Tag Archives: Church

Let’s Talk about Sex

Something momentous is happening in the larger culture right now to which the church of Jesus Christ really needs to be paying attention. I have long been haunted by something that Stanley Mooneyham of World Vision wrote in his 1975 book What do You Say to a Hungry World? (Word).

It is reported that on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution two conferences were held in hotels on the same Moscow street. One was sponsored by the Orthodox Church: the principal item on the agenda was vestments for the clergy. In the other meeting, Lenin and his friends drew up the final plans to overthrow the czarist regime. (31)

“Let the church take care!” Stanley Mooneyham warned. “A church preoccupied with trivialities (or its own institutional well-being) soon becomes blind to the basic needs of the age.”

scumIt seems to me that one of the basic issues of this age is just now coming into view in the avalanche of troubling accounts of the sexual harassment, misconduct, abuse, and crimes that have been perpetrated by highly public people – celebrities like Kevin Spacey, Ben Affleck, Dustin Hoffman, and Louis C.K.; entertainment industry executives like Harvey Weinstein, James Taback, and Ray Price; media leaders like Mark Halpern and Michael Oreskes of NPR; and politicians like Roy Moore, George H.W. Bush, and Donald Trump. These stories are just beginning to surface. There will be more.

Just like the sex abuse scandal in Roman Catholicism a decade ago that snowballed from what were originally said to be a handful of “isolated” incidents into a full-blown and widespread scandal that shook the Church right down to her very foundations and that has had consequences with which she is dealing still, so the curtain is just now rising on the patterns of sexual abuse that permeate our society in all of its different sectors. The surface of this story has just been scratched.

metooThe scope of this scandal will only grow in the coming days. The sheer number of “Me too” notices that have been posted by victims of sexual abuse across the various platforms of social media is stunning anecdotal evidence of the staggering scale of this moral crisis in our society, a crisis to which the church must neither be silent nor stupid in response.

It was the theologian Paul Tillich (1886 –1965) who said that culture poses the questions that the church then needs to be able to answer cogently and compellingly, and I’m quite sure that this was the case in his day, in the twilight of Christendom when culture was the dissenting voice that challenged the church’s spiritual and intellectual hegemony in Western Civilization. Those days are gone.

Culture doesn’t care what the church thinks anymore. These days the roles have been reversed. Today the church is the dissenting voice to an increasingly secular cultural hegemony that has largely removed God from the equation, except maybe as a mascot.  Culture may no longer care what the church thinks, but I believe that when the world that it has constructed without reference to God begins to teeter on its shaky foundations, as it appears to be doing at this very moment, then a church that can speak clearly to that culture about the difference that God makes to personal and social well-being will get a hearing from people who are frightened and frustrated.  And so the church needs to start thinking and talking about sex.

This is going to require more from us than just a recitation of our rules in a scolding manner. If we are to engage the larger culture in an intelligent conversation about the meaning of human sexual identity and behavior from our distinctive perspective as Christians, then we are first going to have to become reacquainted with that distinctive Christian perspective ourselves.  When we aren’t conversant with the church’s historic perspective on human sexuality, then we default into posturing as Christians instead, and there’s a fair amount of this going on right now.

Since the dam on sexual abuse in our society broke flooding the nightly news with one outrageous story of sexual misconduct after another, some Christians I know have begun to exude a certain air of moral and spiritual superiority with a smug “I told you so” look on their faces. They know the rules and so they have concluded that this breaking sex abuse scandal is a pretty simple matter of culture just reaping what it has sown.

Sexual abuse is part of the toxic harvest from the destructive seed that was sown during the sexual revolution of the 1960’s. Elevating the pursuit of physical pleasure and the right of personal self-expression to the highest good while at the same time eradicating the traditional moral and spiritual boundaries that helped to channel human behavior and control powerful human urges has created a climate of sexual permissiveness in which all of our fallen instincts have been allowed to thrive. And so some Christians see the solution to this current crisis in our society in a pretty straightforward sort of way – just restore those boundaries, just rebuild those barriers, and everything will be fine.   But it’s too late for that, besides, it never really worked anyway.

Simply knowing the rules has never been enough, not even for those of us who are Christians. The fact is that there is little appreciable difference between the sexual attitudes and behaviors of Christians and the sexual attitudes and behaviors of their counterparts in the larger secular culture. We have premarital sex in virtually identical numbers. We have children out of wedlock in virtually identical numbers. We have extramarital affairs in virtually identical numbers.  We use pornography in virtually identical numbers.  We get divorced in virtually identical numbers. The only real difference between us seems to be guilt.

We who are Christians are familiar with, at least in principle, the traditional rules about sexual expression, and so we tend to feel some real remorse when our sexual behaviors deviate from the standards that come with the territory of faith. This is actually how it’s supposed to work.  As Paul explained in Romans (3:21-31), the Law prepares our hearts for the Gospel.  God’s word of grace is a word best received by people who know and who are troubled by the moral and spiritual poverty that they find in the depths of their spirits.

The Gospel is a word of healing spoken to our injuries. The Gospel is a word of hope spoken to our despair. The Gospel is a word of forgiveness spoken to our sinfulness. The Gospel is a word of transformation spoken to our shattered lives and worlds. When God’s grace in Christ finally breaks through to us, in that moment we discover who we were always meant to be, we see just how far short we have actually fallen from that identity, and we are set on the path of a gradual restoration of that true image in us. And it’s this pattern that creates the basic frame for the distinctive Christian perspective on sex.

sexThe late Dr. Lewis Smedes, professor of ethics at the Seminary where I began my graduate theological education in Southern California, in his book – Sex for Christians (Eerdmans 1976) – addressed the distinctive Christian vision for human sexuality under three broad headings – “its created goodness, its sinful distortions, and its redeemed potential.” Every question of sexual identity and behavior must be pushed through this grid. What was originally intended for us and our sexuality by the God who made us? How has that intention become distorted by the rebellion of our sin and the ensuing brokenness of our world?  And how does the healing work of God in Christ take hold of us and change us sexually?

Dr. Smedes noted the very real complexity that’s involved in this for us –

Christians must forever pick their way between delight in creation’s gifts and sorrow for sin’s distortions. We want to rejoice in everything God has given; we want to change all that has gone wrong. Our problem is that we are often hard put to tell the difference between what God has made and what we or nature has bungled. 

What God wants, how we’ve made an absolute mess of it, and what God is doing now in Christ to fix it is the theological frame through which I believe that we as Christians need to view what’s happening in us, to us and all around us sexually, and out of which we need to speak to culture with clarity and grace. DBS +

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Soundings

This week is the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation

500 Reformation

hatThis week is the 500th Anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. It was on October 31, 1517, that that the Roman Catholic priest and monk Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany. While there had been previous attempts to reform the church, and there would be more to follow, including that of our own Thomas and Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone on the American frontier in the early 1800’s (“The Reformation of the 19th Century” – J. H. Garrison) this dramatic and providential act of Martin Luther is as good as any event to officially mark the beginning of the spiritual movement of Protestantism that changed the face of the church and the world.

spiralThe Protestant Reformation was nothing less than a Copernican revolution in theology. Nicolaus Copernicus (1473 –1543) fomented his revolution in the scientific world by removing the Earth from the center of the universe around which all of the other planets, including the Sun, revolved, replacing it with the Sun at its center around which all of the other planets, including the Earth, revolved. Before the Reformation the Roman Catholic Church with its dogmas and traditions was at the center of the spiritual solar system, and every other church and spiritual movement was put into rotation around it, their places determined by how close or how far their teachings were from the official teachings of Roman Catholicism. In contrast, Protestantism put the Bible at the center of the Christian solar system, and then aligned the planets of the churches and movements around its teachings, their place determined by how close or how far from the truth of Scripture their teachings were, and this gets to the spiritual nub of the revolution that was the Protestant Reformation.

MartinIn 1521, Martin Luther was called before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms to fully explain his views. “Diet” refers to an official meeting and “Worms” is a city south of Frankfurt.   At the end of this defense of his ideas, tradition says that Martin Luther stood before his opponents and boldly declared –

Unless I am convicted by scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, God help me.

“Convicted by Scripture” — “my conscience a captive to the Word of God” — “here I stand, I cannot do otherwise” — this is the Reformation in a nutshell. Dr. Scott H. Hendrix, the Emeritus Professor of Reformation History and Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, explains the significance of these famous words –

Luther asserted that his conscience was captive to the Word of God and that he could not go against conscience. This was not, however, a modern plea for the supremacy of the individual conscience or for religious freedom. Though already excommunicated by Rome, Luther saw himself as a sworn teacher of Scripture who must advocate the right of all Christians to hear and live by the gospel.

semperOne of the most important insights of the Reformation, as far as I am concerned, is that reformation is not something that is once done and forever thereafter settled, but rather, that reformation is an ongoing process for every Christian and every church in every generation. ”Ecclesia semper reformanda est” – “Reformed and always reforming” – or, in its more complete form – “The church is reformed and always [in need of] being reformed according to the Word of God” – is a familiar way for Protestants to think and talk about what the Reformation means. The “Word of God” (Incarnate in Christ, inscripturated in the Bible, and illumined in our hearts by the Holy Spirit) always confronts and corrects our thinking, feeling, and acting.  An important part of its function is to challenge us, our thinking and living.  As James Smart explained –

The Word of God has in it always elements that are congenial and elements that are uncongenial since it is at one and the same time God’s words of both judgment and grace, no grace without judgment and no judgment without grace. To eliminate the uncongenial may be to escape the judgment that makes ready to receive the grace. 

Reformation is the faithful consequence of the Word carefully taking our measure, us coming up short both individually as Christians and corporately as the church, and us rolling up our sleeves and getting to work to bring things into better conformity with the Mind of Christ as it has been revealed to us in the Word. This is why Pastor Jack Hayford says that we need to continuously “drive a nail” into the pulpit, the Lord’s Table, the pipe organ, the choir loft, and the pews of our churches today – into “any place both visible and sufficiently shocking to provide a counterpart to the ancient door at Wittenberg.”

Half a millennium ago the Church was shaken to its roots – dragged by the nape of the neck to confront the reality of God’s Word, and forced to face the fact that its forms had chained people rather than freed them. The dual truths of “justification by faith” and “the priesthood of the believer” were trumpeted forth and the true “church” – the people of God – was released through a recovery of the revelation of God’s Word.  We’re overdue for another one.

leTempleMore than one Reformation historian has pointed to Jean Perrissin’s painting – “Le Temple de Paradis, Lyon” (1564) – to help visualize the spiritual Copernican revolution that the Reformation was in the life of the church and Christians.  It shows a Protestant Church in France.  At the center of this little spiritual universe is the pulpit.  The preaching and teaching of the Word is the center around which everything else that is going on in this church turns – the children waiting to be instructed in the faith, the couple waiting to get married, the businessmen dressed for work, the baptism of a newborn baby, even the dog that has made its way to worship and sits attentively under the pulpit!

The point in these details is that all these people and all these activities centered on and revolved around the proclamation of God’s Word.   They believed the Bible was God’s message for them and to tem, sufficient not only to save but also to guide one in a life godliness.  As the Word from God, therefore, it had to be proclaimed, heard, and obeyed.  Indeed, it had to have the final say. (Matthew Barrett)

Back in 2012, Darryl Dash (https://dashhouse.com) called for a new a “Copernican Revolution of the Word that puts us in our place in orbit around God and His Word in our lives, our churches, and our preaching.” Instead of positioning ourselves at the center of the universe and demanding that “the Bible spin in orbit around our lives,” Darryl argued that “it’s far better to put God and His Word at the center, and to demand that our lives spin in orbit around Him.” And I couldn’t agree more.  The Reformation is not just an event that we remember and celebrate. Reformation is a commitment we make and a continuing process to which we give ourselves.  It is said that the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther told the Renaissance scholar Erasmus – “The difference between you and me is that you sit above the Scripture and judge it, while I sit under Scripture and let it judge me.” And if you ask me, that the essence of what it means to be a Protestant.  It is to consciously “sit under Scripture.”  Drive a nail in it. DBS +

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Soundings

An Open Letter to the Rev. Teresa Hord Owens, General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

circlechalice

Dear Rev. Owens,

The news of your election as our new General Minister and President is a source of great pride and true joy for us as a church. When we voted to be an anti-racist, pro-reconciling church many General Assembles ago, it was with a day like this one in mind.

Of course, the election of an African American woman to this office does not signal the end of racism or diminish the hard work of reconciliation that remains for us to do as a church any more than the election of an African American man to the highest office in our land nine years ago signaled the end of racism or completed the work of reconciliation in our national life. And so, while not viewing your election as a panacea, I am nevertheless celebrating it as an important milestone in the life of our beloved community of faith where there cannot be gender, ethnic, social, economic, political, racial, generational, or sexual orientation distinctions between us because “Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11).

I know that the challenges you will face as the leader of our denomination in the coming days will demand of you great wisdom and grace. I suspect that you are getting lots and lots of advice from every quarter right now about how best to guide us into God’s future for us as a church.  With all of these voices speaking to you at the same time, I imagine that it’s all just a little bit confusing and overwhelming.  Nevertheless, I believe that this is a good thing because it’s evidence of the great passion that so many of us feel for this church of ours.  So, allow me add my voice to that cacophony.

I believe that one of your most crucial tasks in the coming days will be to represent the whole church, to be a visible and vocal point of unity for all of us who call ourselves Disciples.   We talk about wanting to be a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world as a church, and I believe that what we are going to need you to be as our next General Minister and President is an embodiment of that same kind of wholeness for a fragmenting church.

Scott McKnight has written much about the struggle in the church these days over the meaning of the Gospel. There has been much said among Disciples in recent years about how the Gospel must be framed through the category of justice – the transformation of society by the values of the Kingdom.   But there are other Disciples, people like me, who believe that the Gospel is more properly framed by the category of justification – the transformation of individuals through the saving life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ which in turn makes us agents of God’s just transformation of society as a fruit of that justification.   The “justice gospelers” among Disciples know that there’s room for them in this church because they’ve heard their perspective publicly and frequently affirmed by Indianapolis.  What those of us who are “justification gospelers” among the Disciples really need to hear from you Rev. Owens, is that your vision of our church includes us too.   We need to know that you know that we’re here, and this is where Scott McKnight’s counsel might just be the most helpful thing for all of us to hear right now. He says –

“There are three’ J’s’ in the gospel debate. The right ‘J’ is Jesus. If you preach Jesus as the gospel you will get both justification and justice. If you preach justification you may get Jesus (but I see only some of Jesus and not the whole of Jesus) and you may get some justice (I’m skeptical on this one). If you preach justice you may get some justification (but I’m skeptical on enough justice ‘gospelers’ ever getting to justification) and you get Jesus, but again only some of Jesus (often only his teachings, his life, and his life as an example). If you preach the Jesus of Paul’s gospel (1 Corinthians 15) or the apostolic sermons in Acts or the gospel of the Gospels, you get all of Jesus and all of Jesus creates both justice and justification.”

So, talk about Jesus, Dr. Owens.   That’s my counsel to you in these exciting days as you begin your new ministry among us as our General Minister and President.  Talk about Jesus clearly.  Talk about Jesus often.  Talk about Jesus from Scripture and your heart.   For when you talk about Jesus I believe that both justice and justification will be served, and we will be about the work of the Great Commission that He has given us to do as a church – to preach the Gospel (justification) and to teach all that He has commanded (justice) – and thus, truly be His disciples.

Rev. Owens, I am looking to you to lead, and I am praying for you as you begin. DBS +

                                                                                                           

Leave a comment

Filed under Soundings

“Where the Bible is Silent…”

biblio

A Little “Believing Thinking” on the Church’s Response to Transgendered People
_____________________________________________________________________

The last Faiths in Conversation gathering for the spring took place on Tuesday evening, May 23rd, at the Islamic Association of Collin County in Plano.  Our topic that night was the response of our respective faith traditions to transgendered people.

What follows here are my prepared remarks for that evening. As in most things that come from the heart and mind of this Christian Moderate, there are things that I say here that those to my spiritual left will dislike, and there are things that I say here that those to my spiritual right will equally dislike. Some will object that I’ve gone too far, while others will object that I’ve not gone nearly far enough.  We who are “dead skunks in the middle of the road stinking to the high heavens” are familiar with this criticism.

My strongest conclusion from the evening is a renewed appreciation for the spiritual wisdom of my own Stone/Campbell tradition. I think it serves us well.  DBS +

 cross

Christianity’s Response to Transgendered People
Faiths in Conversation – May 23, 2017 – 7 pm

The Islamic Association of Collin County, Plano, Texas
Dr. Douglas B. Skinner, Northway Christian Church

________________________________________________________

My denominational tradition has a saying – “Where the Bible speaks, we speak; and where the Bible is silent, we’re silent.”   For people who want a Biblically informed faith, it’s not bad advice.  And it speaks directly to our topic tonight.  You see, I can find nothing in the New Testament about transgendered people.  “There is no verse in my Bible that says, ‘Thou shalt not transition from a man to a woman, or from a woman to a man” (Kevin de Young). Look up the word “transgender” in a concordance of the New Testament and you will find nothing.

Jesus did talk once about Eunuchs (Matthew 19:12), and the book of Acts tells a crucially important story about an Ethiopian Eunuch who came to a saving faith in Jesus Christ and who was baptized into the life of the church (8:26-40), and lots of interpreters I know and deeply respect have used these two Biblical texts as ways to talk about the inclusion of sexual minorities within the scope of God’s saving purposes and the embrace of the church’s life and love.

But that’s the application of a principle derived from these texts and not a reference to anything that the New Testament directly says about the church’s response to transgendered people. And while such applications are a necessary and quite legitimate use of Scripture, again my denominational tradition urges some real caution in the way that we handle such inferences. The founders of my denominational tradition said that without an explicit command or an approved example from the Bible that directly addresses a particular circumstance or concern, our applications of a Biblical principle to those circumstances and concerns must be tentative, modest, and generous and never dogmatic, arrogant or authoritarian.  The best wisdom of my spiritual tradition for me this evening would probably be to just sit down and shut up.  And there’s something to be said for this approach.

We all have a real propensity to say too much too fast. Qoheleth” – the name of the Preacher of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible said that there’s a time “to keep silence,” and that there is “a time to speak” (3:7).   In the Christian Scriptures this became the counsel of the book of James to be “quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger” (1:19).  Just about a year ago Father Bryan Massingale, a Roman Catholic priest, was a part of a conversation like this we are having here this evening about the place of transgendered people in the life of his church, and he said –

There is much that we do not understand about what is technically called ‘gender dysphoria,’ or the lack of congruence between one’s physical body and one’s gender identity. This ignorance leads to fear, and fear is at the root of the controversies in today’s so-called ‘bathroom wars.’ And there lies a major challenge that transgender people endure and that the faith community has to own: the human tendency to be uncomfortable and fearful in the face of what we don’t understand. It’s easier to ridicule and attack individuals we don’t understand than to summon the patience and humility to listen and to learn.

And then Fr. Massingale added –

But despite all that we do not know, this much I do believe: Jesus would be present to, among, and with transgender persons.

You see, while the authoritative texts of my spiritual tradition say nothing specifically about transgendered men and women, my authoritative texts do say things like “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39), and “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7), and “judge not lest you be judged” (Matthew 7:1), and “by this people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). And so, while I cannot give you a chapter and verse this evening on what the New Testament says to and about transgendered people, I can tell you about what the New Testament says to me as a Christian about how I am supposed to treat people, all people… transgendered people.

Back in July of 2015 when the Supreme Court issued its ruling on the legality of same sex marriages in the United States, John Pavlovitz, a well-known Christian pastor, wrote a blog he called “6 Ways Christians Lost This Week.” Of all the things that I heard Christians say that week, and of all the things I read that week that Christians had written, this was the one that got closest to the Spirit of the Christ I know –

______________________________________________________________________________

We who call ourselves Christians lost a great deal over the past few days, though it’s probably not in the way you might think.

 1)  We lost the chance to be loving. 

So many professed followers of Jesus spent the last week on the attack, desperately fighting a battle long after it had already been decided. Instead of simply looking for ways to personally affirm our faith in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision, too many of us frankly just lost it. We spit out vitriol and we cursed strangers and we lamented America’s demise and we threatened with Bible verses and we treated others with contempt. Our response to the LGBT community and those who support them wasn’t compassion and decency and peacemaking, it was sour grapes, damnation, and middle fingers.

 
2)  We lost the chance to be good neighbors. 

Rather than using the events of this past week as the springboard for conversation with people around us; as a way to build relationship with those who may not share our beliefs or our worldview, we pushed them further away. We used our social media profiles and our workplaces and our cul-de-sac chats to create distance between us and those who disagree with us. We stood on principles and we walked all over people. We became really difficult to live with and be around.

3)  We lost the chance to be Good Samaritans.

We could have looked around at the hurt generated this past week; at the deep sadness so many LGBT people and their loved ones felt at being the center of such violent arguments and the horrible aftermath of them, and responded in love. We could have moved toward them with the mercy and gentleness of Christ, seeking to be the binders of the wounds. Instead, far too many of us felt compelled to rub salt deeply into them. We basically walked past those who were down—and we kicked them hard on the way.

4)  We lost the opportunity to show how big God is. 

With all the fatalistic sky is falling rhetoric and raw-throated “The End is Near” prognostications, what so many Christians did for the watching world was inadvertently paint the image of a God who is hopelessly on the ropes; not all-powerful, not all-knowing, not at all able to withstand the slightest changes in our world. We completely neutered God by horribly overstating the circumstances and crying wolf yet again.

5)  We lost the chance to reflect Christ.

Let’s be honest: some of us really dropped the ball this week on both sides of the discussions. Many of us crusaded on social media or staged tirades from the pulpit or spewed hatred across dinner tables. We argued and complained and petitioned and boycotted and protested, and we did just about everything but leave people with the sweet, restful essence of Jesus. We instead left them a Christ devoid of compassion or kindness or love, and we ensured that many who previously saw all Christians as judgmental, hypocritical jerks—felt completely correct in those assumptions. Faced with people who disagreed with us, we talked about them, shouted at them, yet failed to listen to them.

6)  And we lost people. 

We gave those who live outside of our faith tradition, very little reason to move any closer. By choosing to be rude and argumentative and hateful, we made Jesus fairly irrelevant; an option not really worth considering. Make no mistake, the eyes of the world were fully on the American Church this week, and too much of what they saw was a pretty lousy testimony to a God of love. Many people looked at the rotten fruit of our faith and simply turned away for good.

This stuff should simply break our collective hearts. All of us who claim Christ need to do some honest, invasive personal reflection. Regardless of our feelings about the Supreme Court’s decision, it’s clear that Christians lost far more valuable things than we realize this week; things we better fight to get back.

(http://johnpavlovitz.com/2015/07/01/6-ways-christians-lost-this-week/)______________________________________________________________________________

And it seems to me that we are right back here again with the controversy in our culture these days about transgendered people. There is so much to lose.

Early in his leadership of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis was asked “What kind of church do you dream of?”  And he answered –

I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle.  It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars. You have to heal his wounds.  Then we can talk about everything else.  Heal the wounds, heal the wounds. And to do this you have to start from the ground up. (Cavanaugh)

 

And this means being fully present to the confusion and pain of others, to be quick to hear and slow to speak.   The church is not real good at this.  As David Janvier, a Christian Therapist points out, “When people are different, [Christians] tend to want to make room for people who are alike. [But] we need to make room for people who do not fit into our categories… [and transgendered people] live their whole lives feeling like they don’t fit in” (Fowler).  As a Christian who knows what’s in the Bible, my assignment is “the hard work of listening to and loving those who struggle.” And so, as an act of faith I am now going to sit down now, shut up, and listen.

Sources

Cavanaugh, William T. Field Hospital: The Church’s Engagement with a Wounded World. Eerdmans. 2016.

De Young, Kevin. “What Does the Bible Say about Transgenderism?” https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org

Fowler, Megan. “Making Sense of Transgenderism.” May 14, 2014.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under Soundings

“Churches Change the World” ~ But How?

Church

Churches change the world” is the theme for the Pentecost Offering of my denomination this year. This is the special offering that is directed to the support of new church development, and that’s an easy ministry for most of us to support.  Who doesn’t believe that churches are supposed to be spiritually and morally transformative. The only real question, it seems to me, is how?  How does the church actually go about changing the world?

The promotional materials for my denomination’s special offering for new church development this year names the importance of the church speaking to the world about her own faith’s values and convictions as one of the ways that the church goes about changing the world. In fact, this is how being “prophetic” is generally, if not singularly, understood by us “Disciples” these days.  We want to speak our truth to its power.  And so we have gotten pretty good at passing resolutions, and making public statements, and marching for social justice.  And while I certainly don’t discount the necessity or efficacy of the church’s public witness, it seems to me, that an equally important way for the church to go about trying to change the world is by the church speaking its truth to the church!  In fact I would argue that I would argue that this should probably come first.

Michael Horton, the Reformed theologian, has criticized the American Church’s historic failure to condemn slavery before and during the Civil War. And he is very clear that the “the racisms that still haunt our society” — “the New Jim Crow, broken window policing, and discrimination in every way imaginable” (Derrick Holmes) — are all the poisonous fruit from the tree of this historic moral and spiritual failure by the American church.  And at the heart of this failure, he argues, was not just the church’s refusal to speak out clearly against slavery to the State, it was also the result of the church’s refusal to speak out clearly against slavery to the church!  The evil of slavery persisted, he argues, not because the church wouldn’t address it publicly as a political matter, but rather because the church wouldn’t address it with its own members as a faith matter.   He notes, “the church itself was segregated – often more so than society at large.” And he wonders about how this might have been different had the church preached “the whole counsel of God, including his wrath against the sin of slavery” to its own membership?  What would have happened had the church spoken prophetically to the church?

Wouldn’t the members (of that church) been shaped by God’s Word and Spirit to oppose such a horrific evil?   And wouldn’t they do so not only in their extended families but in their towns and cities?  Wouldn’t they carry their convictions to the voting booth as loyal citizens?  Some would even do so as judges, legislators, and generals.  What if the church that nurtured R. L. Dabney (a major American theologian of that era) had denounced slavery with one voice, with all of the spiritual authority in heaven behind it?  Would he have become a notorious defender of racist religion as he preached, wrote, and served as chief of staff to Stonewall Jackson? (https://www.whitehorseinn.org/2013/09/two-kingdoms-and-slavery/)

It’s easy to think that the prophetic work of the church is what happens in the streets on days of protest, but I find that most of the prophetic work that I do as a local church pastor happens in the pews when I preach and preside at the Lord’s Table on Sunday mornings, and in the classrooms where I teach the Faith, and at the dinner tables and in the coffee shops where I talk about our beliefs and their consequences with people who are just trying to be faithful.

In a recent contribution to the “Rhetoric, Race and Religion Blog” at the “Patheos” Website (4/30/17), Derrick Holmes said that after he had participated in a public demonstration against social injustice at a city council meeting, another participant, grateful for his presence there, wanted to know why there weren’t other ministers with him?  And the clear implication was that if a minister wasn’t in the streets with them protesting or at a rally making a public statement, then he or she wasn’t really doing anything “prophetic” for the cause (http://www.patheos.com).

“Where are the pastors?” that essay asked, and my initial response was that where they really need to be is in their churches doing the slow steady work of the moral formation and the spiritual transformation of the people who are entrusted to their care. In my experience there is nothing more “prophetic” than the church preaching the message of God’s inclusive love in Jesus Christ, and then inviting “whosoever” would come to the Table of Remembrance of God’s sacrificial act of redemption and reconciliation in Christ each week  A church that is being consistently and consciously shaped by the Gospel’s word of God’s welcome and the sign of His saving inclusion will be a church that unhesitatingly speaks to the world about the worth of all people and that unambiguously speaks against the sins of prejudice and discrimination.

I understand that the single most transformative thing that I can do as a pastor is to get the people who are in my spiritual care to “to see what the Scripture says” about the big social and moral questions of the day with which we are wrestling, as Scott Cormode of Fuller Theological Seminary puts it  (https://fullerstudio.fuller.edu/one-basic-idea-get-people-see-scripture-says/). He says that for those of us with a high view of Scripture, the task is not to tell our people what we think, but to help them see how the Bible thinks. He explains –

I think it is easier to preach on uncomfortable topics in an evangelical congregation than it is in other kinds of churches. In a liberal congregation, everyone is entitled to an opinion and the preacher’s is just one voice among many. But in a conservative church, we have agreed on a standard. We all appeal to Scripture. In the evangelical churches I have known, we have all agreed that we should change our behavior to conform to Scripture. We may argue about what the Bible means (and, boy, can we argue), but we all come with a common commitment to obeying the voice of God as conveyed in Scripture.

And so the task is to get them to engage with the Scriptures. A Christian with a high view of Scripture who doesn’t know what’s in the Scriptures – like many in the American Church were before and during the Civil War on Slavery – is a menace and a contradiction. And they’re still around today.

In the June 2017 issue of Christianity Today, Mark Galli, its Editor in Chief, wrote about the criticism that white evangelicals are receiving these days for their reported widespread anti-Muslim, anti-refugee, and anti-others-in-dire-straits public attitudes. “You would think that a people steeped in the Bible,” Mark wrote, “would find closing the door to the world’s neediest people repulsive.” But he says that the research clearly shows that white evangelicals, “more than any other religious group, say that illegal immigrants should be identified and summarily deported.” “What’s wrong with these white evangelicals?” Mark Galli asks. “Who’s teaching them these unmerciful attitudes?” he wonders.  And he thinks he’s found the answer, and it’s not the church!

All those surveys that show white evangelicals to be anti-Muslim and anti-refugee also show that those who take these positions tend to be the white evangelicals who do not go to church. When asked by pollsters if they are “born again” and find the Bible to be true and authoritative in what it teaches, they say “yes.”  But when they are asked if they actually go to church, they often say “no.”  And Mark Galli wonders if there is a connection between the “mercy-shaped vacuum within them,” and the fact that they are not hearing “Scripture read and the Word preached, and sharing in the ‘breaking of bread’ and ‘prayer’ (Acts 2:42) – together in church.”   As Mark puts it –

This has been from the beginning the divinely commanded means that enables us to grow into the full stature of Christ (Ephesians 4:13), so that we might become a people who act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).

Churches change the world. But the kid of churches that change the world are the kind of churches that have first been changed themselves by the very truths that they want to speak to power, and this means that the first place where “prophetic” ministers need to be are in their churches with their people consistently and conscientiously preaching the Word, administering the sacraments, and fueling the vision of God’s coming Kingdom where His will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

DBS +

Leave a comment

Filed under Soundings

The Most Important Thing That Church Can Do Right Now

On a Disciples’ Ministers’ Facebook Group Page to which I belong, a young minister recently posted a question about what we thought the church needed to be giving her attention to most in the coming days. As you might expect from a Disciples’ clergy group, the answers he got were a recital of all of the worthy justice causes that demand our attention and deserve our action.

What I read there reminded me of David Williams’ observation that without a grounding orientation towards grace, the pursuit of justice will shatter a soul.”

screamIt will shatter a soul because the competing demands of justice are too damnably complicated. Pay for migrant laborers is The Issue. #Blacklivesmatter is The Issue. Transphobia is The Issue. Environmental degradation is The Issue. The impact of globalization is The Issue. It’s an endless series of fractally complex cries, each one calling for the fullness of your attention, a chaotic din, an ocean’s roar of human suffering. No normal human can take that in. It creates popcorn soul, attention deficit justice disorder, as the well-meaning warrior frets and chases after whatever buzzes loudest and most impatiently on their #twitterfeed that day.

David Williams’ whole argument is that justice is “the fruit of grace, not the other way around” (https://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2016-04/why-social-justice-not-christian). David believes that “justice matters, deeply and significantly, for anyone who cares about what Jesus taught… It’s just that … well … social justice does not provide the teleological framework that integrates me existentially. Or to put that a less willfully obfuscatory way, it is not my purpose. It is not my goal. It just isn’t.”

chalice

And so when an earnest young Disciple minister asks a Facebook Group of Disciple Ministers what we think the church should be attending to most these days, I want at least one of us to say “the Lord’s Supper”! I want one of us to say that the most urgent task of the hour is to get more of our people to the Lord’s Table more regularly so that the Christ who meets us there can get the chance to form us spiritually and morally by His indwelling presence and through the empowering work of His self-giving love.

Carl Trueman, the Reformed Church Historian who teaches at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, casts a powerful vision of the formative potential of the “ordinary means of grace” when he writes –

I believe that as Christians hear the word each week and receive it by faith, as they grasp the significance of their baptism, as they take the Lord’s Supper, as they worship and fellowship with other believers, their characters are impacted and shaped; and that this will affect how they behave as members of civic society.   In short, they will be those whose faith informs how they think and behave as they go about their daily business in this world.   Christianity makes a difference.

Professor Trueman calls this the “Calvary Option.” Looking around at all the crises and changes in the world today, and after considering all of the cries for justice that make their insistent demands on our attention and action, he argued that the most important thing that a church can do right now is to just be the church!

As long as I live I will still be baptizing the children of congregants, administering the Lord’s Supper, preaching week by week, performing marriages, rejoicing with those who rejoice, burying the dead, and grieving with those who grieve. The elders will care for the spiritual needs of the congregants.  The diaconal fund will continue to help local people—churched and unchurched—in times of hardship, regardless of who they are.  In short, the church will still gather week by week for services where Word and sacrament will point Christians to Christ and to the everlasting city, and thus equip them to live in this world as witnesses to Christian truth. … The needs of my congregation—of all congregations—will remain, at the deepest level, the same that they have always been, as will the answers which Christianity provides.  The tomb is still empty.   And my ministry will continue to be made up of the same elements as that of my spiritual forefathers: Word, sacraments, prayer. (https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2015/07/the-calvary-option)

This is not a pious escape from dealing with the world’s hopes and fears that he is calling for here, nor is it an argument for the evasion of our responsibility for serious moral witness and sustained moral action as Christians. Instead, it is a recognition, as Henri Nouwen put it, that “underneath all of the fluctuating affirmations and rejections of my little world” that “there is a still point where my life in anchored and from which I can reach out with hope and courage and confidence” (The Genesee Diary [14] Image Books.1981).

In the “shattering” presence of all of the injustices that seem to dog our every step right now, what is the center out of which we are to operate as Christians in “hope and courage and confidence”? And I answer that I believe that it’s the Gospel of God’s saving presence and work in Jesus Christ that gets memorialized for us every time we come to the Lord ’s Table in remembrance and thanksgiving.

faithfulThis is why this year the Elders at the church I serve will be reading together and discussing together each month David Fitch’s new book Faithful Presence (IVP – 2016). David, the R.B. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary, is one of the most provocative and helpful thinkers about the life and ministry of the church here in the first few decades of the 21st century that I’ve come across. His blog @ www.missioalliance.org has been required and sustaining reading for me since first stumbling across it on my Sabbatical in the summer of 2014 when I was working on how established, aging and declining churches like ours can cultivate a “culture of evangelism” that leads to sustainable renewal. And it was one of his blogs at this site (www.missioalliance.org) that convinced me that our elders’ time and effort would be well spent this year carefully considering what David has to say about the “seven disciplines that shape the church for mission.” And the first discipline that David believes does this, that shapes Christians “to be Christ’s faithful presence in the world” is the Lord’s Supper.

Writing about this at “Missio Alliance” (“Discerning Christ’s Presence in the World: How We Learn This around the Table” – December 4, 2014) David says –

We need postures to discern Christ’s presence, and to then be able to participate in His work. I am convinced that this kind of training happens as we practice the Lord’s Table together. Around the Lord’s Table we learn to tend to the real presence of Christ …which in turn makes us fully present with each other at the Lord’s Table… It’s at the Lord Table that we learn the right postures which enable us to get out of our own way, to tend to what Christ is doing, and to cooperate.

In this article David describes five of these “postures” that he says open us to the experience Christ’s faithful presence at the Lord’s Table, and that then enable us to be Christ’s faithful presence in the world when we leave the Lord’s Table in mission.

Around the Lord’s Table we learn –

cupThe Posture of Surrendering…
The Posture of Receiving…
The Posture of Ceasing to Strive…
The Posture of Socialness among us
that enables us to be for each other…
And t
he Posture of Forgiveness…

And these are exactly the same “postures” that we need to learn to be a faithful part of God’s mission in the world. This isn’t magic. We aren’t mystically imbued with these qualities simply by ingesting the communion elements week in and week out. A careless and thoughtless participation in the Lord’s Supper holds more spiritual peril than spiritual benefit for us as Paul warned in in I Corinthians 11:17-34. This, David freely admits.

I admit most of us do not learn these postures through the rote ways we take Eucharist. But I contend, when done well, these are the postures we learn there and these are the same postures we take into the world.

But “when done well,” there are very few things that we do as a church each week that are more instrumental in spiritually and morally forming us at the Lord’s Table to be the kind of people that God can then use in the world to “sow love where there is hate; to sow pardon where there is injury; to sow faith where there is doubt; to sow hope where there is despair; to sow light where there is darkness; to sow joy where there is sadness.”

And so when the question is What does the church need to be giving her attention to in the coming days? My answer will be – The Lord’s Supper… for when people come to the Lord’s Table

to receive God’s grace in Jesus Christ, they will then be sent from the Lord’s Table as God’s agents of the grace that they have received in Jesus Christ into a world that desperately needs the fruit of that grace right now — Justice.

DBS +

Leave a comment

Filed under Soundings

But it really is a “Sin Problem”; “Thinking Christianly” about Race

_______________________________________

wareLawrence Ware describes himself as “a philosopher of race and ordained minister dedicated to social justice.” In a recent article (8/16/16) for VSB he said that “If Your Pastor Says ‘Racism Isn’t a Skin Problem, it’s a Sin Problem’  Then You Need To Find Another Church” (http://verysmartbrothas.com).

What Lawrence was addressing in this article are the simplistic slogans and surface solutions that Christians have a real propensity for offering in the face of the stubborn systemic racism that tears at the fabric of American society. The violent and painful episodes of problems in our race relations as a nation in recent days is not a new outbreak of a social ill that we had solved with the Civil Right Bill of 1964, affirmative action and the election of our first African American President. No, racism is a chronic issue that is part of the human condition. The idea that “me and mine” are intrinsically superior to “you and yours” persists precisely because racism is just so stubborn and systemic in us as human beings. And so what’s demanded, Lawrence correctly argued in his article, is a “fundamental change to the structure of this country.” What he wrestles with in this article is the question of just exactly how this kind of “fundamental change” is going to actually be effected.

Now, what prompted Lawrence to write was his attendance of a church service in which the high profile multicultural pastor invoked one of those slogans about racism being a “sin problem” rather than a “skin problem.” Lawrence regarded this statement as evidence that that church and its pastor really didn’t get it. Lawrence wrote –

…Saying racism is a sin problem that we can solve by being kinder to each other serves the purposes of White supremacy because it does not force White folks to come to terms with the way they may contribute to institutional racism in the decisions they make at work and the way they vote at the polls…

These were words that were the speed bump in this article for me. In fact I have continued to live with them in the week ever since I first read the article.  Something about them troubled me, and I finally came to the conclusion that where they rankle me so is at the point of the false dichotomy that they seem to create, the “either this or that” choice that they seem to force.  Lawrence suggests that while some would say that the “sin problem” of racism can be easily and quickly remedied by the simple decision just to start being nice to each other, that what it really requires are public acts of “social protest.

Now, beyond the fact that these two things are not mutually exclusive options in mind, or even the only options that we have available to us when it comes to confronting the sin of racism in ourselves, each other and society at large, there is the even more fundamental theological problem for me of the understanding of sin that they reflect, a view of sin that sees it as something that we can “fix” by our own efforts.

Both “being kinder to each other” and “engaging in social protests” as responses to the “sin of racism” betray a view of sin that reduces it to bad behavior that can be modified by learning how to make better choices.  If people just knew better, or if we just had more effective laws to regulate our behavior, or if we were just better motivated as human beings, then all of our social problems like racism would slowly go away and we could live happily ever after.  Utopia is within our reach if only we would all just stretch a little bit!  But, is sin really just the result of people having bad information, or laws being poorly written and selectively enforced, or people not being motivated quite enough?  I think that the evidence, both Biblical and personal, points to the fact that sin is so much more insidious and intrinsic to us as human beings than this.

Lawrence warned his readers that if your pastor has called for prayer in regard to (racial) unity but has not pushed the congregation to engage in (public acts) of social protest to address the systemic nature of racial justice,” then you might need to change churches. And I appreciate what he says. Swaying and singing “Kum Ba Yah” together, well-intentioned though it may be, is just not going to be enough to dismantle the stubborn and systemic racism that infects the human condition. My problem with what Lawrence wrote is that I don’t think that marching through the streets chanting slogans and hoisting placards is going to be enough to dismantle the sin of racism either.

yellow

Clearly prayer for racial unity and public acts of social protest against racial injustice are expressions of a very deep and commendable desire for social change, and as such, neither is devoid of value. I remember hearing a story about a company of Union troops marching past a Plantation field filled with slaves in the Deep South during the Civil War. Seeing the troops, one of those slaves ran just as fast as he could to get into line with the soldiers with his hoe slung over his shoulder like a rifle. His fellow slaves back in the field all laughed at the sight. They made fun of him. They asked if he thought that pretending to be a soldier for a while was going to make any difference in the struggle for their freedom. And he answered them, saying, “I don’t know if it helps or not, I just don’t want there to be any question about which side I am one.” Praying for racial unity, and engaging in acts of public protest can certainly make it clear about which side we are on, but I don’t believe that prayer or protest has the power to “fix” the sin of racism. No, to “fix” the sin of racism something more fundamental must occur within us as human beings.

To use the language of Paul in Romans 6, the old self with all of its passions and prejudices must be crucified with Christ and buried, and a new self must be raised with Christ to walk in newness of life.   To use the language of Peter in his first letter, we need to be “born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1:3). To use the language of Jesus Christ Himself in His Sermon on the Mount, we need to become good trees bearing good fruit rather than being bad trees bearing bad fruit (Matthew 7:16-18). Jesus, Peter and Paul were all talking about regeneration, about being “born again — born from above” (John 3:3).   As John Piper writes –

heartForgiveness and cleansing are not enough.  I need to be new.  I need to be transformed.  I need life.  I need a new way of seeing and thinking and valuing.  That’s why Ezekiel speaks of a new heart a new spirit:  “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.   And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances” (36:26-27).

…I think Ezekiel means that in the new birth, God puts a living, supernatural, spiritual life in our heart, and that new life – that new spirit – is the working of the Holy Spirit himself giving shape and character to our new heart…. By being himself within us, our heart and mind take on his character – his spirit (Ephesians 4:23).

I completely agree with Lawrence when he says that what the sin of racism requires is a fundamental change in us and our world. But the only source for the kind of change that the sin of racism requires that I know anything about is the Gospel.  And so, taking Lawrence’s lead, I’d say that if your pastor has called for prayer in regard to racial unity, and has pushed for social protest to address the systemic nature of racial injustice, but has not systematically addressed the Gospel foundations of the Creator’s original vision of Shalom, the tragic abnormality of fallen people living in a fallen world that the rebellion of our sin has created, and the personally and socially transformative power of the Gospel, then you might need to think about changing churches.

It was Carl F.H. Henry who wrote –

Supernatural regeneration is the peculiar mainspring for the social metamorphosis latent in the Christian Movement. Man’s spiritual renewal vitalizes his awareness of God and neighbor, vivifies his senses of morality and duty, fuses the law of love to sanctified compassion, and so registers the ethical impact of biblical religion upon society…. Evangelism and revival remain the original wellsprings of evangelical humanitarianism and social awakening.

I believe that “fixing” the sin of racism requires nothing less than a change of heart, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the only power to change hearts that I have ever come across. And so to ignore this Gospel, to obscure this Gospel, to discount this Gospel, or even just to assume this Gospel in the urgent conversation about the kind of fundamental change that the whole wide world and every last one of us as individuals desperately needs, strikes me as the height of unfaithfulness on our part as Christians. If it’s Christ that has the power to make us new creations so that old things pass away and so that new things come, as the Gospel says He is, then to fail to mention Him “at such a time as this” can only be regarded as the worst possible kind of spiritual malpractice.  DBS +

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Soundings