No Fudges Allowed

Schoolyard justice can be harsh. Take for example the game of marbles. When shooting your marble, the rule was you keep your hand on the ground, and you only use your thumb to launch your marble. If you lift your hand, or if even if you keep your hand on the ground but use your arm to push your hand as you flick your thumb, you are “fudging” and that simply was not allowed. Justice might not be corporal, but it was certainly swift. Your opponent would call you out, and as there were always at least some spectators standing nearby, your crime would not go unnoticed. Punishment might simply be losing your turn, but in cases of repeat offenders, the possibility of excommunication from future contests was  very real.

In my last couple of posts I have challenged what is generally referred to as the “egalitarian” position regarding expanding the role of females in leadership positions in the assembled worship of the church. Some may think that I whole heartedly and unreservedly defend the “complementarian” view. They would be wrong. I wholeheartedly defend what I believe is the scriptural concept of male spiritual leadership, but what I see in many examples of “complementarianism” are nothing more than pure theological fudging. So, at the great risk of offending whatever few friends I have left, let me explain.

Let me begin by saying that much of what we have created in the form of our 21st century worship is wholly non-scriptural – not unscriptural in the sense that it rejects scriptural teaching – but it is simply not considered by Scripture. For example, there is no scriptural mandate for a single “song leader.” Not that a single song leader countermands Scripture, but you can search “book, chapter, and verse” for a long, long, time before you find one that mandates a single song leader. The manner in which we serve the emblems of the Lord’s Supper fits this category exactly, and is among the chief examples of “fudging” that I see in congregations of the Churches of Christ.

Over the course of our history we have come to view serving the Lord’s Supper as a form of male spiritual leadership. I really don’t know where that started, unless it is a faint memory of the necessity of having a priest preside over the Catholic Mass. In fact, early in the Restoration Movement it was common to have only an elder preside over the table – a clear echo of the liturgical necessity of having an ordained clergyman to administer the emblems. Never-the-less, we have traditionally considered “serving at the table” to be a male-only privilege. And this is where we have evolved ourselves into a huge problem.

Throughout my lifetime at least it has become a prima facie truth that no one is allowed to serve at the table unless that one is anatomically a male. But, not just any male, but a baptized male. That is where the requirements stopped. Be a male, be baptized, and you are good to go. The way this has played itself out in many situations is comical. I have seen 8 or 10 year olds “assume the mantle of leadership” as they struggle to carry a tray of little cups of grape juice without tripping over their oversized pants. It would be utterly facetious if we gave that same 8-10 year old any form of decision making power in the congregation, but as long as they are officially baptized, we can stick him up front to serve at the table, or say a prayer (memorized no doubt from all the stock prayers he has heard all his short life) or to “lead” singing (waiting to have someone from row 5 start the song while he stands there sweating profusely).

Same thing happens in regard to Bible classes. A woman is allowed to teach a mixed class of fourth graders, but let one little boy get baptized and “poof,” her ability to teach a “baptized male” evaporates and we have to call some hapless deacon in to finish teaching the class.

I call “fudging” in the most egregious sense!

Stated simply and without apology, those of us who proclaim to follow the text in regard to male spiritual leadership had better up our game, or else take our marbles and go home. This hypocritical practice of allowing some pre-teen child to exercise “male spiritual leadership” is just that – hypocrisy in the extreme. In this case I am in complete sympathy with young girls (and some women) who cry “fudgies” and wonder what in the world is so special about carrying a tray of grape juice.

Either participating in a visible form and function in a worship service is an aspect of male spiritual leadership, or it is not – there is no gray area or “sometimes it is, and sometimes it is not.” I happen to think it is, and I have my reasons, but my main issue here is where we would NEVER give any form of actual leadership roles to a pre-teen male, and yet loudly squeal that serving at the Lord’s Table or leading a prayer or reading a Scripture is a form of “male spiritual leadership.”

If such public forms of service also qualify as “leadership,” then let us reserve those roles for genuine, adult, male leaders!

I can hear the counter argument already – “but we are training these young men to be leaders when they grow up.” No, we are not. When we say that serving at the table, or leading a song, are actual forms of leadership, there is no “training” involved. They are in fact serving as leaders. The hypocrisy comes in when we acknowledge that they are not, in reality, in any way, shape, or form, a spiritual leader. They are (even teenagers) just little boys or young men who need spiritual leadership themselves, and sometimes in copious measure.

If, as you say, serving at the table or leading a song, or saying a prayer, is only “training,” then why not allow young girls to participate as soon as they are baptized? Do girls not need to learn to pray, to lead singing, to read Scripture, to serve? If the purpose is only to “train,” then the entire argument of “male spiritual leadership” goes out the window.

There is a passage of Scripture (remember Scripture?) that is profound to me in this regard. In Luke 2:41-52 we read the story of adolescent Jesus at the temple. We all know the story, Joseph and Mary head off back home thinking that Jesus is tucked in with the cousins somewhere, but at evening roll call he is nowhere to be found. So, they return to Jerusalem, and after what must have been an increasingly anxious and exhaustive search, they find Jesus holding court at the Temple. A brief (but, I am assuming an intense) conversation ensues, and once again the entourage heads back to Nazareth. This is all so familiar to those of us who read this story frequently. But it is v. 51 that stands out as singularly important to me in respect to my thoughts above. I quote from the ESV –

And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them.

Jesus, the Son of God, God incarnate, Emmanuel, “God with Us” as a 12 year old boy, capable of teaching the temple leaders, was submissive to both Joseph and Mary.

Is there a place for training young men to become leaders? Absolutely. And this holds true for older men who become disciples of Christ later in life. But we do not consider males (or females, for that matter) be be mature in any sense until they demonstrate some form of ability to handle responsibilities without significant assistance – such as serving in the military, getting married, or maybe stepping out of the house and starting their own business or providing for their own upkeep and schooling. I am in no way suggesting that we do not train, or properly equip, young men and women to serve Christ as responsible adults.

Lest I be completely misunderstood, I am not saying we throw out the idea of male spiritual leadership in such aspects as serving at the table, leading singing, wording public prayers and reading Scripture. As I said above, I do believe these to be leadership roles, and I believe there is ample scriptural and theological arguments to defend such a position. In regard to serving the emblems of the Lord’s supper, I also believe there is a completely better and more scriptural manner to do so that would remove this issue entirely, but that is the topic of another long and tedious post.

What I am saying, and believe emphatically, is that male spiritual leadership should be exercised by males who are old enough, and mature enough, and who are recognized as exhibiting sound, mature, spiritual leadership. In my opinion this includes, but would not be limited to, serving at the table (which, if we limit to males we obviously view as a leadership role), leading in the song service, reading Scripture in a public assembly, or going to God in public prayer.

In the quest to ascend by climbing lower,  there is no fudging allowed.

1 Corinthians 11, 14, 1 Timothy 2, and Paul Contradicting Himself (Again)

Regular readers of this post have noticed that I have been very quiet recently – unusually so. Well, I’m still alive, although I have taken to being more introspective lately. Alas, all good things must come to an end, so once again I pick up pen and paper (okay, keyboard and pixels).

I was reminded once again via various social media that unfounded assumptions can make mincemeat of our theology. The subject du jour was the role(s) that the apostle Paul either limits or allows for females in the worship service. The argument that followed included two assumptions – both of which are almost universally accepted – that have no textual support and even make the apostle contradict himself within just a few chapters of his letter. I will try to keep this as short and sweet as I can, and if you are a regular reader here my conclusions will come as no surprise, but I will share this once again for those who are struggling with this question. [By the way, my argument is not with any person per se, it is with the assumptions that are repeated, without evidence, and taken as prima facie truths. I believe those who accept these assumptions to be sincere and devout lovers of truth, but in this instance, also to be incorrect.]

False Assumption #1 – Paul allows, even advocates, for women praying in the public worship assembly in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16.

No, he does not. That is just false. I say that nicely, but that is just a false assumption that has no textual basis. Let’s look at that passage.

First, Paul addresses how men are to pray, not where, but how – with their heads uncovered. Paul only addresses females obliquely. Men are to pray with their heads uncovered, contra the standard practice (shown in many drawings of that era) of priests of various religions praying with a shawl, or cowl, over their heads. Women are only mentioned as a foil – women do pray with their heads covered (not the least of which with their hair), but men are not supposed to. No mention of where women are said to pray. But why should Paul specify something when the location is not his point? He simply mentions that women pray with their heads covered – when they pray by themselves, with their children, in female prayer groups. Where men pray, or where women pray, is simply not in Paul’s frame of reference.

But, let’s keep reading: v. 17 “…when you come together…” V. 18, “…when you come together as a church…” V. 20 “When you come together…” V. 33, “…when you come together…” 14:23 “…the whole church comes together…” 14:26, “…when you come together…” There is a emphatic (and, in my opinion, unmistakeable) disjunction between Paul’s previous discussion (once again, directed mainly at the men and the how) and his next point of emphasis, the common, joint assembly of the church (the when and the where). It is in of that discussion that Paul issues his now infamous teaching that “the women should keep silent in the churches.” So, whatever Paul had in mind in 11:1-16, it is beyond argument that what he says in 14:33-34 is in regard to a public, common assembly of the church. Which leads me to false assumption #2.

False assumption #2 – having given women permission (and maybe even encouragement) to pray in public in 11:1-16, Paul had to correct an aberrant, one-off situation to which he directed his attention in 14:33-34, namely, a woman (or number of women) who were disrupting a worship assembly by challenging their husbands (gasp!) by asking inappropriate questions.

Well, if you make one false assumption, why not get even more creative with the second? There is simply no contextual evidence to support this assumption! Why would Paul only constrain wives? Are unmarried women not capable of disrupting a service? And, where is there any indiction that the issue is domineering wives?

As I see it, the error is that if you hold to false assumption #1, you have to come up with a scenario that absolves Paul from blatantly contradicting himself in 14:33-34, and even more specifically in 1 Timothy 2:11-15. So, there are a number of options. One is that you simply remove 1 Corinthians 14:33-34 from the text (following Gordon Fee in his commentary on 1 Corinthians). That is a little radical for some, so they simply concoct a situation that Paul was addressing to his Corinthian brethren, but one that is limited by both time and culture, and has no bearing on the modern church. The fatal problem with that solution is that it is, once again, based upon the false assumption that Paul grants females permission to speak authoritatively (and, yes, I am suggesting that public prayer is an authoritative act) in the public worship assembly. If you haven’t figured it out by now, I flatly reject that assumption.

If we remove the false assumption that Paul grants, even promotes, women speaking authoritatively in the worship service in 11:1-16, then we have removed the supposed contradiction in 14:33-35 and 1 Timothy 2. Paul remains remarkably consistent, and there is no need to invent an imaginary scenario that he supposedly (and invoking self-contradiction) corrects later in the book.

Tangentially, this discussion also raises the question of just how authoritative is Paul’s letter to the Corinthians for today’s church. I sat in a lecture by one of the finest Greek scholars ever to teach in a university associated with the Churches of Christ, and I heard him argue that, (to the best of my memory, these words are not verbatim) “because Paul was addressing an aberrant situation in the congregation in Corinth in the first century, we cannot take his words as being binding on the church today.”

Huh? What exactly in the letters to the Corinthians are not aberrant situations for which we are to learn eternal truths? I don’t get it, and yes, I am disagreeing with a world-renowned Greek scholar here. But that is the belief (either conscious or unconscious) of many preachers and church members alike. In other words, if it doesn’t gore our ox, then it is Scripture. If it does gore our ox, well, it was just meant for the first century church and thank goodness we have moved on from there.

Thanks for obliging me for my perfectionist little rant, but this is really a burr under my saddle.

Let us ascend by climbing lower.

Does Architecture Matter?

Strange question for this Friday – which has absolutely nothing to do with any cataclysmic issues of the day. But, this funny question popped into my mind. To be honest, I am utterly conflicted. My answer is no, but, really, yes.

I am the product of a non-liturgical church. The churches of Christ in which I was raised went out of their way to be non-liturgical. In fact, we developed an entire liturgy to declare our non-liturgicalness. Our ministers wore no special garments, studiously avoided any special recognition (woe be to the funeral director who attached the epithet, “Rev.” onto the preacher’s name!) Our choirs wore no special robes because we never had a choir – the congregation was the choir!! There were no “special days” – and most likely the preacher preached on the resurrection of Jesus the week before December 25, and preached on the birth of Jesus the day everyone else was celebrating the resurrection. Our services had no uniform “liturgy” as such, except that the routine of opening prayer, three songs, Lord’s Supper, song, sermon, song and closing prayer could be predicted within a verse or two of having a universal application. That’s what I mean by having a liturgy of non-liturgicalness. Heaven help the poor soul who dared to rearrange any aspect of our worship.

This “low church” approach was especially evident in the architecture of our buildings.There were no stained glass windows, no crosses, and certainly no crucifixes. The only piece of furniture that could even remotely be considered “high church” was a simple table with the words “Do This in Remembrance of Me” or perhaps even just “In Remembrance of Me” carved or emblazoned on the front. Our buildings were constructed to be utilitarian, not expressive. The main room was not a “sanctuary,” it was an “auditorium,” designed for the specific purpose of having something “heard.” Classrooms were added alongside the auditorium, or in an adjacent “education” wing. If there was a “fellowship” hall, it was  quite often detached from the “auditorium” so that there would be no confusion as to what purpose each room was constructed.

Most, but not all, of that changed when the Churches of Christ “crossed the tracks” and became respected, and respectable, members of the community. Our buildings became more ornate – some even had stained glass windows installed! – but the basic utilitarian nature of the building never changed. It is still the very rare congregation that displays a cross behind the pulpit, “praise teams” abound but there are very, very few “choirs,” and only the most pompous preachers would dare to wear a clerical robe or accept the title, “Reverend.”

I contrast that with the most common “high church” architecture. I think of the massive cathedrals in Europe, and even many of the fabulous church buildings in the United States. I grew up just a few miles from one of the most beautiful Spanish churches in the United States in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I still love to visit that and other Roman Catholic churches in my home state. They are beautiful, ornately constructed, and the architecture conveys a message that our utilitarian church just simply cannot convey.

For one, the interior of the buildings lifts the worshipper’s view upward. There is a feeling that, when you enter the main worship center, you are called to experience something greater than yourself. In a pre-literate society, pictures, statuary, and architecture was the primary way of communicating the holiness and transcendence of God. The manner in which the church was constructed was a silent, yet powerful, way of communicating a basic truth: God is greater than the worshipper and a measure of respect and awe was due when one entered the place where God was to be worshipped.

Even the exterior of the building conveys this truth: the spires and the other forms of elevating the worshippers eyes let the person know this is a building like no other. When you enter here, you are entering sacred space – leave the world outside. Enter his courts with joy and thanksgiving, to be sure, but remember whose courts you are entering, and respond appropriately.

Compare that with the modern combination of a “worship” space and a basketball court. Who is being worshipped? God or LeBron James?

I said in my opening paragraph that I am utterly conflicted. On the one hand, it matters not in what kind of building we worship. We can worship in a house, in a rented store-front, in a cave or in a tent. Or, we can worship in an ornate, classically constructed cathedral decorated with beautiful stained glass windows and majestic arches. The apostle Paul was equally content to worship in a synagogue (which, as archeology has proven, were often incredibly ornate and beautiful) or gathered with fellow worshippers by a stream.

But, to be honest and straightforward, when God told Moses how to construct the tabernacle, and when David instructed Solomon how to construct the temple, there was to be no limit on how beautiful the physical structures were to be built. The purpose determined the result. If it is to be God’s house, if the purpose is to praise and to worship a holy and transcendent God, wouldn’t it make sense to have that house, that worship center, the most beautiful and glorious that we could make it? This is where I struggle the most with our utilitarian focus. If all we do is gather together to listen to a lecture and sing a few songs, then who cares what the building looks like.

But . . . if we are gathered into His Presence, if we are present with His Holy Spirit, if the creator of the universe descends to “tabernacle” with us, doesn’t it just make sense to signify that presence with architecture that reflects that presence?

As always, thanks for considering my meandering thoughts.

The Truth We Sing

A couple of posts back I took a gibe at some of the songs we sing because, if we really took the lyrics seriously, I’m not sure all of us could sing them, or if we did, we could not sing them all the time. I really did not intend to suggest they were bad songs (many of them are quite good!), only to get us to think seriously about the lyrics we sing, and if we are going to sing the words to God and to each other, let us at least admit that what we are singing is a goal, or a statement of the way things ought to be, not the way we actually live.

On the other hand, and getting back to a phrase that is axiomatic with me (a statement of truth that needs no evidence or support), very often we sing far better theology than we teach. In this post I want to share some song lyrics that are not only biblical, but are also deeply meaningful – at least to me – and hopefully you can have a better picture of what I look for in a good hymn or spiritual song.

(Nerd alert – you will notice the majority of these songs are decades, if not centuries old. I like to stay up with the latest in worship hymnody!)

Perhaps my favorite illustration (although not my favorite over-all hymn) is Rock of Ages. A.M. Toplady just nailed it with this hymn. Every verse is chock-full of theological insight, but the first verse is worthy of an entire sermon:

Rock of Ages, cleft for me, Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood, from Thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure, cleanse me from its guilt and power.

There you have a theological statement that doctors of theology will spend pages trying to explain: the blood of Christ cleanses us both from the guilt of sin, but also protects us from the power of sin in the future. That, my friends, is pure gospel and a beautiful song as well.

One song that is certainly in my top ten favorites of all time, and maybe in the top five, is O Sacred Head. When you combine words originally composed by Bernard of Clairvaux with music composed by J.S. Bach, how can you go wrong? But, more to the point, consider these words in the second verse:

What language shall I borrow to thank Thee dearest friend,
For this Thy dying sorrow, Thy pity without end?
O make me Thine for ever; and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to Thee.

Wow. Just wow. What a prayer. Lord, do not ever let me live so long that I lose my love for you. Now, THAT is a song that deserves a long period of silence so that the congregation can cogitate on those words!

Just to prove I am not a total dinosaur, there are a couple of the newer worship songs that are solid both in theology and in musical quality. The first is a special song to me, because when I hear it I can still hear the voices of two young ladies in Aztec, New Mexico, sing this song so clearly and beautifully. Once again, the second verse:

If words could fall like rain from these lips of mine,
And if I had a thousand years, Lord, I would still run out of time.
If you listen to my heart, every beat will say: ‘Thank you for the Life,
Thank you for the Truth, Thank you for the Way.’
So listen to our hearts, hear our spirits sing
A song of praise that flows from those You have redeemed.
We will use the words we know to tell You what an awesome God you are.
But words are not enough to tell You of our love, so listen to our hearts.

And, finally, a song that is clearly in my top five favorites of all time, and maybe all the way to number one. Very often I cannot even sing it because I start weeping when I think of the young students who have made this song so special to me. I so look forward to the day when these words will be reality:

We shall assemble on the mountain, we shall assemble at the throne.
With humble hearts into His presence, we bring an offering of song.
Glory and honor and dominion, unto the Lamb unto the King.
Oh hallelujah, hallelujah, We sing the song of the redeemed.
And at the end of the journey, we shall bow down with bended knee,
And with the angels up in heaven, we’ll sing the song of victory!
Glory and honor and dominion, unto the Lamb unto the King.
Oh hallelujah, hallelujah, We sing the song of the redeemed.

We sing so much better theology that we sometimes preach and teach. I am firmly convinced that those who sing congregationally (with none of those obnoxious “praise teams”) and those who sing acapella (Churches of Christ are one, but by no means the only, such groups) have a special gift that other religious groups do not have. We can actually hear the lyrics, and we can fully and completely sing to one another.

Let us never surrender those gifts!!

 

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.

My “Perfect” Worship Experience

On another forum a good friend (that I have never met) suggested I provide what would be my “perfect” worship service (I forget his exact words). I thought, “what a splendiferous idea!” (And I had no idea that such a word as ‘splendiferous’ even existed, but my computer even spell checked it for me!) So, here goes, with a few comments here and there:

  • It would be called a gathering, and not a “service.” The word we translate into “church” simply means an assembly, a gathering, a community. Let’s stick with Bible names.
  • It would begin approximately around 9:00 am – early enough for us to be fresh, but not so late as to make everyone lazy. I say “approximately” as there would be plenty of time for early gatherers to meet and possibly share a breakfast meal without feeling like they were “early.”
  • There would be no end time. People could stay as long as they wished, or leave when they felt they had to. Communal meals would be the rule, not the exception. Everyone would be well nourished, physically and spiritually. Last one out turn out the lights.
  • Except for a few remarks, most of the service would not be scripted or planned. I make exceptions for a lesson from the Bible, and a well thought-out comment immediately preceding the Lord’s Supper. Beyond that – let’s let the Spirit move and encourage us. The experience would be charismatic, but not chaotic.
  • There would be lots of time for just silence – showing a little of my Quaker leanings here. Words can only be heard if there are moments of silence in between them. Consider the average worship service. When is there silence? In most situations, only during the Lord’s Supper, and even in some congregations that is changing. We need silence to hear the Word of God. Lots of silence for me.
  • There would be many prayers, and songs – lots of songs. Songs dating back to the earliest English hymnals and songs that were written by church members throughout the week.
  • There would be equal amounts of praise and confession. One thing I learned in my D.Min. studies is that Churches of Christ do not confess much. Oh, we confess that we have “sinned,” but we do a really poor job of confessing sins. I think in an ideal situation there would be group confession, and individual confession, and lots of forgiveness, and lots of silence as we ponder our sinfulness.
  • There would be a lot of shepherding. The shepherds, or elders, would run their stubby little legs off moving from person to person, group to group, taking care of shepherding issues. No smoke-filled, back-room decision making CEOs here – just pure shepherds of the flock.
  • Sermons, or Biblical lessons, would be brief, and might be given by more than one individual – and would be directed to helping the flock follow in the steps of the Good Shepherd. The lessons would be followed by periods of discussion, and would then be followed by periods of silence as the sheep considered the words that were presented.
  • There would be a time for the meeting of physical needs as well as spiritual needs. No one would go away hungry, or in need of shelter. Discipline, when needed, would be administered “on the spot.” Ditto with forgiveness and absolution.
  • Finally, people would arrive haggard and worn out from fighting the battles against the “powers and principalities,” and would leave equipped, renewed and rejuvenated, ready to go forth and conquer the beast.

I just realized, in re-reading what I would characterize as the “perfect” worship experience, that I have described the actual worship gathering in many of what we would call “third-world” countries. Maybe in terms of spiritual worship, we as Americans are third-world.

Okay – perhaps its a pipe dream, and might could be added onto. Thanks, Ted, for the splendiferous idea!

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.