” Neither, it should be pointed out, were women, who were denied the freedom to vote. But, while the documents themselves were not Christian, those who interpreted them were at least nominally Christian, and the force of biblical morality gave the documents at least an appearance of divine approval.

All of this evaporated when the United States shed the illusion of being a Christian nation in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. In the new millennium the ability of biblical morality to restrict the inevitable results of the secular humanism disappeared. Now we can clearly see the fault lines of the founding documents of our country. When the individual is the supreme and final judge of morality – of even such basic human characteristics as his/her gender – why is is it a surprise that such a human can wantonly kill dozens of other citizens because of a real or perceived slight in his or her childhood? When the power of a community to discipline – and even physically remove such a person through capital punishment – is removed, there is no recourse for that community to discipline such deviant behavior. Even worse, when the fruit of secular humanism fully ripens, even the desire for such discipline evaporates. This is not a hypothetical statement. Even today there are apologists who speak for the monsters who murder children in their school rooms, suggesting that it is the very idea of communal boundaries that explains such deviant behavior (“he can’t be held responsible – he was abused/bullied/repressed”).

There are those who suggest that what is needed to reverse this trend is to re-establish a Christian identity for the United States. I simply do not see that cat crawling back into the bag. There is simply too much political and sociological pressure to maintain the hegemony of the individual to allow that to happen. In other words, we have become what the founders of our country destined us to become, even though they would be horrified to know what became of their grand experiment in human governance. We can argue until the cows come home by themselves about whether the Constitution is a living or dead document, about a literalist or a dynamic interpretation of the law, or of a dozen more questions. But until we understand and accept that the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, are simply human documents, and display all the frailty of every other human document, we will never have the ability to overcome the trajectory of our increasingly narcissistic and violent culture.

There are, of course, a number of issues that relate tangentially to this question: our seemingly pathological love affair with increasingly powerful weapons of personal destruction, our equally pathological unwillingness to effectively enforce laws which, at least theoretically, could circumvent some instances of mass-murder, and our innate refusal to accept any responsibility for our own feelings of anger and hate.

We are, of a certainty, all fallen human beings.

Is there a political solution? Perhaps, but as I see it that would involve a new  constitutional convention in which the existing Constitution would have to be radically altered to give the community (whether it be the nation, the state, or each community) far more authority that it currently has (basically, the justice system would have to be created from scratch, and the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” would have to be replaced with a concept of justice as a pure and impartial search for truth). Frankly this is a ridiculous fantasy, as in, it just is not going to happen.

So, is there a religious, or better yet, a faith solution? Yes, and it is here that I revert to my understanding of Barton W. Stone, David Lipscomb, and many others. Their view of the world was decidedly eschatological, and some would say apocalyptic. They knew, or at least believed, that the thoughts and plans of mankind were only evil, and that humans were not going to think or legislate themselves out of the mess that they thought and legislated themselves into. In sharp distinction from the millennial optimism of Alexander Campbell, they believed that all human governments were, and are, inherently opposed to God’s rule, and Christians should in no way, shape, or  form, put their trust in such systems. In the words of Jesus, Christians are not to cast their pearls before the swine of secular government, whether it be a monarchy or a democracy. In the face of such hostile governments what is a Christian to do? Exactly what the New Testament taught: pray for such governments in that they allow for peaceful existence, pay whatever taxes or dues are mandated by such governments, and beyond that to love the Lord your God and serve Christ’s church with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. This meant feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the poor and imprisoned, and striving in every way possible to demonstrate the presence of the Kingdom of God on earth. Imagine what would happen if every Christian church believed, and acted, as if God, and not the government, is in charge. If Christians do not believe it, why should the world?

The solution to our narcissistic, and increasingly violent, culture is not to be found in the passage of more laws. It is not to be found in the proliferation of more, and more powerful, weapons. It is not to be found in turning our Constitution into an idol. The solution to this problem is to be found in the crushing realization that we cannot solve this problem. We are the problem, and until we are transformed into the image of Christ, the problem will never be solved.

What Was It Like In A.D. 65?

I wonder what it was like in Jerusalem in A.D. 65. Approximately 30 years earlier the wandering Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth had prophesied that one day the walls of the Temple would be torn down. Thirty years is a long time for most memories. Besides, the world in 65 was a lot different than it was in 30.

I just wonder – what was it like? We all know what it must have looked like beginning in 66. The Roman legions started marching, the war machinery started building up – those who had any common political sense knew then that the gig was up. Hilltops like Masada started looking a lot more attractive for a lot of people. But what must it have been like for the common ordinary citizen – the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker?

Were there a lot of messiahs running around – demagogues with perfectly coifed hair spouting off about the “fake news” of the Roman threat? Were the papers full of stories about leading Temple administrators being involved in sexual misconduct cases? Were the talk shows saturated with accusations and counter-accusations of the local gymnastic games being rigged by the Greek Games Commissioner?

I just wonder if the average Joseph sitting down with his morning paper had any inkling of what was just over the horizon. Looking back through the lens of almost 2,000 years of history it seems like it had to have been crystal clear what was about to take place. Occupying forces simply do not like perpetual unrest, rebellion. They want peace – or, maybe not so much peace, but the absolute absence of armed resistance.

I wonder also about the faithful Jew become Christian – the follower of the wandering Rabbi. He (and she) knew of the prophecy, but so much time had passed. Babies had been born, children had been raised, parents had been buried. The walls were still standing. In 65 the Romans might have been close (they were always close), but the tanks and artillery pieces were still not in position. Yet. Did they know? Could they see? Jesus had spoken. They believed. But in 65, did they really know?

One of the key words in the latter portions of the gospel accounts is watch. Jesus said the end is coming, be alert. Watch. He even gave some pretty good hints as to when the Temple would be destroyed. He did not give a time-line, but enough information so that it would not catch the faithful by complete surprise. The rooster always crows a little before dawn.

I just wonder today as I see the world seemingly coming unraveled at the seams – what is just over the horizon? Is 2018 the same as 65? Did not Jesus tell his faithful that, while it might be a while, the end was surely coming? There were many who heard, and remembered, and stayed alert and watched. I think they were ready in 65. I don’t think everyone was beguiled by the perfectly coifed demagogue spouting off about fake news. I don’t think everyone was distracted by all the sordid stories of back-room dalliances and athletic field conspiracies.

Just thinking out loud here, but what was it like in Jerusalem in A.D. 65?

Charlottesville, Racism, and a Chilling Prospect

Trigger alert: the following blog post contains some truths that may be difficult for little snowflakes to handle. If you cannot consider any opinions that differ from your rigid worldview, you might want to skip this one.

I’m sure the topic of the Charlottesville, VA riots were the topic of many sermon addresses this morning. I happened to think my thoughts on the book of Job were more appropriate for the moment, but that does not mean I do not have some thoughts on the events of the weekend. My reaction is threefold:

  1.  The rhetoric and the beliefs which underlie the white supremacist movement are vile, repugnant. That much is without question and every Christian of every ethnic background should be loud and clear in denouncing the “alt-right” movement, the KKK, and every other neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideology. I have been pleased that the response of virtually every Christian leader that I have seen has been uniform and unequivocal. There can be no quarter given in opposing this worldview.
  2. However, the most troubling response to me is the one I have NOT seen, not after this weekend nor for the past eight years. For these eight years, and largely with the complicity of the sitting president, there has been a racist movement that has rioted, looted, destroyed property, and ruined lives. Throughout these same eight years, I have been told that these racists are fully justified in their actions, that I should wring my hands in horror at the “injustice” they have be subject to, and that I share in the guilt of the nation simply because of the color of my skin. The very spiritual leaders that are (correctly) denouncing white supremacy were either stone cold silent as the rioters destroyed homes and businesses, or they symbolically joined in, trying to absolve themselves of the guilt of their “white advantage.”

Well, folks, racism is racism, no matter what the color or ethnic background of the racist. I am glad to see some preachers, editors, and other spiritual leaders denounce the “alt-right” and their ignorant minions, but their complicity and silence as the “BLM” movement terrorized large portions of a number of cities is deplorable. Why is the racism emanating from one race acceptable, if racism from another race is to be deplored?

3. Beyond the hypocrisy of an astounding number of individuals, there is another terrifying aspect to the events over the weekend. Many are calling for a ban on the freedom for certain groups to be able to speak. This is a chilling development, and if it is not opposed with the most vehement objections we can mark this point in history as the beginning of the end of the United States. I vehemently reject the hate and violence of the “alt-right,” the KKK and the BLM movements. But, as the classic saying goes, I must defend their right to speak (speak, not perpetrate violence) to my dying breath. If they do not have the right to speak their lies, how am I to be guaranteed that I can speak my truth to their lies?

It has already been proposed in many places that limits should be placed on “hate speech” that would include denouncing sexual perversion as a sin. If hate-mongers can be legally muzzled simply because we object to their tirades, what will prevent the prohibition of the preaching of biblical truth? The “slippery slope” argument is an argument that is fraught with danger, but there is another danger here that is real and profound. We must not, we cannot, prevent some idiot from speaking just because we think his words idiotic.

What would have happened this past weekend if those who disagreed with the white supremacists had simply moved to a different part of town and held a counter demonstration, replete with racial unity and a vehement, but peaceful, denunciation of the weirdos across town? But, no – hatred was met with hatred; violence was met with violence, and the world must wonder what ever happened to the great American dream.

As much as I do not want to hear them, I have to allow the bigots to have their say. But I do not have to listen. Let them march – and vacate the entire region around them. Let their words fall on empty streets and vacant buildings. Ignore them – but not their hate! Ignore their presence, but reject their ideology!

Christians must unite to condemn racism. All racism, no exceptions, no excuses.

[editor’s note: I had to correct the location of the riots – sorry, I have been a little distracted, and did not pay close attention to where the riots happened.]

Church, Are We Asking The Right Questions?

Many people are led to believe that the Bible can provide answers to all of life’s questions. That may or may not be true – but it is absolutely critical in any case to make sure we are asking the right questions. Some questions have no answers, some questions may even have multiple answers, and some questions are so trivial that they do not even deserve an attempt at an answer. I am concerned that too many churches are asking the wrong questions, and therefore no matter how correctly the questions are answered, the church will be be no better for the asking.

  • In today’s world in which the innate God-given uniqueness of male and female is being challenged, many churches are more concerned about males and females being seen together in a public swimming facility.
  • In today’s world in which religious extremism is being flaunted by both left (through the proscription of any religious demonstration) and the right (through Islamic terrorism and the radical racism of the alt-right movement), many churches are more concerned about a physical demonstration of joy such as hand-clapping or raised hands or of penitence such as kneeling.
  • In today’s world in which the presentation of views outside of one’s own micro-narrative demands “trigger warnings” and “safe rooms,” churches are so insulated and xenophobic that any teaching not formally approved by the leadership is forbidden (including the reading of Scripture from an “unapproved” translation).
  • In today’s world in which a perceived threat is responded to with outright violence, many churches have completely abandoned the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount and actively promote a “concealed carry” and “stand your own ground” mentality.

Lest I be caricatured as something that I clearly am not, let me make myself clear: proper modesty is not a suggestion, it is a necessity. Every congregation has the right to set forth what is proper worship decorum. Leaders must be alert to what is being taught, and must prohibit false teaching. Finally, many faithful brothers and sisters have CC permits for legitimate reasons. These issues are all worthy of discussion, and faithful brothers and sisters can disagree about the specifics.

But are they core issues? Do they define the essence of the church? Is the eternal salvation of any person dependent upon a swimsuit, a raised hand, or a concealed carry permit?

You see, I do think that if someone believes that they can change their gender – or that gender is inconsequential – that person’s spiritual destiny is in danger. I do think that if a person believes that killing in the name of their god, or that one race or “religion” is superior to another – that person has denied the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus. I do believe that if a person rejects the way of the cross and preaches the way of the sword, that person is in danger of the hell of fire.

I do not believe any of those things because of my philosophy or my gender or my race or my nationality. I hold those beliefs because Jesus taught those things. The teachings of Jesus transcend gender and race and nationality. The teachings of Jesus transcend anger and hatred and pride. The teachings of Jesus do not simply modify human philosophies, the teachings of Jesus uproot and destroy human philosophies.

In the Kingdom of God the meek inherit the earth, the weak overcome the strong, the least is the greatest, the servant is the master, and the last finish first. In the Kingdom of God everyone submits – to each other! In the Kingdom of God feet are washed so that fists do not need to be clenched. In the Kingdom of God the other cheek is turned and the second mile is walked.

In the Kingdom of God we want to get the right answers, but we are more concerned about making sure we are asking the right questions.

I am convinced the world is asking some critical questions – eternally significant questions. I am also convinced that Jesus provides the answers to those questions. I believe most fervently that a congregation had better be asking, and searching for the answers to, those questions or it will finally be forced to admit what the world already knows – it is a meaningless and irrelevant museum full of old, dusty bones.

6/28/17 – Random Musings

Just curious –

Darkness is not in-and-of-itself a create-able entity. You cannot “create” darkness. The only way it can be said that you create darkness is if you remove light. The instant light is created, in any form, darkness is removed.

Likewise, cold is not in-and-of itself a create-able entity. The only way you can “create” cold is if you remove the source of heat. That is why refrigeration units are so much more complicated and expensive than heating units. The moment you activate a heating unit, even the smallest flame, cold is removed.

You can make water toxic with the addition of the smallest amounts of poison. But you cannot “purify” poison simply by adding water. You can dilute it – but the poison remains. The only way to make water completely pure is to filter the contaminate out completely. (I suppose you could so dilute the volume as to make the poison inconsequential, but the poison is still present.)

Does all of this have a theological point? I think it does. I do not think there can be any argument but that the church is becoming stagnant, losing its influence in western culture. Why is this so? Entire forests have been turned into paper to analyze the problem and to propose solutions.

I think on a very basic level the answer is profoundly simple: the church has ceased to be light, the church has ceased to dispel the coldness of Satan’s lies, and the church has allowed itself to be thoroughly contaminated with the poison of contemporary culture. The whys and wherefores are obviously more detailed, but at least in my mind the result is inescapable. If you turn off the light source, if you disconnect the heat source, and you eliminate any filtration system, you are going to get a dark, cold, poisoned environment.

I do not doubt that in certain locations, perhaps even in larger regions, individual congregations of the Lord’s church are growing and flourishing. However, in my (admittedly limited and unscientific) recent experience, every congregation that I have come into contact with has experienced a decline in membership – sometimes an extreme decline! Other congregations have avoided this decline by “swelling” with the transfers from the declining congregations, but they are not growing in the biblical sense. If my experience is anything close to average, then the Lord’s church is in a numerical crisis. It’s spiritual health may or may not be in a similar free-fall, as spiritual health cannot be measured by numbers on an attendance chart.

I often alternate between doomsday feelings of hopelessness, and a grim realization that the Lord is winnowing his church to purify it and to reveal those who are true disciples. I believe that the Lord’s church can, and will, withstand any of Satan’s attacks. I must admit, however, that watching the current decline in congregational membership is painful. Maybe it is needed and will ultimately be healthy, but it is painful none-the-less.

It is hard sometimes to pray the model prayer (aka the Lord’s Prayer) knowing that “Thy will be done” might involve the trimming of some dead and diseased branches. But, pray that prayer we must! If you love the church, you have to believe in God’s sovereign power, and that God can, and often does, use Satan’s own designs to further God’s kingdom.

Let us pray for courage to shine God’s light, to fan the flame of the Spirit, and to rid ourselves of the poison of our wretched humanism. Let us not give in to fatalism or pessimism. God has given us a light to shine, a flame to preserve, and pure water to drink. Let us, dear Christian, refuse to surrender any of these precious gifts!