A Church Shameful to Christ

A turning to the world that merely seeks an arbitrary accommodation that will make the Church respected and popular in the world of science is shameful to the Church and to Christ. (Thomas Merton)

Somehow I get the impression that if humankind has not committed mass suicide within the next 100 years, that the last half of the 20th century and the first half of the 21st century will be remembered as one of the most debauched and contemptible eras of the Christian Church. That, I admit, takes some doing given the reality of the Crusades, the Inquisition, the abject silence during the Nazi pogroms. At least following the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Nazis, the Church admitted her failures, and more critically, (at least hopefully) made the necessary confession and repentance to never again traffic in those barbaric atrocities.

I question whether the contemporary Church has the self-awareness to even begin to recognize her complicity in the post-modern world’s headlong rush into oblivion.

On the one side are the libertarians who rejoice in the toothless message of contemporary Christianity – the only problem with society today is the false guilt imposed by a repressive and domineering religious institution.

On the other side are the reactionists who blindly cling to the myth of a golden decade of Church perfection – the decade which, by the way, is responsible for sowing the seeds of dysfunction that we see so ripe for harvest today.

I have a friend who brilliantly assessed the source of today’s ineffective Church: the elders of the ’50s, 60’s and 70’s laid down the mantles of shepherds and dressed themselves in the suits of the corporate boardroom. They “ran” the church like a secular business.

Guess what? The Church is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Secularity.com.

It breaks my heart to hear of stories of congregations that have so completely sold their soul to the secular model of success that they do not even stop to question whether a particular practice or innovation might be or might not be compatible with Scripture. In fact, you might say that Scripture is meaningless to them outside of the emotional high they get from convincing themselves that because they see a text or two on a PowerPoint presentation, that they are a biblical church. They cannot confront a godless society because they have driven God from their own buildings. They are as useful in confronting evil as the German Christians were in confronting Hitler. Which is to say, not useful at all.

But my heart is equally broken by the obtuse refusal by others to even consider that their legalistic approach to conservatism has been a blight on the Bride of Christ for decades, if not centuries. I have been a personal witness to the vitriol expressed to a family who changed membership from one congregation to another. The crime committed by the congregation of choice? The presence of a “fellowship hall” that happened to provide a place for communal meals. Churches have divided over the color of the new carpet to be laid, and the purchase of a hymnal produced by the wrong publishing house. Read from the “wrong” translation in some congregations and you can be disfellowshipped.

You see, both thoughtless Liberals and rabid Fundamentalists have transformed the Church into something that it was never intended to be, and indeed, cannot be. They have both, in radically different ways, attempted to “make the Church respected and popular.” But they have fallen into opposite, yet equal, sides of secularity. Both view the interpretations and conclusions of man as their only solid foundation. The Liberals want to make the Church popular with the dominant, secular viewpoint of the world. The Fundamentalists want to make the Church popular with a minority, yet no less secular, viewpoint of the “righteous remnant.” Where these opposite, and seemingly irreconcilable, viewpoints collide is in the realm of human pride – the ego of a group of people who consider themselves smarter (and in many respects, holier!) than God.

I consider myself to be a staunch opponent of the moral and doctrinal laxity of those on the left. But I am no more of a fan of the hubris and Phariseeism on the right.

Jesus confronted the libertarian Sadducees with an ultimatum: If you love me you will keep my commandments. Discipleship under Christ requires that we accept, and promote, the non-negotiable truths of biblical doctrine, including moral behavior. We do not get to choose what is, or is not, acceptable to God. We follow him or we reject him, there is no middle ground.

On the other hand, Jesus confronted the ultra conservative Pharisees with an equal ultimatum: Go discover what this text means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ Mindless subservience to legal codes does not draw a person closer to God – quite the opposite. Legalism kills, Phariseeism leads to despair.

The contemporary Church has lost her voice. We no longer speak of healing and renewal to a bent and broken world.

I think there is still hope, I think we can still leave the bondage of Egypt – but I have to wonder,

Where is our Moses?

Jesus and the Woman Caught in Adultery (John 8)

Last night in our Bible study we had a wonderful discussion of the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11). To begin, there is the necessary discussion of whether the story actually belongs in the gospel of John. To be scientifically precise, I am not convinced it does. The oldest manuscript that contains the account dates to the fifth century (i.e. 400 years after Jesus lived), and subsequent manuscripts date much, much later. The story interrupts the flow from 7:52 to 8:12, but that in-and-of-itself does not mean much – the gospel writers are more than willing to demonstrate that there really was not a “normal” day of teaching for Jesus. But all of the technical “stuff” aside, the story of the woman caught in adultery has a power that makes it virtually impossible for modern translations to ignore – despite the evidence to the contrary. I know of no modern translation that removes the pericope from the text and either puts it in a footnote or eliminates it altogether. Sometimes tradition is just too powerful for even the hardiest of “change agents.”

In my mind the story generates more questions than it answers: if the woman was “caught” in adultery (as the text states), where is the guilty man? As our teacher pointed out, last time he checked, adultery required two participants. And, everyone’s favorite question, what did Jesus write in the dirt? There are as many answers to that question as there are people who make guesses, but my favorite response is connected to that very first question. Obviously no one knows what Jesus wrote, but my guess is that he pointed out the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees with a simple question, “Where is the man?” I also personally wonder how it came to  be the the woman was “caught” in the act. Was she set up? Was she followed? Was she known to be an adulteress, and so catching her was not that difficult?

Our teacher asked another question last night that I had never stopped to consider: why did the scribes and Pharisees bring the woman to Jesus in the first place? He had no legal authority, and his opinion would have been utterly meaningless to any tribunal that might have been convened to hear the woman’s case. In that respect, the question before Jesus was a blatant attempt to discredit him, and even worse, to provide a pretext to get him in trouble with the Sanhedrin. Questions, questions, questions.

I have two observations regarding the text, at least in connection to our study last night. The first is kind of technical. In our English translations (especially the ESV), Jesus’s response to the Pharisees appears to be one of qualified, and in the mind of most readers, unattainable, permission to stone the woman. Reading the text in the Greek I was struck by a different tone – Jesus is commanding the stoning to begin (the Greek verb is in the imperative mood), but the sentence must begin with the person(s) who were without sin from among the accusers. Those two emphases are often overlooked. One, Jesus agrees with the interpretation from the Law of Moses – such adulterers must be executed. There appears to be no question of guilt here. But – and this is a huge but – the sentence must be carried out by those who have no complicity in the situation. Here is a point that I think most interpreters either overlook, or willfully ignore. The entire scenario just reeks of injustice. The equally guilty male is nowhere to be seen. This is no trial, it equates to a lynching. The hypocrisy of the Pharisees is not just apparent, it is blatant.

I disagree with the interpretation that Jesus is requiring that in order for the sentence to be executed those who accused the woman must be sinless in every respect. That would be an impossible requirement. It is a common view, I grant, but one that is totally outside of any biblical justification. Those who were commanded to execute guilty criminals under the Law of Moses were not required to be perfectly sinless in every respect. However, they could not be complicit in the crime, and could certainly not be guilty of false accusations and of conducting a sham trial. In my understanding, Jesus is looking the scribes and Pharisees squarely in the eye and saying, “I see what is going on here, and you all are just as guilty as this woman – if not more so. So, go ahead, stone her – but let the innocent cast the first stone, if there is anyone here who is innocent in this matter.”

Second, what I see about this story is the incredible power of Jesus to completely change the dynamics of a situation, and to free a tortured person from their prison. As I mentioned above, there appears to be no question of guilt here. The woman was caught, apparently in the act of sexual adultery. Her sin was obvious. According to the strict interpretation of the law, she had no defense and her life was forfeit. Yet, in spite of that, Jesus completely re-wrote the script and condemned her accusers and set her free. He forgave her, with the emphatic caveat that she not continue in her life of sexual impurity. This is why, I think, that despite the textual evidence to the contrary, this story remains in our English translations. As one of my professors summarized, it may not be genuine John, but the story is clearly genuine Jesus.

This story convicts us on many different levels. How many times do we fall in with the Pharisees? We know the rules. We love the rules. We hate those who violate the rules, and we especially hate those who excuse those who violate the rules. We demand justice be done to those who violate the rules. We are good, Bible believing, rule following Christians. And then we read this story and all of our legalisms are blown up. Jesus sides with the accused, and we end up dropping our rocks and walking away chastised and embarrassed.

On the other hand, I think we all hope, to some degree or another, that Jesus will treat us like he treated the woman. We know we are guilty, we know we have no defense. We have been caught “red handed.” All we can do is hope that this teacher blesses us with those words, “Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.”

What a story! And what better way to illustrate that we all ascend higher if we climb lower.

Enemies of the Cross Defeat Themselves

In response to my last post, “Musings on the Gospel of Christ,” I would venture that more than one atheist or agnostic would say, “But what of the countless wars and violence that have been perpetrated in the name of Christ?” I do not shrink from such questions, for despite the intention to defeat my argument, they actually confirm my point.

Every example of war, violence, manipulation, and disgrace that has been attributed to the church of Christ is actually a demonstration or manifestation of the depth of the abyss of the human nature, unredeemed by the gospel of Christ. The Crusades, the Inquisition, the European Wars of Religion, even the current litany of examples of sexual and physical abuse by clergy in the Roman Catholic and Southern Baptist Convention are examples of human behavior in rebellion to and in direct opposition to the pure gospel of Christ, not as a demonstration of that gospel. (As an example of this pure gospel, I point no further than the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7).

Conversely, where the gospel of Christ has been faithfully and humbly presented hospitals have been built, orphanages created, lives saved, marriages renewed, children fed, homes built, clean water delivered, addictions treated, the environment repaired. Children and adults have been educated, medicine has been delivered, infant mortality has decreased while deaths associated with childbirth have dropped. Works of visual and musical arts that have stood the test of centuries have been created, and are still being created. The pain of natural disasters has been assuaged. The list could go on.

  • Compare that that to Marxism – millions killed and countless others impoverished, not because of a misunderstanding of Marxism, but as a direct result of its most egregious doctrines.
  • Compare that to Islam – where its very founder decreed that a person must convert or die. (The only other option, to live in obscurity, being able to neither promote nor practice one’s faith).
  • Compare that to National Socialism – where over 6 million Jews and other “undesirables” were ruthlessly exterminated in the name of law, order, and cultural purity.
  • Compare that to secular humanism – the very diseased fruit that we see “live and in living color” as it unfolds in front of us: a psychosis that is in the process of of annihilating our culture one murderous step at a time. Reference the rise in drug and alcohol addition, the rise in sexual dysfunctions, the rise in pornography, abortion, racial violence, and the growing sense of futility and meaninglessness.

So, trot out the old canard about Christianity, or I prefer to refer to the gospel of Christ, as being the root of all of mankind’s problems. The evidence is stacked against such an accusation, and a fair reading will leave such a charge smoldering in dust and ashes. I fear no such claim. Truth does not fear attack, and lies will be seen as lies.

I do not hesitate to confess that horrific abuses have been perpetrated in the name of Christ – wars, sexual and physical abuse, torture. But, those behaviors are the result of fallen human nature, and are in direct rebellion to the selfless giving of God and Christ. – as preeminently displayed in the crucifixion. The Bible teaches that such actions are reprehensible, not, as in the case of some of the ideologies listed above, a part of the core teachings of those ideologies.

We, as disciples of Christ, must do a better job of apologetics, and a better job of living the gospel of Christ. The problem is our sinful nature, not the purity of the gospel. I repeat what I have said earlier – the only hope for our culture, and perhaps the entire world, is a return to the gospel of Christ.

We must ascend by climbing lower.

Musings on the Gospel of Christ

We are an empty people.

Perhaps it has always been that way – I’m not old enough to remember the days pre-Enlightenment. I’m not too sure about the 1800’s and early 1900’s either. Maybe people were empty back then, too. Maybe one defining mark of humanity is this cavernous emptiness eats away at our soul.

I guess what strikes me about our present culture is how fast, and how far, we have fallen.

We tried the drug thing, and we tried the sex thing. Those analgesics helped for a while, or so it seemed. But when the false high of the drugs and sex wore off, our emptiness became even greater than the void that drove us to the drugs and sex.

The emptiness that returned has now grown to the point that we do not even know what it means to be human any more. Our biological sex is no longer even certain. I read this week where children of younger and younger ages are being given life-altering drugs and undergoing radical surgeries to “change” their birth sex. Boys are undergoing operations to remove their external genitalia and are being given drugs that will keep them in a state of perpetual pre-puberty. Girls are undergoing double mastectomies and are being given massive doses of male hormones. And, if the article is truthful, these procedures are being performed on children as young as 8 or 9 years old.

We have totally redefined marriage, the core unit of any society. With the stupefying progress we have made in the progress to help infertile, heterosexual couples, we now have lesbians carrying “their” babies and gay men parenting a child carried by a surrogate woman.

In terms of gender and sexuality, and by extension marriage, all hell has indeed broken loose.

In politics and partisan conversations, logical and open debate has been replaced by unbridled hatred. Unsubstantiated and unverifiable claims of abuse from three or four decades in the past can destroy a person’s entire career – the accusation does not need to have merit, simply the fact that it has been made is deemed to be enough. A person can honestly and sincerely confess to angry emotions (not actions, mind you, just emotions) and the person is vilified simply because he felt those emotions. And he was confessing the error of holding those emotions!!

Simply put, we don’t have to listen anymore, all we have to do is scream and blacklist and vilify and protest. Descartes’s famous dictum, “I think, therefore I am” has been corrected to, “I hate, therefore I am.”

No one ever proposes a solution. We just hate, and protest. And those who disagree with us just counter-protest. And hate us.

We are just a profoundly empty people. We have no center. When we look deep inside ourselves, there is no “there” there.

And, without a center, without a core truth that sustains us, we have no hope.

And, a people that has no hope will ultimately, and quickly, descend into pure anarchy.

I think we have already started. We have met the enemy, and it is us. (Pogo!)

It is at this point that the gospel of Christ is the most powerful. It is only when it is darkest that a light can be seen most clearly. It is the gospel of Christ that must be returned to the center of our culture – or we face certain annihilation. It is only the gospel of Christ that will allow humans to regain their humanity – it is only the gospel of Christ that gives males the power and joy to be males and gives females the power and joy to be females. It is only the gospel of Christ that will allow virtual wars to become peaceful discussions once again. It is only the gospel of Christ that will allow what is left of our culture to survive – assuming God will even grant it to be healed from the mess we have made of it.

Has a culture ever been as empty as ours? I cannot answer that. I do know that wherever and whenever the gospel of Christ has been preached faithfully, entire civilizations have been renewed.

Can it happen once again, can it happen with us? With God all things are possible.

But, only through the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Any other solution will be vanity, a dark and empty void.

Some Reflections on Recent Readings

What do Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lesslie Newbigin, and Os Guinness have in common? Hmm. Not nationality. Not ecclesiastical connection. Not profession. Not currently alive. Seemingly, not much. There is, however, one thing that unites these three outwardly disparate characters.

All three make an unflinching, and in their own way, extraordinary defense of the gospel of Christ. How I became interested in each of the authors would require a separate post, but suffice it to say that my reading list takes me in strange, and in some cases, indefinable, directions.

This year my reading list has included a number of works from Guinness and Newbigin. I have read deeply and broadly on Bonhoeffer. That one characteristic that I noted above keeps coming back to me again and again. Bonhoeffer, Newbigin, and Guinness are all driven, in their own unique circumstance, back to the core of the gospel of Christ to confront their respective churches and cultures.

Some people may think it sad that I praise such men so highly. They each represent strains of theological convictions that I ultimately find to be lacking. Why read them? And, if I read them, why not critique them and discuss their flaws instead of praising them? Quite on the contrary, I think it is sad that I have to resort to reading Bonhoeffer, Newbigin, and Guinness to find such a courageous and counter-cultural approach to issues confronting the church today.

I may just be swimming in the wrong pond, but I find it singularly distressing that I just cannot find any author from my faith community, the Churches of Christ, who is taking such an unpopular, and convicting, stance against the idolatry of our western, and primarily, American, culture. There are those who rail against gross distortions of biblical morality, but it does not take too much of a scratch to discover that their Christianity is more related to “churchianty” than the gospel of Christ.

If there are such authors or preachers, please let me know, I would love to read/hear what they are saying. And, please, do not suggest such men as are leading the “mega” churches of our fellowship in Texas or Tennessee. I know the difference between healthy theology and pablum, and believe me, I know it when I see it. As Forrest Gump once said, that is all I’m going to say about that.

I am trying, in my own inept and halting way, to be what I hear Bonhoeffer, Newbigin, and Guinness calling me to be. I know they are imperfect, that each of them has said, or written, things about which I would strongly disagree. I know they are fallen human beings, and I am a fallen human being.

It’s just that I am deeply humbled, troubled even, with the depth of their commitment to, and defense of, the gospel of Christ to challenge all of the principalities and powers of the world that they see (or saw). I find myself too comfortable bowing down to the idols they refused to submit to. I find myself too fearful to preach against the idolatry they fearlessly  attacked.

I hope to do better. I think, in order to be faithful to my calling, I have to be better.

The Lies We Sing

I have often said, and firmly believe, that we as Christians sing a much more faithful and robust faith than we teach. In part, I think that is why singing (and congregational acapella singing at that) is so critical to our worship services. Without the rich history of some of our best songs, our theology would be utterly bereft of any significance. But there is another, much darker, side to our singing. We sing far, far too many lies.

I suppose this post could end up being thousands of entries long, but here are just a few of some of the lies I think we sing – I don’t have a song book in front of me, so these are just off the top of my head –

“All to Jesus I surrender, all to him I freely give . . .” Well, except for my checkbook, my political affiliation, my resentments, my anger, my racism, my hatred.

“It is well with my soul . . .” Well, maybe my soul, but not my IRA, my retirement, my house, my car, my kids, my marriage, my job, even my dog has issues.

“I stand in awe of you . . .” Never mind that the image of standing in awe is unbiblical – peoples in ancient cultures knelt or bowed or fell prostrate to show honor, respect and awe. The point is we don’t stand in awe of God. We have everything all figured out – scientifically, philosophically, sociologically, politically, militarily. It’s just that we are really, really, into that emotional high that standing up while we sing this song gives us.

“Jesus, let us come to know you . . .” Just don’t get to know me all that well, and seriously don’t make any uncomfortable demands on my life.

“Take my life and let it be, consecrated Lord to thee . . .” Wait, what?

“King of my life I crown thee now . . .” You’ve got to be kidding. God, you can be my co-pilot, but just sit over there and don’t you dare touch any of the controls.

“Just as I am, without one plea . . .” Well, I really dig the ‘just as I am’ part, but, God, regarding the request thing – do you have a minute, ’cause I have quite a few issues that you really need to deal with.

Sadly, I could go on. These are just a few of the songs that make me pause when I see the title or read a few of the lyrics. I’m not suggesting that we cannot sing these songs. It’s just that I have to be conscious that when I sing a song of praise or devotion, I am singing both to God and to my fellow Christians.

Am I singing the truth, or a lie? Obviously no man or woman is perfect, and we are not expected to live perfect lives before we come to worship. I don’t want to make too big of a mountain out of this – but still, it is troubling.

Do we really think about the meaning of the words as we sing them? Or do we just put our brain on autopilot and thoughtlessly mouth the words?

Let us ascend by climbing lower.

The Beauty of the Restoration Principle

I want to pursue a point that I brought out in my review yesterday of Os Guinness’s book, A Free People’s Suicide. At the very end of that  book, Guinness pointed out how the concept of restoration can be progressive in nature. When I read that section I felt a weird sense of both renewal and regret. Renewal, because it gave me courage to stand up for what I believe, and regret because so many of my fellow ministers have utterly rejected the concept of restoration. It was very sad to me that such words celebrating restoration had to come from someone outside of my spiritual family.

I am a child of the American Restoration Movement. Two of my favorite college courses focused on the Restoration Movement (especially the early years), and one of my greatest joys was to serve as the graduate assistant to Dr. Bill Humble, the director for the Center for Restoration Studies at Abilene Christian University. I have read deeply about our movement, and I would like to think broadly as well. I consider myself to be intelligent enough to recognize our faults as well as our strengths, and to a great extent that is what gives me so much grief concerning the current state of the Restoration Movement.

Many preachers today look back and identify a time period or an issue on which we were less than honest or made some mistakes, and based entirely on those years or that issue, dismiss the concept of restoration entirely.

Others want to dismiss the concept of restoration based on the entirely specious argument that the church has never needed to be restored, that there has always been a pristine, immaculate assembly of the saints called the Church of Christ.

Whether you want to bash history, or flat-out deny it, cutting off one of your legs in order to lose weight is pretty stupid, if you ask me. No group of people has ever been perfect, and those who suggest that we can erase our past simply because we stubbed our toe or failed to get some point of doctrine or behavior correct are demonstrating their arrogance and superficiality to the nth degree. Likewise, to magically deny 2000, or even 200, years of history is, well, let’s just say you cannot argue with stupid. We are a historical people, and from the dawn of time until today the wisest peoples have been those who have paid attention to their past in order to improve their future.

This is Guinness’s point exactly. We do not look back on our past, religiously, politically, or philosophically, in order to enshrine it in some kind of air-tight glass trophy case. We examine our past, both positively and critically, in order to learn how we arrived where we have, and what we can do to avoid the mistakes and failures of our forefathers and mothers. This is the progressive view of restoration. We examine the core values and foundational texts (oral or written), and, realizing that no human in the past or present is perfect, seek to maintain or improve upon those values.

There is a reactionary form of restoration, and I do not intend to praise it. Reactionary restoration is to reject any form of progress on the basis that all progress is wrong. There has only been one pristine, perfect, world, and we have to reject everything that separates us from that time period. Granted, there are many reactionary restorationists within the Churches of Christ, but they eventually end up hoisted on their own petard. They meet in buildings, use amplified sound systems, sing out of books, sit in pews arranged in cathedral style, and even read texts that have been translated from the original languages – so much for “pure first century Christianity.”

Progressive restoration recognizes that time marches on, that you cannot step in the same river twice. But, and this is the restoration part of progressive restoration, you can repeatedly step in the river that goes by the same name. No, we cannot worship in the exact same format in which the apostle Paul worshipped (and I would imagine he had one format when he worshipped with Jewish Christians and another when he worshipped with primarily Gentile Christians) simply because we do not have an exact blueprint of what that format was. But we do have the core principles or practices with which he worshipped. We know the apostolic church read the Scriptures, we know they sang songs of praise, we know they celebrated the Lord’s Supper weekly. We know they gave of their prosperity to help the less fortunate. We know they  evangelized and baptized and they expected repentance for sinful behavior.

By identifying these core beliefs and practices (and the number could be expanded), we have a foundation upon which to build our beliefs and practices. We can be apostolic without being slavishly tied to the first, or the fourth, or the twentieth century. This is progressive restoration. We carefully and conscientiously examine the faith of the apostles in order to faithfully represent those core beliefs to our culture.

I will never apologize for being a restorationist. I regret many of the words and some of the behavior of my spiritual forefathers, but I will never reject the principles for which they stood. I do not believe we can be a first century church – simply because we no longer live in the first century!! But we can be an apostolic church – and indeed I am convinced we cannot be a faithful church unless we are an apostolic church.

You may say I am just fiddling with semantics, but at least in my opinion, there is a significant difference between being reactionary and being a  positive, forward thinking restorationist. I am grateful to Os Guinness for giving me the clarity that his brief little discussion gave me. I hope I can be faithful both to the inspired Scriptures and to Barton W. Stone, Alexander Campbell, Raccoon John Smith, David Lipscomb, and to my modern mentors such as Dr. Humble, David Edwin Harrell, Richard Hughes, Leonard Allen – and many, many, others.

As always, thanks for listening in, and should I accidentally say something that is helpful to you, please pass along your thanks to those who made me what I am. I just consider myself lucky to have been given the gifts that I have been given. I am richly, richly, blessed, and I hope through my life and teaching to share what I do not deserve, but have been given anyway.