Tag Archives: Scripture

“Where the Bible is Silent…”

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A Little “Believing Thinking” on the Church’s Response to Transgendered People
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The last Faiths in Conversation gathering for the spring took place on Tuesday evening, May 23rd, at the Islamic Association of Collin County in Plano.  Our topic that night was the response of our respective faith traditions to transgendered people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then Fr. Massingale added –

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

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

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

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

 1)  We lost the chance to be loving. 

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

 
2)  We lost the chance to be good neighbors. 

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

3)  We lost the chance to be Good Samaritans.

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

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

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

5)  We lost the chance to reflect Christ.

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

6)  And we lost people. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Sources

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“Keep a Level Head”

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“Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”
~ James 1:19

I’ve heard Dennis Prager say that politics has become a functional substitute for religion in the lives of lots and lots of folks these days.  People who dismiss God and who disregard God’s Word still seek meaning and purpose in their lives and for our world, but without a transcendent source to turn to, they often turn to political candidates, parties and causes to fill that void instead.  The devotion that was once reserved for God has been redirected to Presidential tickets with messianic fervor, and the direction that was once sought from Scripture has been redirected to the planks of party platforms, position papers and stump speeches. It’s an interesting proposal, and it helps to explain the passion that we witness, and perhaps even feel ourselves, every four years.

Presidential elections are secular revivals, and as such they are filled with the same potential for renewal, and are subject to the same propensity for excess.  Revivals stir up emotions.  They catch you up in a wave of feeling that wash over you and then carry you off to places you never expected to go.  I know.  I’ve been there.  I’ve done that.  And so, depending on your own settled political convictions and conclusions, be careful in the coming months when in a flash of political fervor you feel the pressure to yell at somebody whose political convictions and conclusions differ from your own, that, or you find yourself really tempted to write them off, to just cut them out of your life.  Because they disagree with you, they’re clearly stupid or wicked, right?  And who’s got room in their lives for more people like that?  So, “bye-bye!”

But this is a position that we as conscientious Christians must never to take.  WeDrawing_Lines’ve got to be “knock-down the dividing wall of hostility” sorts of people instead (Ephesians 2:15) because Jesus Christ, who is our peace, made it such a big part of His saving work to go to those who were far off, and to those who were close by, to knit them together into one new people in His love.  I believe that this is an important part of what Ephesians 1:9-10 means when it tells us that in Christ Jesus the mystery of God’s will to bring all things together in Him has been revealed.  It’s hard to know this, to believe this, and then to go around drawing lines, picking sides and writing off the people who disagree with you.  We have a different calling. We need another strategy.

In all of the noise of the political conventions of the past two weeks, a source of calm reason that I came across was Benjamin Mathes’ posting at “Urban Confessional” called “How to Listen When You Disagree: A Lesson from the Republican National Convention” – July 27, 2016 (http://urbanconfessional.org/blog/howtodisagree). He wrote –

Free_ListeningIf there’s one question I get asked more than any other question, it’s this: “How do I listen to someone when I disagree with them?” There are many ways to answer this. It takes a lot of forgiveness, compassion, patience, and courage to listen in the face of disagreement. I could write pages on each of these principles, but let’s start with the one thing that makes forgiveness, compassion, patience, and courage possible. We must work to hear the person not just the opinion.

My friend, Agape, says it like this: “Hear the Biography, not the ideology.” When someone has a point of view we find difficult to understand, disagreeable, or even offensive, we must look to the set of circumstances that person has experienced that resulted in that point of view. Get their story, their biography, and you’ll open up the real possibility of an understanding that transcends disagreement. Like the roots of a tree, our stories, which can create our beliefs, are completely unique, and also connected. It is through story that we can find common ground enough to co-exist in the face of great, often necessary, tension. When you find yourself in disagreement, just ask one question: “Will you tell me your story?  I’d love to know how you came to this point of view.”

The truth is, if our love can hold space for paradox, tension, and disagreement, there’s room for all types of beliefs and opinions. Division is a choice. Life isn’t a Facebook feed.  Our love, our listening, must “bring in,” not “edit out.”  Dare to listen, dare to be quiet, dare to seek understanding; in the end, it’s the people we need to love, not their opinions.

I hear an echo of James 1:19 in this – “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”  In fact, this is exactly what Doug Wilson called for in his July 16thBlog & Mablog” posting on “Seven Principles for Navigating Times of Racial Animosity.” “In a Christian conversation, everyone talks,” he observed, “and everyone tries to listen.”  And to be able to do this, Doug said, requires “a level head

Doug_WilsWherever God has placed you in a time of tension, there will be people in your “tribe” who behave wickedly. A level-headed person knows and understands this. [And a level-headed person also knows and understands] that there are people in the “other” tribe who are laboring to keep a level head as well. Don’t make their job more difficult… You cannot avoid conflict with fools, but never willingly burn your bridges with those who are not fools…  Distinguish between irrational partisans of a position, and those who happen to hold convictions other than yours.  In the political/racial/economic mess that [we are in], make distinctions on the other side. (https://dougwils.com)

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It’s time we talk politics in a way that models the teachings of Jesus
rather than mocks them.

                                                                                ~ Bryan Roberts   ______________________________________________________________________________

Some practical guidance for how to actually go about doing our “level-headed best” as Christians in election years comes from Bryan Roberts’ article in Relevant Magazine – 7 Things Christians Need to Remember About Politics: How to be in the world, not of the world, in a culture of political vitriol” (http://www.relevantmagazine.com).  He writes –

Political discourse is the Las Vegas of Christianity—the environment in which our sin is excused (You know – “What happens in Vegas…”). Hate is winked at, fear is perpetuated and strife is applauded. Go wild, Christ-follower. Your words have no consequences here. Jesus doesn’t live in Vegas. Not only are believers excused for their political indiscretions, but they are often applauded for committing them. Slander is explained away as righteous anger; winning arguments are esteemed higher than truthful ones (whether or not the “facts” align); and those who stir up dissension are given the pulpit. So I balk when pastors tell me the Church should engage in the political process. Why would we do that? The political process is dirty and broken and far from Jesus. Paranoia and vitriol are hardly attractive accessories for the bride of Christ. Rather than engage in the political process, Christians have a duty to elevate it. Like any other sin, we are called to stand above the partisan dissension and demonstrate a better way. Should we have an opinion? Yes. Should we care about our country? Yes. Should we vote? Yes. But it’s time we talk politics in a way that models the teachings of Jesus rather than mocks them.

Roberts then goes on to name seven things that he thinks we need to remember about politics as Christians, and while all of them are certainly deserving of our consideration, I found that #1, #4 and #6 hit me with particular force as I am working right now on trying to keep “a level head” for the next 100 days.  Remember, Bryan Roberts wrote, that –

#1 – Both political parties go to church…  There’s a Christian Left and, perhaps even less well-known, there’s a secular RightParty lines are drawn in chalk, and they’re not hard to cross. The Church must be engaged in politics, but it must not be defined by the arbitrary lines in politics.

#4 – Thinking that your party’s platform is unflawed is a mistake… The social policies of your party were constructed by imperfect politicians fueled by ambition. It’s nearsighted to canonize them.

#6 – Don’t be paranoid… The country is not going to be destroyed if your candidate loses. As 2 Timothy 1:7 says, “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” So, stand up and demonstrate what God has given you. America has functioned—albeit, at varying levels of success—for years under the direction of alternating Democrat and Republican control, and at every flip, the other side thought it was the end of the world.  It’s not… We’re a Church that believes that God is in control… not whoever’s in office now, and not whoever succeeds them.

And so, the crazy season has begun, and if it hasn’t happened to you already, itBoxing_Gloves won’t be very long now before you are going to feel like your head is going to explode.  So take a deep breath, remember who you are, and more importantly, who’s you are. Resolve right not that you aren’t going to get pulled off sides by the loud voices, the strong feelings, or the pressure to give in to simplism, sarcasm or sectarianism.  Keep your wits about you.  “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19).  Make it your highest objective this election season to keep a “level head.”  Remember that in Jesus Christ you already know the mystery of God’s will (Ephesians 1:9-10), and so get busy “tearing down the middle wall of partition” wherever you encounter it (Ephesians 2:15).  And come November 9th, no matter what happens at the polling booth, Jesus Christ will still be Lord, and His Kingdom will still come. DBS +

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The Hard Work of Hope Begins…

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A colleague and friend responded to my blog last week about “Patriotic Grace” by asking, Should we just sit back and accept things, as is, to continue on the road our world is traveling on or should we speak up for our Lord and Savior and His teachings? Political Grace, how do they intermingle?” These are the right questions, Debbie.

What I wrote in “We’re All in This Thing Together” was a thought piece, the elucidation of what I believe is a Biblical principle.  I’m a pastor/preacher, a practical theologian, this is what I do. I live in a world of big thoughts that I find in Scripture about God, and humanity, and how it is that we connect with and relate to each other. What you want is for me to put some wheels on the concept so that it can get some traction on the road of real life.  What you’ve asked reminds me of something I heard my friend Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger say earlier this year at one of our Faiths in Conversation programs.

coffinHe told a story about William Sloane Coffin, one of the previous ministers of New York City’s historic Riverside Church. After another one of his many appearances before a congressional panel in Washington D.C. on some pressing social issue where he had prophetically tried to speak truth to power, he was chided by one of the congressmen for always speaking in abstractions at the level of what someone has called “big hairy truths.”  “Talking about peace, and justice, and equality, and compassion is fine,” that congressman said, “but specifically… practically… concretely… at the point of policy and law, just exactly what was it that you want us to do?”  And Dr. Coffin reportedly said that figuring that out wasn’t his job.  That was their job. “Amos thundered ‘let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream’ (5:24),” he said, “but Amos didn’t draw up any plans for the construction of reservoirs and irrigation systems.”

mineIn my July 1 blog – “Is the Fourth of July a Religious Holiday?” – I referenced the thinking of the Dutch theologian/statesman Abraham Kuyper who said that “there’s not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ does not cry, Mine,” but who also believed that God does different things in and through the church than God does in and through culture. I explained, “Just as you wouldn’t go to a bank to get a loaf of bread, or take your dog to an auto mechanic to treat him for fleas, so while God is at work in and through both church and culture, God is not doing the same thing in both places.

This is a gross oversimplification of what Kuyper taught, but we could say that the assignment that God has given to the church concerns the eternal needs of our souls as human beings, while the assignment that God has given to the culture concerns the temporal needs of our bodies. The Great Commission sets the agenda for the life and work of the church. To teach what Christ commanded and to make disciples is the church’s job.  And it’s something called the “Cultural Mandate” that sets the agenda for the work that God expects culture to do. The “Cultural Mandate” is what the Creation stories of Genesis are talking about when they call all human beings everywhere and always to the tasks of “filling and subduing” (Genesis 1:28) and “tilling and keeping” (Genesis 2:15). These are God’s assignment for culture. Creating and then maintaining the conditions that are most conducive to human thriving in this world, that’s the assignment that God has given to culture.

So, within this framework, back to your good questions Debbie.

What is it that we as Christians are supposed to do? Within the “sphere” of the church’s assignment, what should we be doing, especially right now and right here in this moment of violence, anger and fear?  Well, last Sunday morning I preached on the Sixth Commandment – “No Killing” (Exodus 20:13). This sermon series on the Ten Commandments was planned three months ago.  The intersection of this specific text with the events that played out in downtown Dallas, and in Minneapolis, and in Baton Rouge last week, are what I can only describe as a “Godcidence” (as opposed to a coincidence).

The decision that I preached for last Sunday morning was this –

Jesus said that while the prohibition of the Sixth Commandment still stands, that we must understand that killing is never just an outward act. “Murder comes from the heart” Jesus said (Matthew 15:19).  Long before it’s an external act, murder is an inward attitude rooted in envy, anger and hatred.  When another person has been judged to be worthless by us, then their life is of no longer of any concern to us.  And when this happens, then we’ve already committed the hidden murder of the heart.  And so, this is where Jesus Christ dug in His holy heels and intervened with His “transforming initiative of grace.”  Long before another person has been denigrated and dismissed, Jesus told us to interrupt this slide of them becoming dead to us by choosing to deliberately relate to them as a human being instead.

 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23-24)

 It’s not unimportant that people of Biblical faith take principled moral stands against killing in any of its familiar forms in our current culture of death. The Sixth Commandment is supposed to be one of the points on our moral compasses as Christians, and in our American context, I believe this means that it needs to be taken into serious consideration as we make our choices about who it is that we want making the life and death policy decisions of our nation.  But if that’s where you stop, then it seems to me that what you’ve got is an Exodus chapter 20 kind of faith, but not a Matthew chapter 5 kind of faith.  What you’ve got is the law, but not the Gospel.

 So, what does the Gospel look like in this specific situation? Well, I think that it looks an awful lot like that picture from Tuesday’s memorial service at the Meyerson.  Blacks and whites, men and women, Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and progressives, police officers and Black activists, Jews and Muslims, Christians and secularists, all standing side by side and hand in hand.  This is a powerful picture of the kind of “Patriotic Grace” of which I wrote last week, and I believe that it’s a picture of the kind of work that the church is called to do, and about which I preached last Sunday morning.

My “Disciple” conscience and conviction, shaped as it is by the open Lord’s Table with the emblems of God’s saving grace in the person and work of Jesus Christ to which everyone is invited by faith on it, creates a passion in me to work to want to help people who are pulling apart to find the common ground where they can come within “hearing distance” of Christ and one another, and find their peace.

And so, while I believe that it’s important to oppose killing in our society as a person of Biblical faith, I believe that it is just as important as people of Biblical faith that we consciously and consistently choose to concretely love those people who, for whatever reason, we are most tempted to treat with contempt and disdain.  It’s because anger and hate are the roots of the kind of killing that the Sixth Commandment prohibits that Jesus told us as His disciples that it’s right there in those difficult relationships that the Gospel’s transforming work of grace must begin.

 Debbie, this is what we do. This is how we live “Patriotic Grace.” This is the work that I believe we are called to be doing right now as Christians.  This is how, and this is where the hard work of hope begins.  DBS +

 

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How the Light Gets In

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“There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.”

Leonard Cohen, Selected Poems, 1956-1968
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Jesus told the parable of the soils (Matthew 13) –

 parable18 “Hear then the parable of the sower: 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, 21 yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 23 As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

I know the truth of this parable personally. I’m a minister, you see. I do soul work. In fact, I work in these “heart soils” every week, all week, and after more than 40 years of doing so, what I can tell you is that it all still mystifies me. I mean I just never know whose heart is going to be receptive, and whose heart is going to be resistant. In fact, I’m frequently surprised by the ones whose hearts prove fruitful, and by the ones whose hearts turn out to be barren. I think that I could easily become a Calvinist at this point. I see why they have concluded that it takes a sovereign work of the Spirit of God on a human heart – “regeneration” – to make it responsive at all to the good seed of the Word that gets sown. “Breaking up the fallow soil” (Jeremiah 4:3-4; Hosea 10:12) is how the preparation of the heart for the reception of the Word is sometimes described in Scripture, and to see this as the interior work of the Holy Spirit in conviction (John 16:8) makes more sense to me than any of the other explanations that I’ve heard. Where I would want to quibble with my Calvinist friends on this is at the point of the extent of this inner work of the Holy Spirit and its resistibility — and so, I guess I am a Calvinist in the same way that Arminius was a Calvinist!

doveheartIn my reading along the way I came across two “clues” about how this inner work of the Holy Spirit’s conviction on a human heart might work. In the early 1980’s I heard George Hunter make a presentation at a denominational Evangelism Conference I was attending. I picked up a copy of his book – The Contagious Congregation (Abingdon 1979). This remains as helpful a book on the evangelistic ministry of a local church as any I know.   In the last chapter where Dr. Hunter “puts it all together,” he told churches to “deploy teams for ministry and witness to persons in transition” (139). He explained –

There is abundant evidence that people in transition are more receptive than people in stability… During and shortly after significant life changes, people tend to be fairly receptive to religious ministry and truth claims. (139)

Among the “transitions” that Dr. Hunter named as having the capacity to make us spiritually receptive were adolescence, going to college or into the military, the first job, getting married, moving, the birth of a child, a separation, getting fired, a significant health issue, a divorce, a financial reversal, the last child leaving home, the death of a loved one, menopause, retirement, and becoming terminally ill.  In other words, all of the changes and losses that fill our lives are moments of spiritual potential, experiences that can awaken us to the reality of God and our core need for Him.

A second “clue” about how the light gets in came from Sinclair Ferguson’s essay on “The Reformed View” of Christian Spirituality in the IVP book (1988) on Five Views of Sanctification: Reformed, Lutheran, Wesleyan, Pentecostal & Contemplative (ed. Donald Alexander).  In his discussion of the “Means of Sanctification,” Dr. Ferguson noted –

Reformed teaching on sanctification has focused attention on four areas in which the grace and duties of sanctification coincide. Together, these constitute “means of grace.” (67) …The Word of God is the principal means. …God’s Word is the instrument of both the initial cleansing which takes place in regeneration and the sanctification which continues through the whole Christian life. (68) …The Sacraments also play an important role in sanctification… as communicative signs. They point us away from ourselves to Christ; but they also are a visible, tangible means by which he communicates with us and we with him.  They display his grace and our union and communion with him in it. (73) …The Fellowship of the Church is the context in which sanctification matures, and in this sense is also a means for its development. …The love which is the heart of imitation of Christ cannot be isolationist; the death of inordinate love of self is tested therefore in fellowship. (72) …The Providences of God , not least of which are severe trials and afflictions, are also ordained for the purpose of sanctification. “These afflictions,” wrote John Flavel, with the quaintness of a 17th century divine, “have the same use and end to our souls, that frosty weather hath upon those clothes that are laid and bleaching, they alter the hue and make them white.” (71)

The first time I read these words it was “the Providences of God” that got my attention.  You see, I was already familiar with the way that Scripture, the Sacraments and the Church functioned in my life and in the lives of others as means of grace.   This was familiar enough terrain. In fact, I had long urged the people who trusted me with their souls to read their Bibles, take Communion and go to Church.  The problem was that many of those who actually heeded my counsel to do these things in the interest of their souls did so without any apparent spiritual benefit.  The Bible just confused them.  Communion was an empty ritual, just a little bite of bread and a sip of juice.  And church was largely boring and irrelevant to them, more of a “have-to” than a “want-to.” 

As I thought about the differences between the people who were telling me this about their experience with the Word, the Sacraments and the Church, and those who were reading the very same Bible, taking the very same Communion, and going to the very same Church and who were deriving great spiritual strength and comfort from doing so, the big variable seemed to me to be the Providences. The Word, the Sacraments and the Church were more often than not “means of grace” for people who had a felt need for grace, and it’s the Providences that tear the roofs off of our lives and leave us exposed in our hurts and needs, desperate for grace.

In recent years I have found myself reading more Puritan authors on the spiritual life than anyone else. J.I. Packer argued that contrary to the widespread popular impression of the Puritans being spiritually sour and severe, that they were in fact the grand masters of the spiritual life with a highly developed understanding of how the Holy Spirit works in the human heart, and I have found this to be true.  I have learned so much about myself and the ways of God from reading them. One of my Puritan teachers has been William Perkins (1558-1602).  Writing about how the light gets in, he observed –

God gives man the outward means of salvation, especially the ministry of the Word, and with it he sends some outward or inward cross to break and subdue the stubbornness of our nature that it may be made pliable to the will of God

In other words, the Providences of life break up the fallow ground of the human heart where the good seed of the Word can then find room to take hold and grow. Now, I know that this flies directly in the face of the kind of popular Christianity these days that promotes itself as the quickest way to personal gain.  The Prosperity Gospel promises its practitioners instant happiness and success, a sure-fire way to health, wealth and popularity.  But the way of the Crucified One would seem to be on an entirely different trajectory.   As Paul put it –

To keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh… Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away.  Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12: 7-10)

I take this to mean that the troubles that we try so desperately to avoid and the trials that we work so hard to escape could very well be part of the Providences that God intends to use to open up our hearts to Himself. They just might be how the light finally gets in.  The “outward or inward crosses” that we have to bear, instead of being problems for our spiritual lives, could be the experiences that empower our engagement with the Word, our reception of the Sacraments and our participation in the life of the Church. It could be that as the Providences of God expose our deep need for God’s grace that the Word, the Sacraments and the Church actually become the means of grace that God established them to be for us.   

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“Inspired Ambiguity”

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One of my favorite blogs is “Think Theology” written by the British theologian Andrew Wilson [http://thinktheology.co.uk]. He consistently delivers on this title, he makes me “think theology.”  Last week as I was preparing for the “Listening to Scripture” component of the discernment process that the elders of the church I serve have undertaken in faithful response to the Supreme Court ruling on same sex marriage, I came across a blog entry that Andrew Wilson wrote back in 2013 called “How to Get Rid of Awkward Bible Passages: An Eight Step Guide.”   It begins –

boyIf you’re going to be a widely-read Bible teacher, you have to have a few tricks up your sleeve. It won’t be long before the people you’re teaching realize, with or without your help, that there are some biblical passages they don’t like very much. What will you do with them? That question keeps many of us awake at night. If you teach them as they are, then not only will people not like the Bible, but they won’t like you. But if you are to get rid of them somehow, then you will need some clever hermeneutical sleight of hand.

Whenever I am teaching or preaching I often remember what James Smart of Union Theological Seminary in New York City a generation ago said about the Bible always having in it elements that are “congenial” and elements that are “uncongenial” to our ordinary ways of thinking and being, and how it is in those “uncongenial” things that the Bible says that we will often hear the living Word of God being addressed to us most directly and most powerfully.  At least in part, I think that this is what the author of Hebrews meant when he wrote – “The word of God is alive and active, sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing souls and spirit, joints and marrow, it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

costaBack in 1988 Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California, was interviewed by the editors of Leadership for their “Sex” issue (Winter Quarter).  Because Chuck had such an amazing impact for Christ on the youth culture in Southern California during the days of the sexual revolution of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, they wanted to know how he handled the “hot potato” topics of what the Bible says on sexuality.  The interview was called “Treating the Casualties of the Sexual Revolution,” and in it Chuck was asked about how he handled the “clobber” texts – those parts of the Bible that directly address matters of sexual behavior in rigorously uncompromising ways – knowing that they were not going to sit well with what many of those who were there in church listening to him preach and teach?   The Apostle Paul warned about how people will accumulate spiritual teachers for themselves who will just tell them what they already think, or what they just want to hear. “Tickling their ears” is how he put it (2 Timothy 4:4).  And so, the folks at Leadership were interested in knowing how Chuck handled the parts of the Bible that would directly challenge the sexual attitudes and actions of the people sitting under his teaching ministry.  Chuck answered –

My method of teaching the Word of God is to go straight through the Bible.  As I’m covering a book, whenever I get to the issues of fornication or adultery, I don’t dodge them.  They’re not always popular subjects, but I’ve got to relate what the Word of God has to say on these issues.  I don’t soften it.  I try to be just as straight as God’s Word in declaring the standards that God has set.  (132)

And this brings us back around to Andrew Wilson’s observation that there are some biblical passages that people don’t like very much, and that “if you teach them as they are, then not only will people not like the Bible, but they won’t like you.” The rest of Andrew’s blog posting on “How to Get Rid of Awkward Bible Passages” was his facetious counsel to people like me – no doubt gathered from his own observation and experience as a Bible teacher – about how to dodge the difficult texts, or what John Alexander of The Other Side  described as trying to convince people that the Bible doesn’t really mean what it most clearly says.  Andrew had an eight step strategy for doing this –

  1. Introduce the text as a “Difficult Passage” (capital letters are the new scare quotes). This will immediately set your readers on high alert; after all, who wants “Difficult Passages” in their Bibles?

  2. Populate your discussion with as many synonyms for “difficult” as you can: debated, disputed, confusing, controversial, awkward, challenging, obscure, demanding, etc.

  3. Mention a really, really stupid interpretation that some oddball in church history has come up with. For those who don’t know about the fallacy of the excluded middle, this will make it seem that the only two options are the really stupid view and your view. Never, ever, mention a nuanced presentation of the view you don’t like by a credible scholar. This is fatal.

  4. Transition quickly to explain what you want the text to mean, preferably using language like “A more probable view is …” or “More likely, we should …” Your reader will breathe a sigh of relief that the text doesn’t mean what it says.

  5. Make it clear that the author of the text isn’t oppressive, abusive or incompetent. Some readers will immediately assume that all alternatives to your view are somehow oppressive, abusive or incompetent.

  6. Quote the maxim that “clear passages interpret unclear ones”, which is the standard euphemism for “other texts can drown out this one, if you bring enough of them into play”.

  7. Mention an obscure bit of background information, ideally one for which there is scant evidence, that appears to support your interpretation. Fortunately, when people want to believe what you’re saying, they don’t check things like this with primary (or even secondary) sources.

  8. Conclude your discussion with a confident wave of the hand: “For all the debate that surrounds this passage, the main thing we must remember is …”

Ouch!

I stand deeply convicted by Andrew’s observations and Chuck’s – “of blessed memory” – example.  I also live daily with the burden of James 3:1 – “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” One of my greatest burdens in 40 years of preaching and teaching has been a fear of misrepresenting God, “to be found to be a false witness about God” as Paul put it in I Corinthians 15:15.

drownJesus said that it would be better to have a large millstone hung around your neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea than to lead “a little one – someone who believe in Him” astray (Matthew 18:6).  I take this to mean that Bible preaching and teaching is indeed serious stuff, and it informs my greatest desire as a preacher and a teacher “to be found faithful as a steward of the mysteries of God” (I Corinthians 4:2).

And so I hold up Andrew’s list as a mirror to what I say when I preach and teach.  I don’t want to be known as “an ear tickler.” As a preacher and a teacher I want to be someone who “rightly handles the Word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). And it is from this desire to be faithful that I find myself pushing back – gently to be sure, but pushing nonetheless – at the implication that Andrew seems to be making, that what the Bible says on any given topic is uniformly clear and obvious.

The Protestant Reformers taught that the Bible speaks with a loud and unmistakable voice when addressing its main point, namely that Jesus Christ – “for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate” (The Nicene Creed 325/381).  They called this the “perspicuity” of Scripture, and the Puritan Westminster Assembly defined it in 1646 as – “…Those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.” And I believe this.  You don’t need a seminary degree in order to understand the meaning or the importance of John 3:16.  But there are other things in Scripture that lack this kind of clarity, lots of other things.  In fact, Scripture itself freely acknowledges this. The Apostle Peter said of the Apostle Paul’s writings that while he wrote “with the wisdom that God gave him,” that nevertheless “his letters contain some things that are hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:15-16), and to suggest otherwise is seriously mislead the Bible’s readers from the outset.

dudeIn the early history of my own spiritual tradition is was customary for our founders to speak and write about the Bible as if it were a “blueprint” or a “constitution.”   By these terms they meant that we had in the Bible a clear picture of what it was that God wanted His church to be and to do, and a complete and exact set of instructions about how we were to actually go about being and doing that kind of church.  All we needed to do was follow the directions.  But even with everyone agreeing on this general approach to things, it wasn’t very long before churches and Christians in my spiritual tradition were ferociously arguing with each other about what the “directions” actually said and what they really meant.  We had some pretty good clarity when it came to answering the Biblical question, “What must I do to be saved?”  But on lots and lots of other Biblical matters, there was very little consensus, and sometimes even less civility.  And this wasn’t just because we are a particularly stubborn and opinionated lot as readers of the Bible.  It had something to do with the Bible itself.

In a watershed article on the use of the Bible in the Stone/Campbell tradition, Russ Dudrey (“Restorationist Hermeneutics Among the Churches of Christ: Why Are We at an Impasse?”Restoration Quarterly) concluded that the model of Scripture that our founders adopted was “ill-suited to the nature of biblical literature.”  He observed that the “the New Testament documents are far less systematic and far more historical, particular, and occasional – far more “missionary” – that we have recognized.” And then he warned that if we were to “handle these documents [more] responsibly [in the future, then] we need to develop a much greater literary and historical sensitivity than the restorationist hermeneutic tradition has this far demonstrated.” No less convinced of the Bible’s authority for Christian faith and practice than were our founders, Dudrey was just saying that for the Bible to truly function authoritatively for Christian faith we needed to have a much better understanding of the Bible actually is.  As he put it, “The New Testament is not an abstract treatise of systematic theology written in the quiet confines of the study.   … [And so rather than] approaching Scripture as a revelation of propositional truths… [we must learn to approach it instead as a revelation] of the heart of the Father.” It has to do with what we see the Bible’s primary purpose to be.

holyHave we been given the Bible in order to have all the “right answers” to our questions about God?  Or, have we been given the Bible to guide us into a “right relationship” with God?  With Russ Dudrey I believe that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, and not that we are saved “by doctrinal correctness.” Now, this is not to say that doctrinal correctness is unimportant. Wrong ideas about who Christ is and what Christ has done can lead to some very dangerous dead-ends for us spiritually.  It can interfere with our relationship with the God who is there. Still, I believe that the purpose of the Bible is not to give us an encyclopedic knowledge about God so that we can be the smartest kids in the room, the winners of some kind of cosmic theological spelling bee, but it is rather to usher us into a relationship of love and trust with God through Jesus Christ.  And with this being the case, I am then neither surprised nor am I alarmed by just how complicated some of the things that I read about in the Bible turn out to be.  With Peter I can honestly say that I find in the Bible “some things that are hard to understand.” And this is what makes me so uneasy about Andrew Wilson’s wholesale dismissal of “difficult” as a legitimate category when talking about what the Bible teaches.

  • In the very first lecture that I heard in seminary, the professor told us that a five minute synoptic lesson would disabuse us of any illusions that we might have of the Bible being anything but complicated.  Matthew, Mark and Luke (the “Synoptic” Gospels) cover the same ground, but each with their own particular point of view.  While they  are looking at the very same event, they saw very different things, and so they have very different emphases, and it’s a mistake to harmonize them too quickly or too easily.
  • The Gospel of John and the Synoptic Gospels are very different animals, and modern critical scholarship was not the first to notice this fact and report it.   In the early church it was widely recognized that John was, well, different, and in some ways even “difficult.” Early church fathers described John as the “spiritual” Gospel, and as the “supplemental” Gospel in order to try to account for the differences in the stories it told and the meanings it attached to the Christ event.
  • Paul with his “saved by grace and not by works” emphasis seems to be a direct counterpoint to James’ insistence that “faith without works is dead.”  Genesis chapter 1 and Genesis chapter 2 are clearly different stories of creation.  The book of Job is a story that was told about how bad things happen to good people at a time when most people were operating with the big assumption of the Deuteronomic historian that bad things happen when bad people make bad choices, and that good things happen when good people make good choices.  I and II Kings cover the same exact ground as I and II Chronicles cover, and when the books of the Bible were being collected it was consciously decided that there was real spiritual value in being told these same stories twice, from different points of view.
  1. Paul Stephens, a professor of applied theology at a very fine Canadian seminary, wrote an article for Christianity Today back in January of 1992 about how equally faithful and competent students of the Bible can and often do wind up on very different sides of a question on what the Bible says about a particular issue [“Breaking the Gender Impasse” – January 13, 1992 – p.p. 28-31).

Both groups claim the authority of the Bible.  It is a frustrating situation.  The debate seems to hit an impasse, with many people “solving” the problem by finding churches where everyone already agrees with their position.  To me, this seemed to be less than ideal.  And yet, what were the alternatives?  I did not want merely to add my voice to the polemical chorus.  And then I had a thought:  What if the ambiguity at the root of these differences is not accidental but God-inspired?

What?

“Inspired ambiguity”?

What?

R. Paul Stephens then continued his astonishing argument –

[On any number of questions] Scripture presents us with seemingly irreconcilable truths… [Our]  unconfessed [and unchallenged] presupposition is that the fundamental truths of Scripture can be systematized, which will then eliminate all paradoxes and yield unequivocal answers.  [But] I am proposing an alternative method – a “contemplative” approach. This approach views the ambiguity of Scripture as a pointer to God, an indicator of truths so great that – they can only be seen in full from God-height.   …The deepest issues of our life in Christ resist reduction to manageable ideas…  [And] Biblical teaching is often ambiguous in just these areas. …These tensions can generate friction and frustration. Or, they can be resolved by an artificial choice to live out only one side of the Biblical witness.  Alternatively, the tension can be embraced in a contemplative manner.  The ambiguity can be seen as pointing to a God-sized issue.

Reading, thinking and writing about “what is the Gospel message to our church as we relate to Gay and Lesbian Christians” has been one of the dominant considerations “on my watch” as a member, minister and, at times, leader of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The discernment process that the elders of Northway are currently working through is based on the denominational discernment process that I helped to develop more than 15 years ago together with a group of some of the finest Christians and clearest thinkers in our church that I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.  Getting ready to lead the elders of the church I serve through a survey of what the Bible says about sex, marriage, divorce and inclusion over the last few weeks was a journey through familiar territory, across well-travelled terrain for me. I have worked with these texts, their interpretation and application for more than 30 years now.  And my keenest insight about them is that they are complicated, which is why I am so impatient with the absolutism of both my traditionalist peers and my progressive colleagues who announce their positions with the imprimatur that “it’s what the Bible really says,” or “it’s what the Bible really means.”  I know way too much about these texts and their use by the church to find such simplistic claims to be credible.  Frankly, I am much more “taken” by Dr. Stephens’ suggestion of “inspired ambiguity,” and with the idea that when we find ourselves straddling a biblical paradox that we are being pointed to something important in the person and purpose of God Himself.

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One of the most important books I’ve read in recent years is David Wells’ God in the Whirlwind (Crossway – 2014).  At its core it is an argument for people of Biblical faith not to let go of the revealed paradox that’s at the heart of God’s very being, what he calls God’s “holy-love.” It seems to me that the traditionalists I know and love have hold of God’s holiness, and the progressives I know and love have hold of God’s love.  As for myself, I’m trying my hardest to hang onto both God’s holiness and His love.  And because I am, the more convinced I am becoming that the key text in the conversation about same sex marriage is Matthew 19:3-12.

Having just spent five hours in a marathon Bible Study with a couple of dozen elders putting the Bible’s “clobber” texts on homosexuality into direct conversation with some of the key texts in the Bible’s “glorious vision” of the created goodness of human sexuality and its proper expression, and then putting all of that “sex” talk in the Bible into direct conversation with the Gospel’s overarching message of God’s actively inclusive love in Jesus Christ, I am more convinced than ever about just how complicated all of this really is when you take the Bible seriously, and that the one passage in the Bible that seems to me to recognize, and even “honor” this complexity, is Matthew 19:3-12.  Here is a picture of God’s “holy/love” at work.  Here is the Bible’s “inspired ambiguity” in black and white.  And so this is where I will be “contemplatively” hunkering down for a while as I continue to wrestle with this “God-sized issue” from a “God-sized height.”  And believe me, with all due respect to Andrew Wilson, it is difficult.

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“How I Love Your Word, O Lord”

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Psalm 119, the longest chapter in the Bible, is a love poem. Structured on the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, each one of the 22 sections of Psalm 119 offers another reason why the Psalmist loved God’s Word so much.  And every time I read Psalm 119 I am struck again by the intensity of the feelings of devotion and affection that the Psalmist had for the word that God had spoken to Israel, and I am left to wonder about the disposition of my own heart to the word that God has spoken to us.

popeIn the Episcopal Church of my childhood and youth I watched the priest every Sunday morning kiss the pages of Scripture at the end of the Gospel reading.  It was always a curious thing to see.  And there was a season in my spiritual life when I would have told you that that this gesture was a dangerous thing for a Christian to do, a confusion of the gift for the giver, of the word spoken for the one speaking it.   I know all about the dangers of what’s been called “Bibliolatry,” the way that some Christians have made an idol out of their Bibles, a functional substitute for God.  Being right about what the Bible says matters more to some believers I know than actually being in a right relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  Jesus specifically warned us about this.  In John 5:39 He observed that some of His critics were searching the Scriptures because they thought that in them they would find eternal life, but in fact what the Scriptures bore witness to was Him.  It is Jesus who is the Word of God (John 1:1), and I believe that the Bible shares in this designation of the Word of God as the divinely superintended witness (this is what I understand “inspiration” to mean) to God’s speaking and acting (John 13:26; 16:12-15).  My love for the Bible is just as simple as the children’s song says – “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.” I appreciate the way that John Piper (this is not a blanket endorsement of everything that he says and does) explains it –

I love the Bible the way I love my eyes—not because my eyes are lovely, but because without them I can’t see what’s lovely.  Without the Bible I could not see “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4). Without the Bible I could not know “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8). Without the Bible I would not know that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Savior. I love the Bible because it gives the wisdom that leads to salvation, and shows me that this salvation is nothing less than seeing and savoring the glory of Christ forever. And then provides for me inexhaustible ways of seeing and knowing and enjoying Christ. (John Piper – http://www.desiringgod.org)

piperMy view of Scripture these days tracks pretty much along the lines that were first staked out by James Denney (1856–1917) the Scottish Congregationalist theologian.  He had a “sacramental” take on Scripture.  He regarded them as the outward and audible expressions of the invisible and eternal God.  He called the Bible a “means of grace,” and he explained that what he meant by this was that “it is the means through which God communicates with man, making him know what is His heart towards him.” He called the Bible “the medium through which God speaks to the believer.” (1856–1917) Quoting a Professor Robertson Smith, James Denney concurred –

If I am asked why I receive Scripture as the Word of God, and as the only perfect rule of faith and life, I answer with all the fathers of the Protestant Church, “Because the Bible is the only record of the redeeming love of God, because in the Bible alone I find God drawing near to man in Jesus Christ, and declaring to us in Him His will for our salvation.  And this record I know to be true by the witness of His Spirit in my heart, whereby I am assured that none other than God Himself is able to speak such words to my soul.”

Believing this to be true, and then having the personal experience of it myself over and over again when I open my Bible and read, I find myself in the spiritual vicinity of the same kind of devotion and affection that the Psalmist extolled for God’s Word in Psalm 119.  Martin Luther (1483 – 1546), the Protestant Reformer, once described the Bible as the straw in which he found the baby Jesus.  And so, while I don’t kiss the pages of Scripture, I find that I truly love them because they bring me to Jesus.  And like any lover, I find that I often take offense when I hear the object of my devotion being slighted, real or imagined.  I am put on edge by any dismissive attitude or flippant comment that have the effect of undermining people’s confidence in the Bible because what is being diminished is the instrument that we have been given that brings us into a saving encounter with the living Word, Jesus Christ.

kneeJust like when my doctor taps my knee with her little rubber hammer and I kick reflexively, I find that I tend to kick spiritually too when I hear the Bible or people’s sincere attention to it being dismissed or ridiculed.  For instance, I reacted strongly at a recent denominational meeting I was at to a young colleague’s jaunty public observations about what I suspect we both would both easily put in “a matter of interpretation” category where unanimity of conviction is neither expected nor required, and where honest and searching debate is welcome. Far from being an “essential,” I nevertheless kicked when this topic was tapped.  And as I have reflected on why I reacted as I did, I have found myself circling back around to Psalm 119.

I don’t suspect my young colleague of not loving the Scriptures or Jesus Christ as I do.  Despite our differences, substantial as they are, I know that he does.  But I took his flip comment about the authorship of a New Testament letter that has long been disputed by scholarship as a swipe (see: Andrew Wilson – “Why it Matters That Paul Wrote the Pastoral Epistles”http://thinktheology.co.uk).  It felt like he was calling my girlfriend fat, or telling me that my beloved was ugly, and I took them as fighting words.  I rose in her defense.  Now, in all fairness, I don’t think that he was intentionally doing this, but his irreverence just tapped the knee of my soul in such a way that it reflexively kicked.

When the dust settled from our little kerfuffle, what I was able to name for my friend was my increasingly urgent concern as a theological conservative in an ever more progressive denomination that our stated pluralism as a church has to be taken seriously and sensitively.   For all of our vaunted appreciation for unity in diversity, the way that we actually make room for somebody with whom we disagree is by what we say to them and by how we say it.  And for people with a more traditional faith like mine, the flash point is often going to be anything that threatens the credibility of our confidence in the trustworthiness of Scripture.  And that’s because when the Bible is in dispute it is not some abstract and theoretical ideas that we are debating but something that we deeply love, and upon which we truly rely for our spiritual vitality.  When we hear it being diminished or feel like it is being undermined, then we are likely to react spiritually. We traditionalists are certainly not adverse to rigorous conversations about the Bible, but our souls require that there be some degree of reverence in the conversation as well because the word that we are examining so closely is “full of the Spirit and life” for us (John 6:63).

dukeIn my last year of seminary I was part of  a Council of Southwest Theological Seminaries seminar.   COSTS seminars brought together students and faculty from the major seminaries around Texas – Perkins at SMU, Brite at TCU, Austin Presbyterian, the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest, the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio – for shared research and a sustained conversation on a theological topic of current interest.  The faculty member from Brite who accompanied us on our COSTS seminar back in 1979 was Dr. Duke, the church historian at Brite.  On one of our drives home from Austin following a COSTS session, I remember Dr. Duke sitting in the backseat of the car quietly reading the Bible.  We asked him what he was doing. “Are you preparing a sermon?” “Are you getting ready for a lecture?” “Was this in preparation for the teaching a class?” I’ve heard it said that when W.C. Fields was caught reading the Bible one day, he explained away his behavior by saying that he was just “looking for the loopholes.” Well, our assumption as seminarians was that a critical scholar of Dr. Duke’s stature would only be reading the Bible in pursuit of some academic interest or assignment — “looking for some loophole” so to speak.   But instead,  Dr. Duke simply looked up from his Bible and said, “No, I’m just reading the Bible for myself” he explained, “I do this for my spiritual well-being.”  And with that he looked back down at his Bible and continued to read it for the rest of the trip back to Ft. Worth.

That image and those words are vivid and impactful in my memory.  The example of reverence for the Biblical text from this scholar of enormous intellect and learning has remained in my imagination one of the more powerful examples of what it means to love God with all your mind.  So much so that now, at the beginning of almost every Bible Study that I teach, I offer a prayer that includes the specific petition that the spiritual exercise in which we are about to enagage might not just fill our heads with more information so that we would be smarter, but that it might also fill our hearts with a greater awareness of who God is and what God is doing so that we might learn to trust and thank Him more.  And as I pray this, in my mind’s eye I often see Dr. Duke sitting in the backseat of a car reading his Bible.  Intellectual rigor and heartfelt reverence are not mutually exclusive categories for the Christian.  In fact, they desperately need each other.   DBS+

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Imagine a lover who has received a letter from his beloved. I assume that God’s Word is just as precious to you as this letter is to the lover. I assume that you read and think you ought to read God’s Word in the same way the lover reads this letter. Yet you perhaps say, “Yes, but Scripture is written in a foreign language.” Let us assume, then, that this letter from the beloved is written in a language that the lover does not understand. But let us also assume that there is no one around who can translate it for him. Perhaps he would not even want any such help lest a stranger be initiated into his secrets. What does he do? He takes a dictionary, begins to spell his way through the letter, looks up every word in order to obtain a translation. Now let us imagine that, as he sits there busy with his task, an acquaintance comes in. He knows that the letter has come, because he sees it lying there, and says, “So, you are reading a letter from your beloved.” What do you think the other will say? He answers, “Have you gone mad? Do you think this is reading a letter from my beloved! No, my friend, I am sitting here toiling and moiling with a dictionary to get it translated. At times I am ready to explode with impatience; the blood rushes to my head, and I would just as soon hurl the dictionary on the floor—and you call that reading! You must be joking! No, thank God, as soon as I am finished with the translation I shall read my beloved’s letter; that is something altogether different.” (Soren Kierkegaard – For Self-Examination/Judge for Yourself, ed. and trans. by Howard V. and Edna H. Hong [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990], 26-27)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

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“Church Membership is a Lousy Substitute for Christian Discipleship”

The mission statement of the local church I serve says that we believe that our job is all about – “Sharing Christ with those seeking meaning and purpose.”  Now, like all such “statements,” these words were carefully chosen and deliberately crafted by a group of faithful church members who were charged by this congregation to enter into a deliberate planning and visioning process – in our case the “Church Unique” process.  And as far as Mission Statements go, I like this one as much as any and probably better than most. I appreciate its brevity and clarity.  But most importantly, I believe that it puts us in the “right jungle” to borrow Stephen Covey’s helpful idea*.

beheadAnd while all of this true, I’ve got to admit that spiritually I still strongly resist this whole idea that it is somehow up to us to decide what the mission of Christ’s church is going to be.  Theologically I believe that the Lordship of Christ, His headship over His body, the church, settles this question for us.  We don’t confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and then do what we want.  No, we confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and then we get serious about doing what it is that He wants.  The only real question for us to consider, it seems to me, is: “What is it  does He want?”  And Biblically, this isn’t that much of a mystery, so long as we are involved in a serious engagement with Scripture.

Say whatever you will about Rick Warren and his “Purpose Driven Church” materials based on the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) and the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:37-40), I still think that he got it exactly right.  I believe that the Church as the Body of Christ has five core functions: “Kerygma” – The Proclamation of the Gospel, or “Martyria” – Witness (Evangelism); “Diakonia” – Service (Outreach); “Didache” – The Apostles’ Teaching (Education); “Koinonia” – Sharing in Community (Fellowship); and “Leiturgia” – Worship.  In an earlier iteration of my congregation’s mission we defined our mission mandates to be a matter of (1) Proclaiming Christ Boldly (“Kerygma”/”Martyria”); (2) Teaching the Faith Effectively (“Didache”); (3) Creating Community Internationally (“Koinonia”); (4) Serving Others Enthusiastically (“Diakonia”); and (5) Worshipping God Passionately (“Leiturgia”).

 * Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success; leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall. You can quickly grasp the important difference between the two if you envision a group of producers cutting their way through the jungle with machetes. They’re the producers, the problem solvers. They’re cutting through the undergrowth, clearing it out.  The managers are behind them, sharpening their machetes, writing policy and procedure manuals, holding muscle development programs, bringing in improved technologies, and setting up working schedules and compensation programs for machete wielders. The leader is the one who climbs the tallest tree, surveys the entire situation, and yells, “Wrong jungle!” [Leadership and Management by Stephen R. Covey – https://leadershipforlife.wordpress.com]

handThe image that you see here is a sculpture from Germany that visually represents these different functions of the church as the fingers of a single hand.  It was explained like this:

Leiturgia is the glue that binds the three fold emphasis together. In a sense, leiturgia is what flows out of witness (martyria), mercy (diakonia), and life together (koinonia). Leiturgia is the Lord at work through His church in the areas of witness, mercy, and life together. The three-fold emphasis is not really a new thing, but something the church has done ever since the Lord founded her; it simply describes what the church does. [http://abc3miscellany.blogspot.com]

Just like this image of the fingers of a hand, what I believe our church’s mission statement does is to put the five functions of the church (“Kerygma”/”Martyria” -“Didache” -“Koinonia” – “Diakonia” – “Leiturgia”)  in the service of a single purpose, namely to share Jesus Christ with those who are seeking meaning and purpose.

Now, the importance of all this came home to me with some real power recently at an incredible interfaith gathering of which I was privileged to be a part in Colorado.  Hearing some wonderful people share the stories of their personal faith journeys, one of the recurring themes that I heard was how many of these people who are now Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Jews started out as Christians, or at least, were raised in Christian homes and went to Christian churches.  And while they are all people of real faith now, men and women  who are just as serious about knowing God as I am – exemplary Buddhists, Muslims, Jews and Hindus – as a Christian listening to their stories, I still couldn’t help myself from wondering about how Christianity, or is it the church, failed them.  They simply didn’t find what they were looking for, what they needed spiritually, in their experience of Christianity at church.  And as somebody who did find what I was looking for, what I needed spiritually in the experience of Christianity at church, and who now is a “church professional” himself who believes in the universality of Christinaity, I was left to wrestle with how and why the Gospel of Jesus Christ failed to touch their hearts, engage their minds and change their lives as it did mine.

Two quick answers are completely unsatisfying to me.

My Reformed friends would simply say that these people who left Christianity to become Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Jews were just not “elect.”  In other words, God never had any intention to “save” them anyway.  I find this impossible to reconcile with the Biblical witness.  The God I know in Jesus Christ is a God who loves the whole world (John 3:16), who desires all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (I Timothy 2:4), who “delights not” in the loss of a sinner (Ezekiel 33:11) and who has made full provision in atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of the whole world (I John 2:2).  I can’t resolve this dilemma by simply writing off some people.

Many of my interfaith friends would say that I really shouldn’t worry about which path a person finally winds up on because they’re all heading in the same direction anyway and  that they will all eventually wind up in the same place.  All the trails lead to the top of the mountain, or so they say.  And while I take a very generous view of the way that God is at work in all of the different religions of the world, believing that God has not left Himself without witness anywhere or in anyone (Acts 14:17), I still believe that at the end of the day everyone who is saved will be saved by what God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ.  As Peter put it is one of the early sermons in the book of Acts – “There is salvation in no one else… there is no other name under heaven by which people can be saved” (4:12).  Now, I’m not sure that people have to necessarily know that it is Christ who is saving them, but I do believe that it is nevertheless Christ who is saving them.  I have written about this previously (see “Getting to the Top of the Mountain” – October 15, 2012; and my 5-part “What About Them?” series in the summer of 2012).  And so I can’t resolve this by simply writing off Christ either.

So, where does that leave me?  If I can’t explain this by writing off either people or Christ, what’s left?  And the thing that I see most clearly before me is the church.  If people didn’t find what they were looking for in their experience of Christianity at church, that leaves me wondering about the experience of Christianity that they had been offered at church.

jonesIn his spiritual autobiography, A Song of Ascents (Abingdon – 1968), E. Stanley Jones described his “half conversion” when he was just a kid.  At the end of an evangelistic meeting at his home church in Baltimore he went forward to give his heart to Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.  He described it as fumbling for the latchstring on the gate to the Kingdom of God, and what he said that he came away from the whole experience with was church membership instead.  He went forward seeking life and love, forgiveness and reconciliation, and what they gave him instead was a chart of the church’s structure, a list of its committee chairmen, a pledge card and a chance to usher.  He got outwardly in the church without getting inwardly in Christ, and he said that the whole experience delayed his spiritual awakening by years.

chandlerMore recently, Matt Chandler has written about this phenomenon in his book The Explicit Gospel (Crossway – 2012).  When his church began to experience explosive growth and large numbers of people were confessing Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior and being baptized, Matt says that he began to hear a recurrent theme in their public testimonies.  Almost to a person they talked about growing up in church, going every Sunday morning and sometimes even on Sunday evenings and Wednesdays too, being part of Sunday School classes and youth groups, going to summer camps and conferences and on mission trips.  But when they got to Matt’s church, they said that it was then and there that they heard the Gospel preached for the very first time in their lives and gladly responded in faith!  Matt says that at first he didn’t believe them.  He chalked it up to hyperbole, overstatement, and enthusiasm.  But as he began talking to these new people individually and probed their stories more deeply, he came to the realization that they were telling the truth.

“How can you grow up going to church every week and not hear the Gospel?”  I quickly decided that these people had heard the Gospel but didn’t have the spiritual ears to truly hear it, to receive it.  Fortunately, the Holy Spirit wasn’t going to let it go that easily. The question began to haunt me.  I decided to have a few conversations and interviews with what we have called the de-churched men and women attending The Village Church.  A few of them confirmed that my hunch was correct. They could go back and read journals and sermon notes from when they were teenagers or college students and see that they had indeed heard the gospel.  However, what alarmed me most was the number of men and women who couldn’t do that.  Their old journals and student Bibles were filled with what Christian Smith in his excellent book Soul Searching called “Moral Therapeutic Deism.” …This mode of thinking is religious, even “Christian” in its content, but it’s more about self-actualization and self-fulfillment, and it posits a God who does not so much intervene and redeem but basically hangs out behind the scenes, cheering on your you-ness and hoping you pick up the clues he’s left to become the best you you can be.  The moralistic, therapeutic deism passing for Christianity in many of the churches these young adults grew up in included talk about Jesus and about being good and avoiding bad – and God factored into all of that, but the Gospel message simply wasn’t there. (12-13)

rockAs Paul explained in I Corinthians,  there is a “scandal,” literally a “stumbling block” to the Gospel of Jesus Christ (1:23).  It is possible for sincere, thoughtful spiritual seekers to reject the message of what Christ has done for them and refuse the experience of reconciliation and peace that He offers, and it’s entirely possible that this describes some of my interfaith friends who recently shared their stories with me.   But what I am left wondering about is if what they rejected when they left church was not the Gospel, which E. Stanley Jones and Matt Chandler both suggest that they might not have even ever heard at church, but something else, something less than the message of God’s grace in the person and work of Jesus Christ that I would argue is Biblical Christianity. And more directly relevant to us and our life together as a church, what are we offering to the people who come through our doors on Sunday mornmings who are looking for meaning and purpose, and what are you taking with you when Sunday mornings are over and you head back into the world? Church membership is a lousy substitute for Christian discipleship. In fact, I’ve personally found that knowing Christ and the power of His resurrection (Philippians 3:10) is the only thing that makes any sense of the church at all!  Here’s one of the things that I’ve learned in my 50 years of following Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior – when you take Christ, the church comes as part of the package, but that sequence is critical. I don’t want a church without Christ, and I don’t get Christ without the church. And so the best way to serve the church is to be absolutely clear about who Christ is and what Christ has done.  We’ve got to be in the business of “Sharing Christ with those seeking meaning and purpose.”  DBS+

 

 

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