That Terrible, Exclusivist, Divisive Apostle Paul

Getting ready to preach on Ephesians 4:1-6. For those not familiar, this text reveals just how exclusive and divisive the apostle Paul was. I mean, really, how mean and provincial can you get? In today’s world where I get to make my own rules, decide on my own truth, even get to decide whether I am a male or a female – how can we even read these words, let alone use them as some kind of standard for how the church is to behave itself? Just consider how “unchristian” the apostle Paul is:

  • There is only one body – one and only one church.
  • There is only one Spirit – not a Spirit for each worldly religion.
  • There is only one hope.
  • There is only one Lord – Jesus, not Mohamed nor Buddha nor some angel that claims to have a latter-day revelation from God.
  • There is only one faith – only one road leads to God, all others lead to destruction.
  • There is only one baptism – the death that is focused on Jesus and begins the new life.
  • And, finally, there is only one God and Father.

Wow, you would think that the apostle Paul was some kind of radical or something. And you would be right.

The apostle Paul lived in a time – much like ours – where there were literally hundreds of gods and dozens of competing philosophies and religions. Even within his “home” faith of Judaism there were a number of sects that all claimed to be primary. He lived his early adult life as one of the most strict – the Pharisees. But, on that road to Damascus Paul had his entire worldview torn down. God let him think about things for three days (I just wonder if there was not a subliminal message here – Paul had to spend three days in the darkness of blindness just as Jesus had to spend three days in the darkness of the tomb. God is really good at making these little “coincidences” occur at the most opportune times!) Anyway, Ananias comes and preaches the gospel to Paul, and from that point on Saul the Pharisee becomes Saul/Paul the Christian evangelist, apologist, and author.

The book of Ephesians, I am coming to learn, is really a manifesto for Paul’s new life. Where the world in which he lived had dozens of societal divisions – Roman/barbarian, Jew/Gentile, slave/free – Paul only saw two – those in Christ and those outside of Christ (the “world”). Those in Christ constitute one body, the church of God through Christ. It is not that Paul now views all mankind as saved (the inclusivity or universalist view), but that all mankind can be one through the blood of Christ.

Today we live in a world where individualism and individuality reign supreme. The defining term for our culture is tolerance, but in reality it is a mis-definition of the word tolerance to which we must submit. To be precise, tolerance means that one must identify and actually disagree with the viewpoint of another, yet allow that person to hold that viewpoint however mistaken or ignorant that viewpoint may be. Today, tolerance means that we must validate and even agree with the viewpoints of others, which basically means that we cannot even disagree with the other person. To disagree, and especially to label another’s viewpoint as “wrong,” “ignorant,” or (heaven forbid) “sinful” is to commit the most grievous of societal prohibitions.

Which takes me right back to Ephesians 4. The apostle Paul is utterly, completely, and totally exclusivist. There is only one road to God. One Lord means just that – any person who claims equality with Jesus or to be Jesus’s latter-day prophet is simply a charlatan and deceiver. There is just one body, one church, and all the claims that the divisions we see in Christianity are somehow blessed by God are just ludicrous. There is just one faith, not dozens or hundreds of equal “roads to heaven.” There is just one baptism, not one for the forgiveness of sins, and one for admission to a church, and one for the bestowing of the Holy Spirit, and one for the gifting of special talents and abilities. And, just to top everything off, there is just one God.

Even for many in the church today, the claim of exclusiveness is a troubling and divisive one. Our culture has so absorbed the doctrine of individualism and “equality” that to suggest a differing viewpoint is wrong, and especially worthy of being condemned by God, is just, well, so unchristian. But it is exactly that fear, that uncomfortableness, that reticence, that we must overcome if we are going to fairly and truthfully present the gospel of Christ.

I am in no way suggesting we do so in a rude, hateful, or condescending manner. Within the Churches of Christ I am reminded almost daily of our history of shameful rhetoric. But the pendulum can swing too far the other way, and never to challenge an incorrect or dangerous belief is no more loving than it is to ridicule that belief. I am reminded of Alexander Campbell’s practice (which infuriated some of his supporters) of spending time, and even eating several meals, with his debate opponents during his long, and lest we forget, vigorous debates. Campbell never surrendered an inch to those he disagreed with (and, sadly, his prodigious verbal broadsides became the model for far less charitable disciples), but it appears to me that he viewed those he debated as erring opponents and not enemies. There is a huge difference.

Ephesians 4 is a great passage of Scripture, to be sure. But it has a sharp edge – and Paul will go on to say some very harsh, and condemning, words about those who are outside of Christ (walking in futility, darkened in their understanding, alienated from God, ignorant, hard of heart). We must learn to handle that edge carefully and wisely. But, let us never be fearful of that edge to the point that we bury it.

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!!

The Consequences of Trivializing Sin

[Continuing my thoughts from yesterday, SIN – It’s Not Just a Little Boo-boo]

I think, on a fundamental level, we just do not fully understand sin. As I pointed out yesterday, we may have a pretty good grasp of individual sins, as in moral deficiencies, but I am just not convinced that we really have a handle on SIN. This, I further believe, has at least two huge repercussions. The first is in relation to our understanding of the cross as made explicit through the act of baptism, and the second is our lack of understanding (or appreciating) the depth of the pervasiveness of sin as a systemic issue in our lives. I will have to save point two for a later post.

To set the background for my first point, let me use the only example I can speak confidently about – my own experience. During my early teen years I watched as all of my peers stepped forward and were baptized. I watched as they went into the water, and then came out of the water basically the same person. I never really noticed any changes, and in one or two cases, they actually became more accomplished sinners! I fought being baptized for this very reason – I just did not see much of a change in the lives of my friends. Then one day I too stepped forward and was baptized. I went into the water and came out of the water basically the same person. I felt a little different, at least at first, but as time wore on it was pretty obvious to me at least that there had not been much of a change in my life.

The problem was, at least as I can analyze it today some 40+ years after the event, that before I was baptized I considered myself a pretty good person. Oh, I was only too aware of my sins, but nobody is ever perfect, and since everyone around me considered that I was a pretty good person, I was only too willing to go along with the general consensus. Thus, when I was baptized I was vaguely aware that a legal transaction had taken place, that my sins were forgiven, that I was now a member of the church of Christ.

But, on an existential level, nothing had really changed. I came out just as self-centered, just as prone to anger, just as narcissistic, and just as capable of “playing the game” as I was was when I entered the baptistery. The only real difference, as far as I could tell, was that over the course of a couple of minutes I had now become an “insider” where before I was an “outsider,” and I was now “saved” where just a few minutes earlier I had been “lost.” I could now partake of the Lord’s Supper, and, as I am a male, I could lead in worship.

Outside of the generic Bible classes to which we were all being subjected, I had not been discipled. I was not at that time being discipled. In fact, no one ever took me and became my mentor, my teacher, my “discipler.”

This is just a guess, but I am thinking that my story could be repeated hundreds, thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of times for young people in my generation, maybe even other generations.

If all baptism is supposed to do is to be a legal transaction, a “rite (and sometimes a right, something owed and expected) of passage” and a place marker that separates the insiders from the outsiders, the “saved” from the “lost,” then I think the main reason is because we have completely lost an appreciation of what sin really is. By extension, we have completely lost an appreciation of the meaning of the cross.

The “gospel plan of salvation” as it was presented to me illustrates my conclusion perfectly. We are taught, at least once upon a time in the Church of Christ kids were taught, to “hear, believe, repent, confess and be baptized.” That was it. That was the “gospel plan of salvation.” That was the Church of Christ equivalent to praying the sinners prayer or inviting Jesus into your heart. Notice nothing followed “be baptized.” It ended right there. Oh, in some presentations there is lip service given to “live a good life,” but really, what does that mean? For virtually every kid that ever grew up within the Churches of Christ, we WERE good kids before we were baptized (or so we thought, very, very few would have confessed to being “sons of disobedience”) and we continued to be basically good kids after we were baptized. Sin, if it was mentioned at all, was illustrated by dancing, smoking, doing drugs, having sex with our girlfriends (or boyfriends, if you were a girl), or maybe using “cuss” words or looking at magazines that were hidden behind brown wrappers at the convenience stores. That is, sin was simply a list of moral failures, a long list of things to avoid. I was never taught that SIN was a realm, a spiritual dimension of my life presided over by a malevolent “prince of the power of the air” as the apostle Paul describes him in Ephesians 2:1.

It is dreadfully difficult, if not impossible, to renounce something you never knew existed, or continued to exist, in your life.

Sadly, what I have described as my experience is the very same message I have been preaching for years. I can remember baptizing a number of young people, or at least having a part in bringing them to baptism, and then just dropping them. No discipling, no mentoring, no bringing them to an awareness of the seriousness of the concept of sin. They were “lost,” now they were “saved,” so move on to the next target. If no concept of sin, then no concept of grace, of forgiveness, of the cross.

God, save us from our arrogance!

As I am learning in my studies in Ephesians (and, thereby retroactively to other of Paul’s letters), Paul did NOT have this misunderstanding of sin. For Paul the awesome reality of the seriousness of sin was as real as the nose on his face. Paul’s converts were dead in sin, until they died with Christ in the waters of baptism (Eph. 2:1; Rom. 6:1ff; 1 Cor. 15:1ff; Gal. 3:27-28). [Aside here – I just realized today the power, and really the beauty, of Paul’s usage of the words death and dying. We are all spiritually dead outside of Christ, until we die to ourselves and to the world, so that we might live in Him. Wow.] There are only two realms for Paul – we are either in the world, or we are in Christ. The one is under the power of the “prince of the power of the air,” the other is to be ruled by Christ and his Father. Although God is ruler over all, Paul was still aware that for those who so desired, Satan was very much a power and lord of their lives.

As I mentioned yesterday, if sin is only a catalog of sins, if sin is simply a matter of mastering a few moral deficiencies in our lives, then the cross is emptied of all of its power. It should be more than obvious that agnostics and atheists can live as moral, or sometimes even more moral, lives than some “born again” Christians. If morality and ethics are the only issue, the cross becomes literally and physically meaningless. And, if the cross is meaningless, then our baptism means that we only got wet.

I have so much more to say on this issue, but for the moment, I must pause. I hope that these meditations have been valuable to you. I hope that you are reading Ephesians along with me. I hope that either through my words or through your own study you can come to grasp what Paul is telling these Christians. Sin is nothing to trifle with. Sin is not just a violation of a little children’s song. A cosmic battle is taking place, and SIN is the realm into which this world has fallen. There is only one rescue from this realm, and that is the cross of the Messiah, the blood of Jesus.

If we cannot grasp that first reality, then the second is of no use whatsoever.

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.

Does Architecture Matter?

Strange question for this Friday – which has absolutely nothing to do with any cataclysmic issues of the day. But, this funny question popped into my mind. To be honest, I am utterly conflicted. My answer is no, but, really, yes.

I am the product of a non-liturgical church. The churches of Christ in which I was raised went out of their way to be non-liturgical. In fact, we developed an entire liturgy to declare our non-liturgicalness. Our ministers wore no special garments, studiously avoided any special recognition (woe be to the funeral director who attached the epithet, “Rev.” onto the preacher’s name!) Our choirs wore no special robes because we never had a choir – the congregation was the choir!! There were no “special days” – and most likely the preacher preached on the resurrection of Jesus the week before December 25, and preached on the birth of Jesus the day everyone else was celebrating the resurrection. Our services had no uniform “liturgy” as such, except that the routine of opening prayer, three songs, Lord’s Supper, song, sermon, song and closing prayer could be predicted within a verse or two of having a universal application. That’s what I mean by having a liturgy of non-liturgicalness. Heaven help the poor soul who dared to rearrange any aspect of our worship.

This “low church” approach was especially evident in the architecture of our buildings.There were no stained glass windows, no crosses, and certainly no crucifixes. The only piece of furniture that could even remotely be considered “high church” was a simple table with the words “Do This in Remembrance of Me” or perhaps even just “In Remembrance of Me” carved or emblazoned on the front. Our buildings were constructed to be utilitarian, not expressive. The main room was not a “sanctuary,” it was an “auditorium,” designed for the specific purpose of having something “heard.” Classrooms were added alongside the auditorium, or in an adjacent “education” wing. If there was a “fellowship” hall, it was  quite often detached from the “auditorium” so that there would be no confusion as to what purpose each room was constructed.

Most, but not all, of that changed when the Churches of Christ “crossed the tracks” and became respected, and respectable, members of the community. Our buildings became more ornate – some even had stained glass windows installed! – but the basic utilitarian nature of the building never changed. It is still the very rare congregation that displays a cross behind the pulpit, “praise teams” abound but there are very, very few “choirs,” and only the most pompous preachers would dare to wear a clerical robe or accept the title, “Reverend.”

I contrast that with the most common “high church” architecture. I think of the massive cathedrals in Europe, and even many of the fabulous church buildings in the United States. I grew up just a few miles from one of the most beautiful Spanish churches in the United States in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I still love to visit that and other Roman Catholic churches in my home state. They are beautiful, ornately constructed, and the architecture conveys a message that our utilitarian church just simply cannot convey.

For one, the interior of the buildings lifts the worshipper’s view upward. There is a feeling that, when you enter the main worship center, you are called to experience something greater than yourself. In a pre-literate society, pictures, statuary, and architecture was the primary way of communicating the holiness and transcendence of God. The manner in which the church was constructed was a silent, yet powerful, way of communicating a basic truth: God is greater than the worshipper and a measure of respect and awe was due when one entered the place where God was to be worshipped.

Even the exterior of the building conveys this truth: the spires and the other forms of elevating the worshippers eyes let the person know this is a building like no other. When you enter here, you are entering sacred space – leave the world outside. Enter his courts with joy and thanksgiving, to be sure, but remember whose courts you are entering, and respond appropriately.

Compare that with the modern combination of a “worship” space and a basketball court. Who is being worshipped? God or LeBron James?

I said in my opening paragraph that I am utterly conflicted. On the one hand, it matters not in what kind of building we worship. We can worship in a house, in a rented store-front, in a cave or in a tent. Or, we can worship in an ornate, classically constructed cathedral decorated with beautiful stained glass windows and majestic arches. The apostle Paul was equally content to worship in a synagogue (which, as archeology has proven, were often incredibly ornate and beautiful) or gathered with fellow worshippers by a stream.

But, to be honest and straightforward, when God told Moses how to construct the tabernacle, and when David instructed Solomon how to construct the temple, there was to be no limit on how beautiful the physical structures were to be built. The purpose determined the result. If it is to be God’s house, if the purpose is to praise and to worship a holy and transcendent God, wouldn’t it make sense to have that house, that worship center, the most beautiful and glorious that we could make it? This is where I struggle the most with our utilitarian focus. If all we do is gather together to listen to a lecture and sing a few songs, then who cares what the building looks like.

But . . . if we are gathered into His Presence, if we are present with His Holy Spirit, if the creator of the universe descends to “tabernacle” with us, doesn’t it just make sense to signify that presence with architecture that reflects that presence?

As always, thanks for considering my meandering thoughts.

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!

Honoring Heroes – Dietrich Bonhoeffer and David Lipscomb

Okay, maybe I’ve have put the whole “orthodoxy/heresy” question to bed. Time to move on.

I have often ruminated that the two greatest theological minds to have influenced me are (in chronological order) David Lipscomb and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer would get the nod in terms of amount of written material that I have, but Lipscomb would get the nod in terms of theological agreement. I have suggested that if I were to name my favorite theologian, it would be David-Dietrich Bonlipscombhoeffer.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
David Lipscomb

While separated by a generation (Bonhoeffer was nine when Lipscomb died), an ocean (Lipscomb and American, Bonhoeffer a German), a culture, and vast theological differences, the two share some striking similarities; maybe not profound to many, but poignant to me. Here are just a few of the most important:

  • Both were center-right of their respective churches. Bonhoeffer was considered an irritant by many in the German church. He was labeled a trouble maker and extremist. Lipscomb was also viewed as somewhat of an extremist – not so much for his theological positions, but for the radical ethical positions he drew from those theological positions. While Lipscomb could also be attacked by those further to the right on the Restorationist continuum, both of these leaders were marked for their obstinate refusal to surrender core biblical teachings, or to compromise for the purpose of “just getting along” with their opponents.
  • Both were committed to reforming these churches. Lipscomb would use the word “restore” rather than “reform,” but both men dedicated themselves to correcting what they saw were serious errors in the church. Both men were able to see that the error they were facing was not simply the presence of individual “sin” in the church, but rather that there was a systemic bent toward sinfulness in the church. Any preacher can preach against sin, but it takes a true visionary to attack the presence of systemic Sin in the life of the church.
  • As a result, both men were willing to face the inevitable wrath of former friends and colleagues. Neither man was exempt from such wrath.
  • Both men were pacifist. This is truly intriguing. Both men saw the error, the futility, of war. Lipscomb lived through the American Civil War, and preached tirelessly that Christians in the South were not to take up arms against Christians in the North. Bonhoeffer was just a youth during World War I, and as a patriotic German, defended the act of going to war even as a young preacher during his ministry in Spain. However, by the time Hitler ascended to the role of Chancellor in 1933, Bonhoeffer had come to reject his earlier defense of militarism, and was fully aware that his acceptance of pacifism might ultimately cost him his life. It was a risk he was willing to take.
  • Both men were deeply committed to mentoring, teaching, and developing young men for the ministry of the church. Bonhoeffer led an illegal seminary for Lutheran pastors, and Lipscomb created a college for the purpose of educating and training young preachers. Through their tutelage, scores of Christians have been influenced by this interest and love for training the next generation of preachers.
  • Finally, (at least for this post), both men were deeply committed to the power of God to effect the changes necessary to reform or restore the church, but both men were aware that humans were going to have to change if there was to be any lasting transformation. You could say that both had almost a child-like faith in God both to will and to empower the church to change. After all, it was Jesus who said, “Unless you change and become like these little children . . .” Lipscomb and Bonhoeffer both radiated that child-like love and faith in their God.

Perhaps other similarities could be drawn, and perhaps I will do so. Obviously I have not labeled all of the differences – and they are numerous and not insignificant. I have considered it profound how two men who, at least ostensibly have so little in common, have been such influences in my life. If you know me very well at all, you should be able to see David-Dietrich Bonlipscombhoeffer in my words. Alas, I’m afraid I’ve not put much of their courage or their holiness into actual lived experience, but maybe I can change that over the remaining portion of my life on this earth.