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.

Church, Are We Asking The Right Questions?

Many people are led to believe that the Bible can provide answers to all of life’s questions. That may or may not be true – but it is absolutely critical in any case to make sure we are asking the right questions. Some questions have no answers, some questions may even have multiple answers, and some questions are so trivial that they do not even deserve an attempt at an answer. I am concerned that too many churches are asking the wrong questions, and therefore no matter how correctly the questions are answered, the church will be be no better for the asking.

  • In today’s world in which the innate God-given uniqueness of male and female is being challenged, many churches are more concerned about males and females being seen together in a public swimming facility.
  • In today’s world in which religious extremism is being flaunted by both left (through the proscription of any religious demonstration) and the right (through Islamic terrorism and the radical racism of the alt-right movement), many churches are more concerned about a physical demonstration of joy such as hand-clapping or raised hands or of penitence such as kneeling.
  • In today’s world in which the presentation of views outside of one’s own micro-narrative demands “trigger warnings” and “safe rooms,” churches are so insulated and xenophobic that any teaching not formally approved by the leadership is forbidden (including the reading of Scripture from an “unapproved” translation).
  • In today’s world in which a perceived threat is responded to with outright violence, many churches have completely abandoned the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount and actively promote a “concealed carry” and “stand your own ground” mentality.

Lest I be caricatured as something that I clearly am not, let me make myself clear: proper modesty is not a suggestion, it is a necessity. Every congregation has the right to set forth what is proper worship decorum. Leaders must be alert to what is being taught, and must prohibit false teaching. Finally, many faithful brothers and sisters have CC permits for legitimate reasons. These issues are all worthy of discussion, and faithful brothers and sisters can disagree about the specifics.

But are they core issues? Do they define the essence of the church? Is the eternal salvation of any person dependent upon a swimsuit, a raised hand, or a concealed carry permit?

You see, I do think that if someone believes that they can change their gender – or that gender is inconsequential – that person’s spiritual destiny is in danger. I do think that if a person believes that killing in the name of their god, or that one race or “religion” is superior to another – that person has denied the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus. I do believe that if a person rejects the way of the cross and preaches the way of the sword, that person is in danger of the hell of fire.

I do not believe any of those things because of my philosophy or my gender or my race or my nationality. I hold those beliefs because Jesus taught those things. The teachings of Jesus transcend gender and race and nationality. The teachings of Jesus transcend anger and hatred and pride. The teachings of Jesus do not simply modify human philosophies, the teachings of Jesus uproot and destroy human philosophies.

In the Kingdom of God the meek inherit the earth, the weak overcome the strong, the least is the greatest, the servant is the master, and the last finish first. In the Kingdom of God everyone submits – to each other! In the Kingdom of God feet are washed so that fists do not need to be clenched. In the Kingdom of God the other cheek is turned and the second mile is walked.

In the Kingdom of God we want to get the right answers, but we are more concerned about making sure we are asking the right questions.

I am convinced the world is asking some critical questions – eternally significant questions. I am also convinced that Jesus provides the answers to those questions. I believe most fervently that a congregation had better be asking, and searching for the answers to, those questions or it will finally be forced to admit what the world already knows – it is a meaningless and irrelevant museum full of old, dusty bones.

The Vibrant, Healthy, Living, Conquering, Transformational Church

Past couple of posts have pointed out what causes congregations to die. Now, time to turn the tables. How can a congregation overcome the problems that are proving to be so fatal to so many? In a word, the congregation that wants to grow, to become vibrant, to conquer and to overcome, must be a transformational church.

A wise man once warned that if you marry the philosophy of the day you will soon be a widow. Church leaders that rush to make their message compatible with the prevailing worldview will soon realize that they have to change their message about as frequently as they change their underwear. Put a little bit more “homey,” a wise old preacher once said, “never try to fiddle folks into the church, because when you quit fiddlin’ they are just going to go find another fiddler.” Oddly enough, this is exactly what happened to many conservative congregations during the 40’s and 50’s of the last century. The country was basically conservative, the world was reeling from two disastrous world wars, and the idea of many churches was to present a message that fit that conservative time.

Today the country has changed. Conservatism has a bad name, the buzzword today is “tolerance,” and the last thing anyone wants to be identified with is a narrow, legalistic, authoritarian, or exclusive message. So, modern “worship” services basically duplicate modern music concerts: the lyrics of the songs might be different, but the atmosphere is the same. Ditto for “egalitarian” worship leaders. To be “hip” with the modern scene you need plenty of women up on the stage. A practicing gay or lesbian worship leader will score you extra points with the “open and affirming” crowd. And whatever you did last week must be exceeded this week or the crowd will find a more exciting venue next week. The pressure of performing for these congregations must be unbelievable.

Well, I hate to rain on the postmodern parade, but God’s message is narrow, it is clearly presented in terms of covenant law, God is the ultimate authoritarian, and the message of the cross is entirely exclusive. You either accept it or you do not. There is no gray, “uncommitted” choice.

So, how does a church speak to such a world without becoming a part of that world? Answer: By transforming both itself and the culture in which is is found.

I spoke of at least three issues that are plaguing the church. Notice how a transformational church addresses these issues:

  1.  Narcissism. A transformational church conquers narcissism by promoting the universal submission that is one of the hallmarks of Christian unity (Eph. 5:21ff). If I submit to you, and you submit to me, what is left of our mutual narcissism? It disappears! I look to what builds you up, you look to what builds me up. We all, as equals in God’s sight, seek the building up of the church. I surrender my rights for you, you surrender your rights for me. “Rights” disappear – mutual submission arises to take its place. Narcissism is transformed into mutual love and edification. The church wins.
  2. Anti-authority. A transformational church does not seek to eliminate authority (which, in no way can be done regardless of the suggestion otherwise). However, in a transformational church authority is recast to be in the image of God’s authority. Notice how both Paul and Peter spoke to the ruling elders of their respective congregations (Acts 20:28ff; 1 Peter 5:1-11). Notice the imagery – shepherd, care, nurture, protect, lead. The New Testament never shrinks from authoritarian language – but it is always an authority that comes from humble service. It is transformational authority. When leaders lead through service, who would not want to be in their flock? The church wins.
  3. Cowardice. I did not previously use that specific word, but it is there. Church leaders have been afflicted with a wretched case of cowardice over the past 3-4 decades. We are afraid to confront anyone (well, a few are willing to confront, but they do so in a most distasteful manner.) A transformational church on the other hand fears nothing except becoming unfaithful to God’s message. A transformational church intentionally seeks to transform both its members and those with whom it comes into contact. A transformational church is by definition a courageous church. It changes lives by confronting both the immediate and the systemic sins which destroy those lives. When people’s lives are changed by the gospel, a culture is transformed. The church wins.

The early church was a transformational church. It did not bend its teachings to fit its culture. The church was born into a world of sexual, economic, militaristic, religious, and philosophical dysfunction. It refused to participate in those dysfunctions, however. In confronting each of those dysfunctions it risked absolute failure. Within the space of just a few centuries, however, those aberrations were largely (although not totally) transformed. No, it was not perfect. The church has never been perfect, nor will it ever be perfect.

However, we have never been asked to be perfect. We have been charged with being faithful to God’s purpose – and that is to be transformational. As we transform ourselves first we begin to witness what can be done in this bent and broken world. One person, one transformation at a time, and God’s kingdom will grow.

A dying church is one that has been conformed to the pressures of this age.

A transformational church conquers the “principalities and powers” of this world and is a victorious church.

So, which church do you want to be a part of?

Three Scriptures Christians Hate (III and summary)

So far in this series we have seen how Moses eliminates our ability to boast in our numbers. We cannot be proud to have the most numbers or that we can claim to have popular or “influential” members, nor is boasting that we are the ‘righteous remnant’ any safer. Our only security is in having a loving relationship with God. Moving just a little closer to the heart, Moses attacks our reliance on our self-reliance, our ability to “pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.” If we are able to accomplish anything, it is because God has empowered us to do so. Many times all he asks is that we have faith, and he will do the heavy lifting.

Today Moses cuts to the core; he hits us where it really hurts. Today Moses kills our inflated, and erroneous, view of our own righteousness.

Do not say in your heart, after the LORD your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,’ whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out before you . . . Know, therefore, that the LORD your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people.” (Deuteronomy 9:4, 6, ESV)

Before anyone rises to smite me, yes, I know. Moses is not literally speaking to “us.” He was speaking to the Israelites who had gathered to cross the Jordan and to take possession of the promised land. But I see in these three challenges, or rebukes if you will, a sermon that is as relevant today as it ever was. If there ever was a nation – or a church! – that prided itself on its numbers, its ability to create its own success, and that was overbearingly satisfied with its own righteousness, it is the United States and the populist American church. That is why I titled this series of posts “Three Scriptures Christians Hate.” It is not that genuine disciples of Christ hate these passages (although, to be honest, I am uncomfortable with them, because they cut to my own pride and self-reliance). No, what I am saying is that in the eyes of the populist American “church,” these passages would be anathema.

Moses was confronting the Israelites with three very real human sins. All of God’s people have at one time or another been tempted to rely on “group think,” or the tendency to trust in their numbers and their popularity. God’s people have been tempted to view their own strength as unstoppable. And God’s people have been seduced to think that success is the result of their righteousness. Moses told the Israelites they were wrong on all three counts. I think Moses is still right. I think we look at our numbers, at the size of our buildings, at the popular or “important” people who attend our services, and at our impeccable adherence to arcane doctrines as proof that God is blessing us.

I firmly believe God wants his church to grow. I can find no Scripture that says, “Follow me and become a loser.” The precise plans for the beautiful tabernacle and later the temple lets me know that God does take pleasure when we honor him with our wealth instead of hoarding it for ourselves, or wasting it on frivolous pleasures. And, lest we forget, it was God who said, “Be Holy as I am Holy.” Holiness is a good thing, and much to be sought after.

Its just that we can never boast of our numbers (or lack thereof!). We can never boast of our success. We can never boast of our righteousness. We can, and should, give thanks that God has blessed us, that God has given us the ability to grow and succeed, and that God has purified us and made us holy.

In other words, God wants us to succeed, to be blessed, to climb higher. But we ascend by going lower. We win by losing. We live by dying. It is all up-side-down. And that, I believe, is exactly what Moses was trying to say.

Three Scriptures Christians Hate (II)

In my last post I pointed out how Christians are so enthralled with numbers that we hate to think that God is really concerned with more than numbers. While numbers do represent people, what God is concerned about is a relationship. Deuteronomy 7:7-8 confronts us in our numbers-centric thinking.

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“Upping the ante” somewhat, and shocking us even more, Moses even had the temerity to minimize human accomplishments. If we cannot boast in our numbers, even less are we to boast of our human strength:

Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth. You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day. (Deuteronomy 8:17-18, ESV)

The specific issue to which Moses was speaking was the temptation for the Israelites to think that it was by their own strength and military power that they had achieved their economic dominance. That is application number one, and one that I believe needs to be addressed in our money-and-image hungry culture. However, today I want to address a more insidious temptation to pride regarding our human power, and that is the temptation for us to think we are building God’s kingdom, God’s church.

We see the results of this thinking in the myriad of ways that our speech betrays us. We speak of evangelistic “campaigns” (originally a military term, now used almost exclusively with politics). We attend “soul winning workshops.” In fact, “winning souls” is virtually synonymous with evangelism today. Ministers are measured by the number of baptisms they perform, or at the very least, are performed in “their” church. Youth ministers record baptisms at summer camps like notches on their biblical six-shooters. “How To Do Evangelism” seminars and books are legion.

The surest way not to draw a crowd is to title a seminar, “How To Grow A Church By Doing Nothing” (Exodus 14:14; see also Exodus 14:25, Deuteronomy 1:30; 3:22; 20:4; Joshua 10:14, 42; 23:3; 2 Chronicles 20:13-17; Nehemiah 4:20; Isaiah 30:15; Acts 2:41 (God did the adding!) Acts 2:47; 1 Corinthians 3:5-8).

No, in today’s church it is all about me, my power, my ability, my skill, my program or book, my ability to “win souls” and to “close the deal” and to “expand the kingdom of God.” (Brief aside – as if God’s kingdom could be expanded, how in the world do we think that we mortals could do it??)

The passage I quoted above is actually towards the end of a longer section that begins in Deuteronomy 8:11 with the words, “Take care lest you forget the LORD your God” and continues in v. 14, “. . . then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God . . .”

You see, when we try to ascend by climbing higher, when we try to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, when we try to convince ourselves that it is by our own strength or power that we achieve any goal, the only way we can convince ourselves that we are successful is by forgetting God.

When we remember the LORD our God by obeying his commandments and by submitting to his will, we WILL become victorious! We will be blessed!

But we can only ascend by descending lower.

Become Like Children

In light of my focus on “Ascending Lower,” I was struck today by a section of a commentary on the gospel of Matthew I am currently working through. The passage is based on Matthew 18:4, and really needs no further explanation:

The vital difference, however, between the child and what Jesus calls for is that for the child this is a natural state, but what the kingdom of God calls for is a deliberately chosen (‘turn and become’) stance of humility. It is a form of self-denial that has its counterpart in the taking up the cross of 16:24. The challenge is to replace the assertion of one’s own importance with a deliberately chosen posture of subordination. (John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew (New International Greek Testament Commentary), p. 732.)

Cogitate on that for a while.