A Rather Depressing Reality

I had a rather depressing realization this past week as I was contemplating the message of Luke 7:36-50. It might take a little to unpack, but I’ll try to be brief.

For quite some time now I have been arguing – at least with myself – that the only way that our culture can be redeemed is if there is what will amount to a “third great awakening,” led by the Holy Spirit and resulting in a reversal of so many recent immoral developments in this culture. I am in the fold of Barton W. Stone who, in disagreement with Alexander Campbell,  believed we as human beings could never do anything to usher in the working of the Holy Spirit. So, it was not that I was advocating that we need to elect this person or pass that law (in fact, quite the opposite – I deplore the idea that we can pull ourselves up out of this moral morass by our own bootstraps). If you ever want to seem me grit my teeth, just suggest that one political party or one law (or even one hundred laws) will ever do anything to change the moral compass of our nation. What I have been advocating, very much in line with Stone, is that we must be receptive to the power of the Spirit, and pray for the supernatural working of the Spirit to regenerate and to recalibrate our national moral direction.

But, as I said again, in reading Luke 7:36-50 I was struck by a sobering thought – not to limit the power of God to do anything beyond what we can even imagine – but there is the issue of whether the country is even capable of embracing a “third great awakening.” Both the first “Great Awakening” (early 1700’s) and the second “Great Awakening” (late 1700’s into the early 1800’s) had a common denominator – the awareness of the masses that they were sinful people and needed be saved. Granted, there were significant differences between the two – in the first awakening the focal point was the preaching of the great Calvinist preachers like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield. Salvation would be by the awesome hand of God, and there could be no reversal of that decree. But – the entire point of Edwards’ and Whitfield’s preaching was to draw men to God. One of the great ironies of Calvinist preaching is that there is nothing a man can do to save himself, and yet most of the greatest revivalist preachers have all been Calvinist in theology (think Billy Graham). In the second awakening, there was much less emphasis on God’s holy decree to salvation or damnation, but the emphasis on the Holy Spirit was profound. Stone himself was witness to the great revival at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, where hundreds, if not thousands, were so overcome by the Holy Spirit that there were widespread instances of shaking, barking, and other “Holy Spirit” manifestations. While it might not have been as overtly Calvinist as the first awakening, the second awakening was shot full of the power of God and the utter sinfulness of mankind.

So, what is it in my estimation that makes it impossible (or virtually impossible) for yet a “third Great Awakening”? Just that acceptance of the sinfulness of mankind.

You see, even as church attendance craters, and as more and more people (at least in the western world) describe themselves as “nones” (in relation to their chosen form of religious affiliation), it is fairly obvious that there is a great degree of spirituality, at least in the United States. We are a deeply religious people, just not a very Christian people. Just check out the books on spirituality and even alternate forms of religion (omitting Christianity, Judaism and Islam). So basically what that means is we want to believe in something beyond ourselves, but we really, really do not want to believe there is anything wrong with ourselves.

While there are vast differences between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, one similarity (however slight) is that humanity is basically sinful. In each of these world-wide faiths the only solution to that human sin problem is the power of God. The huge, undeniable, and overwhelming difference is that in Christianity the solution is the very human and the very divine God-man, Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Both Judaism and Islam fail to provide either an adequate explanation or a solution to the problem of sin. However, it must be admitted that all three world religions admit, and even highlight, the utter sinfulness of mankind.

Postmodernism has eliminated the concept of sin from the modern consciousness. God has been functionally eliminated from the picture not because of the success of atheism, but simply because of the removal of the idea of sin. If there is no sin, then there really is no need for a god, except in the sense that maybe a god might be useful in the idea of an “otherness” that lifts our eyes out of the muck and mire of our daily existence. God becomes not a fellow struggler or a savior/redeemer, he is just a meme to instill optimism and good feelings. In a sense, postmodernism has done what thoroughly “modern” atheism could not – it has removed God on a foundational level, not by attacking God as much as just eliminating the idea of sin.

So, getting back to my realization. What is the entire point of Jesus’s conversation with Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7? In this pericope, a woman has (somehow?) evaded the phalanx of socially elite meal guests and has started to weep over Jesus and to anoint his feet with expensive ointment. This action caused no small matter of consternation among the guests, even to the point that Jesus was rebuked, silently if not overtly, for not stopping the display and chastising the woman. In response, Jesus asks a poignant question – if there are two debtors who both receive complete forgiveness, one who owes a small amount and one who owes a great amount, which will be the most thankful? Duh. Obviously the one who had the greater forgiveness.

Jesus’s point is crystal clear. The Pharisee, and presumably the rest of his dinner guests, did not consider themselves to be sinners. If not sinners, then not in need of forgiveness. The woman DID consider herself to be a sinner, and so was searching for and receptive to that which could forgive her. She found her forgiveness in Jesus. The Pharisee and guests lost out, not because of their sinlessness, but because of their refusal to accept their sinfulness.

Now, I am not even going to suggest God cannot do something – Paul says that he can do far and above anything that we can even ask or imagine. But in my understanding, one thing God refuses to do is to force his creation to accept something it is unwilling to accept. This is why I think a “Third Great Awakening” is unlikely, if not outright impossible, at this particular period of history. We as Americans in the 21st century simply do not have the requisite understanding of sin to be able to recognize, nor to accept, the power of the Holy Spirit. The one ingredient that allowed the first and second great awakenings to reform the culture of those two time periods is utterly missing today.

Nobody sins today, and no-one is guilty of sin. We are all victims – if not overtly then simply by association. If I violate a rule, then the rule is racist, sexist, or some other “ist,” or I simply cannot be held accountable because of my upbringing or some accident of sociality that exempts me from any repercussions. The absolute worst sin anyone can commit today is to suggest that someone can be guilty of a sin.

But if there is no sin, there is no need for a savior. If there is no sickness, there is no need for any medicine. If there are no moral absolutes, there is no need for absolution.

I am just too much of a Barton W. “Stoner” to think that we as mere mortals can effect the kind of change that so many people are calling for. I am an apocalypticist by conversion, and am convinced that it will only be by the power of God through the acting of the Holy Spirit that anything resembling  a cultural change will occur. However, that being said, perhaps the one thing that God is waiting for before he sends his Spirit once again to draw men back to himself is this –

God is waiting for us to confess our sin and to express our desire for his Spirit to heal us.

Stated another way – until we really admit we are sick, God is not going to send the medicine.

Well, so much for being brief. If you read the whole article, thank you very much!

A Little More Theological Doodling

Yesterday I did a little thinking out loud about the references in Leviticus 11-27 regarding the God’s call for his people to be holy. It seems to me to be pretty obvious that God expected his people, the nation of Israel, to be a peculiar, a holy people. I am also equally convinced that God fully expects his “New Testament” people to be equally holy, peculiar. But let me doodle just a little more.

If I may participate in a little speculation, it would not be far wrong to suggest that many people in today’s culture reject the claims of Christianity because, in their mind, so much of the Bible (even the New Testament) is focused on negativity – you can’t do this, you will go to hell if you do that. I would also suggest that most of the things that are prohibited are things that this culture really wants to participate in, such as having absolute autonomy over their sexual nature. Of course, there are a lot of other prohibitions in the Bible, but it seems like the only ones that really provoke people are the ones that regulate with whom and how one might exercise his or her sexual nature.

As I view this phenomenon, I would suggest that this reaction is not against the Bible, but rather a humanistic understanding of what an idol is.

You see, an idol has to be placated. You have to sacrifice to a god in order to implore him or her for a good result, or to alleviate one or more of his more obvious personal animosities. You could never really be on good terms with a god – you were always on the ragged edge of angering him or her, or at the very least, failing to perform some checklist with 100% accuracy. So, you sacrificed in the hopes that your actions and incantations were perfect so that your crops would produce, or that your cows would bear healthy young, or that the rains would come in season. If you messed up, you sacrificed to placate the god’s irascible anger.

Let us then return to Leviticus 11-27 and discover why God called his people to a living holiness –

For I am the LORD who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy. (11:45)

Keep my statutes and do them; I am the LORD who sanctifies you. (20:8)

But I have said to you, ‘You shall inherit their land, and I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey. I am the LORD your God, who has separated you from the peoples. (20:24)

You shall be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine. (20:26)

So you shall keep my commandments and do them: I am the LORD. And you shall not profane my holy name, that I may be sanctified among the people of Israel. I am the LORD who sanctifies you, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I am the LORD. (22:31-33)

And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that you should not be their slaves. And I have broken the bars of your yoke and made you walk erect. (26:12-13)

“I delivered you from slavery. I have sanctified you. I have separated you from the other peoples of the earth to be my special possession. I will walk among you (have a personal relationship with you). I have broken the bars of your slavery and have made you walk erect.”

Doesn’t sound like an angry, vicious, temperamental god to me. It sounds to me like a loving, benevolent God who acts in grace first and only demands obedience later. It sounds to me like a father who wants what is best for his children, but knowing that children will often act to their own harm, sets beneficial limits to their behavior to protect them. It sounds to me like the kind of God that most people would love to get to know, if they could push past their own understanding of slavish obedience to a malevolent, capricious god.

Now, if that is the picture that God gave us of himself in the Old Testament, under the Old Law, and limited by a national allegiance, how much more should we view God as a loving, gracious, benevolent father who, more than anything, desires a close personal relationship with his redeemed people  under the shadow of the cross?

The more I read the Old Testament, the more I am convinced that we have seriously misjudged its message and significance for Christians. I think it is no small wonder that perhaps one of the most understudied books in the New Testament is the book of Hebrews, the one book that quotes from the Old Testament most frequently. Yes, it teaches us the Old Law (the national law) has been superseded, but it does so in such a way as to magnify the message of grace and redemption as foreseen in the Old Law.

Hmm. Perhaps some more doodling in this subject would be appropriate.

Just Doodling With a Little Theology

Getting some early thoughts down for my sermon on Sunday. Here is an interesting little tidbit of trivia for you to amaze your friends and family – (by the way, all stats are purely hand generated, none of that fancy computer generated, highly accurate kind of statistic).

Between chapter 11 and 27 (the end) of Leviticus, the phrase “I am the LORD” or “I am the LORD your God” or “you shall be holy because I am holy” is used at least 47 times. Forty-seven usages in 17 chapters, which is just shy of three times per chapter. But, if you dig a little deeper, you find that 15 of those 47 occurrences are in chapter 19 alone. That is 15 usages in 37 verses.

Why the emphasis on the being of God?

Because, just interestingly enough, chapter 19 is the one chapter that focuses most completely on the holiness of God. And, Leviticus is the book that focuses on the holiness of God’s people vis-a-vis the being of God. If God is a holy God, then his people are to be a holy people.

And, I know this is tough stuff, but if you are going to be a holy people you have to be holy in everything that you do – which includes worship, but extends to how well you treat your servants and your livestock.

You even let your land rest for one year out of every seven.

Some people argue that we do not preach from the Old Testament because it no longer matters for believers after the cross. I’m not entirely convinced.

I think we do not preach from the Old Testament because we are too scared to think that God might actually expect us to obey him – to be holy – in everything that we do.

(Oh, by the way, that phrase is used in the New Testament too – 1 Peter 1:15, look it up.)

But, What Can We Do?

Kind of been in a funk lately. Everywhere I turn all I see are opportunities for me to throw my hands up in despair and to ask, “What use is it? What can I do?” I look around and in every aspect of our lives we are confronted with a nauseating concoction of racial animosity, open hostility, sexual dysfunction, and a paralyzing narcissism that threatens to destroy our nation. I cite just one example, although many more could be given: as I survey the political landscape two things are beyond debate. One, the Republican party has no answer for Donald Trump. I was desperately hoping that someone with a modicum of composure and decency would step up and challenge him for the nomination for the 2020 presidential election. Nope – be it from a lack of courage or just political calculus, no one wants to challenge his Donaldness. Too bad. Our nation deserves better. But, second, the crop of Democratic challengers is simply beyond stupefying. They are so beholden to the abortion/LGBTQ/socialism cabal that there is not ten cents worth of difference between any of them. Seriously – is it even possible to be a Democratic leader and to think independently or with originality? From what I hear and read, I doubt it.

So, once again, I ask – what can I do? Is there not something that a mere mortal can do while swimming in this vacuum of moral and ethical standards?

On the one hand, I would say unequivocally, “NO.” Just to be realistic, there are some situations that are just too big and complex for individual humans to change. Serious, lasting, and meaningful change can only be effected by large groups of people who are united, not only in purpose, but in courage and resolve. I know there are many who see the same things I see, but are just not disturbed by them (or, certainly not to the degree with which I am disturbed). Others are far more disturbed than even I am, and propose solutions that not even I am willing to consider.

But, beyond those basic realities, there is a greater reason why I tend to be more reserved in looking at global (or, at the very least, national) problems: I have what can be described as an “apocalyptic” outlook, and I believe that God remains in control of this world, and that if there is to be any kind of meaningful and lasting change, it will only come about by the working of His Spirit and under His control. Stated another way, God gives humans whatever kind of world they ask for, and right now we are receiving exactly what we have wanted for the past 75 years, if not longer. We have demanded a country that is focused entirely on the individual, so God has said, “Okay, you’re not going to like it, and it is not going to end pretty, but here ya go!” I believe that if we humbly and sincerely asked for a country that truly reflected God’s kingdom ethics, he would give it to us in such volume we could not measure it.

So, in that regard, certain passages from Scripture come to mind:

Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth! (Psalm 46:10)

Thus says the LORD to you, ‘Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours but God’s . . . You will not need to fight in this battle. Stand firm, hold your position, and see the salvation of the LORD on your behalf . . . Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed. (2 Chronicles 20:15, 17)

Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus. (Revelation 14:12; see also 1:9; 2:2, 3, 19; 3:10; 13:10)

On the other hand, there is not only something that I can do, there is something that I have to do. I have to get, or keep, my own house in order. It does absolutely no good to preach to the world about its failures if the church of which I am a part promotes the same sinful behaviors in which the world indulges.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, I’ll preach it straight and plain: the church needs to be restored and purified if we even have the slightest inclination to reach out to a bent and broken world.

We bemoan the sexual depravity of our western culture, and yet we allow – if not actively protect – divorces and illicit affairs within our congregations. We protect sexual abusers and predators under the guise that they are respected members of the community and even elders/deacons/Bible teachers of the church. We prohibit the man who does not have a tie or sport coat from leading worship in a public capacity, yet we turn a blind eye and glorify the man who beats his wife or physically abuses his children. And we think that God does not see?

We preach against the greed of the pagan world, and yet we violate the clear teaching of James 2:1-17 on a weekly basis. Elders and deacons are chosen, not on the basis of their spiritual maturity and godly natures, but on the basis of their success in business and their social club memberships. We cannot stock a decent food pantry or maintain a decent benevolent fund, yet we drive to our multi-million dollar church buildings in the most opulent vehicles that we can drive (note, not necessarily afford, but that we can drive).

We hire our preachers not based on their ability to challenge and confront us, but on their ability to soothe our itchy ears. Where is the voice of the prophet among Churches of Christ today? Where is the voice of John the Baptist saying, “Who told you to come to church, you bunch of snakes?” Where is the voice of Amos crying out, “Listen to me, you filthy rich heifers, you fat and lazy bums!” We have the best educated, most theologically astute core of preachers that we have ever had, and, at least from what I can see and hear from national publications, we are probably more biblically illiterate today than we have ever been in our entire history. Our preachers and elders “lead” by holding a finger up to discover which way the wind of culture is blowing so they can jump out in front of us lemmings.

Read the second and third chapters of the book of Revelation again. Underline every time the Spirit of Christ tells a congregation to repent. Underline the references to sexual impurity. Underline the references to greed and idolatry. Stop and ask yourself, “What is John’s message to these churches – are they not God’s people, are they not the saved, are they not the ransomed?” But, then read the last two chapters of the same book. Notice who John says will be excluded from the new heaven and new earth. He is not writing to pagans. He is writing to members of seven congregations of the Lord’s church in Asia. Christians. Just like you and me. Just like our congregations. And he is telling them they stand under judgment for their immoral behavior.

In a very real sense, it bothers me that I am more upset, and more indignant, with the behavior of a world that does not know any better than I am with people who – at least on the surface – should know better and act better. It is really sad that there are people whom we would consider “lost” who behave more in line with God’s kingdom than many who wear the name “Christian.”

I cannot change the world. I cannot overcome forces that the apostle Paul clearly identifies as “demonic” and supernatural. But I can, I must, make sure that those who bear the name of Christ are walking “worthy” of the calling they have received. (Ephesians 4:1; 4:17, 22, 24; 5:1, 9)

Lord, restore your church again!!

Two Hundred Years in a Couple of Minutes

Every once in a while I like to back up a little bit and try to take a “bird’s eye” picture of what is happening. In recent years that process has been defined as taking the “view from 30,000 feet.” Curiously, I’ve never known of a bird flying 5 miles above the surface of the earth, but I suppose anything is possible. When we back up and look at the entire forest, it helps us understand the current condition of each tree that comprises that forest. Now, if I have not completely mixed all my metaphors to the point of obscurity, let me move on.

Consider what was occurring “on or about” the year 1819. The “Second Great Awakening” was gathering wind. It was a heady time. The smoke from the Revolutionary War could still be smelled if one tried hard enough. It seemed as if the United States was quite literally at the vanguard of a new millennium, the blessed arrival of God’s Kingdom on earth. Alexander Campbell had been in the United States barely a decade, and the “movement” that he would become so much a fixture of might have been toddling, but it certainly was not running quite yet. It would still be another decade before Joseph Smith would publish his novel, The Book of Mormon. Religious fervor was, quite literally, in the air. The Holy Spirit was running amok, or so some would say, and the Shakers were not the only ones left shaking in the wind.

Flash forward to 1919. The brilliant hopes of the Divine Millennium, the earthly Kingdom of God, had been crushed first by the Civil War, and most recently by the War to End All Wars. The smoke from that war was clearly still hanging in the air, but only in Europe, not in the blessed United States. Stateside there was a renewed religious fervor, albeit not quite as rambunctious as that seen one hundred years earlier, but still robust. The eighteenth amendment had been passed in 1917, and in 1919 it was ratified. The next year prohibition would be the law of the land, and with “demon rum” removed from Satan’s arsenal, surely God’s Spirit would not have as much opposition in the battle for man’s heart. The “Roaring Twenties” were just about to get going, and the “Great Depression” was simply a bad nickname for the Grand Canyon. Adolf Hitler was just an unemployed former corporal, and a world-wide peace that he would soon obliterate was not just a hope, but for the majority, it was a reality that could not be shaken. It was perhaps not the full-bodied Kingdom of God as envisioned one hundred years earlier, but it was still a peace – or so it was believed.

Flash forward to 2019. Nothing of 1919 is recognizable anymore, and certainly not anything of 1819. Not only is “demon rum” legal again, but so is the most decadent, the most horrific, obscene pornography. Homosexual marriage is not only legal, but glorified. Biologically born men are removing the physical attributes of maleness and are becoming “women.” Same with biologically born women, surgically removing their breasts and ingesting massive doses of testosterone so as to appear “male.” Millions, not just thousands, of babies are aborted under the umbrella of “freedom of reproductive rights” (nothing could be more of an oxymoron!!). The millennial fervor of the early 1800’s is just a footnote in some dusty history book, and not even a whiff of the resurgent spirituality of the early 1900’s remains. All that the world sees of the “Kingdom of God” is an anemic, lethargic, and basically complicit, institutional “church.”

Sorry to be the source of so much joy and happiness – but from where I sit this is the “view from 30,000 feet.” In a scant (speaking geologically) 200 years, the United States has moved from being on the doorstep of a realized and eternal Kingdom of God on earth to being a bastion of narcissism the likes of which this world has never witnessed (and, taking into consideration the narcissism of the Persians, Greeks and Romans, that is saying something!). Barely 75 years ago legions of 20 something year-old men were dying from the beaches of Normandy to the outskirts of Berlin, sacrificing their lives in the cause of freedom. Today those young men are dying on our streets, the result of unrestrained gang violence. Today the greatest existential crisis occurs when a biological male is called a “he” that he is, instead of the “she” that he wants to be. Life is simply unsustainable if the WI FI goes down at the neighborhood Starbucks. We can no longer allow a dissenting voice on our university campuses (something archaically enshrined in the First Amendment of our U.S. Constitution), we have to insure that only one voice – the voice of unrestrained paganism – be spoken to the tender ears of our future leaders.  We are living what Os Guinness has labeled A Free People’s Suicide. (I highly recommend the book by that title). I could go on. The view from 30,000 feet is expansive.

If Dietrich Bonhoeffer could identify his world as a “world come of age,” what would he say of America in 2019? Above I described the church as being “anemic, lethargic, and basically complicit” in what has transpired. Fighting words, I grant you, but does anyone dare dispute me? When, in the last 100, or 75, or 50 or even 25 years has the church stood up and dared to be sent to its crucifixion by proclaiming in Christ and only in Christ is there to be health and wholeness? We have ministers of the gospel defending behavior that the Bible describes as an abomination to God. We accept the most reprehensible behavior in our Presidents (Democrat and Republican) simply because they represent our chosen political party. We depend on scientists to answer all our questions and politicians to solve all our problems. We depend on the government to feed and house the poor, we depend on the government to take care of our elderly, we depend on the government to educate our children, we depend on the government to protect our right to assemble and the right to speak freely and forthrightly. Well, since we have surrendered every other responsibility to a pagan government, it should come as absolutely no shock that that pagan government has no interest in protecting the freedom to protest what we have carelessly ceded to it.

Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you. – Matthew 7:6

The churches and religious organizations in the United States have attempted to domesticate a serpent for the past 200 years, and it has not turned out pretty. You can domesticate just about every animal on earth, but a snake – and here I am thinking about a rattlesnake or a water moccasin or a cobra – cannot be tamed. They are by nature serpents, and it is not by accident that the Bible first speaks of Satan as a snake.

After 200+ years, we are not going to change things by electing more “Christian” politicians. We are not going to change things by appointing more “Conservative” judges. We are not going to change things by getting more strict and “moral” laws passed. We are not going to change things no how, no way, at all.

What we can do is pray that God breathes fire back into his church. We can pray that God revives and restores us, the body of his Son. We can begin by acting like we fully believe what we have been preaching. And, we can pray that God in his power and wisdom will give us the chance to once again be his “ministers of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18) before he decides to permanently purify his creation.

Two hundred years – from literally the threshold of heaven to the basest pit of hell. Maybe, if it went that direction when we turned our backs on God, just maybe it can go the other direction if we return our hearts to him. (See Jeremiah 18:7-10; 26:3, 13)

Book Review – Signs Amid the Rubble (Lesslie Newbigin)

Lesslie Newbigin, Signs Amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History, Edited and Introduced by Geoffrey Wainwright, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 121 pages.

As I have “reviewed” (my reviews rarely constitute what would properly be called a book review) a number of Newbigin’s books recently, my comments on this book will be much shorter.

This volume was not written by Newbigin, but is rather a collection of speeches that has been collected and edited by Geoffrey Wainwright. In fact, I have discovered that a number of Newbigin’s books originate with speeches that he presented to various missionary meetings. I like this, because I do not get the opportunity to sit in lecture halls anymore, and reading these lectures gives me the opportunity to stretch my “listening” muscles as much as I can through the printed page.

Basically, this book reinforces what I appreciate so much in Newbigin. To wit:

  • Newbigin has the ability, and the courage, to analyze and to call out the weaknesses of our contemporary culture as few authors I know of. In many respects he is ruthless in nailing our hides to the wall. His utter repudiation of the idea of “progress” in these speeches is worth the price of the book. He has the knack of seeing what so few people are able to see, and he has the courage to “call it like it is.” His candor is truly refreshing.
  • Newbigin is relentless in his belief that presenting the gospel as fact, and not opinion, is the only way the church will confront this deteriorating culture. As he states in a number of his speeches throughout a number of books I have read, if there is no purpose to history, if all of this is just one gigantic mistake, then secularism is about the best we can do. But, if there is a point to history, if God will eventually bring all of history to a grand cataclysmic end, then it is only the gospel of Jesus Christ that will save mankind. This gospel does have a political component, but the gospel itself is not political (that is, humans will not usher in the kingdom of God by our human efforts).
  • Being a devoted student of the American Restoration Movement, I cannot help but hear echoes of the apocalypticism of Barton W. Stone and David Lipscomb as opposed to the millennial utopianism of Alexander Campbell. In Newbigin’s observations, the major thrust of the evangelical churches repeats the post-millennial view shared by Campbell (a point ably defended by Richard Hughes), while Newbigin himself paints a more apocalyptic vision, where only the power of God will set things right in this world. To recall Richard Hughes again, it was the loss of Stone’s and Lipscomb’s apocalypticism that has severely stunted the health of the Restoration Movement, and it is strangely reassuring to me to read Newbigin’s comments, knowing that he is writing primarily as a missionary, first in India and later in his life to the thoroughly secular (or pagan) culture of a postmodern England.
  • I read today a passage that explains to me both (a) why some promote Newbigin as the father of the “Missional Church” movement and (b) why those people really have not read Newbigin carefully. Here are two sentences, and note how he deftly suggests the first while in reality denying it:

Today we have all learned that mission is not marginal to the life of the church, but definitive of it, central to its being . . . The church is God’s sending, His mission. (p. 95)

There you have it, the church is God’s mission, God sent the church just as he sent Jesus. The church does not have a mission, it is God’s mission. Nothing could be clearer, right? Except that one sentence later Newbigin says this,

But by the same shift of perspective, mission now often appears to be everything rather than something. (p. 95)

And that is the major argument I have against the “missional church” movement even as it is being promoted within the Churches of Christ. I distinctly remember reading a blog of a young preacher who was so proud of leading his church into be a “missional church” and pointing to their most recent “missional” accomplishment. What was that accomplishment you ask? Cleaning up a stretch of highway near their community. That’s right, God’s mission includes highway beautification. When God’s sending his Son into the world includes picking up trash, that is when the word “mission” loses all of its meaning. Now, mind you, I am not against cleaning up trash. I am certainly not against a church doing so. It can be, and probably is, a great community service project. I just rebel at the thought of using a highway clean-up day as a way of presenting God’s mission to a sin-sick and dying world.

And, so, once again I encourage those who have never read Newbigin to give him a read. I will say this about this particular volume, the editor’s introduction provided much needed biographical information about Newbigin, and explains a little more of Newbigin’s theological background. After reading a number of Newbigin’s books, I wish I had this information much earlier.

Now for the standard, “don’t swallow everything you read in this book” warning. Newbigin comes from a much different theological background than I do, and his Calvinistic leanings do show through here and there. I cannot defend everything he says any more than I can defend the writings of B.W. Stone, David Lipscomb, or Alexander Campbell. I read with care, and I expect others to use their God given intellects as well. I do recommend the purchase and reading of many books, not because the authors are inspired and their words are equal to Paul’s or Peter’s, but because they cause me to think, and because God can use less than perfect men (and women) to present his perfect truth.

Sound Conservatism

Those who read my post yesterday, (Neither Sadducee, Pharisee, nor Qumran) who are otherwise unaware of who I am, may have come to the conclusion that I am some kind of flaming liberal. Well, I can assure you that is not the case. I may be a flaming dingbat, but I digress. My point yesterday was to illustrate how conservatism can be, and has been, coopted by ideologies that ultimately destroy healthy conservatism. There is a sound, healthy conservatism, and I believe the Bible teaches that conservatism.

After writing yesterday’s post, it might be surprising for me to say today that biblical conservatism contains aspects of each of those three distortions of conservatism I dismissed. While I firmly reject the conservatism of the political Sadducees, the legalistic Pharisees, and the escapist Qumran covenanters (perhaps the Essenes), I do believe that biblical conservatism holds the basic truths of those movements, but in a way that fundamentally rejects where each of them ends up.

In terms of the political Sadducees, there is a sense in which biblical conservatism seeks to maintain a healthy equilibrium, a measure of the status quo. Even a cursory reading of the Bible reveals that God’s chosen people can exist, and can even pray for the leaders, in any and every human culture. Daniel did not seek to overthrow Nebuchadnezzar. Jeremiah commanded the exiles to pray for their Babylonian captors. Both Paul and Peter encouraged Christians to pray for the leaders of a godless, pagan Roman empire. This is because, as I firmly believe, the Kingdom of God transcends human politics. The kingdom is dynamic, and will eventually work to overcome those pagan cultures, but it is not dynamitic – it is transformative but it is not revolutionary. Where the Sadduccean view of conservatism goes awry is that it seeks to maintain a certain political status quo for purely selfish and covetous reasons. It is all about power, and Christians today who are pressing for a political solution for moral issues have sold their soul to the devil when it comes to power. Power corrupts – and there is not a single elected official who does not have to deal with the issue of how to exercise his or her power. Human nature being what it is, and Sin being what it is, that power is virtually always turned inward, and the more power the more selfish and egotistical that power holder becomes.

Regarding the legalistic Pharisees, the Bible clearly enjoins faithful obedience to the laws of the Kingdom of God. The New Testament nowhere repeals every injunction of the Torah (a point not often understood). Jesus himself, in that oft quoted passage (Matthew 23:23-24), clearly states that obedience of the letter of the Law is not to be ignored, but that what is more critical is that the “weightier” concepts (justice and mercy and faithfulness) to which the letter of the Law points is to be observed with greater diligence. To ignore what the Pharisees were trying to protect is to totally misunderstand their righteousness (see especially Matthew 5:20). Jesus never condemned the Pharisees because they were concerned with protecting the Law of Moses. Jesus condemned the Pharisees because they elevated a legalistic interpretation of the Law over the spiritual message that the Law was pointing to. Today’s Pharisees are not to be blamed because they are devout in wanting to follow God’s commands to the furthest extent that they can see them. Where today’s Pharisees share with their historic counterparts is in their devout, almost psychotic, elevation of their interpretation of some jot or tittle of Scripture and who completely miss the truth of that text. Just as one example, yesterday I mentioned an overly literalistic interpretation of the age of the earth. Now, no one knows how old the earth is, and I defy anyone, scientist or theologian, who can prove to me conclusively that he or she knows otherwise. It simply cannot be done – and do not even start with Archbishop Ussher’s chronology – I’ve seen it and while I appreciate its scope, I reject its basic premise. However, today’s Pharisees mandate that a believer holds to a very specific age of the earth, and anyone who disagrees with them is a heretic, certain to be excommunicated if not burned at the stake. It does not matter to them if there are other possible scenarios (and the entire thrust of Genesis 1-3 is utterly ignored). The only thing that matters to them is whether their interpretation is unquestionably accepted as absolute truth.

That leaves the Qumran covenanters, and once again, there is a level of legitimacy to their desire to separate themselves from the pagan society in which they found themselves. Jesus himself clearly taught that there are firm boundaries between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world. Paul taught that the call of Christ is a call to “come out” of the world and enter into a new realm – to become citizens of heaven. Peter addressed his Christian readers as exiles in this world. This is an aspect of the Kingdom of God that I find disturbingly missing from much of contemporary Christianity. Within the Churches of Christ we have deep roots in this line of spirituality, and the fact that we have virtually eliminated that strain of thought has weakened our message and out influence considerably. We (and I speak as the majority of Churches of Christ) are far too comfortable in this world, and we have welcomed far too much of the world into our congregations. However, taken to a radical extent, this desire to separate from the world leads to a spiritual pride, and even a physical separation, that is wholly unknown in the New Testament. Paul called on his readers to separate from the world, not at all meaning they were to leave their cities and move to the desert, but that they were to separate themselves from the behaviors and practices of those who were “outside” of the kingdom. It is possible, and even biblically commanded, that Christians are to be separate, to be God’s Holy people. But we can never allow that command to countermand the equally valid injunction that we are to salt and light in a bent and broken world.

So, while I firmly reject the political compromises of the Sadduceean conservatives, and the legalistic dogmatism of the Pharisaical conservatives, and the utopian escapism of the Qumran conservatives, I do equally affirm the reality of a sound, healthy, biblical conservatism. I believe that the church must profess the last, while rejecting the excesses and errors of the first three. There is, to use Aristotle’s term, a “golden mean” that allows a disciple of Christ to be thoroughly conservative, and yet at the same time be energetically concerned with the social issues of the day. It requires that we be thoroughly biblical – that we be Old Testament Christians as well and New Testament Christians. It means that we have to re-learn some texts that we have either forgotten or have ignored – mostly the Pentateuch and the Prophets.

But it can be done. And, when we dive deeply into those books we discover a wonderful new world – it is the world of Jesus and the Kingdom of God.

Let us ascend by climbing lower.