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.

Undeniable Truth for Theological Reflection – #1

Some may be wondering about my “Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection.” This list is just kind of a “tongue in cheek” but also rather serious reflection on what it means to attempt theological reflection. To better explain myself, I thought I would run through my list. My very first list only had seven truths, and no sub-points, so my list has kind of grown over the years.

My first point:

The number one requirement for reading and interpreting the Bible is humility.
1.a. The primary expression of this humility in theological reflection is a submission to the Scriptures as they stand written. We do not, as interpreters and theologians, stand over the text, we stand under the text.

I think to a certain extent this requirement is self-explanatory, yet I also find it to be one of the least practiced of my requirements, at least among practicing ministers. If you wonder why, I think I have a fairly good reason: it is difficult to maintain, or even begin with, a sense of humility if  at the same time you believe yourself to be “called” to be a minister/preacher.

Just stop and think about it. Either over a long period of time, or just in waking up one morning, you believe that God has called you to be a preacher/minister/teacher/elder. Whoa! That is pretty heavy, and heady, stuff. The creator and redeemer of the world has specifically put his finger on you, all of perhaps 200 pounds of spit and vinegar, and said, “Be my representative to speak my words and lead my church.”

And we are supposed to accept that call and just meekly fade into the woodwork?

In other words, the very nature of our ministry militates against a deep sense of humility. And, when you add to this sense of call all of the praise and glory and back-slapping and offers to join the country club and it gets pretty difficult to repeat the words of Isaiah, “I am a man of unclean lips.”

Yet, that is exactly what is demanded of us!

Every minister needs to wake up in the morning with the question, “Why me?” on our lips. We need to close our eyes at night with the related question, “What have I done to deserve this call?” Answer – nothing. If we did receive that “call” (and that question can be debated), the only thing we can say is that we are extremely blessed, and that blessing places upon us a great responsibility and no right of prestige.

My point in listing this as my first “undeniable” truth of theological reflection is to impress on anyone who attempts theological reflection (and we should all be theologians!) that the ministry of preaching, teaching, and even living the Christian life is a demanding one. We do not accept the mantle of reading, interpreting, and teaching the Bible lightly. As I tried to state succinctly, we stand under the text, not over it.

The number one prerequisite for becoming a preacher, a teacher, an elder, or simply a thoughtful Christian is not to have an opinion in search of a proof-text. The number one prerequisite is exactly what Isaiah felt, and said, when he did receive his special call, “Woe is me, for I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.” (Isaiah 6:5, ESV)

Anything less is simply pure arrogance.

How to Win a Complex Theological Argument Without Really Trying – A Lament

I saw it again today. A complex theological discussion ended abruptly, yet without a legitimate conclusion. One side walked away feeling euphoric, the other feeling cheated and abused. The discussion was over, yet nothing had been settled. Neither side was changed; indeed, because of the nature of the argumentation neither side could be changed. What is sad is that through the specific use of tactics the conversation is likely never to be honestly entered into again. The “victor” obviously sees no need to, and the “vanquished” rejects the inherent dishonesty of the other. Never again shall the twain meet.

How do you win a complex theological argument without ever really trying? It is profoundly simple, actually. All you need to do is appeal to experience. Experience is the “Mother of all Debate Bombs (MOADB).” Drop it once and your enemy is reduced to picking up the splintered shards of whatever evidence they might have produced. Its effect can be devastating – although virtually never appropriate or legitimate.

Consider the two examples where I see this most frequently used. (No names will be provided to protect the guilty). A respectable, although intense, discussion begins over the significance of baptism, both in terms of salvation and the larger issue of ecclesiology (who should be considered a member of the church). At a critical point in the discussion one of the participants asks a rhetorical question: “Are you saying my father, God rest his saintly soul, will not be in heaven?” The MOADB was just dropped. How can there be a response? Say, “no” and all the fiery pit of hell will explode. Say, “yes” and derail the entire discussion into who has the mind of God. Say, “I do not know” and the discussion then becomes moot. Why discuss something with an ignoramus? (Never mind that option three is clearly the best, unless someone DOES have access to God’s infinite wisdom.) The point is that with the introduction of the dearly departed saintly relative, the issue becomes one of experience (the experience of having to deal with relatives/loved ones who disagree with me) and the playing field never will be level again.

Example two: A proponent of gender egalitarianism defends his (and it is almost always “his”) change in understanding the increased leadership role of women in a worship service. “I knew I was wrong when I looked into the eyes of my sweet little 10 year old daughter and realized she would never be considered worthwhile in my church.” Here is a case of the double MOADB. First, who wants to accept the role of arguing with a “sweet little 10 year old girl.” My daughter has had me wrapped around her little finger ever since the day she entered this world. Two dogs and a turtle are ample proof of that, and my fortress of arguments against a rabbit is crumbling by the minute. But I digress.

The second, and more insidious, experiential argument in the above statement is the declaration (accusation, actually) that a female is considered “worthless” in a congregation that places the role of leadership solely upon qualified men. But I hear it all the time! In a recent article in a national magazine, the writer stipulated that one of the factors in deciding whether a congregation was “healthy” or not was whether there were females participating in significant leadership roles in the worship service. Clearly, not having women (plural) on the stage means a congregation hates women (and, I would assume, that means the women in the congregation hate themselves – a rather pernicious loathing, I might add).

However, once dropped, the MOADB cannot be recalled. The discussion is over, regardless of whether the subject is a dearly departed relative or one’s precious little progeny. Move the discussion from reason (logic, exegesis, historical examples, etc) to emotion (experience) and the battle is won. You really do not even have to try very hard. It is so simple it is astounding.

All of this is to illustrate, and to stress, my Undeniable Truth of Theological Reflection #1 all over again. If your goal is to win the argument (or at least prevent your opponent from answering you), then by all means drop the MOADB. But if your goal is to humbly submit to the truth of God’s word, and to lovingly attempt to correct someone else who you feel is in error, then the pretentious use of empty emotionalism is absolutely forbidden.

To paraphrase a teaching of our Lord, it is far better to lose an argument and maintain your virtue, than to win a debate and lose all sense of your honor.

Let us ascend by climbing lower.