What Are We Left With?

I got to thinking the other day. What started it was the ever-present demand by those who want to re-construct our understanding of biology (and especially of the roles of male and female) to eliminate from Scripture any reference to gender differences and the roles attached to the separate genders. So, if they cannot explain away certain passages, they just eliminate them as being the uninformed opinions of bigoted males – the apostle Paul being the chief culprit. It the author of a particular passage was a male chauvinist homophobe, then we do not have to listen to anything that he said, or wrote.

So, in the spirit of this line of thinking, I got to thinking – why stop there? Let’s continue and remove any language that can be deemed to have roots in a patriarchal society. Let’s purify the Bible of any semblance of male superiority. That would mean excising all references to God as “Father” and Jesus as a male. In fact, let us be done with all the male/female binary language in the Bible. Eve should not be singled out as the “mother of all living,” as that reduces her to a mere object for male dominance. In fact, the language extolling any kind of human attraction and love needs to be cut out – think of the horrid descriptions of the female body in the Song of Solomon!

While we are at it, let us not forget to eliminate any references to a hierarchal/dictatorial culture. The chief offender here is any idea that God or Jesus could be “Lord,” as that is the pinnacle of a repressive society. The warrior language is especially galling – who wants to worship a God who wields swords and who commands his people to utterly destroy their enemies? Gone also will be any views “from below,” – words like obey, or submit, as they merely work to institutionalize systems of dominance and power.

Let us not forget that the people who first received the Bible were highly superstitious, and so to purify the Scriptures it is also incumbent upon us to remove any references or suggestions regarding the supernatural. This would include cutting out all the references to spirits, (including the Holy Spirit), demons, miracles – and even prayer itself. Closely related, since these people are considered to be “pre-scientific,” let us be done with all the incorrect and misleading language – all that talk about the sun rising and setting, the four corners of the earth, etc. Think of all those silly metaphors in the Psalms that compare thunder to the voice of God, and the majestic human to a smelly sheep. Surely we can do better than that.

The only question I have after we do all of that is this – what are we left with?

You see, when we (our 21st century culture) start editing the Bible to fit the world in which we live, where do we stop? If we want to eliminate certain verses from the pastoral letters or the Corinthian letters, why limit ourselves to just one segment of our society? When we proclaim that “Jesus is Lord” we are making a politically subversive statement: we are bound to obey Jesus as our supreme leader, not some elected official. In reality that is far more offensive than stating that males and females have been given different gifts and ministries in the church! Yet, because we have so neutered the word “Lord” in our language, we can sing about Jesus being our lord with sublime expressions on our faces and utterly miss the significance of what we are saying.

I have to be careful here because I too have wrestled with the question of what are timeless truths and commands within Scripture and what is culturally limited. There are many questions for which there are no easy answers. But my anxiety and my questions cannot overturn what basically amounts to 4,000 years of accepted teaching and interpretation.

Standing under Scripture is difficult, because it cuts against every fiber of my rebellious nature. I don’t want to submit to certain texts because it means that I am no longer the master of my life. It means I have to uproot the idols in my life and return Jesus to the center. Idols are idols precisely because we love them and are comfortable with them. Removing them is painful for those very reasons.

But if we no longer have God at the center of our life, what are we left with?

The Strange Words of Jesus

Some meditative thoughts following my daily Bible reading for today –

If you attempt to keep up with modern trends in American Christianity (as I feebly do), you are aware that today there is a great deal of talk about being spiritual, but not necessarily religious. (This distinction screams for a post on definitions of words, but that will have to wait for another day). What I want to point out is that the very use of the term “spiritual” as is used in today’s vernacular is so utterly opposite of what Jesus demanded. You see, today we can be “spiritual” and not give up anything – in fact, being spiritual means that we get to have, and get, and get, and get, and get. Being spiritual means we are healthy, wealthy, and wise, and any sign of infirmity of mind, body, or bank account means that we are just not spiritual enough. There is just far too much “J” in this concept, and that “J” stands for Joel Osteen and not Jesus.

Just look at how the word is understood: churches that grow are spiritual, churches that stay the same (or, heaven forbid, shrink) are worldly. Athletes that win the Super Bowl are spiritual, athletes that are perennial cellar dwellers are worldly. Preachers that “grow” churches are spiritual, preachers that labor in small, nondescript congregations are worldly. Yikes! – Jeremiah was the poster child of worldly failure!

Now, understand – I am not promoting apathy. Some churches that shrink do so because they are worldly. Not every athlete on a losing team is spiritual. And some preachers are failures because they have sold their soul to the world, and congregations can sniff that out.

But I am only too aware of congregations who grow by leaps and bounds because of the star status of their preacher, not because of spiritual health. I am only too aware that some athletic teams win because their system is built on cheating and rigging the game, not on the depth of their spiritual acumen. Some preachers climb the ecclesial ladder by kissing feet – not by washing them.

Three times in Luke 14:25-33 Jesus specifically said that certain people could not be his disciples. Read the passage – certain people could not be his disciples! People who love fame and popularity, people who refuse to walk in the shadow of their own death, people who cannot renounce their own importance – these people cannot become, or remain, disciples of Jesus.

There are all kinds of markers for what Americans consider to be a life of spirituality. Strangely, I see very few of them consistent with what Jesus considered to be markers of spirituality.

It just seems like every day I want to climb the ecclesial ladder. Every day I want someone to recognize my brilliance, my importance. Every day I want to have someone say – “wow, look at him – he must be spiritual because of what he has.” And, virtually without fail, I open my Bible and I read where God says, “Argh, you have it all wrong again! You climb higher by descending lower. Listen to my Son.”

I want to be spiritual in my quest to be a disciple, but I hope that no one thinks that I am spiritual. Because, I think that if someone thinks that I’m spiritual, I have probably become an enemy of the one who is my master.

What Was It Like In A.D. 65?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Head and the Heart

So far in 2018 I have been posting a flurry of articles, mostly planned and even a few written in the last weeks of 2017. These posts come from a deepening sense of uneasiness both within myself and with what I see transpiring within the brotherhood of Churches of Christ. As I have said repeatedly, the Churches of Christ are my spiritual home, and extra ecclesiam nulla salus (outside the church there is no salvation). There is just one church of Christ, and I want to be a part of that church.

My uneasiness lies in this: for far too long and for far too many of us (myself included!) the focus has been getting the head stuff right. We argue endlessly over issues which are matters of human reason – can we have separate classes for Bible study, how many cups can be used in distributing the Lord’s Supper, can we have an attached “fellowship hall,” if women can pass the communion trays “side to side” why can’t they pass them “front to back,” can we raise our hands in prayer or during a song, can we use the church treasury to send money to an orphan’s home, can we hire a preacher, youth minister, involvement minister – and if we do, what do we call them. The list goes on and on and on. While I would suggest that the answers to those questions vary in degrees of importance, I will flatly say that Jesus did not die for any of those questions. The fact that any of those questions (among the dozens not given) have divided congregations is a huge blot on our fellowship.

What really terrifies me are the passages in the New Testament that should make us ashamed of our petulance. “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20). “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'” (Matthew 7:22-23). “Woe to you, scribes and  Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” (Matthew 23:15, all references from the ESV).

I never want to discount the head stuff, the rational part of our faith. But I am only too aware of the trap of becoming so locked into our head that we lose sight of the heart. Maybe that is why I am so drawn to the prophetic books of the Old Testament. In them we see time and time and time again how God disciplines the people of Israel for focusing on getting the rules right and completely missing the point of the rules. Was this not the major point of conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees?

The “mystics” and contemplative fathers had a saying, or rather an image, that they used, and which I think has great value. They talked about “descending with the head into the heart.” This is illustrated somewhat clumsily in the posture of kneeling for prayer. While kneeling, and with the head bowed, the head is either parallel to, or sometimes below, the heart. It is not a perfect image – but it is still a powerful one.

That is what this blog is intended to be all about. I am, for better or for worse, a head guy. I’m so right-handed and left-brained it is pathetic. But I believe God has blessed me with some profound gifts, and being left-brained is as much a gift as it is a hindrance, and I want to glorify God by using my logic and my reason.

That being said, I just feel a growing sense of dread that God is looking down at all our reason and logic and rationality and is simply furious. Can we not learn, after 2,000 years, that the church is more valuable, and more important, than whether we have pews or chairs, or whether there is a coffee pot in the classroom, or whether we even have a classroom at all?

Lord, have mercy on us, miserable sinners.

I want the church to ascend higher. I want us to attain the calling to which we have been called. I want the church to be the pure bride of Christ who longs for and prepares the way for his coming. In order to do that, however, we are going to have to learn how to descend – descend in to the heart, descend into humility, descend into submission to God and to one another.

Let us ascend lower.

The Myth of Unconditional Forgiveness (3) [Uncertain Inferences Series]

Stated plainly, I do not believe that God teaches we are to forgive people unconditionally. I do not believe God does so, and I do not believe we can justify doing so from the Bible. I wrote in my last post that I believe there is a very selfish reason why we hold so firmly to the idea of “unconditional forgiveness.” We just do not want to be confronted by our own failure, and so in order to excuse our own weakness we simply choose to “forgive” everyone else and defend our actions with a very pious sounding argument.

There is yet another reason why we are so firmly attached to the idea of unconditional forgiveness. We simply do not understand the depth of the consequences of human sin. If we really took the time to reflect on our sinfulness and rebellion, I just do not think that we would be so cavalier in our dismissal of the biblical teachings regarding forgiveness.

Ponder for a moment the God’s reaction to sin in the book of Genesis. Consider Isaiah 64:6, and if need be, research the meaning of “filthy rags” or “polluted garment.” Ask yourself what Paul was trying to communicate in Romans 1. Think about why he warned the Thessalonian Christians about the coming “day of wrath.”

Read Jeremiah 6:14-15, 8:10-12, and Ezekiel 13:1-16. Could it be that when we blithely and sanctimoniously “forgive” we are actually repeating the actions of those whom the prophets so soundly condemn? Are we not coming dangerously close to fulfilling the words of Isaiah 5:20-24?

Why did Jesus have to die if God can, and indeed does, forgive unconditionally? It seems to me that the most obscene injustice this world has ever seen would have been the cross on Golgotha if God simply looks down on our little peccadilloes and wipes the slate clean with a brush of his divine eraser.

Others have written far more eloquently describing this false forgiveness. I offer just one example:

Cheap grace means grace as doctrine, as principle, as system. It means forgiveness of sins as a general truth; it means God’s love as merely a Christian idea of God. Those who affirm it have already had their sins forgiven. . . The world finds in this church a cheap cover-up for its sins, for which it shows no remorse and from which it has even less desire to be set free. Cheap grace is, thus, a denial of God’s living word, denial of the incarnation of the word of God. . . Cheap grace means justification of the sin, but not of the sinner. . . Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of community; it is the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 4, trans. Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001, p. 43-44.)

I mentioned in my first article that those who believe this myth have not committed some serious theological crime. In one sense maybe that might be true, but in another sense maybe I myself was being too glib, too forgiving. The myth of unconditional forgiveness is itself rather innocuous, but it leads to a denial of the gospel. If we are forgiven unconditionally, then Jesus’s death itself becomes, as I said above, obscene.

Although I am not a psychologist, I also believe there are some serious psychological repercussions when we buy into this myth. When we suggest that we are forgiving unconditionally, we are attempting to perform spiritual gymnastics that only result in the short-circuiting of a process that God had instilled deep within the human soul. We humans are designed for community, for relationship. Our first relationship is with God, and second with other humans. When we expect God to forgive unconditionally we are telling him that our sins do not matter – he just needs to “get on with life” and wipe the slate clean. When we do not expect, or demand, that others acknowledge their sins agains us, we are denying them the opportunity to unburden their soul – to admit their own failure. This is a critical point so often overlooked – we as humans have a very deep need to be able to admit we are wrong, and to be forgiven of that wrong, so that our relationships can be healed. “Unconditional forgiveness” sounds so wonderful, but in reality it actually prevents what it is supposedly designed to do.

So, what do we do in the very real world where many of those who hurt us have no intention of asking for our forgiveness, or who have died and therefore cannot ask for our forgiveness? Can we forgive them?

In a word, no. As I said in a past post – we do have the ability to surrender the will to get even. We do have the ability to pray to God, to surrender our hurt feelings, to not let the sun go down on our anger. I believe in the practice of writing letters to be placed inside caskets letting go of the hurt and anger. I believe in punching pillows or sweating our frustrations out. I also believe very firmly in the ability to pray the imprecatory Psalms – the Psalms that ask God to exact revenge on those of our enemies who refuse our efforts to make peace. But we must remember to allow God to exact that revenge.

This is NOT forgiveness, however, and in no manner, shape, or form should we disguise it as such. Forgiveness is two individuals, or groups, that have be separated by a real disruption of relationship, who come together for the purpose of healing that relationship. The offended party offers peace, the offending party acknowledges guilt and asks for forgiveness. The offended party accepts the apology and extends the forgiveness, and the two parties reaffirm their love and acceptance of each other. This is biblical – from Genesis to Revelation. This is putting the words of Jesus into practice. This is the act of ascending higher by climbing lower. Anything less is just not biblical.

It is a myth.

The Myth of Unconditional Forgiveness (2) [Uncertain Inferences Series]

I would like to move on and discuss the theological aspects of the idea of unconditional forgiveness, but before I do that I want to examine one other critical question – why is the myth of unconditional forgiveness so entrenched in our beliefs? If there is such little (or, in my opinion, zero) scriptural support for the idea, and so much scriptural evidence against the teaching, why is it so tenaciously defended?

In a sentence: because we ourselves are utterly terrified to consider the prospect that we might stand before God as unforgiven sinners. The logic is that if we can impose upon God the concept that forgiveness must be unconditional, then we ourselves do not have to repent, we do not have to change, we do not have to turn from our idolatrous practices and yet we can stand wholly and totally forgiven. Therefore, we create this unbiblical, yet psychologically appealing, model by which we are to “forgive” others whether they ask for it or not, simply to smooth over our rebellious defiance of God’s pleas for a “broken and contrite heart.” (Psalm 51)

For evidence all I have to do is to point out the difference in worship hymns written before the twentieth century and contemporary worship songs composed in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century. While there are many older hymns that highlight God’s love and forgiveness, as you scan the majority of these hymns you see another central component – a confession of man’s sinfulness and complete dependence upon the God of love. “Amazing Grace” is meaningless without an acknowledgement that I am a “wretch” that needs saving. The light of God’s grace can only be seen through the reality of a very dark world of sin.

I will also admit that there are phrases in today’s contemporary worship music that use the word “sin,” but the overwhelming majority of songs heard on Christian radio stations (and increasingly used in worship services) only talk about the love of God, about how Jesus is our “lover” or “brother” and how we as Christians can bask in the glow of God’s presence. In short, there is very little “wretch” in these songs. The message these songs give us is, “We’re forgiven, God loves us, get over all that unhealthy guilt stuff.”

But, I say again, we cannot repent of something that does not exist. If we as Christians are forgiven “unconditionally” and without our even asking for forgiveness, then there is simply no reason to pray for forgiveness (as Jesus and the apostles plainly teach us to do) because we dwell in a perpetual state of being unconditionally forgiven.

I know the concept that God might expect, or even demand, conditions before forgiveness can be extended sounds harsh, repressive, and even un-biblical. But as I stated earlier, I think it is because we as Christians in the industrialized, capitalistic, and democratic societies in the West have lost a critical understanding of the meaning of the word “sin.” It is to that subject that we must turn if we are going to ever regain what it means to be truly “forgiven.”

Why is a Knowledge of History so Critical?

Last year I posted an opinion that one of the major issues facing the Churches of Christ in the coming year (and in fact, the coming decade) is the deficiency of knowledge regarding our history. Over the next three posts (at least) I want to expand that thought to include higher education in general, and the study of theology in particular, as particular weaknesses of the Restoration Movement.

Whenever I have mentioned teaching church history, and Restoration Movement history in particular, I typically get the same eye-rolls and groans. “Why do you want to study that stuff?” is the question, and “stuff” is spat out with enough venom to make sure I understand that the speaker is somewhat disinclined to join in with the study. The same is true when the word “theology” is used. A theological education is almost universally dismissed as being either unimportant or even detrimental to a Christian life.

Well, to make this as brief as possible, there are two reasons why studying “that stuff” is so important.

[As a brief aside, I am not suggesting that such knowledge is critical to become, or to remain, a Christian. Heaven will be full of people who had no understanding of church history during their lifetimes. However, I hold teachers and preachers to a higher standard, and I am fully convinced that a greater understanding of history/theology does make us wiser and more thoughtful Christians.]

Reason number 1: a sound theological education makes it less likely that we will make statements that are factually incorrect. NOTE: This is not the same as a lie. A lie is a deliberate misrepresentation of facts as known by the speaker/writer. If we say something that is factually wrong, and we do not know that it is factually wrong, we are not guilty of lying, but we are guilty of perpetuating a falsehood. Why would we want to do that?

I use as one example my own ignorance. I believed for a number of years that it was Thomas Campbell or some such Restoration leader that came up with the phrase, “In essentials, unity; in matters of opinion, freedom; and in all things, love.” Turns out I was only wrong by a few hundred years. I loved to attribute the quote to Restoration leaders, and I’m certain they used it, but it was not original with them. I was not lying when I attributed it to Campbell, but I was factually wrong.

A second example comes from my preaching experience. A preacher friend of mine got red-faced, spitting mad in a preacher’s meeting  as he recounted an experience visiting a church while on vacation. It seems that during the communion service the congregation sang a song. “You cannot perform two acts of worship at the same time” the preacher roared. I wasn’t going to say a word, but I immediately thought of the song “Father Hear the Prayer We Offer” –

Father hear the prayer we offer,
nor for ease that prayer shall be;
but for strength that we may ever
live our lives courageously.

Let our path be bright or dreary,
storm or sunshine be our share;
May our souls in hope unweary
Make thy work our ceaseless prayer.

Now, the song is clearly a prayer. If he had ever sung this song, he was doing two things at the same time – he was singing, and he was praying. [Note: the Psalms are Scripture and many are prayers, so when we sing a prayer Psalm, we are participating in three acts of worship: the reading/reciting of Scripture, the singing of a Psalm, and praying.] But somewhere in this preacher’s training he was taught that a person can only worship performing one task at a time. Bad theology or bad history? I would argue it is both. I do not question his motives or his integrity – but his theology is definitely skewed.

Reason number 2: a healthy theological education opens up the possibility that we will view our own particular history with more humility and view others with less loathing. Again, I will illustrate with my own experiences.

First, at one time I was adamant that there was no such thing as the “Sinner’s Prayer” (note the capital letters) in the Bible. Not only was I convinced of that fact, I was utterly contemptuous of anyone who suggested otherwise. My ignorance was matched only by my feeling of superiority. Imagine my chagrin, then, when during a class on prayer I discovered the “sinner’s prayer” (no capitals) in Luke 18:13, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Although placed on the lips of the tax collector, the teaching comes straight from Jesus. [It is with no small amount of irony that I have to point out that when I arrogantly denied the existence of the “sinners prayer” in the New Testament I was guilty of the exact sin that Jesus was condemning in his parable. Hmmm]

Now, please hear me out – I am NOT defending the manner in which the “Sinner’s Prayer” is used today. The application in which the tax collector’s prayer is used today (in relation to eternal salvation) is a gross distortion of the context in which Jesus told the parable (i.e., humility in prayer). That truth does not absolve my ignorance, and certainly not my arrogance. Now, whenever anyone uses the “Sinners Prayer” as a path to salvation, I have a much better understanding of (a) where they might be coming from and (b) a much healthier way to help them understand the passage.

The second example I have is more technical, but no less powerful. Growing up I was taught repeatedly that the Greek preposition eis must mean “for the purpose of” and that’s it. This is because Acts 2:38 reads “be baptized for (eis) the forgiveness of sins.” In fact, not too long ago I read an article that stated that out of the thousands of uses of the preposition eis in the New Testament, not one single time can it mean “because.” Wow! Talk about skating out on thin ice. (Pardon the pun.) Many Baptists, and a number of other groups, however, do believe that the preposition eis in Acts 2:38 must mean “because,” because they have been taught the forgiveness of sins precedes baptism.

The fact is that the preposition eis must have some sense of the meaning of “because” in at least one usage – Matthew 12:41, “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented eis the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” Now, there are a number of ways you can translate eis here, (The ESV uses the word “at”), but you cannot get around the fact that Jonah preached, and the men of Nineveh repented! That is, the repentance was subsequent to, or because of, Jonah’s preaching. Their repentance was certainly not “for the purpose of” Jonah’s preaching. The point is not that eis must mean “because of” in Acts 2:38 (I certainly believe it does not, and I know of no committee translation that so translates it that way!) The point is that by not knowing some basics of the Greek language a person can draw some conclusions that are factually wrong. Once again, I am not questioning motives, but only the correctness of some of our statements.

To summarize: is a knowledge of church history or Greek grammar absolutely necessary? Not, as I mentioned above, in the sense of one’s ultimate salvation. We can believe many incorrect things and still be saved by God’s grace. However, for teachers and preachers a greater degree of accuracy is critical in one respect – we must not be found guilty of promoting error just because it fits our “doctrine,” and we must certainly not be arrogant and dismissive of others who hold differing, although incorrect, beliefs.

In other words, we ascend to healthy or “sound” doctrine by descending into the grit and grime of history in order to make sure that what we are teaching is, indeed, God’s truth.