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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.”


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.



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“…Christ Died for Our Sins in Accordance with the Scriptures…”


What was God Doing on the Cross? [Part 3]

A commitment to “speaking where the Bible speaks” results in both an appreciation for the diverse ways that the Bible speaks about something and in the recognition that the Bible often speaks more frequently and forcefully about something in some ways than it does in other ways.  Take the Lord’s Supper for example.

cupIn their “Word to the Church on the Lord’s Supper” (1991) the Commission on Theology of the Council on Christian Unity of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) identified “five strands of meaning” in our observance of communion as people of Biblical faith: (1) Remembrance; (2) Communion of the Faithful; (3) Sacrifice; (4) Unity; and (5) The Feast of the Reign of God. And Dr. Byron Lambert, a Stone/Campbell Church Historian from a different branch of the family actually identified ten!  A Biblical understanding of the Lord’s Supper has got to reflect a breadth of meaning just as wide and deep as that of Scripture itself.   That’s what a commitment to “speaking where the Bible speaks” demands of those of us who affirm it.

But when you do this, it also becomes apparent pretty quickly that not every “strand of meaning” the Bible introduces is equally weighted.  And this is the other thing that a commitment to “speaking where the Bible speaks” leads to – an honest recognition of Biblical emphases.  Just as it would be Biblically inaccurate to speak of the Lord’s Supper in just one way, so it would be just as Biblically inaccurate not to point out that when the Bible speaks of the Lord’s Supper that the first thing it almost always says is something about remembrance.


“Do this in remembrance of Me” is engraved on so many of the Lord’s Tables in the churches of our tribe because of this fact. Remembrance is certainly not the only thing that the Lord’s Supper means to us Biblically, but it is almost always the first thing.

In recent weeks, as part of my own spiritual preparation for Holy Week, I have been using my weekly blog to think out loud about the meaning of the cross. Two weeks ago I wrote about how it is that what God in Christ did on the cross cinches for me the foundational Gospel claim that God loves us. God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). This “strand of meaning” for the cross has a name, it’s called the “Moral Influence Theory of the Atonement,” and because I seek a faith that is Biblical, I embrace in it.

Last week I wrote about how what God in Christ did on the cross both underscores the Gospel’s claim of “Emmanuel,” that “God is with us” as “Christus Dolor” (the Christ who suffers with us) and establishes the Gospel’s announcement of God’s victory over the principalities and powers through Christ’s resurrection from the dead on the third day.  This “strand of meaning” for the cross has a name too, it’s called the “Christus Victor” or “Classical” Theory of the Atonement, and because I seek a faith that is Biblical, I embrace it as well.

coffeeBeing able to hold onto more than just one thought at a time is a skill necessary for people of Biblical faith because the Bible never says just one thing about any topic. The way the Bible teaches its truths is by putting different ideas into faithful conversation with each other, and it is by eavesdropping on that exchange that we begin to plumb the depths of God’s self-disclosure to which Scripture itself is both a witness and a result.

Coming at Scripture in this way leaves me spiritually frustrated with those who want to artificially restrict the conversation. In my experience, this happens in two very different ways.  It happens when somebody tries to tell me that something in the Bible is cut and dried –  neat and clean – black and white – either/or – when clearly it is not.  I find that it’s most often my theologically conservative friends who are guilty of trying to restrict the conversation in this way.  But this also happens when somebody tries to tell me that something that is in the Bible isn’t really there, or, if it is, that it isn’t spiritually or intellectually legitimate and therefore isn’t deserving of our serious consideration.  I find that it’s most often my theologically progressive friends who are guilty of trying to restrict the conversation in this way.  Both approaches, it seems to me, are failures in speaking where the Scriptures speak. Take the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement.


Both my conservative and my progressive friends seem to want me to restrict the conversation when it comes to this idea these days. The conservatives want me to think and talk about it exclusively as the only proper way to truly understand the meaning of the cross of Christ, while my progressive friends don’t seem to want me to think or talk about it as having any legitimacy at all as a way of trying to make sense of the meaning of the cross.  When you come down to it, they are both trying to restrict the theological conversation, and the result is that they both make me want to scream!

petersTed Peters, the Professor of Systematic Theology at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, in his essay on the “Models of the Atonement” [http://www.plts.edu] — and what a fine, fair and incredibly reader-friendly essay it is — explained Substitutionary Atonement this way –

When the word ‘atonement’ comes up, we most frequently rely on the model of “Jesus as our satisfaction.” Variants on this model are called “substitutionary atonement”, “penal substitution”, or even “blood atonement.” The work of Christ in atoning for our sins renders us forgiven, or just, or justified. The blood of Christ renders us clean, righteous, ready to stand in God’s presence. Why does Jesus’ death accomplish this? Satisfaction of the need for cosmic justice is one theological answer…

 …Our word ‘satisfaction’ comes from St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), who wrote a book, Cur Deus Homo? asking: why did God become human in Jesus Christ? Anselm began by describing the world as God originally created it. It was a world of order, a world of justice. All things were ordered in harmony for the benefit of God’s creatures. It is God’s will that we creatures enjoy lives of fulfillment, felicity, and blessedness. Human disobedience in the form of sin, however, has disrupted the world order. Like defaulting on a mortgage, humanity cannot pay what it owes to make amends. As a result, justice requires that humans be disqualified from enjoying the blessedness God had originally planned. Does this mean God’s will has been thwarted by human sin?

 God, however, wants to press on. God wants to deliver blessedness despite human sin and still in harmony with the order of justice. God confronts a dilemma. Neither God alone nor humanity alone can pay the debt to satisfy what is required by the order of justice. On the one hand, if God simply forgives humanity for its sinful disobedience, then this would throw the order of justice out of sync. It would introduce disorder into the creation. So, God can’t just write it off and forget the loss. On the other hand, the human race cannot fix what is broken either. The damage is too severe. No human being has the moral capital to repay the debt. Only justice in the form of retribution can repair the broken creation. But this means humanity will get punishment rather than blessedness. What’s a loving God to do?!

 An offering to satisfy justice must be made from the human side; but only God has the capacity for making such satisfaction. Because only God is able to make the offering that we ought to make, it must be made by a combination of the divine and the human. Therefore, concludes Anselm, the incarnation is necessary to accomplish salvation. Now we know why God became human.

 Professor Peters notes that this “idea of satisfaction is a narrow theological concept, which is used to interpret a large collection of verbal symbols in the Bible: blood, lamb, sheep, the Good Shepherd, scapegoat, the “lamb upon the throne,” high priest, and such.” Which is to say that it’s one of the ways that Scripture speaks about the cross, and therefore should be a voice — not the only voice, mind you — but at least one of the voices, and maybe even one of the louder voices in our conversation about what the cross means and what the cross accomplishes.

Scot McKnight’s brilliant analogy of the golf bag full of different clubs explains shows how this works –

golfEach “theory” of the Atonement is, like a particular golf club, better suited to some situations than others. Ministering the gospel is like playing a round of golf. Just as a golfer knows when to use a driver, a wedge, or a putter, the way we proclaim, teach, or share the Good News should be adapted to the situation. You can hit the ball out of a sand trap with your driver, but why would you if you had a wedge available? The strength of the golf-bag metaphor is that it asks us to stop being partisan toward one particular theory of the Atonement and to minister with the best tools at hand. [“Your Atonement Is Too Small” – David Neff – May 20, 2008 – www.christianitytoday.com]

And so when the problem is ignorance – not being sure about how the God who is there really feels about us – the “club” that I go to is the moral influence theory of the atonement. What Christ did on the cross “proves” that God loves us, and shows us just how much.

And when the problem is the evil that holds us and the whole world in its sway, the “club” that I go to is the “Classical” “Christus Victor” theory of the atonement.  On the cross Christ confronted the powers of darkness that enslave us, and by getting up on the third day, He triumphed over them.

And when the problem before me is the very real separation that the rebellion of sin has created in my relationship with God, and my relationship with others, and my relationship with myself, and my relationship with all of creation, the “club” that I go to is the “Substitutionary” theory of the atonement. On the cross God Himself removes the barriers that hinder all of my relationships.

Next week in my final posting in this series on “What Was God Doing on the Cross?” I will name the three essential Biblical truths that I personally find that the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement preserves for me better than the other theories of the atonement do.  But suffice it for now to simply say that I am glad that it is one of the clubs in my spiritual golf bag.   Because my own need for forgiveness is great, my appreciation for the Substitutionary theory of the Atonement is deep.

Richard Mouw wrote about (“Getting to the Crux of Calvary” – Christianity Today – June 4, 2012) overhearing some young ministers at a conference discussing their conscious distancing of themselves and their ministries from the traditional Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement.  Dr. Mouw said that he thought that it was a terrible mistake.

This is not to say that every sermon preached has to be an invitation to bring our guilt to the Cross of Calvary… The fact is that the Bible presents the work of Christ as a many-faceted event, setting forth a variety of images for the Atonement: self-giving love, the forgiveness of enemies, payment of a debt, the ransom of captives, victory over the demonic principalities and powers, and so on… I would not have worried about the comment that I overheard from those young pastrors if they were simply celebrating having a golf bag full of theological clubs, and resolving to use the victory-over-the-powers club more effectively in appropriate situations. But instead, they said that they “seldom” talked anymore about substitutionary atonement, and to me, that sounded like a basic mistake in theological golfing.

And to me as a big “D” Disciple, it sounds like a fundamental violation of our commitment to “speaking where the Bible speaks.DBS+

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Living in the Communion of Saints

“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints…”


cursiveI learned to write cursive by standing at a school chalk board looking up at a strip of green paper that ran all around the room above the chalk boards on which was printed the letters of the alphabet.  Remember? I followed their curves and loops and flairs to write my own letters.  Well, similarly in I Peter 2:21 we are told that Jesus Christ left us an example or model for us to follow “in His steps.”  The Greek word translated “model” or “example” in this verse is “hupogrammos” which literally means “to write” (“grammos”) “under” (“hupo”).  It was a word that referred to a writing-copy that was given to beginning students as an aid in learning to write their letters. It means to trace in outline, to sketch out, to write beneath. It was just like that strip of green paper with the letters on it above the chalk boards around the classroom in elementary school where we learned to write – an example to follow.

We all need examples, not just to write our letters but to live our lives.  And so Paul told the Corinthians to “be imitators of me, as I am of Christ,” (I Corinthians 11:1).  That’s what we need as Christians.  Jesus Himself is our example for life.  He is the new Adam, the template for the new humanity.  My “aha” moment with this came in Christian College while reading E. Stanley Jones’ study of the Sermon  on the Mount – The Christ of the Mount.  As he explained, this is not Jesus giving us a set of some abstract moral and spiritual principles by which to live our lives — a set of rules.  No, this is Jesus telling us about how He actually lived His own life — an example for us to follow.

But Jesus is the Son of God.  Sure, He’s “fully man,” but He is also “fully God.”  And so, while perhaps not doctrinally correct, pragmatically I can’t help but think that His “active obedience” to the Father’s commands for how to live the life of a human being is not an exact comparison with me and you and our situation no matter how thoroughly He “partook of our flesh and blood” (Hebrews 2:14).  I can’t help but think that His divinity changed the equation in some way.  And so I appreciate what the church has called “subordinate mediators.”

“There is only one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (I Timothy 2:5).  But there have been lots and lots of men and women in my life and throughout church history whose lives have been windows through which I have been able to peer and see Christ.  This is what a “subordinate mediator” does.  If Jesus Christ is the One who ushers us into the presence of God the Father (that’s what a “Mediator” does), then all of those men and women who have had a hand in ushering us to the side of Jesus Christ are our “subordinate mediators.”  Like Paul who invited the Corinthians to imitate him as he imitated Christ, so there are people in our lives we can imitate in faithfulness and obedience.  This is one way to understand what the Creed by its affirmation of “the communion of the saints.”

We are in community with everybody, everywhere and always who has ever confessed Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  Some of them are still sitting in the pews right beside us on Sunday mornings – the “church militant” – still alive and kicking.  And some of them have passed into God’s nearer presence – the “church triumphant” – the faithful departed.  Christ’s church consists of both of these groups.  It is one community in two dimensions.  Knowing this, Gary Thomas in his book, Seeking the Face of God (Thomas Nelson – 1994) says that he tries to consciously live in the communion of the saints.

I’ll post a picture here or a quote there of someone whose faith and life has encouraged me…  [And] when a contemporary saint does, I will live with that person’s death for weeks…  I admire them for what they have done and I thank the God who conquered their rebellion and blessed them with the call to become His children and servants.   Wise shoppers clip coupon.  Wise Christians clip obituaries. (153-154)

leiIn my office on a shelf where I can always see it I keep an icon of Blessed Damien of Molokai.  I’ve just gotten back from a 40th wedding anniversary trip with Mary Lynn to Hawaii.  On the flight there I read again a book that I read for the first time when I was a kid of 12 – John Farrow’s Damien the Leper (Image Books).  We didn’t go to Molokai on this trip, but just being in Hawaii made me want to reconnect with this important “subordinate mediator” of mine.  I was called to ministry when I was 12, and one of the first books that I read after I heard this call was this book.  In many respects, Fr. Damien “set the standard” of ministry for me.  Like that green strip of paper above the chalk board where I learned to write, the story of his life is what I looked up to for a pattern to follow.

So, who are yours?
Who do you look up to for your patterns of faithfulness to follow?

In the life of our church, the month of November opened with our Service of Remembrance.  All Saints’ Day on November 1 and All Souls’ Day on November 2 afford us with our annual opportunity to remember our faithful departed.  And then Thanksgiving Day on the 26th at the end of November brings the month to a close with the spirit of gratitude.  And it seems to me that we need to consciously connect these dots by taking a little time this week to consciously live in our own particular configuration of the communion of the saints.  My recent trip to Hawaii gave me the opportunity to reclaim and be grateful for the impact that Fr. Damien has had on my being and doing as a minister.  I have pinned his picture up on the wall of my heart.   And this week I am bringing to heart and mind others, both famous and hidden, who have nurtured my faithfulness as a Christian and a minister. I am consciously looking for their faces in the great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1) who surround me, and I am giving thanks for their examples. My imitation of their imitation of Christ makes me a better Christian.  And for that I am truly grateful.  DBS+















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Changing Laws ~ Changing Hearts



Dr. Bill Baird, my professor of New Testament at Brite Divinity School, and the reason why I wanted to go to seminary in Ft. Worth in the first place, used to say that our natural reflex is to use Biblical texts as “springboards” to Washington D.C.

What he meant by this was our tendency to move immediately, unhesitatingly and uncritically from Biblical teachings to some specific public policy proposal. We get political in the blink of an eye and become partisan in a heartbeat. Both the Christian right and the Christian left pronounce their particular take on a pressing social issue of the day and leave the distinct impression that it is the only conscientious position that a serious Christian can take.  We call it being “prophetic,” and we think that it’s how we speak truth to power.

As Christians, we use the Bible politically to speak to the world. But when I read my Bible, in context, more often than not, what I encounter is not a word that’s being spoken to the world at large, but a word that’s being spoken instead to the community of faith, both to whole congregations and to individual Christians.  When He was in front of Pontius Pilate, Jesus Christ explicitly disavowed the suspected grab for worldly power through a political strategy that made Him a cause for concern to Rome.   “My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus said (John 18:36).  And when addressing a problem about sexual expression in the Corinthian Church, Paul explained –

9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. 11 But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. 12 What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? 13 God will judge those outside. [1 Corinthians 5:9-13]

I know, I know, these verses beg many important questions, but for right now try to focus just on the inside/outside distinction that Paul was making here; the difference between what the church is supposed to say to “anyone who claims to be a brother or sister,” and what the church is supposed to say to “the people of this world.”

“What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?” Paul asked, assuming that his readers knew that the answer was “none” — that it’s not our “business” to hold people in the world accountable to the moral and spiritual standards that we who have surrendered to the Lordship of Jesus Christ hold sacred.  “Are you not to judge those inside?” And again, Paul assumed that his readers knew the answer to this rhetorical question as well. “Yes,” we are supposed to hold ourselves accountable to each other within the community of faith for the things that we say we believe are true, and right, and good.

Don’t try to play the trump card of Matthew 7:1-6 here. Even in context, Jesus’ “judge not lest ye be judged” assumes a capacity on our part to be able to identify “specks,” “logs,” “dogs” and “swine.” And within a mere 8 verses of this teaching, Jesus was warning His disciples about “false prophets” and the necessity for His disciples to be able to know who they were by their fruits (Matthew 7:15-20).  The appeal to Matthew 7:1 as a universal prohibition to judging that we like to use to avoid the hard work of getting clarity for ourselves or being challenged by others about what it is that we believe and value ignores what the verse actually says in context and attempts to have it bear more freight than it was designed to hold, which brings us back around to the inside/outside distinction and to the question of who the Bible is talking to?

The reason why we use Biblical texts as springboards to Washington DC is because we think that the primary way that the world will be changed, made more just and compassionate, will be through legislation. And while I’m not unaware of the necessity of political action or unappreciative of the way that good legislation and responsible government can serve the establishment of justice and liberty for all, neither am I naïve.  I’m truly glad that racial segregation and discrimination was officially outlawed in the United States by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but as the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, 50 years later have painfully shown us, it’s one thing to change the law and another thing to change hearts.


The “takeaway” from Carl F.H. Henry’s 1964 book Aspects of Christian Social Ethics for me was his strong emphasis on Christianity’s “supernatural resources” for social change. This was his restatement of Pietist Christianity’s traditional approach to addressing social problems and fueling social improvement.

The twentieth century has cherished high hopes for socio-politico-economic reconstruction. First it trusted mass education to propound a new vision of society, then domestic legislation and possibly even international jurisprudence, and more recently it has looked to mob pressures and revolutionary techniques to being about rapid social fulfillment. (9)

But the Christian Church ought to rely on the spiritual regeneration of individuals to transform society. (72)

History shows that the thought of Christ on the cross has been more potent than anything else in arousing a compassion for suffering and indignation at injustice. (29)

Supernatural regeneration is the peculiar mainspring for the social metamorphosis latent in the Christian movement… Evangelism and revival remain the original wellsprings of evangelical humanitarianism and social awakening. To ignore or lay aside this chief armor of apostolic Christianity for reliance on other social dynamics means retreat from the peculiar glory of the New Testament to the world-wisdom and world-power of the Greeks and the Romans.  Those who in social agitation sponsor a morality of compulsion, or simply trust the word and will of unregenerate men, thereby betray their skepticism of the adequacy of spiritual reserves latent in the Christian religion. This gnawing doubt is manifest in the notion that social problems are not wholly responsive to spiritual solutions. Consequently, the Church has often turned aside from its evangelistic and missionary priorities, attempting to chart a socio-political thrust alongside rather than in and through the evangelistic thrust. (26-27)

The Gospel of Christ is the Church’s peculiar “dynamis” (power) for facing the entire world. Christian social action condones no social solutions in which personal acceptance of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord is an optional consideration. Personal regeneration and redemption are inherent in its hope for the social order.  (25)

The Gospel is the Church’s distinctive message and its distinctive dynamism for social transformation. (79)

When the New Testament addresses a social issue like slavery in Paul’s letter to Philemon, what it says was not being offered as a plank in the platform of a political party, or as some specific political policy proposal. Rome wasn’t listening.  The Emperor didn’t care.  What the New Testament had to say about social justice was a word that was addressed to the hearts of believers who then as salt and light and leaven would penetrate the world around them.  And my hope as a Christian today for the emergence of a more just and compassionate social order still depends less on the persuasiveness of a political argument and the results of the next election than on the spiritual transformation of people by the power of the living, loving God in their lives through the Word and the Spirit.  As Edward Beecher, Lyman’s son, put it –

Great changes do not begin on the surface of society, but in prepared hearts; in men (and women) who by communion with God, rise above the apathy of the age, and speak with living vital energy, and give life to the community, and tone to the public mind. (Wirt 147)

In closing, I put into evidence in support of this argument a story that J. Mack Stiles told in his book Marks of the Messenger: Knowing, Living and Speaking the Gospel (IVP 2010).

When our missionary friend, Mike McComb, tried to introduce protein into the diets of the largely illiterate Guatemalan farmers, it was a masterful combination of expertise, training, and strategy. He started his work towards the end of the murderous civil war. During that time Mike also faithfully shared the gospel. And Mike noticed it was the gospel that allowed protein to get to the people.


When the gospel was understood and accepted in villages, Mike reported, men stopped getting drunk and beating their wives. As they attended church, they started to attend to their crops and their children’s education. Tomas, the mayor of Nebaj, told me that it was only when the gospel came to the Ixil lands that real change happened. Mike says that the preaching of the gospel did more to eliminate hunger than fish farms or crop rotation ever did. We must never forget that the Gospel brings more long-term social good than any governmental aid program ever developed.

Changed hearts change the world.  DBS+


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The “Bits and Pieces” Mentality


It was Dr. David Naugle, a professor of philosophy at Dallas Baptist University, who introduced me to the problem of “bits and pieces.” In his book Worldview: The History of a Concept (Eerdmans 2002), he described the way that we fail to make connections as the “bits and pieces mentality.” He says that it is a characteristic of our age not to connect the dots. We tend to see things in complete isolation from each other. Our lives are a random series of events and experiences, actions and reactions, with nothing holding them together, nothing helping us to make sense of them as a unified whole. And so what happens in church on Sunday is completely separate from what happens in the office on Monday, or at home on Tuesday, or in the home owners’ association meeting on Wednesday, or in the conversation about the Refugee crisis on the Mexico border with friends on Thursday, or paying the monthly bills on Friday, or on the golf course on Saturday. And what happens in church this Sunday, at least in many of our minds, has absolutely nothing to do with what happens in church next Sunday. They are all completely disconnected, totally unrelated moments; each one existing in splendid isolation from all the others.

In The Genesee Diary ( Image Books – 1981), his reflections on his seven month stay at a Trappist Monastery in Western New York State, Henri Nouwen said that he went there to directly confront his “compulsions and illusions,” to answer the questions – “Is there a quiet stream underneath the fluctuating affirmations and rejections of my little world? Is there a still point where my life is anchored and from which I can reach out with hope and courage and confidence?” (14). This is not just an assignment for a spiritual giant like Nouwen who had some time on his hands; it’s a project that all of us must undertake in our search for meaning and purpose.

Back now from my two month Sabbatical, the pace and demands of ministry in an active and busy congregation like Northway have forcefully reintroduced themselves to me. I didn’t ease back into it like stepping into a hot bath, a little bit at a time. No, it was more like being thrown into the deep end of the pool. From the first day back there have been meetings to attend, people to see, staff to be consulted, hospitals to visit, worship services to arrange, sermons to write, Bible Studies to prepare and conduct, pastoral contacts to be made, problems to be solved, reports to be prepared, planning to be done, funerals and weddings to be conducted, church visitors to be followed-up, outreach into the community to be undertaken. I’m not complaining – I love this life, I really do, and I know how blessed I am to have been able to do this work with this people for the past 17 years. But the shift from the rather leisurely and largely unstructured Sabbatical pace to the full-throttled, wide-open pace of a typical week of ministry around here has left me grappling with the question of the location of the still point around which everything else spins. What holds this life and its work together?

One of my favorite theologians is the late Donald Bloesch. An evangelical in a mainline denomination (the United Church of Christ), he has been something of a role model for me through the years for my own ministry as an evangelical in a mainline denomination. One of his books, perhaps my favorite, certainly the most used, is Faith and its Counterfeits (IVP – 1981). He called this book “a handbook on evangelical spirituality,” and he named its purpose as being “to show the difference between true Christianity and some counterfeit versions of the faith” (11).


He named six “counterfeits” to “true religion” (“true religion” defined by the standards of James 1:27 – “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world”) –
1. Legalism – a relationship to a moral code rather than to a living Savior [25];
2. Formalism – preoccupation with propriety in worship and theology, the acceptance of doctrine without the Spirit, embracing the forms of godliness without the power (2 Timothy 3:5) [36];
3. Humanitarianism – the effort not to permeate the world with the leaven of the gospel, but to remold the world in the image of enlightened humanity [47-48];
4. Enthusiasm – the quest for a direct or immediate experience of God, seeking after a premature redemption, a dramatic anticipation of the glory that is yet to be revealed [62];
5. Eclecticism – the willingness to bend the Gospel to fit the preconceptions of the surrounding culture, upholding the spirit of religion over dogma, the quest for truth over a definitive witness to the truth [76-77];
6. Heroism – climbing the ladder of perfection and expecting mastery over self and triumph over the principalities and powers rather than being a humble recipient of divine grace who responds with acts of loving-kindness and mercy [90-91].

Any one of these six “counterfeits” can be dropped into the center of a church’s life and become “the still point” to which its life gets anchored and around which its work rotates, with disastrous consequence. And so Donald Bloesch concluded –

The bane of many churches today is an empty formalism or a barren Biblicism, either of which degenerates into an oppressive legalism. Other churches that seem more vital are plagued by a perfectionist enthusiasm or a frenetic activism that borders on humanism. What is needed is a recovery of the depth and breadth of apostolic faith, a revival of true religion. It is important to bear in mind that Jesus Christ is not just a moral ideal or a prophetic genius but a living Savior. He is not simply the human representative of God but God himself in human flesh. It is not enough to know the historical facts about the life of Christ, how he lived and died. Each person must know that Jesus died for him or her personally. (106-107)


It is the Gospel (I Corinthians 15:1-19) that is the glue that holds the “bits and pieces” of our lives and world together. Historically, we who are “Disciples” have known this. Our life as a church centers around the Lord’s Table where every week the bread gets broken in remembrance of Christ’s body given for us, and the cup gets poured out in remembrance of His blood shed for us. Just to be clear, it’s not the Lord’s Supper, the bread and cup themselves and the act of eating and drinking them that is the glue that holds our “bits and pieces” together, but the Gospel of which they are the Lord’s appointed emblems. Communion is just a finger that points to the greater fact of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection, and it’s His death, burial and resurrection, how He died for our sins as our Savior and was raised for our transformation as our Lord and not the bite of bread and the sip of juice that anchors everything else we think and do as a community of Christian faith. All of which is to say that the Gospel must be “explicit.” As J. Mack Stiles makes clear in his writings, when the Gospel is “assumed,” it soon gets “confused,” and it will eventually get “lost” and will be “forgotten” (Marks of a Messenger – IVP – 2010).

In a time and place when “things are falling apart,” fragmenting into “bits and pieces,” because “the center does not hold” as Yeats put it, it is time that we be absolutely clear that there is a center to the church’s life and work, and that it holds. It’s not legalism, formalism, humanitarianism, enthusiasm, eclecticism, or heroism, it’s “Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (I Corinthians 2:2). He alone is the church’s and the world’s center of spiritual gravity, the one in whom “all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). And it’s our job to be absolutely clear about it.  DBS+


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Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and  let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us…  (Hebrews 12:1-2)

hallWhen I was a kid Halloween was always my favorite holiday.  In those days it was all about the candy, the costume and the removal of the curfew for a night.  There was nothing quite like prowling the neighborhood with my friends after 9 pm, all of us dressed up like the Beatles, or the Dodgers, or some Hippies, on the perennial quest for the full sized Hershey chocolate bar.  Now that I am an adult, and a minister, I find that Halloween is still one of my favorite days of the year, but for very different reasons.  Now it’s all about the communion of the saints, and I’ve been around long enough – beginning my sixth decade here on earth – to have as many friends and relatives, people I know and love, in the church triumphant as I do in the church militant.  Gary Thomas in his 1994 book Seeking the Face of God wrote about how he tries to consciously “live in the communion of the saints.”

When a contemporary saint dies, I live with that person’s death for weeks… I’ll post a picture here or a quote there of someone whose faith and life has encouraged me… Wise shoppers clip coupons.  Wise Christians clip obituaries. (153-154)

Being raised in a church that recited the creed, I was introduced to the idea of the communion of the saints when I was quite young.  It’s just another way of talking about the church, but in a way that is so much bigger than what we experience on Sunday mornings.  It’s the church in Revelation 5 – everyone, everywhere and always who has ever confessed Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and who has known Him personally as their Lord and Savior. As a hymn we sang in our Service of Remembrance in worship last Sunday puts it –

O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
All are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

It’s the oldest and truest meaning of the way that some contemporary churches that operate with satellite worship centers describe themselves: “one church in two locations.” 


At the tail end of the inaugural vision of heaven that John was granted while he was exiled on the island of Patmos, after seeing the throne of God, and the 24 elders, and the four living creatures, and the Lamb looking as though it had been slain, and the myriads and myriads of angels — after all of that, John finally saw “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever!” (5:13). The communion of the saints is in that number!  It’s the church in heaven “triumphant,” and it’s the church on earth “militant.”


Another Biblical way to think and talk about the communion of the saints can be found in Hebrews 12:1-2.  The word picture here is that of a contest on an athletic field in a stadium filled with cheering spectators. The church C“militant” is comprised of those Christians who are still alive, in the competition, on the field.  And the church “triumphant” is comprised of those Christians who are in the stands, in the nearer presence of God, cheering on those of us who are still in the contest.  When the author of the book of Hebrews tells us that we are surrounded by “so great a cloud of witnesses,” many interpreters have taken it as a reference to this understanding of the communion of the saints.  The power of this connection should be obvious, those who have faithfully run the race before us, now urging us on who are in the race ourselves. As John Colwell wrote –

Such a depiction prompts the notion of a continuing conscious presence of those who have gone before: they are observers of us as much as examples to us; in some sense… they remain involved with us… Albeit figuratively, the “saints” on earth are bound together with the saints in the heavens as one people, a single congregation, a continuous communion. And though all this is admittedly highly figurative, it surely is significant of something, of a division apparent to us that is less apparent to God.  [http://www.christianitytoday.com]

The most powerful expression of this faith perspective with which I am familiar is the old story that was confirmed by Coach Bobby Bowden to have actually happened.

When Lou Little coached at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., from 1924 to 1929 he had a defensive tackle who probably weighed two hundred pounds, which was very big back in those days. Little worked with the boy every day, but the young man just did not get any better. But the boy was persistent, worked hard, and had a great attitude. In fact, the boy never missed a practice in his four seasons on the team. Three or four days before the boy’s final game at Georgetown, Little received a telegram that informed him the boy’s father had died. Little had seen the boy walking with his father. “Son, I am sorry,” Little told him. “But your father passed away. Go home and take care of your family. We’ll try to win this game for you.”   That Saturday, Little walked into his team’s locker room and was surprised to see the boy standing there. “Coach, you have to start me,” the boy said. “Son, you have never been a starter,” Little told him. “This is the championship game. I cannot take that kind of risk today.” “Coach, I have to do this for my father,” the boy pleaded. “Just put me in for the first play and then you can take me out of the game.” Little was overcome with sympathy. How could he not grant the boy his wish? So he put the boy in the starting lineup, and the boy ran down the field to cover the game’s opening kickoff. He tackled the player returning the kick so hard he nearly knocked him into the first row of seats. The boy jumped up and ran to the sideline just like he promised his coach he would do, but Little motioned to him to stay in the game.  During the rest of the afternoon, the boy played like he was possessed. He led Georgetown’s team in tackles and delivered big hit after big hit. Georgetown won the game and claimed a conference championship. Little pulled the boy aside during the team’s celebration in its locker room. “Son, what in the world got into you today?” Little asked him. “You’ve never played like that before. You’ve never shown that much desire in four years.” “Coach, you know my father died,” the boy said. “You know my father was blind. Today was the first time he could see me play.” [http://sports.espn.go.com]

I am comforted and strengthened by the thought that those who have loved and supported me when they were alive, in some sense, continue to love and support me now that their faith has become sight.  When my hands droop, my knees wobble and I am at risk of losing heart (Hebrews 12:12), it helps to hear a cheer from somewhere in the great beyond assuring me that I am not alone and that I can finish the course.  And so, in the shadow of that great cloud of witnesses, I press on, running with endurance the course that is set before me, looking to Jesus, and rediscovering the joy of it all (Hebrews 12:1-2).   DBS+



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