Tag Archives: Evangelical

Beyond the Bible

“Beyond the Bible”

Moving from Scripture to Faith & Practice
in Times of Controversy

I am a self-avowed “Evangelical” Christian. I certainly don’t think that this is the only way to be a Christian, and it’s clearly not the dominant approach to Christianity among my own “tribe,” the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), but it is the way that I am consciously and conscientiously a Christian. The late Donald Bloesch once suggested that to be an Evangelical is to “hold to a definite doctrine” as well as to “participate in a special kind of experience.”  And I find that to be a useful definition. I find that being an “Evangelical” Christian means that I believe certain things to be true and that I have a certain lived experience of those truths.

Central to my “Evangelical” experience of Christianity is the awareness that my sins have been forgiven because of Jesus Christ. This is the evangelical take on the Gospel. It’s about forgiveness. It’s about regeneration. It’s about reconciliation. It’s about how lost and guilty sinners can stand before a holy, just and loving God, and personally this is brought home to me weekly in church when I break the bread and pour the cup at the Lord’s Table in remembrance of and in thanksgiving for what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. It’s a big part of the reason why I am a “Disciple” and an “Evangelical.”

Central to my “Evangelical” theology is the conviction that the Scriptures rightly interpreted will be the defining authority for my faith and practice. In his “liberal-evangelical dialogue” with David Edwards back in 1988, the late John Stott observed –

I think I would characterize Evangelicals as those who, because they identify Scripture as God’s word, are deeply concerned to submit to its authority in their lives (whatever their precise formulation of the doctrine of Scripture may be). In other words, the hallmark of Evangelicals is not so much an impeccable set of words, as a submissive spirit, namely their a priori resolve to believe and obey whatever Scripture may be shown to teach. They are committed to Scripture in advance, whatever it may later be found to say. They claim no liberty to lay down their own terms for belief and behavior.   They see this humble and obedient stance as an essential implication of Christ’s lordship over them.

And so it is as an “Evangelical” Christian that I find myself becoming increasingly troubled by the way that the Bible is being bandied about by both proponents and opponents of the Supreme Court’s recent same sex marriage decision. With magisterial authority I have heard both critics and proponents of this decision make sweeping pronouncements about what is and isn’t on the Bible on this subject, and about what the Bible does or does not actually mean. The proof–texting has been coming fast and furious from both sides, and as an Evangelical who tries to take the Bible seriously, I have been deeply dismayed by what I’ve seen and heard. Take the case what happened recently in a community just south of Ft. Worth, Texas.

When the Supreme Court handed down their ruling on the legality of same sex marriage throughout the United States, anBlog_Image2 e-mail exchange almost immediately broke out between Burleson’s politically conservative mayor, Ken Shetter, a self-identified Christian, and some of his vocal critics. It seems that Mayor Shetter took to Facebook right after the Court’s ruling to congratulate the Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual and Transgendered citizens of his community for the new legal protection of their civil rights. But, as you might expect, not everyone in Burleson was thrilled that he did this. In fact, one of his constituents publicly challenged the Mayor to cite just one Bible verse to justify his views. And unfortunately the good mayor took the bait. He quoted I Corinthians 13:13 – “Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” And so it began.  Christians lobbing Bible verses back and forth at each other thinking that the verse they just cited, yanked from its context and with no meaningful interpretation, could settle the matter once and for all.

This is not how I was taught to use the Bible as an Evangelical.

Richard Hayes is the Dean and the George Washington Ivey Blog_Image3Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School, and a self-identified “Evangelical.”   In his book The Moral Vision of the New Testament (Harper-SanFrancisco 1996) he argues that there are four overlapping critical operations in our use of Scripture to form our theological and moral judgments. Larry Lichtenwalter, an Adventist minister, summarized this four-fold task in an article he wrote for the Journal of the Adventist Theological Society in 2000 that he called – “Living Under the Word” (http://www.andrews.edu).

  1. The Descriptive Task – The descriptive task has to do with reading the text carefully. The descriptive task is fundamentally exegetical in character. It has to do with the question, “What does the Scripture say?” We read the individual New Testament or Old Testament texts or passages with the purpose of understanding the distinctive moral vision embodied in each text, and in time, in each individual book in the biblical canon. We do this without prematurely harmonizing them. We are simply to note the distinctive moral themes and patterns of reasoning in the individual New Testament or Old Testament witnesses.
  2. The Synthetic Task -The synthetic task means placing the individual text, passage, or book in its larger canonical context. This has to do with finding coherence in the moral vision of Scripture as a whole. Is it possible to describe a unity of ethical perspective within the diversity of the Old and New Testament canon? What, if anything, makes these diverse writings hang together as a guide to the moral life? Care needs to be taken that the synthetic task does not create homogenizing interpretation that neutralizes any particularly challenging passage we may encountered. We assume a vast theological and moral unity between the Old and New Testaments, and within Scripture as a whole. This common moral vision, however, does not neutralize or homogenize the individual witnesses.
  3. The Hermeneutical Task – How do we bridge the temporal and cultural distance between ourselves and the text? What does Scripture mean for us? Thesis the hermeneutical task—relating the text to our own contemporary situation. In particular, how do we appropriate the moral vision of Scripture as a word addressed to us? How do we actually use Scripture in doing ethical reflection?
  4. The Pragmatic Task – Christian ethics ultimately comes down to the very practical question: how shall Christians shape their life in obedience to the moral vision of Scripture? In other words, what shall we do? How concretely does the moral vision of Scripture speak to our contemporary exigencies? The pragmatic task has to do with living out the Word in concrete everyday life.

This is just too crucial a moment in the life of the church for proof-texting by anybody. Paul Tillich used to say that the world poses the questions that the church then has to answer. And if this is the case, then the world is waiting for the church’s answer. But what I’ve heard so far from the two wings of the church – the “progressive” and the “traditional” – leaves me pretty unsettled and unsatisfied.

Thinking that we have heard from Scripture just because some Bible verses have been quoted in defense of an already arrived-at position is spiritually irresponsible. Now is not the time for anyone to be collapsing Hayes’s four-fold process for the use of Scripture in the formation of moral and theological conclusions into sound-bite snippets of “the Bible says” or “the Bible doesn’t say,” thinking that the conclusions that we have drawn and not the careful, Biblically-informed process by which we have arrived at those conclusions are all that anybody really needs to know. I’m not interested in hoisting a flag so that people can salute it and take a side in the coming fight. I’m really so much more interested instead in the crucial conversation of faith that arises when our experiences as human beings, our encounters with the authoritative Biblical text, and the reality of the living, loving God intersect and interact. It would be hard for me to be an “Evangelical” Christian, and for me to think or to do otherwise.



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“What is lost by letting go of the ‘Happenedness’ of the Gospel?”

A Conversation across Time with Marcus Borg – Part 2

baldIf I were teaching a beginner’s class on contemporary theology, I would use Clark Pinnock’s book Tracking the Maze (Harper & Row – 1990) as the text.  I have long appreciated Clark Pinnock as a theologian, and this book is probably my favorite of the many that he wrote and that I have profitably read.   In the Introduction, after naming the incredibly “pluralistic and diverse” state of modern theology, Clark Pinnock lined out on a continuum the broad theological options that are available to us ranging from a “dogmatic” and “close-minded” “Modernism” on the left pole to an equally “dogmatic” and “close-minded” “Fundamentalism” on the right pole, with “Evangelical Liberalism” and “Conservative Evangelicalism” in-between.  And then Clark Pinnock observed that the middle positions “are often more open to discussion.”  In fact, he said that it had been his experience as an Evangelical theologian that “it often proved possible to have a very worthwhile discussion between evangelical liberals and conservative evangelicals but not at all easy to have one with either modernists or fundamentalists” (11).  It all came down, in his judgment, to just how “open” or “closed” the conversationalists were to what the other had to say, and he believed that one’s capacity for being able to do this decreased the closer to either of the extremes that you moved.

Since his death two weeks ago, I have been having a conversation with Marcus Borg in my weekly blog as part of my tribute to him.  He was part of the “faithful opposition” to my particular brand of Christian faith, and that’s why I read him and kept him around the household of my faith.  While he challenged some of my core convictions, I always felt like he did so reverently and respectfully.  He was “open” to the conversation, as am I, and so, with his passing, I feel like I have lost a friend.  Many of my colleagues and peers in recent days have been posting their tributes to Dr. Borg online, heralding him as the teacher who “saved” their faith.   That was not my experience with Marcus Borg.  When Clark Pinnock died on August 15, 2010, or Donald Bloesch nine days later on August 24, 2010, I lost two of the contemporary theologians who had decisively “shaped” my thinking and believing.  What so many of my friends are now saying about Marcus Borg I could have just as easily and authentically said about Clark Pinnock and Donald Bloesch then.  But as an “open” “Conservative Evangelical,” I am not oblivious to the way that Marcus Borg had an important hand in helping to refine what it is that I believe and proclaim, and so I have taken up the challenge of one of his last essays to try to explain from my faith perspective what is lost by letting go of the “happenedness” of the Christ event as the Gospels report and the rest of the New Testament bears witness to it, as the best way for me to honor his memory.

E. StanleyJones described the theological battles in the church of his day as “long-distance dueling.” He explained –

We have shelled each other’s positions, or what we thought were the positions, but there has been much smoke and confusion and not a little un-Christian feeling.  Why not sit down at Round Tables as Christian men and women… where we could listen reverently to what the other man would say [his faith’s convictions] were bringing to him, and we would share what it was meaning to us.  At the close we might not be agreed, but we would be mutually enriched, and certainly we would be closer to the real issues.  (Christ at the Round Table – Abingdon Press – 1928).

And so I write. DBS+


The Next Step in the Argument:  The Trustworthiness of the Testimony
“That you may come to believe…and through believing that you may have life in His name…”


Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

– John 20:30-31

In last week’s “Borg Blog” I simply observed that the New Testament reads as if it were eyewitness testimony, the observations of people who were claiming to have had “a historical experience of the great event of salvation” (Rudolf Schnackenburg).  In that posting I pointed out that these people could have been completely mistaken about what they said they saw, or deliberately deceptive, or creatively embellishing, or certifiably crazy, seeing things that weren’t there and hearing things that weren’t said.  Last week I didn’t address the question of the trustworthiness of the testimony that the New Testament offers, I just wanted to establish the fact that the New Testament reads as if it were eyewitness testimony.  This week in my “Borg Blog” I turn my attention to the question of the reliability of what the New Testament authors are telling us, and next week in my last “Borg Blog” I will try to explain why it matters so much to me that what they say happened actually did.

blindFor years at youth rallies and retreats, high school camps and conferences, it was a standard part of one’s bag of youth ministry tricks to divide everybody up into pairs and then to send them off on a trust walk.  The instructions were simple.  One member of the pair was told to close their eyes, or better yet, was blindfolded, and the other member of the pair was then asked to verbally guide their unseeing partner across the campground without running then into trees or off of cliffs.

The teaching point of this exercise was that faith involves this kind of trust.  As Peter put it in his first letter: “Though you have not seen Christ, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, you believe in Him, greatly rejoicing with joy inexpressible and full of glory, obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls” (I Peter 1:8-9).  We haven’t seen Christ, but somebody did, and we now believe in Him “through their word” (John 17:20).  This was the whole point of those verses from the end of the Gospel of John with which I began this posting (20:30-31).  John explained that the selected and interpreted stories about Jesus Christ that he told his readers in his Gospel were there to move them toward a decision of faith about Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, “and that through believing you may have life in his name.” 

oldIt was because of verses like these that Alexander Campbell, one of the founders of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), came up with “his” distinctive definition, which in turn became “our” distinctive definition of faith.

No testimony, no faith: for faith is only the belief of testimony, or confidence in testimony as true.  To believe without testimony is just as impossible as to see without light. The measure, quality, and power of faith are always found in the testimony believed.   Where testimony begins, faith begins; and where testimony ends, faith ends. (“Faith” – The Christian System – 1839).

And this makes the “trustworthiness” of the New Testament witness a matter of critical importance to faith.  The argument is succinctly and clearly stated in 2 Peter 1.

  • In verses 13-15,  Simon Peter (the named author in 1:1), told his readers that he felt a certain urgency in stirring up their remembrance of the things that he’d previously taught them because he sensed his approaching death, and after his departure he wanted them to be able “to call these things to mind.”
  • And in verses 16-18, Simon Peter told his readers that the things that he had previously told them about Jesus Christ “were not cleverly devised tales,” but things that he himself had a seen and heard about Jesus Christ as an “eyewitness.”   In other words, Peter was extending an invitation of faith to his readers based on the trustworthiness of his own testimony as an eyewitness, and this whole argument collapses if the things to which Peter bore witness never happened, or if Peter didn’t actually see them as he emphatically insisted that he did.  Peter was telling his readers to “trust” him and to believe that what he was telling them about Jesus Christ was accurate and true, and if it turns out that I can’t, well then, I’m converting to Buddhism, or Judaism, or Islam, or to almost anything other than Christianity.  You see, I believe in Jesus Christ on the basis of the apostolic word of testimony, on the basis of their “memoirs” of the Christ Event and their explanation of its meaning.

Marcus Borg pointed out that “conflict about the Bible is the single most divisive issue among Christians in North America today,” and I completely agree!   In fact, I think that  Andrew Wilson (a leader in the British “New Frontiers” Movement) is exactly right when he says that “the biggest theological debate of the next twenty years” is going to be the church’s doctrine of Scripture – how we read, understand and apply the Bible.

Much modern discussion about hell isn’t really about what specific texts say, but how (or even if) we should form our theology of judgment, or God, from them (from the text of Scripture).  Much modern discussion about the roles of men and women isn’t really about what specific texts say, but about whether or not the situation in which they were written was different enough from ours to allow us (or compel us) to apply them (the Biblical texts) differently today. As such, although the debates seem to be about one thing – hell, gender roles, gay bishops, the atonement, or whatever – they are actually about something else: how we understand and apply these ancient texts in the modern world. (http://thinktheology.co.uk)

The issue here is how the New Testament is going to function as the authority for the church’s faith and practice today. And the crucial question concerns just how much confidence we can reasonably have in the claims that are made by the New Testament documents.  Are they deserving of our trust as reliable witnesses to the Christ Event and as faithful interpretations of its normative meaning?

treesSpend a little time on the internet or in the library of your local seminary, and the complexity and diversity of the issues involved in sorting through this question will quickly become apparent.  There are a number of “forks in the road” that will send you down the path towards either confidence in or suspicion of what the New Testament reports.  Included among the issues that are vigorously debated are-

  • The question of the nature of the New Testament texts themselves – what is their “genre”?  How did the authors of the Gospels actually intend their readers to understand what it was that they were writing? What kind of literature are we looking at?
  • The questions of the accuracy and authenticity of the established New Testament texts?  Since we don’t have any original New Testament manuscripts – nothing from the actual hand and pen of Paul, or John, or Luke, or Peter – how much trust can we actually put in the copies of texts that we do have in our New Testaments?  Aren’t there wild variations between the different copies of the New Testament books that we do possess that substantially change the meaning of what is written depending on which one you are looking at?
  • And how about all those contradictions, discrepancies and inaccuracies between the accounts of the events that are reported in the New Testament as we have it, and the irreconcilable differences between the meaning of those events as they are explained by other New Testament writers?   Things like Matthew and Luke saying that Mary was a Virgin when she conceived and gave birth to Jesus, and Mark, John and Paul not mentioning it all? Or the number of angels at the tomb on Easter Sunday morning?  Or Paul’s insistence that we are saved by faith and not works, and James teaching that faith without works is dead?
  • Another hotly debated topic are the seeming parallels between what the Gospels tell us about Jesus and what we find in the mystery religions of the ancient Middle East about dying and rising saviors and the stories of divine births from the mythologies of other ancient peoples?  How much of what the Gospels report are just borrowed categories from these sources?  Familiar ways of symbolically talking about matters of spiritual significance and transcendence?
  • And isn’t the New Testament as we have it just the “victor’s” account of things?  Early Christianity was crowded with competing versions of the faith, this take on things says. There were other books with other interpretations about Jesus that “lost” the contest for ascendency as the official faith of the church.  These books were “lost” and their teachings suppressed, but now, thanks to archeology, we are finding them and they provide us with entirely new ways  of thinking about Christianity.  Therefore the New Testament documents must be stripped of their “privileged” position as the authoritative source for our faith and practice as Christians and room made for these “new/old” voices.
  • And finally, there is the big question of competing worldviews – the closed universe of naturalism in which Divine action is rejected from the outset making what the New Testament claims impossible versus the open universe of supernaturalism which the in-breaking of the Divine in the Incarnation, Atoning Death, Resurrection, Ascension and promised Return of Jesus Christ which the New Testament documents assume and affirm.

These are all the topics for doctoral dissertations and the subjects of thousand page scholarly volumes.  As wise King Solomon observed long ago, “Of the making of many books there is no end” (Ecclesiastes 12:12).   I am a working pastor, a practical theologian, which is to say that I read some of the books and understand the broad outlines of the arguments.  And what I know is this: For every argument made there is a counterargument that can be offered.  Every point has a counterpoint. I have found intelligent and articulate scholars on either side of all of these “fork in the road” issues, and this fact has lowered my expectations about what this process can deliver.

Intellectual certainty is a myth.

No question is beyond doubt, no argument is final. Both the “dogmatic” and “close-minded”  “modernists” and the “dogmatic” and “close-minded”  “fundamentalists” at the poles of Clark Pinnock’s continuum of contemporary theology make this same mistake.  They make their arguments, state their case and then drop the microphone and walk away, acting as if the question is thereby settled and the case is forever closed by the brilliance and indomitability of their logic.  It should be apparent by how I write that I have settled opinions on all of the “fork in the road” questions that I have listed above.  I have read the arguments and drawn my own conclusions about all of these matters that I think make the best sense of things.  But I hold those conclusions “modestly” and with a real appreciation for the “mystery” of it all.  The conclusions I have drawn are all “plausible,” or else I wouldn’t have drawn them.  But because we walk by faith and not by sight, my conclusion cannot be “absolute.”   And for me this means that I cannot act as if somebody who disagrees with me and my conclusions is stupid or wicked.  Their settled conclusions are “plausible” too, or else they wouldn’t have drawn them.  And it seems to me that this is the best we can hope for in the contest of ideas; a stalemate.

Faith cannot be compelled by logic, by the persuasiveness of some argument. And so John G. Stackhouse, Jr., urges Christians to adopt what he calls the approach of “humble apologetics” when fulfilling our I Peter 3:15 obligation to “give an account for the hope that is in you… gently and reverently.”  His whole book is an important read (Humble Apologetics – Oxford University Press –  2002), but this principle is at its very core –

Given historic Christian teachings regarding the finitude and falleness of human beings and of our thinking in particular, we must be careful not to claim too much for what we believe.  We Christians should not need postmodernists to tell us that we do not know it all.  We should not need anyone to tell us that all human thought is partial, distorted, and usually deployed in the interest of this or that personal agenda. 

…This we are as committed as we can be to what we believe is real, and especially to the One whom we love, worship and obey as the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  We gladly offer what, and whom, we believe we have found to be true to our neighbors in the hope that they also will recognize it, and him, as true.  We recognize that there are good reasons for them not to believe, even as we recognize that there can be good reasons for our own doubts. Indeed, we can recognize that God may have given them some things to teach us, and we gratefully receive them in the mutual exchange of God’s great economy of salvation.

[But] we recognize, ultimately, that to truly believe, to truly commit oneself to God, is itself a gift that God alone bestows.  Conversion is a gift.  Faith is a gift.  God alone can change minds so that those minds can both see and embrace the great truths of the Gospel, and the One who stands at their center.

And this opens the door on the last room in my “Borg Blog” that I want to walk through with you next week.  Suffice it for now to say that I think that the things that the New Testament tells me about the Christ Event, about what actually happened and what it normatively means, makes the most sense when it is taken at face value, as the eyewitness reports of “a historical experience of the great event of salvation.”  And I can direct you to the scholars and their works that I have read that makes this choice “plausible” – intellectually respectable and acceptable.  But when push comes to shove, the reason why I take what the New Testament reports at face value, is because it is what the New Testament tells me that Jesus Christ said and did that has convinced me that He is “the Messiah, the Son of God,” and it is through believing this that I have personally received “life in his name.”


“Credo ut intelligam”

“Credo ut intelligam” (alternatively spelled “Credo ut intellegam”) is Latin for “I believe so that I may understand” and is a maxim of Anselm of Canterbury (Proslogion, 1), which is based on a saying of Augustine of Hippo (“crede, ut intelligas,” “believe so that you may understand”; Tract. Ev. Jo., 29.6) to relate faith and reason. In Anselm’s writing, it is placed in juxtaposition to its converse, “intellego ut credam” (“I think so that I may believe”), when he says “Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam” (“I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but rather, I believe in order that I may understand”).

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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“Tethered to the Word”

Race, Racism and Ferguson ~ A Little Bit More “Believing Thinking


A central tenet of evangelical Christianity is its reliance upon Scripture as an authoritative guide to ethical and moral behavior. (206)

David K. Ryden – “Evangelicals and the Elusive Goal of Racial Reconciliation”
Is the Good Book Enough? – Lexington Books (2011)
When I was part of the training team for Hospice volunteers in Houston and then later in Amarillo, I always began by talking with them about how we were preparing them for engagement with death and dying by looking at it from every conceivable point of view.   And so we brought in medical professionals to help them look at death physically.  We brought in social workers to help them look at how death impacted social systems and relationships. We brought in accountants to help them look at death financially. We brought in attorneys to help them look at death legally.  We brought in Funeral Directors to help them look at death culturally.  We brought in counselors and therapists to help them look at death psychologically.  And I was there as a minister, I told them, to help them look at death spiritually.  I always appreciated this holistic, synthetic approach.

EleJust like the blind men and the elephant in the familiar parable, I always felt that while the part of death and dying that I touched as a minister was real and mattered, that it was nevertheless only just a part of the whole, and that it was only when all of us who had hold of some part of it shared with the others what they were touching that death and dying could truly be understood.

Since the decision of the Grand Jury in Ferguson, Missouri, not to indict the police officer who shot and killed Mike Brown late last summer became public, I have been watching, listening and reading the varied responses that people have made.  Those responses have been personal, political, sociological, legal, moral and spiritual, and just like my experience with the volunteer training process at the Hospice, I have appreciated the different ways that people are thinking about and responding to this event.

I am a Christian of the Evangelical variety.  This is certainly not the only way of being a Christian, nor even the dominant way in my denominational family, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), but it is the way that I have chosen to be a Christian because it is the way that makes the best sense to me of what I read about in the Bible, know about the history of Christianity and experience in both my life and the world at large.  And while there has been a rather vigorous debate about what actually makes someone an “Evangelical” Christian, a broad consensus has begun to emerge around the British historian David W. Bebbington’s definition.  Known as the “Bebbington Quadrilateral,” it says that Evangelical Christianity has four defining convictions or attitudes:

  • Biblicism: “Evangelicals have a special regard for the Bible as God’s written, inspired, authoritative Word whose authority stands above tradition and experience–the highest ‘court of appeal,’ so to speak, for faith and practice.”
  • Crucicentrism: “Evangelicals have a special place in their hearts and minds and worship and devotion for the cross. The atonement of Jesus Christ is proclaimed and trusted as humanity’s only hope for peace with God and for a meaning filled life in relation with God. For evangelicals the cross, the atonement of Jesus Christ that happened there, is the centerpiece of devotion and proclamation.”
  • Conversionism: Evangelicals believe that authentic Christian existence necessarily includes being converted to Christ – an experience of transformation from a life of sin and self to a life of repentance and faith in Jesus Christ through which one is brought by the Holy Spirit into ‘new creation’.”
  • Activism: “Evangelicals believe that God calls them to be active in the world for the cause of God, to approximate the Kingdom of God among people through missions, evangelism and social action.”

boobThis is “my” spiritual perspective. It is the window through which I look out onto the world and through which I look into the recesses of my very own heart. It’s how I “think Christianly” about events and experiences like those that have unfolded since last August in Missouri, or to be more accurate, since the founding of this country with its national “besetting” sin of racism that has played out explicitly through the institution of race-based slavery, the legislation of discrimination and the institutionalization of segregation, and implicitly through the lingering grip of racial prejudice on our imaginations and interpersonal interactions.

Francis Schaeffer, an Evangelical Theologian of note from the second half of the 20th century, named racism as one of the “great weaknesses” that “Christians must reject and then work to redress” (The Great Evangelical Disaster).  He said that the particular shame of this weakness for us as Evangelical Christians is that when we “had a stronger influence of the consensus” of culture than we do now, both slavery and racial prejudice were present and “the church did not speak out sufficiently against them.” He said that we “indulged in the lie that the black man was not a person and could therefore be treated as a thing” even though the Bible for which we say that we have “a special regard… as God’s written, inspired, authoritative Word whose authority stands above tradition and experience–the highest ‘court of appeal,’ so to speak, for faith and practice” says that the evil and injustice of racism is “absolutely wrong.”

John Piper, a high profile Evangelical preacher/teacher today, says that he is “tethered” to the Bible as an Evangelical.  That’s a useful image for me.  He explains –

By personal calling and Scripture, I am bound to the word of God and to the preaching of what the Bible says. There are few things that burden me more or refresh me more than saying what I see in the Bible. I love to see what God says in the Bible. I love to savor it. And I love to say it.

What Francis Schaeffer was so critical of in the legacy of his own Evangelical Christianity was its failure to do this, to be fully tethered to the Word, to be finally bound to what the Bible says about race and racism. And as a part of this same “tribe” today, in the national conversation that the events in Ferguson have triggered, I feel an urgency to avoid the mistake that my spiritual forebears made in not speaking out sufficiently against racial prejudice on the basis of what the Bible clearly teaches.

While I appreciate the political, sociological, historical, legal and personal commentaries about race and racism that have occupied the varied venues of public expression in recent days and made me think, my conscience as an Evangelical Christian is bound to Scripture and the convictions out of which I will respond to what is going on in the world around me and to what those events are stirring up inside me will be shaped most decisively by what I find in the Bible, carefully read and rightly interpreted. And what I see in the Bible names racism as a sin of which I myself and the church of which I am a part must repent, reject and then work to redress.

stoolThe Biblical case against racism stands on three legs: Creation, Redemption and the Renewal of the Holy Spirit. By Creation all human beings bear the very same Image of God. Our intrinsic worth and dignity as human beings is forever established by this fact, as well as our fundamental equality. God “made from one blood every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth” (Acts 17:26), “every family in heaven and on earth derives it’s name” from the same Father (Ephesians 3:14-15) who is “over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:6).

In Redemption, Christ died for all (John 3:16; 2 Corinthians 5:14-15; I Peter 3:18; I Timothy 2:4-6; Hebrews. 2:9; I John 2:2). This spiritual truth translates into a very immediate and practical ethical consideration. As Paul explained it to both the Roman Christians (Romans 14:15) and the Corinthians Christians (I Corinthians 8:11), every person with whom I come into contact is someone “for whom Christ died.” This imbues every person I meet with an incalculable value (I Peter 1:19). A hefty price has already been paid for them (I Corinthians 6:20), and that gives them a value that I dare not disregard.

Finally, the Renewal of the Holy Spirit is the third leg in the Bible’s argument against racism.  The racism that plagued the early church was the Jew/Gentile divide.  It tore at the very fabric of the church’s unity almost from the beginning of the church on the day of Pentecost, and one of the defining moments in the struggle was when Peter was pushed by God out of his precisely ordered and carefully bounded Jewish world and into the front room of the home of a Roman Centurion named Cornelius (Acts 10).  In the middle of his sermon, God interrupted Peter by pouring out the Holy Spirit on the roomful of Gentiles who were listening to the message in exactly the same way, with exactly the same results, (Acts 10:44-48) as Peter had experienced himself as a Jewish believer in Jesus as the Christ earlier on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13).  The same experience of the empowering and indwelling presence of God in the Holy Spirit persuaded Peter, a Jew, that Cornelius, a Gentile, was “no longer a stranger or alien, but a fellow citizen of God’s household” (Ephesians 2:19), a “joint heir of grace” (I Peter 3:7).

In a 1988 interview with Christianity Today (March 4, 1988), the Rev. Flynn Johnson, then the African American pastor of a growing bi-racial congregation in Atlanta, observed –

When people try to relate on the basis of doctrine or culture they are usually in deep trouble, because they can always find differences.  The “charismatic experience” [of the empowering and indwelling presence of God in the Holy Spirit] gives people a shared history, a point of reference that enables them to recognize each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.  I don’t mean that this experience brings some mystical cloud on people that solves all the problems of cross-cultural relationships.   We have to work out our relationship with God, and we surely have to work it out with each other.  But at the same time, the [shared] charismatic experience [of the fullness of the Holy Spirit] does open the door for dialogue.  People begin thinking about new truths to which they were previously closed, and they may become more willing to go through the process of reconciliation. (20)


In the early days of the Charismatic Movement it was often said that what God was doing through the fullness of the Spirit that He was pouring out on the church was flooding the field in which we all sat as separate flocks in our own little ponds so that in the new lake of the Spirit we would start to mingle and become one flock.  This was certainly true denominationally, but it was just as true racially, culturally, socially and economically. The fullness of the Spirit has always been the great leveler.  When and where we erect barriers between ourselves as Christians, God through the Holy Spirit builds bridges and crosses boundaries.  As Harvey Cox made powerfully clear in Fire from Heaven, his exploration of modern Pentecostalism, the “miracle” of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit was not the rediscovery of the ecstatic spiritual gifts of tongues, healing or prophecy, but the renewed experience of the kind of reconciliation that was the hallmark of New Testament Christianity when there was “neither Jew nor Greek (racial division),  slave nor free (socio-political and economic division),  neither male nor female (gender division) for they were all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).  And as an Evangelical Christian who is consciously “tethered to the Word,” this is my prayerful hope and the shape of my active response in these days when the events in Ferguson have brought the painful realities of racism back into focus for us as a people.

Clearly racism has political, legal, social, economic and psychological dimensions and ramifications, but fundamentally racism is a sin; a spiritual crisis that demands a spiritual solution, and as an Evangelical Christian I believe that solution is Jesus Christ the Savior who was crucified to make forgiveness possible, and who was raised from the dead and who now reigns as the Lord to make personal and social transformation a reality. To change the world we’ve got to be changed ourselves, and that change is what I believe as an Evangelical Christian the Gospel of Jesus Christ has to offer. DBS+

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Human-Centered Church Growth ~ Christ-Centered Church Growth

A Collaboration or a Conflict?


On my way to the church that I visited on Sunday morning, I passed another congregation of the same general denominational family not six blocks away from it. In its courtyard were bounce houses and dunking booths and on the street out in front of it were food trucks. At 10 am on Sunday morning they were having a carnival and it had gathered quite a crowd.

There was still space in the parking lot at church where I worshiped when I arrived, and there was plenty of room in the pews throughout the service that I attended. Lots of Scripture was read. Meaningful prayers were offered. An intelligent and helpful message was preached. Communion was celebrated. And the community was both engaged and engaging. And the 60 or so of us who were there were blessed.

Both of these churches are self-avowedly “evangelical” or “evangelistic.” Both of these churches want to grow. Neither would disagree that the Great Commission is a big part of why they exist. They both have a “zeal for souls.” If asked, they both would say that people need the Gospel, and that it is their job to make it known. But they are going about it very differently, and here is what I am wrestling with this week – which one has got it right?

As you know if you have been following my blogs, one of the questions that I am devoting myself to on my Sabbatical is the question of how can we become more actively and authentically evangelistic as a church. I’m not interested in just finding a program that works; I’m interested in discovering where the strand of evangelism is in our congregational DNA.

My experience with diets, and I’ve had plenty, is that you can always lose weight on one, but to keep the weight off then you are going to need more than a diet. You’re going to need a change in your lifestyle, and that’s the approach that I’m taking on this evangelism question.

Already it is very clear to me from my reading and visits that to be evangelistic you’ve got to believe that you have something that other people really need. You’ve got to have something to give away, and you’ve got to be convinced that it matters enough for you to be offering it to others. This poses two big questions right away for us at Northway – (1) “What is it that we have?” and (2) “How important is it to us?” The answer that I consistently preach and teach is that the treasure we have as a church is our relationship with God in Jesus Christ, the “Gospel” of forgiveness and reconciliation. This is why we observe the Lord’s Supper every Sunday morning. It’s our touchstone. But this is not Northway’s alone. It is the common treasure of all who call themselves Christians.


What we uniquely “have” as a church is a “thrilling and dynamic window into the Christian Faith and God’s purpose in the world” that is our “particular gift within the larger family of God” (Robert Thornton Henderson). There were some things that the founders of our denominational tradition believed were important enough for them to separate from their Presbyterian origins to become a different kind of church with some different beliefs and practices. Do you know what those things were?

There was passion and conviction in our denominational witness at the beginning of our life, a unique reason to be. Is there still? One of the historians of our Movement used to say that if we don’t remain true to what it is that first brought us into being that we have thereby forfeited our right to continued existence. Does this explain our denominational and congregational decline? Is part of our problem that we don’t know who we are or what we have, and we just aren’t concerned enough about it to find out more about it? I can guarantee you that a church for whom this is true will not be evangelistic. They don’t care enough to be.

This is the first evangelism hurdle that we’ve got to clear. But once it’s settled and we have concluded that what we have matters enough to us to want to share it with others, then the question that I’m wrestling with this week comes into view: “How are we to go about sharing this treasure that we have?”

The two churches from Sunday both believe that they’ve got a treasure that the world really needs, and they’ve both rightly identified that treasure as Jesus Christ. They both have confidence in the Gospel. But how they are choosing to go about offering what it is that they believe they have to the world around them is very different.

The church I attended on Sunday is what I would describe as an “ordinary means of grace” church. So is Northway. We, just like them preach the Word and celebrate the sacraments faithfully. We, just like them pray and practice community, weeping with those who weep and rejoicing with those who rejoice. And we, just like them are actively engaged in mercy ministries from our front doorsteps to the ends of the earth according to our abilities and opportunities. The conviction of an “ordinary means of grace” church is that when you are “Christ-centered” in these sorts of ways that there will be an attraction. Seeing that God is present with us in our life, people will be drawn to us by their hunger for God, and by the evidence that this is a church where they will be fed and can be spiritually satisfied.

The church I drove past on Sunday morning is what I would describe as a “market-driven” church. Their strategy is to gather a crowd anyway they can. Get them on your campus with food trucks and hot air balloons, any bell and whistle that can get their attention will work. It doesn’t have to be crass. It can actually be quite cultured. I’m listening to WRR Classical Music 101.1 as I write my book these days, and every 15 minutes or so there’s a commercial about this church or that church putting on some classical musical program and inviting the public to attend. There are so many in a day that I honestly lose track of the what, and the who, and the where, and the when? But it’s clear to me what they’re thinking. We’ll get them in through the doors with Bruckner or Berlioz, and then when they aren’t looking, we’ll hit them with the Bible and a colorful brochure about the church. It’s a marketing strategy. Jay Lemke called it “the spiritual; bait and switch.”

A relatively recent Gallup Poll indicates that only half of adults surveyed could name any of the four Gospels. My sinking heart tells me more than half of Americans could name one of the judges on American Idol. And this lack of Bible knowledge also translates into a lack of church attendance and affiliation…

So what does the church do to combat this pathetic reality? The modern church, in all its human wisdom, has decided to be something it’s not. For example, to show men that the church is masculine and cool, we plan things like rock climbing adventures and paint ball excursions; and we have conferences that teach men how to be better fathers and husbands. For women, it is much the same: Christianity is there to help you be a better wife, raise better kids, and have a more contented life. Not that there is anything wrong with these things per se, but it misses the main point by a mile.

…Many in the American church seem intent to communicate under false pretenses… We’ll bring people in with music, food, fun, and games; and we’ll make them think being a Christian is about whatever interests them. We’ll play on their felt needs, and we’ll do research to determine what “seekers” want in a church. We’ll stick our collective fingers in the air and then we’ll become what people what us to be. And finally, after all of that work, once we have people in the church, we may eventually get around to telling them, “Oh, by the way, Jesus died for your sins.”

…Whether overtly or subtly, we are telling people they should be Christians because it will make them better in their particular area of interest. The American church is playing a huge game of spiritual bait and switch. At some level, we must be ashamed of the basic message of Christianity, and we don’t believe that on its own it is powerfully interesting-to men, to women, to boys, and to girls. [http://www.modernreformation.org]

In many ways this is the struggle that has been raging in the American soul since the days of Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) and Charles Finney (1792-1875).  Two of the greatest evangelist/theologians that the world has ever known, they had very different ideas about how people become Christians and join the church.

             2 peeps

Jonathan Edwards was an “ordinary Means of Grace” church evangelist.  He said that it was the church’s job to be faithful to Jesus Christ and it was God’s job to draw people to it.  Genuine conversion is the work of the Word and the Spirit.  We can’t do anything to make people believe and join the church.  All we can do is to be as faithful to the Gospel as we possibly can so that when God brings people to us, the saving work of God in Jesus Christ will be plainly seen and readily accessible.  This was the approach of the church that I attended on Sunday.

Charles Finney was a “market-driven” church evangelist.  He believed that if you will just scratch where people itch, and do it with enough flash and flair, then they will come to get scratched by you, and while you’ve got them there being scratched, if you are clever and creative enough, then you can convince them to become Christians and join the church. This appeared to me to be the approach of the church that I drove past on Sunday morning.

My struggle is that I want to believe that Jonathan Edwards is right, but what I see is that Charles Finney works.  The carnival at the church that I drove past last Sunday morning was jammed.  The pews of the church where I sat were not.  So, is the solution more bounce houses and food trucks?  I’m not ready to draw any conclusions yet.  But some things are becoming clear.

  1. We’ve got to recover “a passion for souls” and a confidence in the Gospel at Northway. We’ve got to know who we are and what it is that we have to offer as a church, and then we’ve got to start acting like it matters enough to offer it to others, to think that they need what we have too.
  2. We can’t be content just to passively receive the means of grace ourselves on Sunday mornings. God has given us His Word, His Spirit, His Son. We have the Gospel. But through ministries of prayer, hospitality, compassion, instruction, service and invitation we have got to share more deliberately what we have with people who come in through our doors each week, and this means that we’ve all got to come to church ready to minister. But we can’t stop with that. We’ve also got to increasingly become more open with our families and friends about what it is that we believe, and why it matters so much to us, and how Northway nurtures it. The “question-posing” lives that Northway helps us to live by connecting us with Jesus Christ need more and better explanations. We need to tell the people who know us the best why we are the way we are, and how being a Christian at Northway is a big part of it.
  3. We’ve got to rethink the language that we are speaking as a church. The power of 2 of the 3 churches that I have visited so far has resided in the way that they have affectively spoken the message of the Gospel in the vernacular, the language of the people. This is especially true in their ministries of music. This is where their worship was connecting deeply with people.
  4. And we have got to do a better job of letting people in general know who we are and what we are about. We don’t have the market share that the Baptists, Methodists and Catholics do in our culture. We are a very small denomination. People don’t naturally think of us when they think of church. And so we’ve got to do something to raise our profile, but to do it in a way that isn’t a betrayal of the Gospel by making us the content of our own proclamation.   There can be no bait and switch.

Paul told the Corinthians that he planted, and Apollos watered, but that it was God who gave the growth (3:6).  I’m not sure that being planters and waterers is an endorsement of Finney’s techniques, but it certainly establishes the fact that we have a role to play in the process, even as it anchors its final success in the promise that Edwards saw so clearly – God gives the growth.  When we know and believe this, we never have to despair.  Spirit-dependent, Gospel-driven, Christ-centered churches will always be the kind of churches that God can use.  And that’s us.  DBS+


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Why Interfaith Dialogue?

mosqueLast week we had our third 2013 “Faiths in Conversation” gathering at Temple Shalom.  The topic was “Why Interfaith Dialogue?”  from the Jewish, Christian and Muslim point of view.  As usual, Northway was well represented, and our conversation partners – Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger and Sheikh Omar Suleiman – were engaging and informative.  We have made a significant commitment to this process.  To use the language of Kennon Callahan, it is one of the things that we are getting something of a reputation for on the church grape vine, and because we are, it’s important to know why?  This is my attempt to explain my participation in the process –


 At the end of my junior year in high school, one of my teachers wrote in my annual – “Stand firm in your faith, and keep searching for truth, I think that you will find that the two are not ultimately in conflict.”  Little did I know then that this advice would become something of the motto for the journey of my life.  It was said of Thomas Merton that his “openness to man’s spiritual horizons” came from his own “rootedness of faith.”  He regarded the Christ Event to be “the supreme historical fact” and “the perfect revelation.”  So do I.  And it was from the inner security of that commitment that he could “explore, experience and interpret the affinities and differences between religions.”  And so can I.

 I am a Christian, and while that tells you everything that matters about me, at the same time, it tells you virtually nothing.  And that’s because there’s more than one way of being a Christian.  Alister McGrath, the Oxford Theologian, in his 2002 book on The Future of Christianity (Wiley and Blackwell), identified five categories of Christians: Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, Mainline Protestants, Evangelicals and Pentecostals.  Ask a question of Christianity, any question, and the answer that you’ll get depends entirely on the kind of Christian of whom it has been asked.  Tonight our question is: “Why Interfaith Dialogue?”  And the way that I will be answering it comes from my own identity as an Evangelical Christian who serves in a Mainline Protestant Denomination.

 That designation “Evangelical” comes from the root word “Evangel,” Greek for “Gospel” or “Good News.”   I am a “Gospel” Christian.  This tells you about what I believe, this tells you about what I believe matters most, and this tells you about my own personal experience of those beliefs.  As an “Evangelical” Christian, my Christianity puts the primary emphasis on what God is doing to save us; on what God has done and is doing to bring us into a “right relationship” with Himself.  And it is this salvation project, both as it has unfolded in the history that is narrated by the Bible, Old Testament and New, and as it has played out in my very own life, that is defining for how I think, feel and act.

 The “God behind the Gospel” (Fred Sanders) that I read about in the Bible and encounter in my heart is a God who created me, who redeemed me and who sustains me.  The God I know as a Christian is a God whose eternal purpose has always been to save us, all of us, and who then proceeded to accomplish the things that such a salvation requires before individually applying it to our hearts.  When thinking about this Divine work of salvation, we who are Christians see “something trinitarian” going on (Sanders).  You see, long before the Trinity – One God in Three Persons – was a Christian doctrine, it was the Christian’s experience.   My life is the story of how God made me for a relationship with Himself, and how God then broke down the walls of separation that my rejection of Him and His ways erected, and finally how God pursued me in love with His offer of reconciliation and restoration.  

 This is the God I know as an “Evangelical” – as a “Gospel” Christian.  He is the God who has purposed my salvation as the Father, and then accomplished my salvation through the Son, and finally applied that salvation individually to my heart by the Holy Spirit.   This is my spiritual reality as an Evangelical Christian, it is the grid through which I consider all things, and so it is where I turn to answer the question “Why Interfaith Dialogue?”  It is from the inner confidence of my belief in and experience of this God who has behaved in history and operated in my heart as a Father, Son and Holy Spirit that I enthusiastically participate in interfaith dialogue. 

  • I am here because, as an Evangelical Christian, I believe that you are someone who bears the image of God from Creation.  The church’s historic creeds both begin with the affirmation that God is “the Father Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.”  And the crown of God’s creation is humanity, made just a little lower than Himself, filled with glory and majesty (Psalm 8). You and me, we alone bear the image of God in creation (Genesis 1:27).  And that fact affixes a dignity to you that I cannot ignore and that I dare not violate.  

 The Apostle Paul in his letter to the church at Ephesus in Asia Minor said the he bowed his knees before the Father “from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name” (3:14-15).   We are God’s “offspring” (Acts 17:28), all of us, and not just Christians.   And this means that I need to know who you are, and what you believe, and both what hurts you and what fills you with hope because we are kin. The desire of the God I know is for you, and His designs have always included you.  In Creation God made you for Himself, and it’s because I know this to be true of both you and God that I must take you seriously as a matter of my faith, and that’s why I’m here in this interfaith dialogue.

  • I am also here because, as an Evangelical Christian, I believe that you are someone for whom Christ died.  In the first letter of John, Christ’s “beloved disciple” explained what I as an “Evangelical” Christian believe the cross of Christ was all about – doing what was necessary to make the forgiveness of sins possible (1:9).  John told his readers that when they sinned, they had “an advocate” or “a mediator” the Father – a Holy God (1:5-6); Jesus Christ, “the Righteous One” (2:1).  That’s the “Good News” that makes me an “Evangelical” Christian, and at its core is the message that “Christ died for our sins” (I Corinthians 15:3).  And then, just so that there would be no confusion about it, after telling Christians that Christ’s atoning sacrifice was for them, John added that Christ’s atoning sacrifice was not just for them, but for “the whole world” (2:2).     

The very first Bible verse we memorize as Christians, John 3:16, doesn’t say “For God so loved Christians that He gave His only begotten Son,” but rather, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.”  And I can’t say that I believe this while distancing myself from you, acting as if I’m chosen and special to God, and you’re not.  “God proves His great love for us,” Paul told the Romans, by “Christ’s death for us” (5:8), and Biblically, I understand that “us” includes you, and that’s why I’m here in this interfaith dialogue.

  • And finally, I am here because, as an Evangelical Christian, I believe that you are someone over whom the Holy Spirit ceaselessly “broods.”  “Brooding” is what a mother bird does over her nest, stirring her chicks to life, and in Genesis 1:2 we are told that this is what the Spirit of God did in creation – “brooding over the face of the deep.”   As an “Evangelical” Christian I believe that the Holy Spirit is “the Giver of Life” in both creation and the new creation.  Jesus said that just like the wind that blows where it wishes, so it is with the Holy Spirit.  We don’t know where the Spirit comes from or where the Spirit is going to next, but we can know when the Spirit is present by the impressions that are being made (John 3:8). 

 So, what are the signs of the Holy Spirit’s presence?   What are the impressions that are made when the Holy Spirit is around? Well, Paul named nine of them: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).  And it’s because I see these things in you that I must conclude that Holy Spirit is doing something in you and with you.  Thirty years ago a Hospice Social Worker told me that the very first thing she did with every visit she made was to try to figure where God was and what God was doing at that moment in that situation so that she could cooperate with Him rather than get in His way!  And I participate in interfaith dialogue for the very same reason.  I want to cooperate with rather than hinder what God is doing in the world today.

 Historically, “Evangelicals” like myself have been the least likely Christians to participate in interfaith dialogue.  Fearing that the Gospel would somehow be put at risk by relating lovingly and respectfully to believers of other religions, Evangelical Christians like myself have tended to “circle the wagons” instead where we could talk about you without having to actually talk to you.  A generation ago, E. Stanley Jones, the pioneer of Evangelical interfaith dialogue and my own personal  role model in this process, said that our preference has been “the method of long-distance dueling… shelling your positions, or (at least) what we thought were your positions,” trying to secure a victory.  But, E. Stanley Jones pointed out, “The crusaders conquered Jerusalem and found in the end that Christ was not there…  They had lost Him through the very spirit and methods by which they sought to serve Him.”    

 It is the Gospel – the “Evangel” – that makes me an “Evangelical” Christian.   And it is the God who is behind that Gospel – a God who made us for Himself; a God who sacrificed Himself in love in order that we might be reconciled with Him; and a God who strives with us to bring us back to Himself – who compels me to participate in interfaith dialogue.  I can’t know Him, and not be here doing this.


Our next “Faiths in Conversation” event will be back at Northway on Wednesday, May 29, at 7 pm.  Our topic that evening will be “The World and the Next World.”

This will be a conversation about eternal destiny – what we believe happens to us, and to others, when we die.  What becomes of Jews and Muslims who don’t believe in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior? That sensitive question is my next assignment.   It should be an interesting evening.  DBS+


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