A Bent and Broken World

The phrase comes from a sermon I heard years ago by Jim McGuiggan. I have never forgotten that phrase, although the I may not remember the over-all thrust of his message. We live in a bent and broken world.

Never have I been so aware of that as in the past couple of weeks. Jury duty can do that do a person. If you want to find out how bent and broken our world is – just hang out at a courthouse. Modern courthouses are a cauldron where all sorts of filth festers and boils over. I feel like I need to shower again after just sitting for a couple of hours in a jury selection hearing.

And then there are the headlines: babies left alone in broiling hot cars suffer indescribable pain as their little lives are snuffed out. Two parents in England have the care of their terminally ill child forcibly taken from them by the government – with no recourse. State and federal governments and courts are increasingly forcing perverse beliefs and practices on a populace that either does not care or celebrates the perversity. Free speech is becoming guaranteed to only those who reject biblical standards of behavior.

We live in a bent and broken world.

On the one hand, I am simply speechless at the speed at which our culture has devolved. My childhood – lived largely during a period of moral upheaval  – seems like a million years ago, and the problems I was faced with seem almost quaint by today’s standards.

At least we knew which bathroom we were supposed to use.

On the other hand, on the continuum of moral perversity, I do not believe we have reached the point where a governmental leader can summarily order the execution of small babies within a geographical area simply because of his jealous rage. At least, not yet. And, while they are disappearing at an alarming rate, at least there are SOME sexual mores still in existence. At least, for a while.

I have been asked the question, “What is the greatest threat facing the church over the next 10-20 years?” How can I answer, “Simple existence”? Externally we are living in an era of increasing moral decline, and internally the church is being attacked by those who refuse to accept its exclusive claim. There is only one church, and extra ecclesiam nulla salus. “Outside the church there is no salvation.” That church is Christ’s church, and its members do not get the right to change the stipulations for entry nor the requirements for continued membership.

We live in a bent and broken world. Humans always have; until Christ returns we always will. While we are here our hearts are often shattered, and our eyes full of tears. But of this we can be certain:

The one who created this world will purify and restore it, just as our bodies will be purified and restored. What that looks like we have no earthly idea. But the promise that it will happen is sure.

Until that happens we must live at the foot of the cross, for we are just as guilty as others for the death of the Son of God. Repent. Confess. Live in a state of forgiven humility. Understand that only in weakness can we be made strong, and only in losing can we have any hope of victory.

Lord, come quickly!

Eugene Peterson, Homosexuality, and the Cult of Popularity

[As I note at the bottom of this piece, Peterson has since recanted his statements in the first interview. I have attempted to locate the full text of his correction. In the original interview his statements seem lucid, reasoned, and not forced in any manner. Now he claims confusion and the equivalent of being misunderstood. I am sure in the days and weeks to come this story will continue to develop. As more information comes to light I will update as appropriate.]

Yesterday my twitter feed exploded as word got around that Eugene Peterson publicly admitted he supported gay marriage and the homosexual lifestyle in general. Peterson is an evangelical pastor/author hero, perhaps best known for his translation, or paraphrase, or misinterpretation (depending on your theological position) of the Bible called The Message. Now, all kinds of other evangelical pastors/authors etc., are all agog trying to figure out how such a paragon of evangelical virtue could risk becoming a pariah. I, for one, am shocked that everyone else is so shocked.

Like just about every theology student who attended school in the late 20th century or early 21st century, I was handed a steady diet of Peterson books (I think the total number of his books is over 30). My memory is kind of hazy, but I think my first exposure to Peterson came with his book, Working the Angles or maybe The Contemplative Pastor. Having read Peterson I am struck with a couple of observations. One, he is a wordsmith, of that you cannot deny. He can say absolutely nothing in such flowery and impressive language that you really think he has said something. But his content is much like cotton candy – sweet, but nothing there. Second, his theology begins with his feelings and ends with his emotions. To wit, he defends the right of women to preach and to lead in churches. What is his evidence – to what does he refer in defense of his position? His mother was a pastor. That’s it. Well, not entirely. His mother was a much maligned pastor, those who disagreed with her “pastorate” were “bullies.” So it was doubly incumbent upon Peterson to defend her (and every other woman’s) right to be a “pastor” and lead a congregation. It comes as absolutely no shock to me that his defense for accepting the homosexual lifestyle and for approving of gay marriage is – he knows some really, really nice homosexuals.

Peterson is just another in a long line of individuals who illustrate the truth that “narrow is the path that leads to eternal life, and few there are that find it.” Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Eugene Peterson – unmistakable luminaries in the evangelical and/or emerging church fold who have “shocked” the religious world with their “discovery” that homosexual behavior is something to be embraced and promoted. Their paths are  unique to each individual, but share some remarkable similarities. That is to be expected. When you sell your soul to the cult of popularity, there really is very little room for originality. I expect there will be many more to come – and increasingly there will be progressives within the Churches of Christ to join their ranks. Too many of “our” luminaries have hitched their wagons to the McLarens and Bells and Petersons of this world to risk denouncing them now.

Earlier today I posted a long quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, asking a serious question: why is the church so insipid today? Why has the church lost it’s power? His answer is compelling – and indicting. The news that one of the most popular evangelical writers today has rejected the plain teaching of Scripture, as evidenced by 2,000 years of near-universal consent, is simple evidence as to the truth of Bonhoeffer’s reflection.

To borrow a phrase from Peterson’s The Message, enjoy your fame, folks, because when “all hell breaks loose” on the day of God’s wrath, there are going to be some really “shocked” best-selling authors – and disillusioned followers.

NOTE: Within minutes of posting this original article, I happened to check my twitter feed (again) and lo and behold, Peterson is renouncing his aforementioned declaration. HOWEVER, in reading his “retraction” I am thoroughly unconvinced. His answers in the original interview were direct and unequivocal – he welcomed a practicing, unrepentant homosexual to lead his congregation’s music ministry, and he unequivocally affirmed that he would perform a same-sex marriage. Now, he is claiming some sort of misunderstanding due to all of the “hypothetical language” that was used in the interview. Really? Is it too difficult to answer a simple question – would you perform a same sex marriage? Whether his original declaration or his retraction is genuine, it is going to be really, really interesting to see how the LGBTQ lobby handles this brouhaha.

As they say in the news bidness, stand by for updates.

Why is the Church No Longer Different? (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

I found this gem in my reading today. It is just another example of why I find Dietrich Bonhoeffer so challenging – and so contemporary, even though he was murdered 72 years ago. The paragraph is kind of long, but a powerful statement:

The church was different once. It used to be that the questions of life and death were resolved and decided here. Why is this no longer so? It is because we ourselves have made the church, and keep on making it, into something which it is not. It is because we talk too much about false, trivial human things and ideas in the church and too little about God. It is because we make the church into a playground for all sorts of feelings of ours, instead of a place where God’s word is obediently received and believed. It is because we prefer quiet and edification to the holy restlessness of the powerful Lord God, because we keep thinking we have God in our power instead of allowing God to have power over us, instead of recognizing that God is truth and that over against God the whole world is in the wrong. It is because we like too much talk and think about a cozy, comfortable God instead of letting ourselves be disturbed and disquieted by the presence of God – because in the end we ourselves do not want to believe that God is really here among us, right now, demanding that we hand ourselves over, in life and death, in heart and soul and body. And, finally, it is because we pastors keep talking too much about passing things, perhaps about whatever we ourselves have thought out or experienced, instead of knowing that we are no more than messengers of the great truth of the eternal Christ.

(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, London: 1933-1935, vol. 13 in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works English ed., trans. Isabel Best, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 2007) p. 323-324.)

Anyone see their church, or their preacher in those words? Any preacher see yourself in those words?

Shame on us! Shame on me!

Arrogance, Humility, and Institutional Memory

We are living in a time in which the disease of arrogance is approaching pandemic proportions. Humility, never in the history of man something that was found in over-abundance, has disappeared from all but the most remote corners of discourse. Humility is now considered to be the chief deadly sin. It used to be that mud was only thrown after all facts were depleted. Now, the storehouse of facts remains untouched, while the mud has all but been expended.

While far from being alone, the Churches of Christ have long been accused of arrogance – “You people think you’re the only ones going to heaven” is a refrain oft repeated – and not without some justification. Some members do hold such a belief. However, even among those who do not hold such exclusionary beliefs, there is a sense that, if the Bible is inerrant, and if I believe the Bible teaches something, then my understanding of what the Bible teaches must therefore also be inerrant.

Like I said – we are not alone in harboring such members, but it seems to me that we do have more than our fair share.

This is so peculiar to me, for one reason. The early leaders in the Restoration Movement did not hold such exclusionary beliefs, and the exact opposite concept is enshrined in one of the founding documents of the Restoration Movement.

In the Declaration and Address, Thomas Campbell (father of Alexander), wrote this as his sixth proposition explaining the desire to withdraw from the evils of denominationalism:

6.  That, although inferences and deductions from Scripture premises, when fairly inferred, may be truly called the doctrine of God’s holy word, yet are they not formally binding upon the consciences of Christians farther than they see the connection, and evidently see that they are so; for their faith must not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power and veracity of God. Therefore, no such deductions can be made terms of communion, but do properly belong to the after and progressive edification of the Church. Hence, it is evident that no such deductions or inferential truths ought to have any place in the Church’s confession. (Thomas Campbell, Declaration and Address, Mission Messenger, 1978 printing, p. 46)

The target that Campbell had squarely in his sights was the numerous creeds and Confessions of Faith that were used to divide Christians in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. It is significant to me, however, that the very language he used “deductions…inferences…formally binding” are those that are used with a reckless abandon by his 21st century spiritual heirs.

Today you let some preacher or blogger infer something from Scripture, and it automatically becomes enshrined as a binding truth for the confession of the Church.

There is a key phrase in the middle of that paragraph is is, to me, astounding – incredible even. Thomas wrote, “. . . for their faith must not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power and veracity of God.” Here we have a statement that could come from the pen of virtually any “postmodern” theologian, and it was written almost 200 years ago!

If you convert someone to a deduction or an inference of man, all you have done is to create a follower of a denomination. If you convert someone to Jesus Christ, you convert them to the power and veracity of God. Anytime you tell someone (or anytime someone tries to tell you), “you have to believe the Bible plus this book” or “you have to accept the Bible and this confession of faith” or “you have to believe in the Bible and this creed” understand that person is trying to get you to accept the deductions and inferences of men as equal to that of Scripture! I wish I could say that such things do not happen within Churches of Christ, but I am wise enough to know otherwise. Preachers and members of the Churches of Christ may not have a written creed, but far too many of them have just as binding and just as distinct unwritten creeds, and those are probably more dangerous than the written versions. At least you can object to a specific written statement. Trying to pin down the unwritten creeds of some members is virtually impossible.

I will not back down one inch from the truths clearly taught in Scripture. I will not easily back down from my deductions and inferences, because God gave me a brain to use and legitimate tools to help me understand his word. But – and this is critical – I cannot bind my deductions on you as a matter of Christian obedience any further than you can agree to my deductive skill and resulting conclusions.

Humility demands that we approach our deductions, inferences, and conclusions with the greatest of reticence and care. As Campbell said, they may well be rock-solid biblical doctrine. But, just as easily, they can become tainted and be less than pure.

Arrogance will not allow that we be mistaken, in any way, shape, or form, in our “human wisdom.” Arrogance demands that everyone bow their knee to our special insight and judgment. When all the facts are used up, arrogance has no fear to start throwing mud. Arrogance is always self-righteous, but never quiet.

I would so much rather be quietly correct, than loudly wrong.

A Meditation on the Fourth of July: How To Set Yourself Free

A thought about setting oneself free on this day of remembering a day of national freedom . . .

You do not have to dig deep to discover the most significant problem in a majority of congregations today. It goes something like this:

Major premise – “I am always right”
Minor premise – “My interpretation of a passage of Scripture is _____”
Conclusion – “My interpretation of this passage must be right.”

Obviously, the problem with this syllogism is that the major premise is demonstrably false. No person is always right – about just about anything. The minor premise is equally problematic. Since when does anyone’s opinion about the interpretation of a passage have anything to do with its truthfulness? A hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, or a million people can all hold the same opinion about a passage of Scripture and it still be an invalid interpretation. So, if both the major and minor premise are wrong or problematic, then the conclusion cannot be true. The interpretation may be correct, it may be incorrect, or it may be partially incorrect and partially correct.

Just don’t tell some people that they are wrong. Oh, they may say that they might be wrong about something. But just try to pin them down to what they might be wrong about. Pretty soon you discover that what they call a risk of error is well nigh an impossibility.

Entire congregations can be held hostage by one or two belligerent individuals who refuse to consider, even for a moment, that they might be mistaken. Entire lives can be ruined by the fallacious belief that a person is always correct, and therefore anything he or she believes must be correct.

How can a congregation, or a person, declare their independence? With the simple phrase, “I was wrong, and I admit it.”

Confession – what a thought! Just try it. Repeat the following until you come to honestly believe the truth behind them –

  • “It is okay if I am wrong.” With very few exceptions (loaded guns, drinking poison, and thinking a rattlesnake is a stick) errors of belief are rarely fatal.
  • “I am not perfect, and I do not have to be.” Only one life has been perfect, and you are NOT him.
  • “A person can be absolutely convinced, and still be wrong – and still be loved and appreciated.” The eleven apostles come to mind.
  • “I cannot be, and do not have to be, 100% correct on 100% of the questions 100% of the time. I can be wrong and still be forgiven.” Ditto.

There – that was easy, wasn’t it? Feel the weight of perfection fall off of your shoulders? Do you feel the rejuvenation to actually have the freedom to re-think, and to re-study, questions that honest people have disagreed about for centuries?

The need, and especially the demand, to be immaculately perfect about every question of the Bible and the Christian life is a cancer that kills the spirit without remorse.

Declare your independence from this wretched disease. Admit your imperfection. Concede your frailty. Proclaim that you no longer need to be perfect.

Ascend through the humility of accepting your humanity.

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#14)

If I have not made clear by now, I need to emphasize something – these Undeniable Truths are NOT something that I have mastered. I struggle to live out all of them, to a greater or lesser extent, every day or week or month. They are not mountain peaks that I have conquered, but rather signposts to (hopefully) keep me on the straight and narrow path.

So, please do not think that I offer #14 as some kind of “do what I say and what I do” kind of moralism. Rather, #14 in given because I believe we all struggle with the intersection of doctrine and discipleship, of orthodoxy (right thinking) and orthopraxy (right action).

14.  Theology cannot be separated from morality and ethics. Healthy, genuine theology demands action. Orthodoxy leads to orthopraxy.

I have heard it said that right action can lead to right thinking. I disagree – at least on the level of principle. I do not want to suggest that right behavior can never lead us to right thinking, but in my experience what passes for behavior leading to doctrine is simple eisegesis, the practice of coming to a conclusion and then searching for an acceptable proof text. Let me illustrate:

In a textbook that I was given to read for my doctoral studies, the author used an incident in the life of the seminary in which he was working as proof that behavior can lead to a positive change in doctrine. It seems the faculty of this seminary was confronted with a crisis – young women were demanding to receive the same ordination for ministry as young men. Many women had been taking the courses leading to ordination, but could not be ordained because of denominational practices. It was decided to change the policy and procedures and to ordain the females. A fervent search was then made to justify the decision on the basis of biblical precedent, and, lo and behold! The precedent was discovered after thousands of years of mysteriously being hidden in the bowels of a male dominated, patriarchal church. The author was emphatic that, had it not been for the change in practice, the change in the doctrinal position would never have been made. His point was that orthopraxy (at least, in his mind) can effect a change in orthodoxy.

As I said, I am not going to categorically deny that this can occur, but as the above case study suggests, the change in the doctrinal position had much more to do with political correctness and the financial stability of the seminary than in any guiding of the Holy Spirit. This, in my mind, was as blatant a case of eisegesis, of a decision in search of a proof-text, as I have ever seen or read.

No! Right action, right behavior, faithful discipleship comes as a result of right thinking – of proper doctrine. A change in circumstance might drive us to re-read and re-study Scripture – in fact it should. But we must never change our behavior or re-structure our discipleship and then go rummaging through the crevices of Scripture looking for a piton upon which to hang our conclusions.

I believe my Undeniable Truth #14 can be beautifully illustrated by the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Early in his youth he was as nationalistic a German as a young boy coming to age during World War I could have been. In his early sermons he clearly taught that wars could be fought and killing could be justified if one’s nation or family was at risk. Years later, as he witnessed the developing violence of the National Socialists (the Nazis), he realized the gospel taught another truth: no wars should ever be fought and no killing can ever be justified. But Bonhoeffer did not become a pacifist or conscientious objector and then look for a Scriptural blessing. He was driven into his pacifist convictions through a long and painful study of Scripture, primarily the Sermon on the Mount.

[Technical aside here. Much has been made of Bonhoeffer’s compliance with, and some would say promotion of, the attempted murder of Adolf Hitler. At this point in my study, and I believe with adequate justification, I do not believe Bonhoeffer would have attempted a biblical justification of Hitler’s assassination. He would have justified it on the grounds that it was necessary to end the war and to save thousands, if not millions, of lives, but I am not sure he would have done so on a purely theological basis. He wrote frequently enough about the guilt that the conspirators were acquiring to convince me that he would have confessed that the assassins (and conspirators) were clearly guilty of murder, but that God’s grace was sufficient to cover their guilt, and the value of saving innocent lives was worth the death of one “tyrannical despiser of humanity.”]

Right doctrine, without faithful discipleship, is meaningless. We can have all the “i”s dotted and all the “t”s crossed and all the jots and tittles in their right places, but if all those teachings do not result in changed lives, what good do they do?

I think we need to spend more time thinking about the eternal consequences of passages such as Isaiah 58:1-1-8, Hosea 6:6, Matthew 9:13 (and 12:7), Matthew 23:23-24, and James 1:27 (among many others).

Let us not be guilty of becoming theologically perfect, and practically useless.

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#6)

Continuing on . . .

6.  However, the study of Scripture is not for the lazy. The original texts were written in three ancient languages and the youngest of these manuscripts is now approaching 2,000 years of age. We must be extraordinarily careful in the study of Scripture that we do not read our historical situation (culture, biases, feelings) back into the original texts.

I am firmly of the mind that anyone can read and understand Scripture . . .   almost. There is one group of people for whom the Bible will always be an enigma, a puzzle that cannot be put together. That group of people is the lazy, the prejudiced, the ones who are blind to their own preconceptions but are laser-focused on everyone else’s mistakes. (Okay, I listed more than one, but consider them a rather volatile group!)

I will have much more to say about the specifics of Bible study (most notably in Truth numbers 8 and 9), but for now let me say that if you think you can just open the Bible, read a passage, and understand it completely you are well on your way to misinterpreting (and almost certainly misapplying) that text. While there are some passages that are crystal clear (“Love your neighbor as yourself” comes to mind), the overwhelming majority of the content of the Bible requires more than just a surface reading of the text.

That may upset you, but please understand, it upsets me even more.

I was convicted of the democratic nature of this truth recently as I was reading a study on the parables. The author pointed out that Jesus told the parables not to be pleasing little anecdotes to print on glossy posters, but as searing indictments against a false spiritual pride. For example, the parable of “The Rich man and Lazarus” was told not so that Christians would be nice to the disabled, but as a blistering attack on those who felt they deserved to be in heaven (or, if not, at least could boss the heavenly beings around) by virtue of their wealth. The rich man was in torment NOT because of anything he had done, but rather in spite of his earthly position. Lazarus (named as a point of honor, as opposed to the “rich man” was was not named, thus dishonored) was carried to Abraham’s bosom NOT because of anything he had done, but simply as a result of his poverty and affliction. This parable struck at the very heart of a theology that praised wealth as a sign of God’s blessing, and viewed poverty and disability as a sign of God’s curse.

Gee, reckon we preach it that way in our comfy cathedrals of consumerism?

Honestly – I had never viewed the parable that way. In my mind it was always a nice, tidy little lecture on moralism – be nice to those below your station in life, or you will end up going to the bad place. Placed in its proper context – and with the “punch line” properly identified – the parable of the rich man and Lazarus becomes a very dangerous text to preach.

I think Jesus meant it to be exactly that!

So, my Undeniable Truth for Theological Reflection #6 is aimed squarely at my own heart – and feet of clay. I must constantly evaluate not only my own thoughts about what I want the text to say, I have to read to weed out the ideas that I want the text not to say.

This is not for the lazy. This is not for those who are far too comfortable in their own little self-righteous clique. Reading the Bible should obviously be a comforting – at times. But, lest we become far too smug in our own self-righteousness, reading the Bible should also be quite painful and demanding.

We ascend by climbing lower. That is how we approach God’s word.