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.

Neither Sadducee, Pharisee, nor Qumran

Reading Lesslie Newbigin’s appraisal of how history is interpreted in various religions got me to thinking. Newbigin’s point was that Christianity, as opposed to the religions of Hinduism or Buddhism, views history as a linear concept – there was a past, there is a present, there will be a future. The eastern religions tend to view history as cyclical, as repetitive. Humans are caught in a never-ending cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth. The only way out is to empty oneself so totally as to achieve “oneness” with the total, the complete, the one. For Christianity, history as we know it has a purpose, a goal, a telos. For the eastern religions, history is meaningless, there is no “point” to history.

Newbigin’s point is well taken, and as he spent many years in India, he should be well educated about the difference between Christianity and Hinduism. But reading his argument got me to thinking – how do you fit the despair of Ecclesiastes into the “history is linear with a goal at the end” viewpoint? Doesn’t the writer of Ecclesiastes stress “whatever has been will be, there is nothing new under the sun?” It is an interesting paradox.

Which, after a long and convoluted conversation in my mind (which will not be recounted here), got me to thinking about the difference between the Sadducees, Pharisees, and the Qumran covenanters, sometimes referred to, although not perfectly identified with, the Essenes. Each of these three groups are, in their own peculiar way, a manifestation of what we would refer to as “Conservatism.” That is, unless I am just horribly mistaken. This leads to some interesting connections to today (ergo, my lead-in with the “history as linear vs. cyclical” conundrum.)

The Sadducees were conservative in that they were entirely comfortable with the status quo, and did not want anything to disrupt their grip on the religion and piety of the people. As stewards of the temple cultus, the Sadducees had carved out a level of peace with the Roman invaders, and while they might protest the Roman occupation on a surface level, they knew that the Pax Romana also guaranteed their place as power holders in the Jewish culture. Thus Caiaphas’s view that it was far better for one man to die than for the people (i.e., Sadducees) to lose their place.

The Pharisees made their conservatism manifest in a much different form. If the Sadducees were concerned about the status quo of the present, the Pharisees were concerned about preserving a view of the past. Theirs was a legalistic conservatism, built upon a strict interpretation of the Torah. They were the stewards of the synagogues, and as such, did not necessarily conflict with the Sadducees as much as just come from a different foundation. The issue with the Pharisees was not a political alliance with Rome, but a spiritual purity that really had no specific relation to politics. In other words, they were not so much concerned with their political relationship with Rome, as they were their obedience to a literal and historic interpretation of the Torah. As long as Rome recognized their independence, they had no quarrels with the empire, and probably were quite pleased to live under the protection of the Pax Romana.

The Qumran covenanters (whether they were Essenes or not), were conservatives of yet a third stripe. They represented the escapist, the monastics, the “hunker and bunker” mentality of conservatism. They were so convinced they were the “righteous remnant” (a view probably shared by both the Sadducees and the Pharisees!) that they felt they had to leave the corrupt world and escape to a safe place where only the most pure could dwell. They lived in as much isolation as they could achieve, and we know about them only through their writings, which although are numerous, are equally shady, ¬†difficult to decipher, and open to a multitude of interpretations. They utterly rejected the self-seeking conservatism of the Sadducees, and they were equally dismissive of the antiquated conservatism of the Pharisees. They viewed both as cultural traitors and their faith as compromised. The only response was total, complete, and uncompromising withdrawal from both of these “secular” forms of the faith.

So, is history cyclical? Now, I am not a Hindu or Buddhist, but there is something about these three groups that is alarmingly contemporary. Which, I believe, confirms the truth and wisdom of the Preacher of Ecclesiastes. History is linear – there is a point, there is a goal, there is a telos. But, equally, there is nothing new under the sun. Life is not cyclical in that we are in an endless loop of birth, life, death and rebirth, but humanity is remarkably dull and unimaginative when it comes to issues of ultimate importance.

Take modern conservatism, for example.

There are voices in the church that are clearly Sadduceean. They just want to “get along.” They do not want to ruffle any feathers, because they have made their peace with the political powers. They fear that if there is any turmoil they will “lose their place.” So desperate are these people that even when culture shifts in totally bizarre and unimaginable ways (witness the increasing militancy of the gender-fluid protagonists), they willingly go along with these cultural shifts so that they will not be stripped of their political, and outwardly religious, authority. Scripture is constantly being reinterpreted so that whatever “is” is blessed by God, and no one, especially of the Sadduceean mentality, is capable of challenging the cult of progress.

The ancient Pharisees have their modern counter-parts too. Chained to interpretations of Scripture that have not changed in decades (if not centuries) these folks are not so concerned with political power as they are religious power. Every jot and tittle is counted and measured, and if any word or deed conflicts with tried and true understandings, the new teaching is immediately labeled a heresy and the guilty is expunged. The specific topic of the modern-day Pharisee might vary, but the biggest issues today seem to be the only acceptable translation of Scripture, the literal (and specific) age of the earth, and how the worship service of the church is to be conducted. Related issues such as church architecture and proper decorum are never very far under the surface. Mint and dill and cumin are carefully counted and God’s tithe is duly given, but justice and mercy and righteousness are largely ignored.

Finally, the Qumran covenanters have their fair share of modern followers, too. These folks are, just like the Sadducees and Pharisees, devoutly conservative. So conservative, in fact, that they cannot stay in to day’s raucous society. They leave, even if only mentally while they physically stay put. They build their little enclaves of spiritual purity, and the cost to join them is high, if it is attainable at all. These enclaves usually die out after a few generations (as did the Qumran covenanters) because that level of perfection cannot be maintained by many or for long. However, another enclave will usually spring up to take their place, and this, the most rabid form of conservatism, will never truly fade away.

Looking at today’s religious conservatives I really commiserate with the author of Ecclesiastes. There really is nothing new under the sun, even while history moves inexorably toward it’s final end. This is why I think the apostle Paul, and our Lord Jesus for sure, would be so disappointed with today’s church.

We are not called to be Sadducees and form alliances with our pagan and paganizing culture. We are not called to be Pharisees and look back to some gilded age (which never existed in reality, anyway) and try to live up to a legalistic interpretation of the Bible that “neither we nor our fathers” were able to attain (to borrow a quote the apostle Peter). And, we have certainly not been called to become modern day Qumran covenanters, abandoning our role as being salt and light to a bent and broken world.

We are neither Sadducee, Pharisee, nor Qumran. We are the church, the assembly, the people of God, the body of Christ. Let us ascend to that reality!

Questions Regarding Evangelism

In the congregation where I am serving we have decided to take our mission to have an impact on our community seriously, and we are working on some ways by which we can do that. One of the ways is, to be blatantly obvious, evangelism. My problem is that I am not an “evangelist” either by nature or by nurture. I put the word “evangelist” in quotation marks (not scare quotes, by the way) because the word can have so many different connotations, and I am using it in the specific sense of one who intentionally and effectively is able to confront total strangers with the message of the gospel. I know many who have that gift, and I honor them, but that is just not my personality type. Which, given the direction we as a congregation would like to go, is problematic. I am the “blind” leading the sight impaired. So – for those of you who are gifted in the realm of evangelism, or for those of you who have effective evangelism ministries in your congregation, I have oodles of questions for you. Please feel free to answer as many or as few as you would like as as you have experience. Let me thank you from the heart in advance.

First, (and please forgive if any of these questions appear foolish or elementary, I am beginning at the beginning), what do you consider to be the goal of your evangelism? Do you consider a baptism to be the goal? Or, do you have a more holistic approach whereby the evangelism is not complete until a new Christian is fully integrated into the life and ministry of the congregation? How do you communicate that goal?

Is your evangelism a “one pony trick” (led by a one trick pony) or do you have a congregational view of evangelism? Do you have a small group dedicated to teaching Bible studies, or just one or two “evangelists”? (There is that word again)

Do you use a set curriculum, or program? To be perfectly honest, I have a very dim view of most, if not all, evangelistic programs I have been introduced to (and that is quite a few). Invariably the program or the curriculum was written to fit the personality type of the author (or authors) and, in my opinion, forces every student into one stereotypical mold. This is one reason I have been turned off about developing my evangelistic abilities in the past. I just have not found a curriculum or a program that treats the student with a very high degree of respect. But, this is a new venture for me, and I am willing to consider all thoughts. [By the way, I have recently discovered Tim Archer’s material Church Inside Out, and in my opinion it speaks most clearly to my concerns. It is not a “program” or a “curriculum” as such, although he does offer some guidance about how he teaches an evangelistic type Bible lesson.]

What kind of budget do you have dedicated to evangelism? Do you have money specifically set aside for evangelistic efforts, or is your evangelism budget wrapped up in a larger “education” classification? What, specifically, do you spend your evangelistic budget on? Do you purchase materials for your students, or do you use the text of Scripture alone? Do you provide Bibles for your students, and if so, what translation do you purchase for them? Do you advertise in a newspaper, or do you use materials such as “House to House and Heart to Heart”?

Very closely related to the above questions, how do you generate contacts? Do you use the old standard, door knocking? Do you rely on contacts provided by the congregation? Do you use any kind of direct mail to generate contacts? Do you have a yearly (or twice-yearly) public meeting with a specific audience targeted (i.e., divorce recovery, money management, grief recovery, etc.)?

If you have a group approach to evangelism, how do you train and equip your group members? How do you handle disappointments and rejections? How do you maintain a high degree of morale? How do you encourage members to become a part of your group? And, lest I overlook this issue, how do you combat the idea of the evangelists as the “super-Christians” of the congregation?

I’m not sure how many questions I am up to, and I could probably come up with some more, but literally any advice or wisdom you could provide would be appreciated. Contrary to how these questions might appear, I do have an idea of the general direction I would like to lead the congregation, but I want to have all the advice and wisdom of those who have traveled a little bit further down the road than I have.

Maybe some day I can write a follow-up post to this one in which I provide all the answers that I will obtain as we enter into this venture.

Once again, for those of you who take the time to respond, many thanks in advance.

Honoring Heroes – and Respecting Differences

In my last post I shared some reasons why David Lipscomb and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are two of my heroes of theology. I freely admit that my thinking contains more than one paradox. These two are hardly theological twins. Maybe that is one reason they attract me so much. In no way whatsoever do I want to suggest they shared the same theological conclusions in every possible way. And so, in part to clarify some issues, and in part to continue to honor their influence, I share these rather significant differences between my two favorite theologians.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
David Lipscomb
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer was trained in, and always practiced, the classical form of liberal biblical studies that was current in Germany in the early 20th century. David Lipscomb would NEVER have accepted what Bonhoeffer viewed as something that was self-evident – that theologians could, and should, identify the purely human elements involved in the production of Scripture as opposed to the work of the Holy Spirit. Bonhoeffer would have viewed Lipscomb’s literalist approach to Scripture as being reactionary. But it is here that I find a remarkable similarity – when Bonhoeffer preached, he preached the Bible as fervently and “literally” as Lipscomb would have. That is to say, when Bonhoeffer was doing academic theology, he leaned heavily on his liberal training. But when he preached, he preached the text as if he were a conservative’s conservative. He thought the “theology” that was being taught at Union Theological Seminary was laughable – he wrote that the only place he could find the gospel being preached in New York City was in the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. I am not the only one who strives to hold two vastly different viewpoints in tension!
  • Bonhoeffer accepted the view that the universal church was comprised of the various “churches” found primarily in Europe. He was mystified by the proliferation of “denominations” in America – I’m not sure he ever really figured out what Americans did with the concept of the church. Lipscomb was a Restorationist – he was firmly convinced there was only one church, and it could not be comprised of a number of different bodies who held significantly different beliefs. Lipscomb rejected both the European view of the church, as well as the uniquely American experiment in denominationalism.
  • Similarly, Bonhoeffer had no issue with promoting the classic creeds of Christianity, and was active in formulating the Confession of Faith that defined the Confessing Church in Germany. Lipscomb believed that creeds were unnecessary, and that Confessions of Faith were divisive, not unitive. Yet, even here, there is a strange intersection of belief between these two men – both men believed that the church they were a part of was the one true church! Bonhoeffer famously wrote (and was excoriated for it) that if one separated himself from the Confessing Church, he separated himself from salvation. For Bonhoeffer there was one church, and the Confessing Church in Germany was that church (or at the very least, was a part of that church). Lipscomb would have said the same thing (and perhaps did), except that the church to which he would have referred would have been a conservative Church of Christ (certainly not a congregation of the Disciples of Christ!) Coming from two radically different approaches, both men ended up basically in the same place.
  • As Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a devout Lutheran, it goes without much explanation that he and David Lipscomb would have had significant differences in understanding the Lord’s Supper.
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote one of the finest explanations on the topic of baptism that I have ever read – and yet, he concluded that infant baptism was perfectly acceptable. [Note, this is one area where Bonhoeffer just drives me crazy. His justification for the necessity of baptism could have been written by Alexander Campbell or David Lipscomb, but then he concludes that it is this necessity for baptism that mandates, or at the very least, allows for, infant baptism. His logic makes my head spin. The only thing I can suggest is that, like every single one of us, Bonhoeffer was a product of his theology, not just a shaper of that theology. For him to have rejected infant baptism would have meant far more of a radical turn than he was willing to make, and, for the battle in which he was so completely devoted, the specific question of infant vs. believer’s baptism did not occupy a critical position.] Lipscomb rejected the idea of “inherited” or “original” sin, and for him infant baptism was not only unnecessary, it was unbiblical.
  • Related to another point above, Bonhoeffer was deeply involved in the ecumenical movement of the 1930’s. His conception of the church universal not only allowed this, it pretty much demanded it. Lipscomb would have rejected this approach of recognizing the church universal, and would have been emphatic that the only way to unify divided Christianity was to return to a simple and straightforward understanding of the New Testament.
  • Bonhoeffer held firmly to the Lutheran doctrine of the “two kingdoms.” One of the distinctive views of Lipscomb is that there is only one kingdom, that of God, and that any attempt of man to govern within that kingdom was a repudiation of God’s kingship. Therefore, for Lipscomb, a Christian should not participate in any form of government, even down to voting! Bonhoeffer believed that government was established and blessed by God, so long as it reserved its authority for strictly “secular” purposes. The role of the church was to teach the government how to govern appropriately, and to correct the government when it overstepped its boundaries.

As I mentioned in my first post – the differences between Lipscomb and Bonhoeffer are vast and deep. One should in no way confuse the beliefs of these two men! However, the intersection of their thoughts, where they do indeed intersect, is profoundly interesting to me, for the very reason that they approach Scripture and the church from such differently positions. I am captivated by both. I favor Lipscomb in many ways because he is family – we share the same ecclesiastical heritage. I find his political views refreshing, and dare I say it, far more biblical than most of my fellow members of the Churches of Christ. I believe Lipscomb and Bonhoeffer both drank from the same Spirit. I can see, despite their differences, a strange union. Maybe its because I am so strange. Who knows.

Anyway, thanks for sharing a bit of my conservative, and liberal, heritage!

For the Love of Words

Harvey Porter, long-time preacher and hero of mine, once said that in order to be a good preacher you had to be a lover of words. My father bequeathed to me many quirks, but maybe one that I value the most is a profound love of words. I have seen him reading Ogden Nash and laughing so hard tears came to his eyes. My father loved a beautiful poem and beautiful song lyrics. To him words were not simply objects to be thrown around mindlessly, but tools to be treasured and protected.

Words move us, shape us, comfort us. Conversely, words can cut, inflame, and injure. While other animals have the ability to communicate using sounds, only humans have the ability to create and share the specific meaning of individual sounds called words. There are countless languages on the earth, but none without meaning, and none without the use of specific, individual words.

There is something profound, and even mystical, then, that the gospel writer says that Jesus was the Word of God. The Divine Being that is beyond and transcends all understanding, descended into this world to be known as the Word.

All of which is to point to the death of words, of language, today. Words used to have meaning – words used to be signs that pointed to a fixed and immutable truth that lay behind the vocalization of certain sounds. Take the word truth for example – on one level the word is simply a combination of a sequence of vocalizations that, on their own, have no significance. On another level the word points to something solid, secure; as I mentioned above, immutable and eternal.

But, today, even truth is dying. We are told there is no immutable, eternal truth. Truth is a construct, truth is what we want it to be, truth is transitory, cultural, and ephemeral.

Pardon me for being old-fashioned, out-of-date, and stodgy, but I treasure words. I value words not only for the beauty that they reveal, but for the beauty they contain in-and-of themselves. There is a quality, an aspect, of words that I hold to be precious. Even though the eternal concept of Truth cannot be affected by the degrading of the physical word truth, its value in the economy of language does suffer. The mention of truth used to make gentlemen stand up and remove their hats. Now, all it does is engender snickers and guffaws.

All of the preceding leads me to the question that motivated this post – what does the word Christian mean anymore? That is to ask, what does it mean to be a Christian? Is one a Christian simply because he or she is not a Muslim, a Hindu, a Buddhist? Is one a Christian simply because he or she says that he or she is a Christian? Is there some definable, measurable quality that would identify a person as a Christian? If so, what is it? How would we identify it?

There is a collection of writings that, for roughly two thousand years, men and women have used as a measure of what it means to be a Christian. We call that collection of writings a Bible, a word that simply means book. The Bible is a book of books, comprised of millions of words. Those words are not just any kind of words, however. For those who have historically used the adjective “Christian,” those words are believed to have come to us by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit of the Holy God. They are not, in other words, just inspirational words, such as the words of the great Greek, Roman, or English poets. No. These words are believed, are confessed, to be the words that God himself gave to his chosen penmen (and perhaps, penwomen). To deny that those words are inspired of God, and even to deny the truths that those words communicate, has, for those two thousand years (and even longer, adding the history of the Jewish people), meant that one is outside of the boundaries of the church. In other words, you cannot deny that which creates the identity of a person or group, and then claim the identity of that person or group.

There are people who reject the inspiration of the Scriptures. They therefore reject the foundational truths revealed in those Scriptures. They may selectively borrow certain qualities or virtues promoted in Scripture, but for them those qualities are simply inspirational, and therefore not crucial (note, the root for crucial is the cross – that which is crucial is founded of the truth of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross).

Here is where, for me, the “rubber meets the road” (to use a colorful colloquialism). It is simply impossible to deny the inspiration of the Bible, and deny the historical and moral teachings contained in those Scriptures, and then claim allegiance to the One to whom those Scriptures point. It is not enough to claim a belief in the historical life of Jesus. It is not even enough to claim that this Jesus died to forgive the failures of mankind.

If you deny the claims that Scripture makes about itself (or, that the authors make regarding their writings) then you cannot claim participation in the realm, the kingdom, that the Scriptures identify – the kingdom of God. To me its that simple.

I am enough of a realist to understand that in the ebb and flow of history, the meanings and the usage of words changes. Take, for example, the bastardization of the word gay. Gay used to mean happy, carefree, exuberant. Now it is used to describe a deviant sexual lifestyle.

I question whether the word “Christian” can have any linguistic value today. I know the truth behind the word has not changed, but because we use the word to describe everything from trinkets and baubles to the precise and exacting exercise of theology, the word has “literally” become vapid, insipid, meaningless. I think for the time being the phrase disciple of Christ has more validity. You can measure discipleship, you can challenge it, test it, qualify and quantify it. Not so much with the adjective, Christian.

I love the word Christian, however. In its pristine form it means, little Christ. Those who honorably claim the name seek to become like Jesus in every way. In order to do that we must rely on the words he loved and meditated upon – the Holy Scriptures that we call the Old Testament. We must also rely on the words of those whom He inspired to continue his message – the Holy Scriptures that we call the New Testament. We must love the Word, and we must love the words.

And, for anyone who does not love the Word, let him or her be anathema. (1 Corinthians 16:22). If anyone who preaches a gospel contrary to the gospel preached in the Scripture, let that one be accursed (Galatians 1:8, 9)

Asking the Wrong Question, and Missing the Point

Been reading a lot of philosophy lately – of both the secular and theological kind. So a new question struck me recently, maybe not a new question for you, but it has raised a series of related questions in my mind. I always seem to be better at asking questions than providing answers. Anyway, if you have any profound insights, please feel free to comment.

My observation which led to a question is this: I wonder if the reason the church is losing members, and is having the related issue of paralysis of evangelism, is because we are asking the wrong question. What I mean is, if we confront people with the wrong existential question, no matter how correctly they answer any other question, in the long run it really will not matter. This takes some unpacking, but stay with me for a little while and let me at least try.

Unless I am just flat out crazy, it seems to me that the Bible is totally unconcerned with proving that God exists. It simply takes for granted that God exists, that He is a personal God, that He is vitally interested in the creation He created, redeemed, and will at some point in time, completely renew. In fact, I will venture that until the time of the Enlightenment, it was assumed by virtually every culture that there was a god. Whether that god could be considered the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob might be debated, but with the exception of some far-Eastern religions, the existence of a god was never even questioned. So, if I am correct, all the ink that is spilled and the breath that is expelled trying to “prove” God exists is utterly a waste of time. For one, it cannot be done (otherwise, faith would be replaced by some laboratory test or other) and two, even if you could “prove” God exists, all you have done is expend a tremendous amount of energy to arrive where the Bible begins, “In the beginning God. . .”

A far more vital question relates to the historical existence and truthfulness of the claims of Jesus: that Jesus is the Son of God and that he lived, was crucified, was resurrected, and will return. Here again, however, at least for those of us living in the 21st century, these questions must be answered by faith. We cannot interview those who stood by the tomb of Lazarus, those who tasted the water turned into wine, those who stuck their heads in the empty tomb. “Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God?” is therefore a legitimate and probing question. Sadly, however, “belief” in Jesus as the Son of God has been so watered down in our culture that quite literally any belief can qualify as belief in Jesus as God’s messiah. You can be a white supremacist, devoted follower of cultists such as Joseph Smith, or card-carrying member of the LGBTQ cohort and still proclaim to be a believer in Jesus as the Christ. Logically, and not just theologically, that is just impossible, but the use of logic went out the window decades ago.

So, it seems to me, that the question that is the ultimate question is this: “Will there be a supreme and final judgment that will separate the righteous from the evil, the right from the wrong, the blessed from the cursed.” I offer as evidence the fact that when both John the Baptist and Jesus started their ministries, their primary message was, “repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” They did not say, “believe in God,” or “yo, dudes, Jesus is da man.” They said “repent.” As in, judgment is coming, you better get right with God.

My second piece of evidence is what might arguably be called Paul’s first letter to any of his fledgling congregations, 1 Thessalonians. He wrote in 1:10, “. . . and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” While Paul is at great pains to demonstrate that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ to come (1 Cor. 15!), the existential question Paul seeks to answer is this – what does it matter? If there is no judgment to come, then what does it matter if Jesus is God’s messiah or not? Jesus could just as easily be God’s messiah (the Christ) if there is no judgment forthcoming. Clearly, the coming judgment was a primary, if not the primary, question.

Stated somewhat differently, if there is no coming judgment, it really does not matter what we believe! We can believe in God, or a god, or no god. We can be a racist or promote racial equality. We can follow Joseph Smith or Jim Jones or David Koresh or Joel Osteen – or nobody. We can be straight or gay or male or female or change what we think we are with the change in weather. It simply does not matter – we will all just vaporize at the moment of death, or all go to heaven, or something in between. God then simply becomes another deism, Jesus as the Christ becomes another prophet or guru, and our life on earth is utterly, totally, and completely meaningless.

On the other hand, if there is a coming judgment, then biblical truth really does matter. Then it really does matter what we believe God to be. It really does matter if we submit to the Lordship of Jesus. It really does matter whether we reject religious imposters. And it really does matter how we express our love for all races, how we express our solidarity with the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized, and yes, even how we express our sexual natures. It really does matter if we accept the biblical teaching regarding morality and ethics, and yes, it really does matter that we obey both the weightier matters of God’s law as well as the lighter matters – so long as we correctly differentiate those distinctions (Matthew 23:23-24, Romans 14).

In short, the impending judgment is what will ultimately give our present life meaning. As far as the kingdom of God has been revealed, our life has meaning here and now. The ultimate revelation of what our life on this earth means will be made clear when we see the new heaven and the new earth.

This is not to suggest that we begin with the question of the judgment. Every person and every situation is different. There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to evangelism and sharing the gospel of Christ. Some people need to see the reality of God. Some need to be confronted with the lordship of Jesus. Some need to even understand the authority of Scripture. But if we never get around to pressing the issue of the judgment, if we never get around to “repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand,” we will never be successful in leading people into that kingdom.

I could be soaking wet, mostly wet, or maybe just a little damp. But the question has caused me to re-orient my own preaching and teaching. I hope it helps you focus as well.