I Don’t Get It (Church Division)

I have often said, and now once again confess, that I am not the sharpest bulb in the drawer, or the brightest blade in the box. There are many things about which I am confused, and when someone explains them to me I want to say, “Duh, why didn’t I think of that?” So, the following conundrum may not be a problem to you at all. But for me, well, I’m stuck . . .

The problem to which I refer was illustrated by a recent conversation when, in a room full of individuals representing many different churches, a person said, “We are all Christians, we may have different labels, but we all believe the same thing, believe in the same God, believe in Jesus.” To which I thought to myself, “Um, no we don’t.”

You see, in my limited intellectual capacity, you either believe something or you don’t. If you believe something, it is important to you and you are at least willing to defend it as a personal belief, or you are willing to discuss your belief in the hopes of arriving at a better belief. Let me state a necessary deduction to my way of looking at the world:

Those who claim that all “Christians” believe the same thing and are simply divided by different “labels” are either (a) ignorant or ambivalent about the beliefs of their own church or are (b) ignorant about the beliefs of other churches or (c) are of the opinion that said beliefs are totally irrelevant.

If you hold position (c), then my only question is why do you affirm any of your current beliefs? If such beliefs are irrelevant, then it seems to me you would discard those beliefs and accept the beliefs of other who are utterly and totally convinced of the importance, and correctness, of their beliefs. So, let’s look at positions (a) and (b), which are really just two sides of the same coin.

To be as honest as I can, and to be as gentle as I can and still be clear, it is simply impossible for followers of Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, Calvinism, and various other stripes of free church theology, to be “united” in any realistic sense of the word. For example –

If you are a Roman Catholic, and you firmly believe in such dogmas as Papal infallibility, apostolic succession, transubstantiation (and its related dogmas), the veneration/adoration/worship of Mary (and the perpetual virginity of Mary as well), then it is simply impossible for you to be “united” with those of us who reject those dogmas. Those doctrines are not just incidental to the Catholic faith – they are what makes Roman Catholics what they are. If you reject Papal infallibility, if you reject transubstantiation, if you reject any kind of special place for Mary – well, it is very difficult for you to consider yourself a Roman Catholic. And if I reject those doctrines, how can you say you are in fellowship with me?

Likewise with Lutherans – if you  hold to consubstantiation, if you hold to the doctrine of “faith only,” if you defend infant baptism, then I would suggest it should be impossible for you to consider that a Roman Catholic on one side or me on the other would be faithful Christians. The Catholic should (if he/she is being true to Catholic doctrine) reject the idea of “faith only,” as do I, for entirely different reasons. The Roman Catholic and I both believe we are saved by faith, but I flatly reject (and I have reason to believe the Roman Catholic would too) the addition of the word “only.” Martin Luther added it to Paul’s teaching in Ephesians (and elsewhere) and in so doing completely changed the meaning of the text.

Calvinists (and all their permutations in the Presbyterian and some Baptist churches) are in more of a pickle than Lutherans, in my opinion. If you hold to the traditional TULIP explanation of Calvinism (Total depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints) then I am so far away from being a Christian as to be an atheist – I reject every one of those doctrines. But, if you reject any one of those teachings, the house of Calvin folds like a wet paper bag. You cannot hold to total depravity and reject irresistible grace. You cannot believe in unconditional election and reject the idea of limited atonement. In other words, to be consistent, you have to hold all of these concepts in a tight bundle, or your concept of Christianity comes unraveled. I would certainly not be in the “family” as it were.

The point I am trying to make is that when someone makes a statement like, “All Christians believe the same thing and we are all saved by Christ and the only thing that makes us different is our different names,” they either are woefully ignorant of the differences they claim are unimportant, or they do not really believe the fundamental tenets of their respective church.

If you believe that Christ is sacrificed every time the priest blesses and elevates the host, if you believe that Christ’s body is physically present in some form in the elements of the Lord’s Supper, if you believe that an infant needs to be baptized and receives the forgiveness of “original sin,” if you believe that a person is born to eternal salvation and someone is born to eternal damnation – then I suggest that you and I have very little in common except some generic teachings of a wandering rabbi who lived approximately 30 years before the final destruction of the Jewish temple. Jesus then becomes a more pious Plato or Aristotle. If you think that those distinctions are merely “opinions,” then I suggest you need to reject those opinions, because it is those “opinions” that are the main sources of division between churches who claim the name Christ.

I also want to make another point very clear – some of my favorite authors and “mentors” (in an impersonal sense) hold Roman Catholic, Lutheran or Reformed (Calvinistic) beliefs. When I want to learn more about the spiritual disciplines I find that more often than not I am drawn to Roman Catholic authors (or, Anabaptist writers). When I want to learn more about the Old Testament, chances are I will end up with a Presbyterian or Anglican author. If I had to get rid of every book in my library except for one author, I would keep my collected works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran and someone to whom I am deeply indebted for my understanding of what it means to be a Christian. So, am I making a blanket condemnation of those who hold these various doctrines? No, I hope not – that is not my intention. My only goal in this little exercise in rambling incoherence is to point out that despite our best intentions, and regardless of what sweet sounding words we may use, if we truly hold to the major confessions of our faiths, we are NOT united as Christians.

I freely confess – I am a child of the Restoration Movement and I am convinced that if disciples of Christ would simply return to the teachings “once for all” delivered to the saints (and in my world that would be Genesis-Revelation), then we could call ourselves united. Then there would be differences of opinion (types of worship, perhaps, other truly incidental and transitory questions), but we could at least convey to the world that we are united on the very basic core of our Christian beliefs.

Maybe someone can explain to me how people who hold diametrically opposing viewpoints can be said to be one united faith, but until someone does, I just don’t get it.

No! The Church Does Not!

If you are even remotely connected to any religious media (Facebook, Twitter, books, magazines, etc.) you are bombarded with messages such as, “If the church is going to survive, it must . . .” or “If the church is going to keep (or attract) millennials, it must . . .” or “If the church is going to be seen as relevant, it must . . .” followed by some brilliant insight observed by some church growth guru. I’m sure I have even been guilty of using those words myself. If I have, (or I guess I should say, when I did) I was wrong. Mea culpa. I am now here to say, “No.” The church does not have to do (a) or (b) or (c). In fact, all the talk about what the church is going to have to “do” is part of the problem. Understanding why this is such a critical issue takes some serious thinking, so let me explain my position.

First, the church was not created by Jesus to be some crutch, some plaything for those who comprise its membership. The church IS Christ on this earth. The church is his body, as Paul makes explicitly clear – 1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 1:23, 5:30; Colossians 1:18, 2:19 to name a few passages. Therefore, and this is the nub of the issue, to say that the church “must” do something or the other in order to keep or to attract any sub-group of people is to say that JESUS must do that something or the other.

Are you really willing to tell Jesus what he has to do? Does Jesus really have to bend to every whim and fancy of every coming generation? Is there a set of rules for the builder generation, the boomer generation, the “X” generation and now the millennial generation? Or, is there one body, the church, to which every generation must submit its personal preferences and demands for the good of the whole?

If there is any one single “must” that the church is bound to obey, it is that the church must be the body of Christ. That’s it – there is no other “must.” We learn about that body by studying the gospels, and we learn about how the church either successfully, or unsuccessfully, fulfilled that commission by studying the books of Acts-Revelation.

The body of Christ obeys what the head of the body commands it to obey. The body of Christ is the physical extension of the exalted and reigning Lord now ascended to the heavens. The body of Christ does not get to vote, does not get to add to or subtract from, the commands that its owner and head gave to it.

It strikes me as ignorance bordering on absurdity for someone not even out of his third decade of life to lecture the church – which has existed for almost 2,000 years – about what it “must” do to survive. But, that is just part and parcel of our narcissistic world. Everything revolves around “me,” so obviously the church must revolve around my wants, my wishes, my demands, my understanding of what “ought” to be. When the church has succumbed to that siren song it has floundered. When the church has resisted that temptation it has flourished. The church is the body of Christ on the earth – and the only imperative that body has is to remain faithful to its head – Jesus the Messiah.

There is a word for what I am describing – it is “discipleship.” It is described beautifully in those aforementioned gospels, and it is taught in the aforementioned subsequent books of the New Testament. There is another book that talks about this topic, and interestingly enough, it has that simple title, Discipleship*. When it was published it stood the prevailing cultural church on its head. If it was read, I mean really read, today it would have the same result. I believe its author would be aghast at how so many people claim to follow its principles when those very same people are so busy telling the church what it must do.

If, and more likely when, I have been guilty of that sin I repent. I never want to be guilty of telling Jesus what HE has to do in order to attract some selfish little pedant to attend some church assembly. Members of the church of Christ are disciples of Christ, and to that end we either transform our will to become what is the will of Christ, or we cease to be members of the body of Christ (ref. Revelation 1-3).

The church is the body of Christ – let us never lose sight of that reality!

*Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (also published as The Cost of Discipleship).

A House With No Foundation

I am simultaneously amazed and saddened as I observe what seems to be an inexorable decline in civility and in productivity in both the American political system and in the American church. Although I am not a specialist in either field, I do have my own observations, and for the most part what I see happening in the secular world is being duplicated in the church. I’ve tried to put words to my thoughts, and although the following is preliminary, I sincerely believe my observations to be valid.

In summary, what I see happening is that in both our secular world and in the church we have ceased to be thoughtful and creative, and instead have become perpetually reactive. We do not respond to any issue with reason and deliberation. We view every movement as a threat to our existence and react in both fear and anger. Our response then prompts an equal, or perhaps even exaggerated response from our opponents, and the cycle not only continues, but descends into further chaos.

Part of this condition revolves around our technology. Not only do we have the ability to see and hear everything that occurs the instant it happens, but we also have the ability to comment just as quickly. There was a blessing in only being able to see the nightly news at 6 and 10, and having to wait for the morning paper. There is no buffer time now. It is instant see, instant hear, instant react. We have ceased to be a rational people – reason is quickly becoming extinct.

This development has deeply infected the church as well. A sermon or quote is posted on-line, and within minutes, not even hours, the reaction becomes “viral.” We do not pause to digest lessons or messages – we simply regurgitate what we agree with (or more likely, the musings of the one with whom we agree) or we counter-attack with vitriol. In one of the greatest, and most damning, ironies of our time, we quote Acts 17:11 with the zeal of an evangelist and at the same time we crucify anyone who dares to make us think.

During what had to be one of his most emotionally draining times, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, and preached, and argued with both the German church and the world-wide ecumenical movement that before anything could be done about the deteriorating political situation in Germany, a firm theological foundation had to be built that could withstand what he knew would be a furious Nazi response. In his usual clear and precise thought, he knew the church had to make up its mind whether it was going to be the church or the handmaid of any and every political regime. He resisted making meaningless declarations and mere postulations. He knew that if a conference only resulted in some formal resolution, the conscience of the attendees would be salved but the underlying issues would not be solved, or sometimes barely even addressed.

I fear that so much activity that I see in the church today can only be described as “a blind man searching in a dark room for a black cat that does not exist.” We are wasting valuable time and energy, tilting at every windmill that we see, imagining that they are fire-breathing dragons. What was gallant for Don Quixote is a fools errand for the church. We must do better.

A house with no foundation cannot stand. It will eventually crumble, no matter how impressive it might appear from the outside. If we are to continue to exist as a church we are going to have to stop chasing phantoms and start laying a solid, biblical and theological foundation on which to build a house that cannot be shaken.

Our ultimate foundation, of course, is Jesus the Messiah. I am not suggesting we can lay another, or a better, foundation than that which is already given to us. I am saying, as clearly as I can, that Jesus speaks to this world, this culture, as clearly as he spoke to Jerusalem in the first century. If we do not firmly establish his life and teaching as both the primary and the ultimate meaning for our generation, then the house that we call the “church” will crumble.

Brothers and sisters, let us cease and desist from this mindless and meaningless habit of reacting with knee-jerk responses and shallow epithets. The world has enough of that. What the world does not see are people who are deeply rooted, firmly anchored in both thoughts and actions that are healthy and restorative. We must be that people, or we have no right to tell the world that it is sick.

For my part, I am trying to identify and root out this reactionary tendency in my own life. Looking back I see it only too clearly – and I also see where that tendency has left so much of my work inconsequential. You must know that I am attempting to confront the man in the mirror first before addressing anyone else. I make no claim to perfection here, only what I believe to be an increasing clarity of vision. I pray I am right, and surrender these words to him who judges righteously.

Let us ascend by climbing lower.

Praise Teams (Again)

I was mildly rebuked following my last post. I knew I would be, and I really don’t mind. “Praise Teams” are a touchy subject. Those who have them, or want them, cannot see any harm or fault in having them. Those that do not want to have a “praise team” in their worship are pretty firm in their convictions. There really is not much of a middle ground.

I am going to make a generalization based on my experience, but it is my belief that those who argue for “praise teams” do so for one simple reason: it makes the song service sound better. There is no biblical or theological reason for the addition of “praise teams.” The issue is either that there is a large, but basically empty, auditorium that kills the sound of the congregational singing, or that the congregation is getting old and feeble and therefore cannot sing as vibrantly as they once did, or that the congregation doesn’t know the new songs and therefore cannot sing them very well. Whatever the specific issue, the argument for “praise teams” revolves around aesthetics. It is all about making the song service sound better for human ears. At the risk of offending – it is all about entertainment.

We are a nation of pragmatists, virtually every decision we make is based on one bottom line – does it work, or does it work better, than what I am currently doing? The church is particularly stricken with this disease. Because of our (I speak as a member of the Churches of Christ) aversion to theology, we have surrendered our commitment to deep theological thinking long, long ago. When a church surrenders its theological foundation, the only thing left for it is pragmatism – what works. So, if a congregation is faced with a problem (poor singing) it does not search for a reason that can be found in the realm of the Spirit, but only what will “work” to fix the problem, ergo, “Let’s form a ‘praise team’ of some really good singers, give them all a microphone, and our singing will improve overnight.” The problem is, it doesn’t. Having a “praise team” is putting a band-aid on a cancer. A “praise team” might make the auditorium singing sound better to human ears, but it does nothing toward engendering a more spiritual worship service. It is all a part of the “Seeker Sensitive” movement that caters to the whims and fancies of the world at the expense of theological content. In a sentence, there is no “there” there.

I pointed out in my last post where I think “praise teams” violate the spirit of Scripture, if not the letter. I will not rehearse those reasons – none of those who took the time (and I thank them!) to converse with me attempted to address those issues. However, I want to add another voice to the conversation, one who speaks with the theological understanding of which I find so abysmally lacking in so many conversations about the church today:

The essence of all congregational singing on this earth is the purity of unison singing – untouched by the unrelated motives of musical excess – the clarity unclouded by the dark desire to lend musicality an autonomy of its own apart from the words; it is the simplicity and unpretentiousness, the humanness and warmth, of this style of singing. Of course, this truth is only gradually and by patient practice disclosed to our oversophisticated ears. Whether or not a community  achieves proper unison singing is a question of its spiritual discernment. This is singing from the heart, singing to the Lord, singing the Word; this is singing in unity. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible, vol. 5 of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English, ed. Geffrey B. Kelly, trans. Daniel W. Bloesch and James H. Burtness, [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996], p. 67. Additional note – these words were written in 1938.

This is thinking theologically. This is looking to the Spirit for answers to questions of the Spirit. This is taking a human, temporal problem and seeking to discern the moving of the Word and Spirit. This is the kind of thinking that is virtually non-existent among Churches of Christ today. We use John 4:24 as a textual battering ram and yet when everything comes down to a point we are all about what works; what looks, sounds, and what feels, “better.” We have attained all the spiritual depth of a thimble.

Bonhoeffer goes on to add words that could have been written yesterday:

There are several elements hostile to unison singing, which in the community ought to be very rigorously weeded out. There is no place in the worship service where vanity and bad taste can so assert themselves as in the singing. First, there is the improvised second part that one encounters almost everywhere people are supposed to sing together. It attempts to give the necessary background, the missing richness to the free-floating unison sound and in the process kills both the words and the sound. There are the bass or alto voices that must call everybody’s attention to their astonishing range and therefore sing every hymn an octave lower. There is the solo voice that drowns out everything else, bellowing and quavering at the top of its lungs, reveling in the glory of it own fine organ. There are the less dangerous foes of congregational singing, the ‘unmusical’ who cannot sing, of whom there are far fewer than we are led to believe. Finally, there are often those who not not join in the singing because they are particularly moody or nursing hurt feelings; and thus they disturb the community.

In case you missed it – Bonhoeffer is arguing for pure unison singing – as in no parts – no soprano, alto, tenor, bass. Unison singing, because it is only in unison singing that we sing in the unity of the Spirit. Unison singing, because if God can take Jew and Gentile and make out of two nations one family, then he can certainly take four vocal ranges and make them into one voice. Unison singing, because it is in unison singing that we all, old and young, male and female, soprano, alto, tenor and bass, can submit our voices to each other and join in one ephemeral voice to lift our praise to God. These are radical words – restoration type words – of which the Restoration Movement should be able to hear. But I doubt that we can.

We are too wrapped up into what works.

To my conversation partners: I get it! What I said about “praise teams” can also be said about single song leaders. What I also did not say, but also firmly believe, is that we have created, or are dangerously close to creating, a “professional” class of preachers who are approaching idolatrous standing. (Maybe my next series of posts?) But this is what I don’t get – if someone points out that driving over the speed limit is dangerous and illegal, and then someone else points out that driving too slow is also dangerous, that does not make driving over the speed limit less dangerous or more legal! If a congregation worships a song leader, that does not make “praise teams” more acceptable. Just because a single song leader can be in love with his voice and dominate a song service, that does not absolve “praise teams” from that very same sin. I still maintain the basic premise of my first post: “praise teams” are inherently divisive, they are elitist, they elevate one member’s position to praise above another’s for the simple reason of their natural singing ability.

I happen to believe that the church has a higher calling than just to have a song service that is aesthetically pleasing and entertaining.

I happen to believe that our song service is supposed to be praise to God, and not to human ears.

And, yes – if that means a total and complete return to unison singing, count me in.

I happen to think that is ascending higher by climbing lower.

Prayer – Telling God ‘NO’

Okay, so after a brief (and regrettable) foray through the swamps of sport, I return to some theology. Today, a conundrum of sorts. I think I have an answer, but as always I can be wrong, and am open to suggestions.

Here are the facts. On the one hand there are a number of passages in Scripture which indicate that God never changes his mind. This is the concept of “immutability” that is a key component of many Calvinist teachings. God’s will is permanent, unchanging, and eternal. Consider the following (not an exhaustive list!):

  • Numbers 23:19
  • 1 Samuel 15:29
  • Jeremiah 4:28
  • Ezekiel 24:14
  • Malachi 3:6
  • Romans 11:29
  • Titus 1:2
  • James 1:17

What is striking is that such passages are not isolated nor are they infrequent. There is strong evidence to conclude that God never changes his mind.

**Key interruption here – read these passages in different translations. For example, it is fascinating in the Revised Standard family of translations (RSV, NRSV, ESV) that the RSV uses the word “repent,” the NRSV uses the phrase “change his mind” and the ESV uses the totally unhelpful “relent” in a number of these passages.**

All of this would not be a problem if it were not for the following examples where God clearly does change his mind:

  • Abraham (Genesis 18:16-33) negotiates with God, and even though the end result does not match the negotiations, God does agree to spare Sodom if a mere 10 righteous people can be found.
  • Moses twice (Exodus 32:11-14; Numbers 14:11-19) pleads with God to change his mind regarding the destruction of the rebellious Israelites. God changes his mind.
  • Hezekiah (2 Kings 20:1-7) is told by Isaiah that he will die, and even before Isaiah can leave the courtyard, Hezekiah manages to change God’s mind and have 15 years added to his life.
  • Jonah 3:9 relates that the King of Nineveh believes that it is possible for God to change his mind, and God does, in fact, change his mind.
  • Amos 7:1-6 relates that Amos twice stands in and negotiates on behalf of the Israelites, and twice God changes his mind.

So, which is it – is God immutable, once God has made up his mind is it beyond variation? Or, does God say one thing one day and do something entirely different the next? Can we trust God’s word to be certain?

The solution (if you want to call it that) that I have resolved in my mind is found in two passages of Scripture: Jeremiah 18:7-11, and Ezekiel 18:23-24, 30-32. Here, in these texts, God himself reveals when and why he will change his mind regarding a previous decision: the change in beliefs and behavior of the subjects of his earlier statements. I want to stress that other explanations may exist, and by no means am I suggesting perfect insight here.

The point, as I see it, is that God has an eternal plan that cannot be altered – and that plan is revealed in hundreds, even thousands, of smaller decisions and judgments. Any of those smaller decisions and judgments can be altered based on one criterium – the heart and behavior of people. God does not want any to die – even the sinner! He is willing, and as the above passages demonstrate, in fact does alter some temporary decisions based on the response of the human subjects.

All of this relates to prayer. If we do not believe that God can, and does, change his mind, why pray? If we believe that our lives are controlled by an immutable and unyielding force that was established before the beginning of time, then why waste our time praying to a God who is incapable of acting in this world?

On the other hand, God is not some whimsical “genie in the bottle” that yields to every fantasy that we might have. While he does respond to genuine repentance, we do not control him like some puppet on a string. As one final thought, Josiah was able to postpone the destruction of Jerusalem, but the sins of Manasseh (his grandfather) were just too great for God to ignore. Eventually, Jerusalem was punished.

As always, your thoughts, comments, objections, and donations of large amounts of cash are appreciated.

Let us ascend by climbing lower.

GOAT Debates, Stupidity, and a Theological Connection

A few posts back I pointed out that I rarely write on purely political issues. I never write on sports related topics, because this is a blog on issues related to theology, and also because so few people share my brilliance in sports conversations that it would be embarrassing if I did so (joke!). Alas, most rules are made to be broken, and I find myself beside myself with frustration approaching apocalyptic proportions, so I figured I had better get this post out of my system.

As I write this the NBA finals are in progress, and so is a debate regarding who is the greatest of all time (GOAT) in the history of the National Basketball Association. During football season the same debate occurs, so it is not a malady that is restricted to the NBA. I find these debates inane, insane, vacuous, foolish, asinine, absurd, frivolous, fatuous – my thesaurus fails me. They are ridiculous. I make that conclusion based on three indisputable facts: (1) the overwhelming majority of those engaged in such debates are barely out of their second decade of life. Their “all time” basically amounts to what has occurred since the early 2000’s. (2) The players they think are the GOAT are playing now – duh. It is just “Chronological Snobbery” on steroids. It if is today it has to be the GOAT, there is no yesterday in these yokel’s life. That leads me to (3), these mouthpieces and their loyal minions have absolutely no sense of sports history – or of history at all, for that matter. Here is where the entire conversation breaks down because of its utter, complete, and total, absurdity, vapidity, and idiocy.

Consider the debate in the NBA – the two names most frequently put forward are Michael Jordan and LeBron James, two made-for-TV stars who have piled up almost as many fans as they have millions of dollars. No Kareem Abdul Jabbar, no Bill Russell, no Larry Bird, no Magic Johnson, no Wilt Chamberlain no “Dr. J” Julius Erving, no “Pistol Pete” Maravich. The debate is so bogus as to be – well, see the adjectives above. The points of contention between the contestants are usually points scored, games won, championships won, and some other more esoteric stats. But, just for a history lesson for those of you who are uninitiated, let us consider how the game of basketball has changed:

  • Before 1954 there was no shot clock.
  • Before 1951 the free-throw lane was 6 feet wide. In ’51 it was widened to 12 feet, and then in 1964 it was widened again to 16 feet because of the dominance of Wilt Chamberlain.
  • In 1978 the officiating crews were increased from 2 to 3 officials. The number was then reduced back to two, and a few years later increased back to three.
  • In 1979 the three point line was introduced. It’s furthest point has varied between 23 feet 9 inches and 22 feet (the furthest it can realistically be placed in the corners of the court).
  • Before 2001 defenses had to play man-to-man defense, and a variety of rules regulated illegal defenses. In 2001 those restrictions were completely eliminated.
  • For some fascinating reading, check out double u double u double u dot NBA dot come slash analysis slash rules underscore history dot html.

The point is, a player in 1979 was awarded three points for the exact same shot he would have been awarded two points for just a few months earlier. Jordan and James are both the beneficiaries of a wide-open, perimeter game that did not exist prior to the three-point line being introduced. Players prior to 1954 were schooled in the “get ahead and ice the game” theory of winning games – after 1954 the pace of the game has increased, and with it the opportunities to score greater and greater number of points. The number of referees clearly has an impact on the game – those who played with two refs played a different game than those who have played with three refs. In terms of rule changes, eliminating the “illegal defense” penalty was huge. Once again – to compare offensive statistics today to those of decades past is to compare apples to oranges.  And, for my coup de grace, one single player was responsible for adding four feet to the width of the free throw lane – the afore mentioned Wilt Chamberlain.

Michael Jordan did not change the game. There will never be a “LeBron James” rule – well, except that players favored by the NBA/ESPN will never be officiated equally with the hoi poloi, the common masses. Wilt Chamberlain changed the game. “Dr. J.” Julius Erving changed the game with his unequaled athleticism. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson changed the game in a way that has had a profound impact for Jordan and James – moving the game from the post to the perimeter. All of this is lost in all the chatter about points and championships and blather, blather, blather.

Space does not allow an equal examination of the NFL, but let us just consider a couple of questions: do you honestly think Tom Brady or Drew Brees would have the kind of numbers they have if they had to play with the same rules that governed the game when Fran Tarkenton or Roger Staubach played? Or just reverse the question – what kind of numbers could Staubach or Tarkenton or Terry Bradshaw or Kenny Stabler have produced if they had played with the same kind of receiver friendly, “don’t touch the quarterback” kind of rules that benefit today’s tutu wearing prima-donnas?  I rest my case before I am thrown out of court for my obvious contempt for that very same court.

Before I get too far astray with sports, let me ask, is there a connection to theology here? Yes, and I’m glad I asked. The same incomprehensible lack of knowledge of, and even interest in, matters of church history is plaguing the church today. It it was said, or written, before, say, 1980 (just to be generous) whatever was said or written is bunk, garbage, worthless. I received my D.Min. in 2015, and the method of church growth that was the front burner issue for my classmates is now considered to be passé. The great theologians of the church are not just ignored, they are openly scoffed at – oh, the humanity!

My point, so brilliantly illustrated (by the facts themselves, not by me) by the GOAT debates in the NBA and NFL, is that without a firm knowledge of, and even a love for, our history, we make some of the dumbest, stupidest, most vacuous and ridiculous statements. We live in the present – to be sure there is no going back – but our present was created by the past. To argue in sports who is the greatest of one generation – that has some merit, as long as the rules of the game are the same and each “contestant” has had the same limitations/benefits as the others. So, to argue whether Jordan was better than James is a legitimate debate as is if Brady is better than Brees or Rodgers. But to argue who is the greatest of all time? Oy. Beam me up Scotty, there is no intelligent life on this planet.

In the church, we cannot return to a glorious “golden decade” or century or whatever, because one never existed in the first place. We do not have to fight the same battles our forefathers (and mothers) fought, nor could they have imagined the battles we must fight. If we try to keep fighting battles that were done and over with decades (or centuries) ago, we are only wasting our time. If we do not address the issues facing the church to day – well, who will?

We learn from our past in order to be better equipped to fight our battles today. We should not worship our past heroes, but let us never forget them, either. Let us love and cherish our history for one very important reason if for no other:

If we know our history, at least we will not be stupid enough to waste our time with debates about the GOAT.

Sports rant over, hopefully for ever. We now return this blog to its original intended purpose.

“Contextualizing,” “Syncretism,” and Whetting Jehoiakim’s Knife

A couple of posts back I opined that one of the church’s modern sins is the process by which the message of the cross is made culturally palatable through the process of “contextualization.” I was mildly chastised for making that suggestion, and for rebuttal purposes the passage in C0lossians 4:5-6 was referred to as evidence that I was wrong. I believe my challenger to be mistaken either about the point of my post, or the context of Col. 4:5-6 (and most likely both), but I suppose the question does give me the opportunity to explain more completely what I mean by “contextualization.” Here goes:

  • “Contextualization” is a code word meaning that we blunt the force of passages relating to male and female, and especially those relating to the sins of homoeroticism, so that the LGBTQ promoters and defenders can feel affirmed and accepted in our churches.
  • “Contextualization” is a code word meaning that we remove any mention of separate roles for male and female in our congregations, so that anyone and everyone can decide on their own what sex they prefer on any given day, and what role they decide they can perform within the Lord’s church.
  • “Contextualization” is a code word meaning that we, especially within the Churches of Christ, should abandon centuries of understanding of what worship is, because the world does not understand what congregational, acapella worship is all about.
  • “Contextualization” is a code word meaning that we strip our meeting places and meeting times of any outward appearance of “religious” symbolism, and that we employ “praise bands,” “praise teams,” “liturgical dance teams” and any other number of entertainment features so that the world can see that the church is really no different than it is. This is the guiding “north star” concept for the Bill Hybels’ (Willow Creek) “Seeker Sensitive” pablum that I was forced to swill during my graduate studies.
  • “Contextualization” is simply a reincarnation of the millennial-years-old concept of syncretism: you take one main philosophy or teaching, and then add to and subtract from that root teaching until what you finally end up with does not resemble either the parent philosophy nor any of the other teachings that were pillaged. Aaron could have claimed contextualization when he created the golden calf in Exodus 32 – ostensibly the calf was made to represent Yahweh to the people, but Moses appropriately identified it as idolatry. Jeroboam could have claimed contextualization when he made the golden calves to worship at Dan and Bethel – both places were shrines to Yahweh, at least in the sense that the shrines were for the worship of the “gods who led you out of Egypt.” (1 Kings 12:25ff) Never-the-less, God called it idolatry. Jehoiakim could have claimed contextualization when he burned Jeremiah’s scroll – it simply had no meaning for his world-view. God proved Jehoiakim wrong.

At one time the word “contextualization” might have had a positive connotation, such as speaking to scientists in language scientists can understand, and to creative minds in ways that creative minds can understand. But at least for me, it no longer can have that meaning. At one time the word might have been used in the sense of Colossians 4:5-6 and 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, but no longer. Now the word is simply a subterfuge – it is used as an excuse to contradict, or to even excise completely, passages of Scripture that make certain elements of our culture feel uncomfortable. Don’t like passages condemning homosexuality? No problem, just make those passages refer to rape or, even more creatively, social injustice. Don’t like passages referring to the differences between male and female (and the fact that God created us to be one or the other, and that there are unmistakable anatomical and psychological differences)? No problem – just excise those passages as being written in a “pre-scientific” historical context. Don’t like those embarrassing stories in the Old Testament? No problem – simply “unhitch” your Christianity from the Old Testament. Don’t like the fact that our worship services have a specific reason for the “liturgy” that is associated with them? No problem – just remove the crosses and the emblems of the Lord’s Supper and add a bunch of rock music, dance teams, and smoke machines, and tell the world that the cross and the Lord’s Supper are really not that important after all.

You might surmise that I am just a little hot under the collar here, and I am. I do not appreciate seeing the church that Jesus died for being diluted into meaninglessness through a process that is being promoted as the best way to save it. The gospel of Jesus is not that everyone is okay, and that we just need to sing our worship songs set to deafening rock music. The gospel of Jesus is not that we can choose our sex – or our sexual partners – in any way that we see fit on any given day. The gospel of Jesus is not that we as humans can think our way out of the pit of hell that we have created for ourselves.

The gospel of Jesus is abhorrent to a culture that rejects the very idea of an all powerful, and all righteous, God. And no amount of “contextualization” is ever going to change that fact. But the gospel of Jesus is also a very beautiful thing to individuals in that culture who have come to accept that the feast the world has set before them is nothing but poison and death. The gospel of Jesus is life, and purity, and holiness – but it can only be preached as such if it is recognized that this world is a horribly bent and broken place.

May God save his church from its friends!